Inside the making of the enigmatic artist's new album Heart Shaped Bed
Lately, Nicole Dollanganger has been spending a lot of time in abandoned love motels. In March of this year, she released five tracks from her forthcoming album, Heart Shaped Bed — her first full-length record since Natural Born Losers, the 2015 breakout that brought her to the attention of Grimes. Soon after, she departed for the Poconos, ancestral homeland of the honeymoon resort, to film a handful of music video with Grimes’ brother, director Mac Boucher.
“I went there assuming it was still this land of love,” Dollanganger, 27, told me on a scorching summer afternoon in New York, just a few days after she finished the video shoot. But when she arrived, she found the area hollowed-out and in disrepair: “A lot of the abandoned resorts developed weird reputations of being, like, unsavory swingers’ joints, and it developed a seedy reputation so they all shut down,” she explained. The viscera of the motels’ previous tenants still litter the rooms — keys; customer complaint forms; dangling bits of tinsel. She eagerly dove in, collecting these memento mori as if they were evidence or forgotten relics.
“She could probably be Indiana Jones in another universe,” said Boucher.
Though the Poconos were not quite what Dollanganger expected, somehow, what she found in rural Pennsylvania was even better. “It had this weird Sleepy Hollow meets dystopian Las Vegas kind of vibe,” Boucher told me. “Everything is love-based, but it’s broken down and destroyed, which is one of the coolest paradoxes that you can find.”
Heart Shaped Bed was already about the ugly, fucked-up, dark parts of love; standing there, amid the ruins of the honeymoon resorts, Dollanganger thought there was more she could do with the unreleased second half of the album. And then she started working on it again.
“There’s no more obvious metaphor for a bad relationship or a doomed relationship than an abandoned honeymoon resort,” Dollanganger explained. (“It felt like we were walking into the record,” Matthew Tomasi, her frequent collaborator, told me.) A recurring theme on Heart Shaped Bed, she said, is how a person’s sense of individual identity can become blurred inside a relationship. “Some of the songs, though they were still love songs, were almost me trying to reclaim personal identity. After the Poconos, I could still feel that, but it just became a bigger scope.”
Dollanganger was staying in Newark, New Jersey, where she and her keyboard set up shop in a rented apartment to continue writing. Through her publicist, I had asked if there was anything she wanted to do while she was in, or near, New York; her manager had suggested Ellen’s Stardust Diner, in Times Square. Before even looking it up, I said yes: I, like Nicole, really love a diner.
But Ellen’s Stardust Diner is not really a diner. At Ellen’s Stardust, the Broadway-hopeful wait staff belts out show tunes and dances across tables while patrons of varying degrees of patience try to eat their all-day breakfast. (For me, a grilled cheese; for Dollanganger, an egg sandwich.) Occasionally, our conversation was punctuated by such musical interludes: the dramatic finale of “A Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific; the fateful meeting of Anna and Prince Hans during “Love Is An Open Door” from Frozen; and also the song from High School Musical.
Heart Shaped Bed, out today, is Dollanganger’s sixth record. (Despite the fitting title, it’s named not for the literal heart-shaped beds found at honeymoon resorts, but for its association with “one of the most expensive, rare items” on Neopets.) In the art for the album’s lead single “Lemonade,” Dollanganger appears bathed in a blue glow, gazing back over her shoulder. Her eyes are rimmed with black, her hair a long blonde wig.
All year, she’s been posting similar photos, taken from various love motels, to her Instagram, an immaculately curated feed of retro slip dresses and heart-shaped bathtubs that creates a vivid visual world for Heart Shaped Bed. When we met, though, she wore a simple black dress with a sheer kimono, a velvet headband holding back her hair. She texts with flourishes of emojis — the flower bouquet and the deep red heart — and exclamation points. She’s generous and open, frequently turning the conversation back to me.
Dollanganger grew up in Stouffville, Ontario, a small town an hour outside Toronto that she described as half-farmland, half-suburbs, where she started going to hardcore shows in high school. After graduating, she attended film school for a couple years — and adopted the Dollanganger name, borrowed from a series by her favorite writer, VC Andrews — but dropped out when she was diagnosed with an eating disorder in her early twenties. While in recovery, much of which was spent on bed rest, she started furiously writing and recording her own songs. She uploaded a few to her Tumblr and then to Bandcamp, where they found a small but fervent audience.
Dollanganger wrote relentlessly: By the time her music came to the attention of Grimes three years ago, she had already put out four albums. She never returned to film school, but her love of film — especially horror — still girds her work. In the Poconos, she and Boucher tried to capture the violence of a horror film without being exploitative: “How do you do that in a way that’s not going to be triggering or offensive or turn people off, but is an add to the beauty of it, while still being true?” Boucher wondered.
As the myth goes, Grimes heard “You’re So Cool,” the closing track of Natural Born Losers, and decided to launch Eerie, the label-cum-music collective, in order to put out the album. “It’s a crime against humanity for this music not to be heard,” she said at the time. (Dollanganger remains Eerie’s only musician.) Where Dollanganger’s previous bedroom recordings had been almost diaristic in their intimacy — her voice and a quietly plucked guitar — Natural Born Losers dispensed wholly with the twee edge of her early work, replacing it with the thrum of slide guitars, distorted electric chords, and looped vocals lushly illustrating images of sexual violence and rural poverty.
At the same time, Grimes selected Dollanganger to open for her on the Rhinestone Cowgirls tour in support of 2016’s Art Angels. It was Dollanganger’s first foray into playing live, and she recruited her longtime friends Tomasi and Kevin Jenkins to accompany her. I saw them play at Montreal’s Metropolis in November 2015: Dollanganger stood center stage, dressed in a black three-quarter sleeve dress and fingerless gloves and backed by two big dudes with hair obscuring their faces. (Tomasi pulled double duty as guitarist and drummer; Jenkins played bass.) They covered Type O Negative. The juxtaposition between her delicate voice and the otherwise metal look and feel, as pointed out in reviews at the time, was irresistible.
Shy and withdrawn, Dollanganger didn’t immediately take to being on the road. She battled stage fright, often needing a drink to prevent her hands from shaking as she held the microphone, and strained her voice, naturally breathy and soft, against the backing of a full band. She slept in shady motels with a bunch of men. “Just, like, rough living,” she told me. “It was basically all my fears happening at once.”
It wasn’t without its benefits, though. “Everyone that I’ve toured with, they’ve all been very experienced, so they’ve all had great advice, but especially [Grimes], because she is a powerhouse, she works alone, she’s just doing her thing,” Dollanganger said. “There were a few times when I was just really struggling on the road or whatever and she was just really great with bringing me back to reality that this can’t always be perfect and that’s not what it’s about.” (“Claire respects how hard it is being a solo female artist,” Dollanganger told The Fader in 2015, shortly before the Rhinestone Cowgirls tour.) They’ve stayed in touch, occasionally exchanging music, and Grimes’ brother, whom she met during a show in Toronto, offered to help her shape the visual landscape of Heart Shaped Bed.
After Rhinestone Cowgirls, Dollanganger kept touring, playing with (Sandy) Alex G, Elvis Depressedly, and Teen Suicide, and hardcore outfits Code Orange and Free At Last. And when she wasn’t touring, she was planning for touring. “It consumed everything,” she told me, adding that she found it challenging to write while on the road. She put out the odd single — “Chapel,” “Beautiful & Bad,” “Have You Seen Me?” — but this was practically radio silence compared with the record-a-year pace she had maintained when she started out.
Eventually, she had to go back home, back to Stouffville — and she had to start writing again. Touring “changed everything,” Dollanganger told me. (We paused for a minute as our waiter stepped on stage to perform “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton.) “It was almost like I had to relearn how to make music,” she went on. “When I got home, I would be writing songs and I would just be like, ‘I can’t play this live.’ I went from someone who felt very — almost to an extreme degree — I’ll just say whatever. I felt very free. Coming home from touring and that exposure, I suddenly felt like I lost that inhibition.” She found herself critiquing her work before she could even finish getting the song down on paper, trying to forecast how it would be received by a theoretical audience.
Here, a waitress belted out the Phantom Of The Opera theme, briefly pausing our conversation. We decided we had to leave. We paid the bill and packed up what remained of our lunch, high-tailing it down towards Broadway as a waiter singing “Zoot Suit Riot” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies — connection to Broadway unclear — bore down behind us, practically chasing us out the door. Outside, it was one of those days where you could practically see the heat rising off the pavement; even midtown Manhattan felt suppressed, quieter, its energy sweated out. We walked a few blocks north, towards Central Park, where we found a shaded patch, the sun unremitting. A pair of dogs frolicked nearby; at one point, a pair of tourists asked Dollanganger to take a photo for them.
After the success of Natural Born Losers, she thought perhaps she could replicate it — “There was a lot of conversation about the creepy-cute, and I felt a lot of pressure to deliver something that would be gross but not,” she said — but it came out contrived. It wasn’t just that she was second-guessing how her music would be received; she was also trying to suppress her impulse to write love songs. Dollanganger simply did not want to write another love record. (The first was Ode To Dawn Wiener: Embarrassing Love Songs, in 2013.) She wrote, and discarded, hundreds of songs, wrote entire records she would never put out. She tried not to write another love record. But, eventually, that’s what came out. “I don’t think we super get to choose these things,” she said, describing Heart Shaped Bed as “the darker side” of the previous record.
There was no one moment where Dollanganger found herself writing freely again — it’s still hard, she said. But a producer friend, Arthur Rizk, who she met in March around the time of an early scouting mission to the Poconos and who helped produce three tracks on Heart Shaped Bed — “Chapel,” “Snake,” and “Lacrymaria Olor” — offered her some particularly valuable advice: “You don’t second-guess yourself; you just keep going with it,” she quoted. “At the end of the day, if the song is finished and you don’t like it, that’s fine.”
Heart Shaped Bed started to come into focus last August. Dollanganger and a handful of other musicians, including Tomasi, set up camp in an abandoned elementary school, where they spent two weeks honing her demos and writing new songs.
“I didn’t fare very well,” she recalled. “For me, music has to be very personal, very self-contained.”
A couple relics from that session made it onto the completed record: the piano parts in “Uncle” and “Lemonade”; some slide guitar and piano in “Lacrymaria Olor.” One night during that period, Dollanganger couldn’t sleep. It was early morning, maybe two or three, and she crept away to write. “It just kind of spilled out of me at this weird hour,” she said. The song was “Tammy Faye,” which she later re-recorded in Tomasi’s studio. “For me, the songs that happen like that,” she said, “They speak to me the most.”
After the elementary school, Dollanganger and Tomasi continued working on the songs they had demoed in his basement studio. “When I got home and I was listening, I was like, ‘OK, I know I feel good about these songs, it’s more like the delivery of them that doesn’t feel right,'” she said. “When we started working on it and I could be fully producing and everything, that was when I was like, this is it.”
So here’s what this is: Heart Shaped Bed, with its recurring images of ambivalent marriages, incest, and the big and small violences that can be found inside romantic relationships, depicts the ugliness that can accompany such intimacy with another person. But in looking so deeply, so unflinchingly into the ugliness, it peers through to the other side. And over there, it’s beautiful. “Make something gross feel romantic,” Dollanganger instructs on the title track, urging her lover to take her to a love motel where they can enact their own fantasy world. “The sign says, ‘Heaven waits on the other side.'”
If the first five tracks — the sampler songs, “Uncle” through “Heart Shaped Bed” — describe a bleak landscape of broken love (“I will always come to you when I’m weak and empty,” she chants on “Uncle,” named for a lost VC Andrews short story called “I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night.”) Then the second five songs form the album’s sunken underworld. Heart Shaped Bedcloses with “Lacrymaria Olor,” a song named for a bloodthirsty little single-celled organism known colloquially as a “swan’s tear.” The song begins and ends with a piercing, unearthly wail, Dollanganger’s own voice pitch-shifted and warped beyond recognition.
She recorded the track at Rizk’s studio in Philadelphia in the fall, and listening back through it, she recognized as the conclusion to Heart Shaped Bed. “There needs to be something on a record that ties everything together, otherwise it’s just a compilation of songs,” Rizk told me, “and I feel like that is definitely the roof.” Tomasi echoed this: “I was like, this is a genius track,” he said. “This is going to be the record closer.”
At first, Dollanganger thought she’d call the song some variation on “Tears Of A Swan” — “tears just falling into the pond are meaningless,” she explained — but first, she did a quick search to make sure that wasn’t something that already existed. She became strangely captivated by the tiny ciliate that, when decapitated, can grow a new head within moments, and she gave the song its name.
It came into strange alignment with the cover art for Heart Shaped Bed. Dollanganger, decapitated, stands on a heart-shaped mattress, paddling her way down the River Styx. Her head, severed from her shoulders, bobs alongside the raft, and she’s in the process of scooping it up with an oar. She’s Ophelia, plucking her own head from the lake.