Half Waif tells us about the influences behind her new LP ‘Mythopoetics’
Half Waif (aka Nandi Rose) had originally planned to hit the studio for a stripped-back, solo piano album, but once she was there, she and producer Zubin Hensler ended up continuing the maximalist art pop direction of last year's The Caretaker. It's full of synths and studio-as-instrument tricks, but underneath all the futuristic arrangements, you can hear the remnants of Nandi's original plan for the album. Piano is used heavily, and these feel very much like singer/songwriter songs that would work in a solo acoustic setting; all the added stuff just makes them sound even more impressive. Some songs still sound like somber ballads ("Fabric," "Sourdough"), while others are glitchy and percussive ("Take Away the Ache," "Fortress"), and "Party's Over" is one of Half Waif's most purely pop moments yet. It has an immediacy that most of the other songs only hint at, but it doesn't overshadow them. "Party's Over" is a good way to draw people in, but once you're here, there's so much to explore in the immersive world of Mythopoetics.
Nandi told us about the album's influences, which include music venues, instruments, books, musical artists, and more. Read her list and commentary, and stream Mythopoetics, below.
Half Waif is going on a North American tour in support of Mythopoetics in November, including an NYC date at Bowery Ballroom on November 15 and an LA date at The Echo on November 2. See all dates here.
HALF WAIF'S MYTHOPOETICS INFLUENCES
1. In December 2019, Zubin and I were very fortunate to have a recording residency at Pulp Arts in Gainesville FL. That experience really jump-started this whole record. It’s a beautiful studio, and beyond that, it’s a strong community - a group of artists who have built something super special and opened their doors to let others in on the magic. The vibe that was presented to us was one of total support and relaxed kindness, and I feel very grateful to the people at Pulp who created the most welcoming space in which to envision the early seeds of Mythopoetics. I don’t think this album would have been made without the catalyst of this residency and the warmth that awaited us.
2. Beyond the walls of Pulp, Gainesville itself was an incredibly inspiring place for us. We drove around town with the top down in our rented VW Bug convertible and took many trips to Sweetwater nature preserve, where we got up close with gators, cranes, herons, and tons of other bird species. I had just gotten into birding on my honeymoon a few months before, so this was a pretty spectacular way to spend the morning before getting in the studio.
3. The Indigo Bunting and the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read this book, by Vincent Sheean, in August 2020. It was a gift from my best friend’s mother, who knows how much I love birds and poetry and is a birder and poet herself. It could not have been a more prescient gift. Reading this book on the dock at my family’s cabin in Maine, I was astounded by how many connections I had to Edna St. Vincent Millay - beyond the birding and the poetry, she lived down the road from me in Columbia County, NY, and summered in Maine as I have all my life. Her favorite bird was the indigo bunting, which is one of my favorites too. At the time, I was searching for a title for the album, and I felt in my bones I would find it in this book. Sure enough, the author described Edna as having a “mythopoetic presence” and I immediately knew I wanted to call the album Mythopoetics. A dense, academic title that, when peeled back, reveals the tender coils of myth and poetry.
4. The Owl is a tiny beautiful venue in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. Zubin invited me to play a show there in March 2019, a solo piano set on a real piano. This isn’t something I get to do very often, and I think Zubin invited me for that very reason - the last time we had done a show together in this kind of arrangement was in 2014, at the New Amsterdam Records warehouse in Red Hook, where we performed a set with piano, vocals, and effected trumpet. It was a really special vibe and space, and that sound has always sort of hovered in the back of our musical relationship. Meeting again in this way at The Owl reminded us both of this special sonic connection, and with that fresh in our minds, we went to Pulp to make a piano record that focused more on live performances. Things eventually took a turn when we drove to the airport at the end of the residency and played the songs in our convertible and thought, “Oh god, every song is so sleepy and slow!” Even our most upbeat song fell flat during that listen-back. That’s when we really switched mentalities and expanded the edges of the album to bring in more pop influence. But the tentpoles of that original piano album remain, with tracks 1, 6, and 12 carrying the sonic memory of that show at The Owl.
5. The flugelhorn is to Zubin as the piano is to me: a first instrument that we’ve journeyed away from and consciously came back towards for this album. It was meaningful to both of us to find a new voice and a new context in which to use our instruments. The song “Powder” is a good representation of this and feels in many ways like the soul of the record. On that track, Zubin’s horn stands out as a voice on its own, almost as if it’s responding to the vocal line. And horn, like vocals, requires so much physicality, channeling the breath through the body. I was really inspired by all of the many textures he was able to get out of his instrument.
6. After Pulp, we continued working on the record at Zubin’s studio in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Our sessions were fueled by amazing Mexican food bought from a take-out window right next to the subway. Fleshing out the songs in this setting felt like the next chapter in the record’s life - as if Gainesville was the college years and Sunset Park was its early 20s period of finding itself in the big city. Here we ratcheted up the intensity, bringing in more electronic sounds fit for the industrial soundscape of New York City.
7. When it came time for me to write some more upbeat pop songs for the record, I was listening to a lot of Christine and the Queens, specifically the album Chris. This album is just hit after hit. The pop songwriting and production are so good, but it’s also her vocal delivery that really struck me. It’s full of strength and swagger, but also able to communicate something deeper and more raw. And those back-up vocal arrangements!
8. FKA Twigs, Magdalene is the other album I was consciously thinking about as a source of inspiration at the time of recording Mythopoetics. Magdalene does so much of what I want to do, melding wild experimental production with piano ballads and emotional vocal delivery. Hearing this, I felt encouraged that we could make a record like that. Twigs has constantly expanded the sense of what’s possible on an album, especially a pop album. Yes, a pop album can have solo piano. Yes, a pop album can have deep beats that are not always danceable. Her music and artistry are so inspiring on so many levels.
9. I am a deep Tolkien fan. I have always loved fairytales and myths and world-building, and The Lord of the Rings in particular has been a sort of spiritual compass for me since childhood. With Mythopoetics, I wanted to tap into that spirit of world-building and make my own version of an epic, amplifying the small details of my life and family stories into something much grander. When it came time to make the visuals for the album, I again looked to Tolkien, referencing King Theoden in the music video for “Swimmer,” and the image of an elf princess in “Orange Blossoms”. I think there was a time in my life when I was embarrassed by how much I love this fantastical world, but now I fully embrace it. My friends even threw me a Lord of the Rings-themed bachelorette party. An important revelation and reminder for me while I was working on this record is that caring is cool. And it’s important to honor the things that feed you.
10. I was thinking a lot about traces and the things that are left behind when the main presence of something is gone. It’s like when you close your eyes and you can still see the image you were looking at. This idea is all over the record, spectrally and narratively. It’s an absence that is animated nonetheless - like the vacant lot where my childhood home once stood, pulsing with the memory of watching the meteor (referenced in “Powder”). And the faint taste of loneliness in a crust of bread (in “Sourdough”). And the ghost of an orange blossom signaling the presence of someone who is no longer here (in “Orange Blossoms”). The sonic analogue of this concept is a texture we used a lot while recording and which we came to call “piano dust”: quieter, more impressionistic textures coaxed from the piano, such as when we’d get inside the piano and create ambient strummings by rubbing the strings. It’s like fairy dust sprinkled into the tracks, something you might not even hear, yet you feel the absence of it when it’s gone.