By Kyle MacKinnel; photos by Ray Lego on September 19, 2013
For Annie Hart, blacking out is a good thing. “If I have a really good idea, I just see black,” says Hart, sitting below a map of Greater Mesopotamia in the Ancient Near Eastern Art exhibit at The Met. “An all-encompassing black. It’s just so pure that there’s nothing else except the feeling of the song.” No liquor required.
We’re inside a world-famous art museum so, naturally, imagery is at the forefront of the conversation. Hart’s bandmates have their own experiences with creative visions. Erika Forster associates a budding composition in her mind’s eye with whichever New York City neighborhood she was exploring during its gestation. Heather D’Angelo typically discovers imagery late in the game, after the music has already been composed. Yet, despite individual processes, each of the three women comprising Au Revoir Simone independently arrived at a common visual language while conceiving the group’s fourth album, Move In Spectrums.
“For this one, we all kept saying, ‘It’s like an urban scene at night,’” D’Angelo explains. “It’s a lot of neon colors and darkness. And we were all really drawn to scientific imagery of prisms, and of light bending and refraction. It was interesting, because these aren’t things that we’ve ever talked about.” Move In Spectrums, as represented by its cover art—depicting magenta and cyan wildflowers against a black background—is sonically simpatico with the band’s visual description. By coincidence, Au Revoir Simone has used nature-related imagery for each of its albums, while almost exclusively employing electronic instrumentation all the while. Toeing the line between nature and technology has become a sort of fixation for the Brooklyn synth-pop trio.
“What I like about this cover is that it’s nature exactly in the colors that we were talking about,” says D’Angelo. “Shining those colors on a flower electrifies it,” Hart continues. “We’re not playing straight-up electro even though it’s all electronic instruments.” “We have a more naturalistic, human approach than a lot of new bands that program everything,” Forster chimes in, rounding out the thought. “We play everything, and use technology from the ’80s. We’re limited to that, because we love those vibrations and textures.” In a conversational nutshell, this is the dynamic of Au Revoir Simone. Each player has her own thing to say, her own distinct personality, but together the three have a knack for creating the illusion of unison. Everyone plays keys—Hart and Forster originally discovered a mutual ambition to form an all-keyboard band on a long train ride—writes songs and programs beats. In the latter pursuits, they happily lean toward modern technology.
“Speaking of new technology, there’s all these new apps for your iPhone, so pretty much every train ride, I make up a new drum beat,” says D’Angelo. “I think we all do that, so we’re able to have this freedom.” “One place where I highly embrace technology is having my phone at all times and being able to catch ideas,” adds Forster, “Recording song ideas, melodies when I’m sleeping—that’s been a huge step forward.” The literal application of dream-pop, if you will.
Lucid while dynamic, the bold clarity of Au Revoir Simone’s music tends to swim upstream from the mistier bends of that genre. Then again, David Lynch is an avid fan of the band, so perhaps the description is not too far from home after all. In addition, each band member cites dreams or the subconscious as playing a role in her own creative process.
“I write 80 percent of my songs and lyrics by just sitting down in front of an instrument,” Hart says. “Whatever comes out of my mouth comes out—I have no plans, and it’s interesting because I can look back on songs and it’ll be a revelation to myself about myself.”
D’Angelo, the scientist of the group with a dual career as an environmental biologist, equates songwriting to an intuitive sort of problem-solving. “I’m playing a chord, and I want to know what the best next chord would be, but it’s not something that you can think about with the left side of your brain,” she explains. “You’re not thinking about what the next chord would be; you’re feeling it. And that seems very much guided by your subconscious.”
After releasing the highly regarded Still Night, Still Light in 2009, Au Revoir Simone was at a crossroads. Its members had gotten married, made solo records and pursued other careers. D’Angelo, unsure if there was a point in continuing to make music after releasing a record of which she was very proud, sent a missive to her bandmates. Among other things, the letter called for an open-minded approach to instrumentation moving forward.
“I was stuck with this idea of ‘where can we really go now?’ We’re the same people writing songs in the same way,” D’Angelo says. “Their responses were just so positive it made me want to come back to the project.” To shake up the instrumentation, Hart began a stint of playing drums.
“I’m a terrible drummer,” she says. All modesty aside, it soon became clear that something was askew. Maybe the subconscious flow had been interrupted, but this new configuration hardly blended with the true nature of Au Revoir Simone.
“I was playing for three or four weeks,” Hart continues, “and Heather took me aside one day and said, ‘I know I said I wanted a drummer, but the band’s not the band without everybody playing keyboards.’” Feeling the next change was effortless, and soon Annie was back to her keys. Once again the city was vibrant, its neon magic restored.
“We only have six hands between us,” D’Angelo says, smiling a knowing smile.
This article is from FILTER Issue 53