Half Waif: new identities in reflection
Erin McAuliffe | Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Nandi Rose Plunkett sat on a deck in the Catskill Mountains overlooking a pond surrounded by trees as she spoke to me via a landline back on Aug. 15. Plunkett, current member of New Jersey indie rock outfit Pinegrove, speaks with me fresh off of the May release of “Probable Depths,” the sophomore album from her synth-pop project Half Waif. The scene brought to mind the album’s cover art: a Narcissus-like character, devoid of a head, kneels in a bed of grass and dips its hand into a body of water.
As Plunkett described her songwriting process in the context of the band’s sylvan endeavor, the figure seemed to embody her, a being reflecting on identity and escaping it’s own head — a product of Plunkett’s new collaboration in songwriting with band mates Zack Levine and Adam Carlo.
“That [cover art] image is from an awesome illustrator in Mexico, a friend of a friend who I’d seen on Instagram. I saw that image and kept coming back to it — it was mesmerizing. It’s playful and sinister at the same time, and I think of my music as being dark and moody but also playful,” Plunkett said.
On the third day of Half Waif’s Bon Iver-esque wilderness expedition, the band had already written nine songs. Plunkett attributed this, at least partially, to the affirmation provided by letting people join her in the writing process — a deviation from her more solitary past approach. She also reflected on the Catskill’s environment (only reachable through a landline) as allowing the band to focus without the abundant distractions around Brooklyn.
“I’m influenced by so many weird, different things that it’s sometimes hard to know what kind of music I write or even want to write,” Plunkett said. “I used to just write on piano and now I have all these electronic tools at my fingertips but sometimes that can fracture your thoughts and your writing. … Up here you don’t have the distractions, quick pace and stress of the city. We’re just here to write right now and it’s bringing up feelings of where I’m from.”
Plunkett is from Williamstown, Massachusetts — one of two current members of Pinegrove who didn’t grow up in Montclair, New Jersey. Her childhood environment mirrored the rural Catskills setting, while her band mates grew up entwined in a vibrant music scene 12 miles outside of Brooklyn.
Although Plunkett grew up outside of the New Jersey suburbs that feature prominently in Pinegrove’s lyrics and have produced bands like Ducktails, The Front Bottoms, Real Estate and Screaming Females, she did live in Pinegrove bandmate Evan Stephen Hall’s childhood bedroom for a summer after college in a sort of pseudo-childhood immersion.
“We had this house in Philly that we were about to rent [after graduation], but a week before we were going to move-in Zack’s brother Nick got pneumonia. He had just graduated high school and his parents didn’t want him moving to West Philly. I ended up moving to Montclair for the summer and living with Evan’s mom in Evan’s bedroom, while Evan lived with his dad a couple minutes away. I was there all summer and feel like an honorary Montclairian — sometimes I forget that I didn’t grow up there. It’s a really cool community.”
Pinegrove formed while members studied at Kenyon College in Ohio.
“Kenyon was pretty insular but since it’s kind of isolated you’re really focused on your time there. … I studied music there and tried a lot of different things, it was a really important time for me to figure out what I wanted to do without the rest of the world beating in.”
Plunkett officially joined Pinegrove full-time after college, citing Hall’s clear vision and style as impetus. Although Hall writes all the lyrics for Pinegrove, Plunkett described the band’s arrangements as collaborative.
“Evan brings songs to the group and Zack will write the drum parts and I’ll come up with the harmonies — but Evan sometimes has ideas for both of those, too.”
Pinegrove and Half Waif share similar recording processes, approaches to songwriting and even members; however, their sounds and themes are distinctly dissonant and stand out in contrast versus latching on in derivation.
“Half Waif came directly out of Pinegrove,” Plunkett said. “Evan had such a clear songwriting vision, but I was at a time where I was lost and had stopped writing songs for a few years in college. I wasn’t writing when all five of us moved into our first apartment together in Brooklyn.”
Plunkett went from what she described as an only-child upbringing (her sister left for boarding school when she was 10 years old) to living amongst her band members — whom she referred to as family throughout the interview. However, the part of her who would play piano alone in the grade school auditorium during lunch breaks (the antithesis to eating alone in a stall), kept rearing her thought-filled, self-reflective head throughout Pinegrove’s creative process.
“There was a sense of self not being expressed, even through this wonderful band. … [Half Waif] came out of this family and being inspired by the people I was with, but needing another outlet. We have really different backgrounds even though we have a lot similarities. I think it’s cool to celebrate the similarities in that we play together but also celebrate the differences.”
Since spawning the band Half Waif and arriving at a point where the members “all really trust each other as musicians,” Plunkett has been able to expand her process beyond herself — evidenced by the group’s bountiful Walden-esque endeavor. She described her earlier songs as attempting to create sound worlds beyond her own experiences.
“I wanted to find other sounds and create really specific universes. With this last record [“Probable Depths”], I was back in the childhood home I’d been in for 18 years — coaxing sound out of a bleak, quiet New England house covered in snow. That’s exciting to me, creating unique soundscapes.”
Half Waif’s Twitter description reads “mood ring pop,” characteristic of the warm hues that bend around cool, metallic synth in an arc of ethereal soundscapes, reflecting the fluidity of human emotion on “Probable Depths.” A mood ring is essentially an out-of-body self-reflection visualized, and on track “Turn Me Around” it’s as if Plunkett is frantically scratching at a cool metal ring on her finger, heating it until the color turns to represent a new aspect of the self she’s grown tired of. Neon and gold symbolize human characteristics throughout the album, perhaps the mood ring would have the colors represent passion and deception, respectively.
As the band refines and further defines their sound(s), they’re looking to align tours with bands closer to their synthy, ambient background. Not many synth pop bands grow up in the DIY scene — it’s hard to transport equipment and keep precision amongst more laid-back acts — however, Half Waif is the anomaly.
I was lucky enough to see Half Waif perform at a Logan Square basement on July 28 amidst a line-up of DIY pop-punk bands: Options, Ratboys, SPORTS and Pinegrove. The nature of the “donation-requested” show allowed me to stand close enough to the band to spot — through a haze of mood ring green light and sweaty July heat— Plunkett’s lost earring under Levine’s drums. Her focus on the soundboard and vocals had been so deeply involved that her hoop had gone missing from her ear halfway through the set.
It was the third of four sets I’d see Plunkett play that day: three with Pinegrove and one with Half Waif. Although this show marathon could be attributed to the Lollapalooza hype, the tour schedule of many DIY bands today proves strenuous. Plunkett casually mentioned her concerns around maintaining her health while performing two live sets a night on tour with Half Waif and Pinegrove. She also noted that their band is about to move out of New York, their home for five years, the result of a heavy tour schedule.
Although grateful for the opportunity to open for and play with Pinegrove (they’re currently on tour in Europe), Plunkett hopes to break away from Half Waif shows where she has to win audiences over.
“We’re looking forward to playing the next tour with a band a little bit more in our genre. That way audiences are a little more primed to our music and we don’t have to go into it trying to get them to shift their ears in our directions. We’d like to play with bands like Wye Oak or Teen.”
Half Waif has an EP coming out in January that is currently being mixed. Plunkett recorded the project in her apartment and acknowledged it as a more solo effort, “cobbling sounds together in [her] room,” as compared to the album Half Waif was writing in the Catskills, the likes of which will feature live drums.
Although Plunkett raised money on Indiegogo to record her debut album, “Kotekan,” in a professional studio, she recognized a studio’s potential sterility and is excited to record her upcoming album in “a patchwork of meaningful places” while unconstrained by time and cost.
Half Waif’s identity expands beyond Pinegrove, their sounds beyond genre definitions and their lyrics beyond self, but Plunkett’s reflections are all her own.