Q&A: Half Waif On The Search For Meaning In Her New EP form/a
Music acts as a way to conjure emotions that we don’t possess precise enough language to express ourselves. Nandi Rose Plunkett has found herself fixated on that idea through her work as Half Waif — the interplay between abstract and concrete meaning, the attempt to provide definition to inexplicable feelings like love and pain and loss. Started in 2012 as an outlet for her own songs while she played in Pinegrove, Plunkett has released two full-lengths so far, each incrementally stronger than the last. The most recent, last year’s Probable Depths, blends liturgical weightlessness with propulsive and dynamic electronics. The best example of this combination comes on the LP’s title track, which starts as a classical-indebted operatic before taking a wicked twist halfway through, morphing into a damaged pop song of the most glorious order.
On her forthcoming EP, form/a (pronounced forma), she continues this masterful fusion with an increasingly steady hand. It’s the first project Plunkett recorded entirely on her own — her last was produced by Zubin Hensler, who also helped put finishing touches on this EP — and it reflects that singularity. These are the iciest, most insular songs that Half Waif has put out yet, and their malleability and restraint embody the overarching theme of the project as Plunkett attempts to give form to moods that are indefinable and ever-shifting. Over the course of its six tracks, she processes her relationship with her Pinegrove and Half Waif bandmate Zack Levine, her parents’ divorce that forced her to grow up quickly, and the connection between herself and a constantly changing world.
The results are vulnerable and spine-tinglingly great, as evidenced by lead single “Severed Logic,” which finds Plunkett personifying her mood as a pendulum and questioning whether the direction its heading even makes sense. The song wonders whether we should stay in tune with our emotions or disregard them as illogical: “Even awake, I dream of you leaving me,” she sings at one point. “What if I refuse to let that happen?” There’s a push-and-pull there, a dialogue between our anticipations, our worst possible fears, and what will never be. Having that constantly play out in your own head is exhausting, and “Severed Logic” exists as a request to another to help work through these conflicting emotions: “I cannot accept the weight of all this/ Will you listen when I’m talking in my severed logic?” It’s a powerful song about miscommunication and our tendency to shut each other out when things get too complicated and messy.
Listen to the premiere of the track below, and read our interview with Plunkett about her new EP and what’s next for Half Waif.
STEREOGUM: One of the strengths of shorter releases is that all of the tracks can feel very interconnected, which is certainly the case with form/a. The songs all explore the same notions of searching for meaning, figuring out how you fit into the world and can be in a relationship and not lose a part of yourself at the same time. For you, what ties all of the tracks together?
PLUNKETT: These songs deal with the yearning to ascribe a physical form to these ephemeral feelings and thoughts and notions and moods, wanting to externalize the internal world in order to connect with people. Basically, trying to give a form to your inner moods. Which we can’t really do — no one can see who we are or totally understand what’s going on inside of us, especially while being in a serious relationship. But that’s a big part of it: trying to tear out your guts and be like, here, this is who I am. So a lot of it came from a desire to do that: to give form and structure and concrete meaning to something totally intangible.
STEREOGUM: Being in a relationship and writing these very forward songs, do you have an inclination to pull back from what you want to say because you know the other person is going to hear it?
PLUNKETT: In the past, I’ve tended towards less direct lyrics, ones that were a little more shrouded in poetry, and that can help me express things that maybe I don’t want people to know directly. I want the feeling and the mood expressed without being totally explicit about who I’m talking to or what I’m saying, but I’m finding in the newer songs that I’m writing that I’m looking to be a little bit more direct, and I think that’s an influence of Evan [Stephens Hall] and Pinegrove.
My parents divorced when I was 14, and there’s a line on “Frost Burn” that mentions that specifically. [“I was 14 when I learned what it means to be an adult/ It wasn’t my fault.”] In the past, I think I’ve shied away from saying anything that would hurt my parents. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to bring up these memories from a difficult time. But I found it really cathartic and important for me to stare it in the face and be able to address that and share those stories with people listening. I want to do that more, I’m definitely challenging myself to do that more. It can be a little easy to hide behind poetry.
I was talking to Evan about lyric writing, and his thing with Pinegrove is that there are such direct lyrics, but he’s really insistent that it’s not autobiographical. It’s mostly fiction. He said to me: If you play something for your parents and they’re like, “Why did you write that?” or “Oh, that really, hurt,” you can just say that it’s fiction. It’s part of the art form. It doesn’t have to be about you.
STEREOGUM: And part of it is fiction. I guess this goes back to overarching theme of the EP… When you put these abstract emotions and feelings into very concrete words, they become hard in a way that they’re not when they’re just in your head.
PLUNKETT: Exactly, they become rigid. That can be limiting. Like, how do you actually ascribe words to these very fluid concepts? You can try, but you’re not going to quite pin them down because that’s the nature of moods and emotions. They’re ephemeral, they’re not concrete.
To talk a little bit about the title… The word forma for me is such a romantic-sounding word — it’s “form” in Latin — but it’s a really kind of soft way of saying a very rigid concept, which I like. I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay of hard and soft. Like concrete, mathematical, geometric ideas, and then the abstract, soft, organic sphere, and how those inform each other and interact. I have a tattoo that’s a really nice shaded rose with a geometric rose attached to it — Rose is my middle name — and that’s something I’m always thinking about. So for the EP title, you have this soft word and then it’s bisected by this very rigid line that makes it into form/a, which is completely clinical and devoid of softness. I was fascinated by the way that one geometric shape could transform the feeling of a word.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk a little bit about the first single, “Severed Logic.”
PLUNKETT: That song is a direct plea to a person who you’re interacting with daily, who is very close to you, who makes you incredibly aware of this internal world and dialogue and makes you feel like you need to externalize it in order to keep the relationship healthy. It’s so easy to disconnect and deal with it yourself, but when you’re in a partnership, that becomes very necessary to keep things going. I’m a very moody person — I can’t deny that. I’m very emotional, and I feel my emotions very strongly. If I feel something, I can’t pretend that I’m not. I wear my emotions on my face, on my body, in my attitude, so this internal landscape becomes a part of who I am when I interact with people. I’m very aware of that, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. I don’t think I can change that. It’s part of my identity at this point in my life, that I feel the highs and lows completely. So this song came out of addressing that part of my being, that part of all of us that is difficult.
There’s a line: “Will you listen when I’m talking in my severed logic/ If you agree, you open yourself up to something tragic/ If you would, then I could stand the aging.” It’s sort of a sad story. When you tie yourself to someone, you’re opening your life up to the possibility of a lot of struggles on the other person’s behalf. But it makes everything so much better to go through that together.
STEREOGUM: That’s universal in any relationship. You open yourself up and you want that person to understand where you’re coming from, and you have to be willing to do the same for them. You’re both talking in your own language, and you have to learn to understand the other person. You have to understand that if this person is not giving you what you need right now, they’re also going through something completely different from you, and you have to meet on some common ground and try to figure each other out.
PLUNKETT: It’s like trying to learn this language that there is no dictionary for. This is a severed logic, it’s a severed language that’s totally garbled and totally unique to that person, but you’re the only two people who will put in the time to understand each other. This is reminding me of Arrival — did you see that movie? — where they’re figuring out how to communicate.
For so much of my life, I identified with being alone and being lonely and writing from a place of solitude. I really knew myself from that place. I’ve had a few relationships in the past, but nothing like what I’m in now, so I was always sort of in this space where it was just me and myself having this dialogue, and I felt really in tune with that. Being in a relationship, that space has shifted to make room for another person, and that’s a space and a language that I’m much less comfortable with. Because it’s not just me and me in there… It’s me and them. It’s changed how I view myself. I’m not that lonely girl anymore. I’m that girl who is in this partnership. That’s been an interesting thing for me to figure out. I drew so much strength from that place, but now it’s a different kind of strength. It’s a much more fertile kind of strength because it’s coming from this other person that is helping me grow.
I was alone when I wrote all of this EP. I live with my partner, and we perform on tour together, so there’s not a lot of time when I’m alone, but I went on a writing retreat last December [in 2015]. I went to The Berkshires, where I’m from, and rented an apartment from my mom’s friend, and I imposed this exile on myself: I need to write again from this place of being alone. I was so scared being up there. I was like, I know how to be alone, I’m from the country, but I was suddenly alone in the woods and it was really quiet and I was scared. I didn’t know how to do it anymore. I thought I could go back to who I was before and tap back into that place, but that place doesn’t exist anymore because it’s shifted within me.
There was this really loud heater at night, and it would clank and really freak me out. I would sleep with the light on, which is really embarrassing, but I did. But I ended up recording that heater, and that’s the first sound you hear on “Night Heat.” I was like, I’m going to take you, heater, and I’m going to make you into a song. You don’t scare me one bit.
STEREOGUM: You use found sounds a lot in your music.
PLUNKETT: I’m really interested in creating very unique soundscapes. Some of my favorite records are ones that are written in a place or about a place, and really evoke that place when you hear them. I think that, in recording a lot of found sounds, that’s always been my goal. It’s never any specific place, more of an imaginary world. It’s fun. I’m really experimenting so much. It always seems to be the case for artists to say this, but I’m so stoked for the next album.
All I want to do is write better. That’s my five year goal, my five year plan: to write better music. I hope I never feel like I wrote my best thing, because then I’ll stop. So I’m resigning myself to this difficult trajectory of never doing good enough. Having done form/a on the heels of Probable Depths, it’s still sort of in the same mindset. I want to take a bit more time with this next one to figure out a new process.
I’m going to be writing and recording the next album with the band for the first time [in the spring], which I’m excited about. We’ve been wanting to that for a while. Live, we do a lot of mixing of electronic and acoustic elements. That’s something we strive for: having it feel organic but with these more austere electronic components. It’s like the two sides of the rose: You’ve got the organic, you’ve got the concrete. It all comes back around.
01 “Severed Logic”
03 “Magic Trick”
04 “Frost Burn”
05 “Night Heat”
01/12 Allston, MA @ Great Scott *
01/13 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Rght *
01/14 Washington, DC @ Comet Ping Pong *
01/15 Philadelphia, PA @ Creep Records *
01/23 London, UK @ Surya
01/24 Manchester, UK @ The Castle Hotel
01/25 Glasgow, UK @ The Hug And Pint
01/26 Cardiff, UK @ Four Bars at Dempseys
01/29 Zaragoza, Spain @ Bombo y Platillo
01/30 Huesca, Spain @ Matadero
01/31 A Coruna, Spain @ MAC
02/01 Santiago, Spain @ Sala Riquela
02/02 Vila Real, Portugal @ Club de Vila Real
02/03 Almendralejo, Spain @ Salon de Teatres
02/04 Alicante, Spain @ Teatre Arniches
02/05 Burriana, Spain @ EMAC Festival
02/07 Ghent, Belgium @ Video
02/08 Luxembourg @ De Gudde Wellen
02/09 Dortmund, Germany @ FZW
02/10 Cologne, Germany @ Die Wohngemeinshaft
02/21 San Francisco, CA @ Noise Pop (solo)
02/25 Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Bazaar – Indie Pop Prom
03/09 Savannah, GA @ Savannah Stopover Music Festival
03/13-17 Austin, TX @ SXSW
* w/ Forth Wanderers