Band To Watch: Ballet School
Ballet School sounds like wild enthusiasm coursing through the internet and spilling out breathlessly into real life. The Berlin-based trio, fronted by outgoing Irish fashion plate Rosie Blair, is very much a product of online musical discourse, tracing the members’ shared musical history through riot grrrl to shoegaze to Destiny’s Child and ending up with something that sounds like a new evolution of sleek ’80s synthpop. To hear “Cherish,” the lead single from next month’s full-length debut The Dew Lasts An Hour, is to be blasted in the face with cool fresh air. Blair’s passionate skyscraping vocals ride high on pummeling live drums that sound like programmed beats shimmering guitars that feel like keyboards. There is no abandon in this music, nor are there any barriers.
Blair is just as engaging and unpredictable in conversation as on record. During a freewheeling Skype session last month, she tumbled through her life story and the genesis of Ballet School’s timely yet unique sound. Even in the face of difficult circumstances — Blair called from Belfast, where she’s been tending to her father after a stroke — she was as ebullient as her music suggests.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been staying at your dad’s place?
ROSIE BLAIR: He had a stroke a couple of weeks ago. So I just moved home to take care of him, because my family is sort of just me and my dad and then my brother, but my brother lives in Australia, and he has a baby on the way with his girlfriend, so he can’t really just drop work and fly home. So we just chatted, we were like, “Oh, what do you want to do,” and we just chatted a bunch and said I would come home, and it’s like really weird, ’cause I’m doing all these interviews, and I’m like eughh. [laughs] And everybody keeps on saying, “So, what are you doing.” Uhh … doing dishes and making beds. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Beyond the obvious pain that must be there, that must make the impending release of the album … it must make things kind of extra complicated.
BLAIR: Yeah, I’m really hoping that it won’t affect it in a negative way. You know what it’s like these days. I was just saying on Twitter that it’s all about assets now, and the artist really generates a huge amount of content about themselves. And obviously I have an asset-list, a bunch of shit that I want to give our label and our press people and just say, can you put this stuff out, or is this gonna help promote the band, and it’s all stuff that we’ve done ourselves, it’s like mixes or little videos or little making-of-the-album kind of stuff that we filmed while we were making the record or whatever, or just photographs, you know what I mean? It’s all stuff that we’re doing ourselves. And I’m just hoping that I’m gonna have time to keep doing all that stuff, because it’s so important now, it’s such a crucial, like getting an Instagram and stuff like that. All these things that I just like completely just fucked it all off in the last three weeks. I was supposed to do a mix for this other website and haven’t finished it. I’ve barely started it. And yeah, I just hope that it’s not gonna be a right fuck-up of the release because of this. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I can imagine.
BLAIR: But the thing is, we’re on a really small label anyway, so you know, it’s not gonna be like, “Oh my god, it’s a first-week sales disaster!” Like, it’s not that big a deal. But I do really want, I’m really dying for the word to get out about the band. I want people to know about the band, and give the record a fuckin’ shot in hell, you know? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Let’s tell the band’s story then. Actually, first of all, let’s tell your personal story. Are you from Ireland originally?
BLAIR: Yes, I am from Belfast. Michel [Collet] is Brazilian, and Louis [McGuire] is English, but I would call him a Berlin kid because he moved out to Berlin when he was 14, and he’s lived there for like 10 years, speaks German, and his first girlfriend was German, and all his high school education was German, so I would call him a Berlin kid more than I would even call him an English kid, even though his surname is McGuire. And we played in Leeds, his entire fucking family showed up, it was hilarious [laughs] … they were all like complete crazy crew, you know? They were very northern, typical northern Englanders, you know? But I’d say he would call himself a Berliner because all of his formative experiences of being in Berlin.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up in Berlin?
BLAIR: Well, I started to go over to Berlin gradually because I was basically working on music, like doing vocals for other artists, mostly dance producers, over there. And then I was trying to just get my own thing started, and so I thought it would be a good idea to relocate there permanently, to kind of take advantage of the fact that there were so many producers and people working there that I wanted to work with, and I think it takes a good wee while for you to really find what it is that you want to do and to get it all started and everything, so I first came in like 2010, and then I started Ballet School in like 2011, whenever I met Michel. He was the right person to start a band with, I think, because he was an incredible guitar player and his sound really reminded me of Robin Guthrie, very effects-laden but really really delicate playing that didn’t overpower my voice. For some reason it really matched immediately. And you know how rare that is whenever you’re looking for people to play with, it’s like one of the most crucial things is to find the right people, so whenever we started playing together I really bet everything on that. I was like “Right, we have to make this into a real band, we have to really really work at this, and let’s focus on this, and this is what we’re doing now.” And so it took another two years to find Louis, we played with every single fucking drummer in Berlin. Oh my god we played so many shows with so many drummers, but no one was right until we met Louis, and then it was like boom. It started to move really fast after that.
STEREOGUM: When you first started the band, did you have a sound in mind? Did you have a concept of what you wanted Ballet School to be? Or is it something that just kind of happened?
BLAIR: I think there was definitely an intention behind it, there was definitely a sound in my head, and I think I was looking for people who also wanted to do the same thing or a similar thing … obviously we had to work on it a lot, you don’t just hit it the first time you try, but I knew that I wanted it to be really reverb-drenched, very effects-laden guitars, and I knew that I wanted to really fuck with the guitars a lot and layer them up and try and find interesting sounds that maybe didn’t even sound like a guitar, like a lot of people always say “So, you’re a synth band.” It’s like, well, really we’re totally not a synth band. Those are guitars, you know? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: That’s cool.
BLAIR: Both me and Michel play the guitar, and so we just were finding sounds that … I mean, Michel, he has got this amazing ability to create sounds where he just processes and reprocesses effects, and then I was able to bring in the kind of pop structure writing and apply that to the noises that he was creating and sort of make it more accessible and then layer these vocals on top of it, and the idea was to really have pop vocals … just make everything as beautiful as possible, that’s really very important, because life is fucking ugly, so you can’t make ugly art, you know what I’m saying? And then obviously, we were playing with a drum machine and putting beats into Ableton, we kind of were like, “Maybe we shouldn’t even bother,” ’cause we couldn’t find a drummer, “maybe we shouldn’t even bother having a drummer.” But really, I’ve been in bands and Michel’s been in bands that are very traditional bands, with a drum set, bass, guitar, vocals, and we both wanted to have that live energy whenever we played, we wanted it to be a physical thing, so that’s why we really really tried to pursue as hard as we could to find someone who could play beats like “Heartbeat Overdrive,” which is a beat that I wrote in Logic, which is written by me who’s a non-drummer, and it’s like kick kick kick-kick-kick-snap, it’s really difficult to play, so anybody we tried out just couldn’t play it, until we met Louis and Louis could play it, and it was like “OK, you’re the one.” And it was the same for “Lux” and a couple of songs on the record, because these were all programmed beats, and I wanted to keep it where you have beats as opposed to drums, but they’re being played live, so it’s really danceable but yet you still get that punk physical experience of seeing someone really sweating in front of you and doing something physical in front of you. It’s kind of like finding that balance. I really think a lot of people are on that trip now and trying to do that now, where you integrate both the electronic and live elements to bring a performance to a whole new level, so it’s not just a rock ‘n’ roll band and it’s not just a laptop act. Do you know what I mean? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I haven’t seen you live, but I get that sense from the album that it’s kind of hard to spot the seams. It’s not clear where the live part ends and the electronics begin, which is one of the things I really like about the music.
BLAIR: Yeah. I’m really glad to hear you say that. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: You mentioned the desire to kind of incorporate the pop sound to it. I know that a different writer at Stereogum, when we posted “Heartbeat Overdrive” last year, compared the vocals to Mariah Carey. Is that the ballpark you want to be in?
BLAIR: It’s fucking crazy, right? Because I am literally reflecting on certain things every day at the minute, and one of the things that I’m reflecting on is how pop fan culture is evolving, and how being a mainstream pop fan is becoming slightly more palatable to the higher critical side of music appreciation. So I used to only really — it’s crazy because I read all different kinds of music blogs, and I remember there was a time when I really hated how much I loved pop music. [laughs] I don’t know, pop music’s really come, particularly like stan culture, and the culture of like message board/LiveJournal/Oh No They Didn’t flame wars, the culture that fans created around pop music, the online fan culture — there was a time when that wasn’t really as relevant to serious critical appreciation as it is now. And I think the two worlds are coalescing right now, and I think that’s the most fucking exciting thing that could possibly happen. And it’s been happening in increments for years and years and years. Like I remember Pitchfork, I don’t remember when it was, like four years ago or whatever, they were listing the best songs of the 2010s so far or whatever, and they put “Since U Been Gone” right up near the top. And that was a good choice. That was exactly correct. Little nods to — I’m talking about mainstream pop culture, I’m talking about Britney Spears, I’m talking about the top 2 percent, like Rihanna, like big big artists. And I know that it’s quite confrontational for artists, like whenever Grimes did, do you remember she did the Boiler Room and she played Taylor Swift? Obviously you can be really confrontational with pop, if you’re mischievous and punk rock then that’s exactly what you want to do. You want to rub some fucking DJs the wrong way. [laughs] Of course. But at the same time, apart from these infractions, I feel like there’s real merit in pop, and particularly, I’m fascinated with the machinery of pop, and how do you take a girl called Robyn Rihanna Fenty and turn into her into Rihanna, this massive industry. [laughs] It’s really fascinating. And above everything else, I think I’m a fan. So I would never say something like, “I’m so influenced by Mariah Carey,” because I have so much respect for Mariah Carey as a fucking artist that I wouldn’t even think for five seconds that I could hold a candle to Mariah Carey, you know? Like, Mariah Carey’s a goddess. I mean I know that she’s in the lexicon as like a name that it’s okay to drop, from a critical perspective, OK, she’s had a really long career and definitely has a few things that are there to respect. But I definitely definitely have been influenced by her, but I would never think for one second that I could sing as well as Mariah Carey. I think she’s amazing. I think that she’s a better singer than Ariana Grande, definitely. If Ariana Grande’s the only singer that’s come into the mainstream with whistle notes — she can really do them. She can sing “Emotions.” But very few artists can really hit the whistle note, you know what I mean?
STEREOGUM: Well, your voice really gets up there on “Cherish.”
BLAIR: Yeah, I can hit a whistle note, but only if I’m really, like totally well-rested, completely hydrated, no stress, and only if I really observe. I’d have to practice a couple of days before the show. I’d have to really practice. A whistle note is a really difficult technique — like most girls who are doing it are actually just singing a really high falsetto. Whistle notes are fucking hard. You can teach yourself how to do them, but you have to have that upper register already.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any technical singing training or are you self-taught?
BLAIR: No, I taught myself with YouTube videos, and listening. I must’ve listened to Emancipation Of Mimi like maybe 5,000 times, and also Destiny’s Child. You can learn a lot by ear if you have a decent ear. It’s just like anything, if you really love something, you just are compelled to do it every day. The generality of saying you feel compelled to make music is one thing, but I don’t feel compelled to do anything as much as I feel compelled to sing. I feel discomfort if I have a couple of days where I don’t do it. I really really need to do it. I absolutely love it. I always say I’m compelled to teach myself this particular program so I can be a better producer, but not in the same way as I’m being compelled to sing. It’s very physical. It’s totally profound.
STEREOGUM: The album is called The Dew Lasts An Hour. Could you explain where that comes from and what that means?
BLAIR: In a way it’s super camp, because it’s like, pleasure is transient. But also there’s some pathos there because you can have a beautiful moment but it’s gonna pass. And that’s really sad. And so it’s kind of a comment that, it makes me think of something that like Quentin Crisp or Blanche DuBois would say, like, “The dew lasts an hour,” like “Youth is fleeting.” This is one of the big things of the record as well, it’s about innocence on the precipice of experience. It’s about how fleeting the most beautiful moments are. For me there’s something very poignant about that, definitely.
STEREOGUM: I’m sure the situation with your dad now is kind of just reinforcing that.
BLAIR: The whole thing that got me started on this trip, which is like, something that I haven’t — for some reason I can’t find a way to properly talk about it in interviews — but I only started trying to do this band. And I was like, wanting to sing my whole life, but I did not do it because something in me wouldn’t let myself do it. I was too — I wouldn’t call it shy, because I don’t even think I’m that shy, I just didn’t have enough mojo. You really need a healthy sense of self-entitlement to say, “Well, I’m gonna give myself permission to go off and do this.” Northern Ireland is a very self-effacing, very salt-of-the-earth kinda place, and it’s not the kind of environment where you think it might even be remotely possible to grow up and be a singer. I still get so fucking embarrassed. Like, loads of people have called by the house and they’re going like, “So where are you now? What is it you’re doing?” And I’m like, “Well…” and I feel embarrassed to tell them what I do. You know what I mean? Like all the people from the street coming ’round the house to see my dad. But the only reason why I started saying, “Right, fuck this shit, if you want to do this, you need to fucking do it, girl,” was because of my mother passing away. And that really made me think about what I was doing with myself, and like, if you want to do something, you have to just fucking do it, man. You can’t pretend to be happy. [laughs] But obviously it was a huge risk or whatever. I don’t even know if it’s gonna pay off. That’s like the biggest thing, because you’re so emotionally invested, but that’s not how the world sees it. Like maybe I’m too emotionally invested. I don’t know. I just, I look at the careers of other artists, and I just want to get inside their heads and see why are you doing this, you know? ‘Cause it’s really quite intense doing music. There’s no stability in it, and it completely takes over your life. It’s certainly taken over mine, I basically don’t do anything else. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Is there a plan at all to bring the band to North America?
BLAIR: Yes. We’re gonna be there in October, I think. In fact, I’m pretty sure. Bella Union have offices in New York now, and so there’s plenty of opportunities for us to play. And we want to take them, we went to New York to play a Bella Union night there a few months ago, and oh my god, like fuck people who talk shit about New York, New York is fucking amazing. [laughs] New York is so beautiful, it’s really just an awesome place for any band to play, and the rest of the states, oh my god, like all of my training that I received whenever I was a teenager was through the filter of underground independent American music, and the whole reason why I’m a feminist is because of riot grrrl, and I found out about riot grrrl through Nirvana, and they are like the gateway band to developing really good taste. I don’t know why I always really was feeling mainstream pop radio as well as all this shit. I think it’s because I was a singer, because I was never a screamer, so I really loved Huggy Bear, but I was not screaming along to Huggy Bear. I wanted to find a way to integrate those politics with a pop sound, definitely. So I hope that comes through. I’ll keep on trying to do that for all of the songs that I write, we’ll be trying to crack that nut-problem.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
BLAIR: The cover art is fucking amazing. The cover art is so beautiful. It’s like, very girly. I’m into everything girly right now. I’m so moved by makeup videos. [laughs] I’m so seeking that shit out, I don’t know why, for some reason. I spent so long hanging out with boys in practice rooms and totally not really being arsed about being feminine at all, and then suddenly recently I’ve just been like, hey, I’ve got 15 guitar pedals and one pair of shoes — like, what is wrong with this picture? I want to be a girl. [laughs] So yeah, I’m experimenting with girlhood right now. It’s really good because it’s actually really inspired me to do a whole different, write a different kind of song, find a different kind of sound that’s kind of a tribute to the ephemeral and beautiful world of girls and how girls see the world. I was never really bothered about it before, I wouldn’t say I was a tomboy or anything, but I was more just like, riot grrrl makeup, like literally concealer and red lipstick and nothing else. [laughs] But now I’m learning how to do eyes. I’m learning how to do my eyebrows. And really, yeah, enjoying that experience.
STEREOGUM: Thanks for mentioning that. I think it lends an interesting perspective to your music.
BLAIR: Yeah, no, I mean I know it’s like completely like bleh but like, I don’t know, for some reason I’m determined to find merit in it. [laughs] I’m just really intrigued. For SXSW I did this mix and it was like all sampling ASMR videos, which I’m also completely obsessed with, everything that’s gentle. There’s something really comforting and gentle about the sounds of certain voices and just how you can incorporate that into a mix or what sounds trigger an ASMR response. Like maybe I was using a bit of Aphex in there, like “Mmm, I can mine this, this is good.” [laughs] So yeah, I just thought that was a fun theme for a mix. I’m actually working on the second one at the minute but I haven’t fucking finished it yet because I’m stuck in Ireland. But I know I’ll get it finished.
The Dew Lasts An Hour is out 9/9 on Bella Union.