Cross Record specialize in creeping rock songs that blow in and out like storms, as if Sharon Van Etten and Swans started a post-rock band. Lead singer and songwriter Emily Cross haunts each track with understated whispers that blend personal trauma and epiphany with high-concept musings and Eastern philosophy, soaring into unhinged howls or delicate falsetto trills when the spirit moves her. Enhanced by Dan Duszynski’s decade-plus as a studio engineer, the music around her tends to surge, swell, and morph in a way that feels supernatural. Foundations as minimal as a pensive guitar riff or a droning keyboard hum bloom into thundering catharsis before drifting back into the distance. Countless hours of experimentation yield music dense and alluring enough to plumb for far longer.
It’s hard not to hear the band’s origin story in their music. Cross and Duszynski are a Chicago couple who, upon deciding to get married, relocated to an 18-acre ranch in tiny Dripping Springs, Texas, 30 minutes west of Austin. Incidentally or not, Wabi-Sabi, the duo’s forthcoming album, is the kind of ominous and sun-scorched sprawl you’d expect from an album created on a vast plot of land in rural Texas. Yet it’s distinctly metropolitan too, fleeced with a stunning menagerie of instruments, samples, and noise.
Today we’re sharing the second single from Wabi-Sabi, “High Rise.” A lumbering rock song powered by heavily thudding drums, high-end guitar squall, and breathy ruminations about identity, it’s accompanied by a video Cross and Duszynski filmed in their backyard. “I had this idea for dressing up like nobody,” Cross explained by phone last week. “Or like everybody — like every human in the world. Basically just making myself into kind of a blank slate, you know what I mean? I also wanted it to look a little weird.” Watch the video below, where you can also read a Q&A with Cross.
STEREOGUM: Did you form the band when you were still living in Chicago or after the move?
EMILY CROSS: Well, I had the band in Chicago with different members before I knew Dan. Then when Dan and I got together, we started playing together a little bit but we still had other members in bands, and then we really had to re-think our setup once we both moved to Texas because we didn’t know anyone down here. So actually the reason we became a two-piece in the beginning was because Dirty Projectors had asked us to open for them, but they said we could only be a two-piece. That’s what happened. So then we figured out a way to play our songs with just me and him, and then we just kept doing that. But it worked out really well when we moved too.
STEREOGUM: What made you guys decide to uproot?
CROSS: Well, I really wanted to leave Chicago. It was basically my decision. My stipulation for marrying him was that we’d leave Chicago. And he didn’t really want to do that because his whole family is up there and he has a bunch of clients from over 10 years of doing sound engineering. It was really scary for him to leave. But I wanted to leave because I hated the weather and I just wanted a change. There’s a lot of crime. So I told him he could pick anywhere else in the whole world to move that was relatively warm. He had been on several tours across America and he happens to like Austin a lot. Obviously there’s lots of musicians down here for recording work, so that’s why we picked it.
STEREOGUM: In a recent PBS documentary about the band, you guys talked about hoping to build something out at Moon Phase Ranch, and you said that seems to be working out so far. Has a scene sprung up around the ranch?
CROSS: Yeah, I would say not in our town, really, Dripping Springs, because there’s not many young people — I mean there’s young people but they’re in like high school. It’s basically like a suburb with lots of families and older people and high school students, so we don’t really have a scene in Dripping Springs. But we’ve played out enough in Austin and have enough friends in Austin now that the word has gotten out about the ranch and Dan’s work recording bands. So we’ve had a good deal of success for being here for only two years. And we also throw a big show party thing at the end of SXSW called Chill Phases. It’s going to be our third year. And that’s really helped to build some conversation around the ranch and piqued people’s interest so that’s been really cool.
STEREOGUM: I imagine having a big plot of land like that is really good for making a lot of noise.
CROSS: Oh my gosh, it’s amazing. We can do whatever we want, literally. It’s really cool. I think that’s what’s special about it because in Austin you have to consider what times you’re working and how loud you’re being. You can’t just go out and walk in nature without any houses around for 30 minutes to collect your thoughts or write or something. I think what’s really special about our place is that you can. It’s kind of like a retreat in a way.
STEREOGUM: You named the record after the Japanese aesthetic philosophy Wabi-sabi. What draws you to that worldview, and how do you feel it informs the music?
CROSS: I learned about Wabi-sabi when I was in art school in Chicago. We had free passes basically to the Art Institute In Chicago, and one day our class was looking around in the ancient ceramics portion of the museum. And there were these bowls, and I think the plaque said “Wabi-sabi bowls,” and they had cracks that were filled with gold. And I was just fascinated by this idea, like, honoring what’s fucked up about something, honoring the humanities that’s in these objects, instead of striving to make it look like a machine made it or something perfect — like an angel from heaven made it or something. So, I’d been thinking about the idea for a long time. This specific record, is — there’s a lot of shots in the dark about it. We just experimented a lot and left a lot of things in my mind that were fucked up that I was consciously trying to let that go.
STEREOGUM: You recorded the opening track, “The Curtains Part,” through a process of blind improvisation. Is that pretty typical of how you guys work?
CROSS: Yeah, it’s definitely not atypical of us to do something like that. I always say to my friends who go into a recording studio with this fully written album with a time schedule, I could never. Thank god I live in a recording studio because I would blow thousands of dollars on just singing in a studio. It takes so long for us to get what I want because we’re just playing around and experimenting so much and doing stuff like that, where we had no idea if it’s going to work, if its something that we are really striving for.
STEREOGUM: There are so many different apparent instruments and sounds in the music. Is that partially a function of the studio being right there and just accumulating a lot of instruments? Like, is it a situation where you have this kind of vast array of toys to play with and you can pick up whichever one moves you at the moment?
CROSS: Kind of, yeah. Although a lot of the sounds actually were sampled from various data banks of sounds that we have on the computer or, like, record samples. We have a bunch of those funny sound-effects records that we collect and just go through if we feel like it, or if we think we can’t get a sound that we want so we just go to these records and see if anything inspires us. So yeah, we have that luxury of just having a bunch of stuff. We don’t have insane amounts of instruments around the house, but the main thing is we have a lot of time. I think it’s a product of that and being able to just take our time and experiment and find what’s right.
STEREOGUM: The songs definitely have an undefinable, amorphous quality to them.
CROSS: I think that’s because I’ll write the song and I’ll know some parts of the song that I definitely want at the end and at the beginning. But for the most part we are building it ourselves in the studio, so it doesn’t have a clear shape necessarily. Or I’ll have this visual image in my head and I’ll want to make that into a song, which frustrates the shit out of Dan, but I think that’s probably why you feel that way.
STEREOGUM: Communicating those ideas must be a lot of work.
CROSS: Yeah, we have to communicate quite a bit, and it is frustrating. And I am — I would say I’m pretty hard to work with, so it’s a miracle that we’re not divorced (laughs). I’m just kidding. But really, I think that I’m pretty hard to work with because I don’t really know what I’m talking about, to be honest with you. I’m visual-artist trained. So I’m learning all the time, but I don’t know that much about music in the traditional sense. So it’s hard for me to express things like other musicians would. And for Dan it’s really frustrating because he knows all about music and he can talk that language.
STEREOGUM: How often does the song end up matching up the image? Like matching with the image in your head?
CROSS: I would say pretty often.
Wabi-Sabi is out 1/29 on Ba Da Bing. Pre-order it here.