Band To Watch

Artist To Watch: Sir Babygirl

Sir Babygirl lives up to the excess of her name. Kelsie Hogue, the mastermind behind the fledgling project, admits that her music can be a lot. “I want to do pop escapism,” she tells me at a café in Brooklyn, where she’s recently moved from New Hampshire. She hasn’t really had time to settle into the new city, though — right after unpacking, she flew to Los Angeles to shoot her first-ever music video with a budget, and had just returned from that when we talked last month. Hogue feels like she’s on the precipice of something huge, and that’s entirely because of the ambitious, widescreen pop music that she makes as Sir Babygirl.

Heels,” one of the first songs she wrote for the project, is flashy and loud and unabashedly queer. It excavates emotions so deep and conflicted that only a scream will suffice. The song’s big moment is literally a feral yell, with Hogue shouting “I changed my hair!” over and over again, an exclamation mark on a personal transformation. It was written in the throes of an existential crisis, but sounds like the catharsis that comes afterward. It’s larger-than-life maximalist pop, built for a mass audience.

Her debut album, Crush On Me, will be out in February. It’s filled with songs like “Heels,” ones that sound like they’re bursting with unknowns. “Flirting With Her,” its next single (which you can listen to below), is overtaken by a cacophony of whispers as it builds up to a climax — a restless buzzing that feels like an oversaturated scroll through the timeline. It was written after listening to a lot of Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson (or “Avril and Ashlee,” as she refers to them — names reverent enough for the single-name-only treatment). It’s got that crunchy, distorted guitar sound that comes straight from the mid-’00s blend of rock and pop, where bombastic choruses got churned out with pop precision.

That synthesis is indicative of Hogue’s cultural omnivorousness and a tendency to mine a dozen different sounds all at once. Her songs are busy, and Hogue takes inspiration from a wide breadth of artists to match that. From Kathleen Hanna to Big Boi, from Charli XCX to WHY?’s Yoni Wolf, she spits out songs that sound like mutated versions of everyone else. St. Vincent, Robyn, Britney, PC Music: That’s all in there too. Her vocals draw from classic divas like Whitney and Mariah and Christina and Janet. Her cascading guitar lines push up against bubblegum beats and theatrical vocal runs. It’s show-offy and over-the-top in the best way possible.

Hogue was born in Palo Alto, but her parents moved to Hanover, New Hampshire when she was in elementary school and she grew up there. Her first instrument was a saxophone, inspired by seeing the ease with which Lisa Simpson played one on television. Of course, a real-life third grader has a harder time supporting the full weight of a saxophone than a cartoon one, but Hogue was determined to mimic what she saw on TV.

“Every instrument I wanted to play, it started with a visual concept,” she explains. “When I saw the saxophone, it was like, ‘I saw that, I want that.’ I didn’t know what it was like to play it, but I just liked the image of it. And then I saw the bass guitar, and I wanted to play that. It was never sonically. It was always the visual of the instrument. Like: That is a striking image and I want it. I wanted ownership in a way, interaction with that object.”

She jokes that that’s “such a douchey theater school thing to say,” but Hogue is a theater kid at heart. After messing around with various instruments when she was younger, teaching herself guitar and piano and branching out from there, she got heavily involved in musical theater and wound up at Boston University to study acting. It was in Boston that she first started playing in rock bands, but something wasn’t quite connecting.

“I was trying to be this cool Boston angry girl, but it just wasn’t me,” she says. “And I was coming into my sexuality, starting to realize that I was more queer than I thought I was. I started realizing that maybe I’m not just a girl, maybe I’m a girl and a boy or something in between.” That realization was compounded by feeling unsatisfied with not having her input respected by her bandmates, and she ended up having a “whole identity crisis” and moving to Chicago. She spent a year there, where she got involved in stand-up and largely left music on the back-burner.

But songs would sneak into her head, and she’d have no choice but to get them out. “Every once in a while, I’d be so depressed and I’d reach this breaking point where I’d hear a song and I would have a two-day-long hole where I’d just produce it,” she says. It was after she was fired from a job at a novelty spy restaurant, working as an actor, when she wrote “Heels.” She splat it out all in one go and, after passing it around to a few friends, realized she might have finally hit on something that felt right. With that song in her back pocket, she moved home to New Hampshire and it was in her childhood house where she wrote the majority of the songs for Crush On Me.

It’s an incredible debut, bursting with hooks and life and impressive flights of fancy. There’s Sleigh Bells-like blast beats and mini-orchestral flourishes, and all her many forms are grounded by Hogue’s powerhouse of a voice. It’s that instrument which she’s most proud of and has put the most work into perfecting. She’s a professionally trained vocalist, something she thinks is lacking in a lot of pop music nowadays, and she uses that training to dramatic effect. Many of these songs live and die by the control that Hogue has over her voice — the ability to match these towering songs with an equally towering voice.

Her music is high-concept and high payoff, and she’s eager to use her creativity in as many ways as possible. Crush On Me is largely a solitary work — Hogue produced it and played everything herself — but her goal with Sir Babygirl is to open it up to a wide variety of outside influences.

“I like self-sufficiency and I like control, but I also think that collaboration is so fucking important,” she says. “I’m not interested in being this reclusive auteur who aggressively does everything to a fault and lives in a vacuum. Coming from this theater background, I’m a sucker for ensemble work, so I love seeing what someone else can do.” For now, though, Crush On Me is enough — an introduction to a powerful pop music force.

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Crush On Me is out 2/15 via Father/Daughter Records. Pre-order it here.

Tags: Sir Babygirl