This place used to be a big part of Nandi Rose Plunkett’s life. This is where her life happened. Nearby, that’s where she lived as a young, hungry artist, fresh out of college and newly transplanted to the city. We pass a giant enclosed lot crammed with the tour buses you see crawling the streets of Manhattan, and it’s a few blocks from her old rehearsal space. At the time, maybe it felt like the beginning of things. But as time passes, it was just one of many beginnings, one place in a life of disparate locales and identities for Plunkett, each one giving her a new chapter to parse, to dissect and figure out how it’s shaped her.
We’re walking around Gowanus, the ostensibly industrial Brooklyn neighborhood known for its infamously gross canal, now punctured by signals of its gentrification like bougie beer halls where you might find 30-something parents sharing craft brews with a stroller next to their table. At the beginning of the decade, this was Plunkett’s territory, in a completely different phase of her life. She’s chosen to meet at an old haunt of hers, a bar where she wants to play darts — which she would’ve destroyed me at, but we forget to play entirely.
A conversation with Plunkett is guaranteed to be a reflective experience. Especially when discussing her stunning new album Lavender, which traces all the pathways that led to here while also feeling like the introduction to what her project Half Waif could really be. The true, fully-formed arrival at the end of one searching journey and the opening of another.
Last year, Plunkett relocated to Chatham, NY, a small town about two and a half hours from the city. Like a lot of musicians of her generation, Plunkett’s gravitated towards a different life: semi-seclusion in near-rural suburbia, a simpler but mostly less expensive way to exist as an artist full time than in America’s major urban centers. Lavender was born in transit, on tour and from the present and the past, and was completed in those more bucolic, removed surroundings. When Plunkett and I settle into a booth in this Gowanus bar, she is merely in transit again — a quick stopover at an old home between her current home and the beginning of another tour.
“For me, Lavender as a whole feels like a refining,” Plunkett says. “Honing my ability as a producer and arranger, but also lyrically.” It is her third full-length as Half Waif, and there’s something in the air around it that she appears to recognize, too. There were great moments on past Half Waif outings — the push-pull synth-pop currents of “The Operator,” which kicked off her 2014 debut Kotekan, or the elusive chorus melody of “Tactilian,” which closed its 2016 successor Probable Depths — but more attention began to percolate around last year’s EP, form/a.
There was a different level of assuredness on display there, sharp-yet-strange melodies and clever songwriting twists and lyrical gravity perfectly balanced on standouts like “Severed Logic” and “Frost Burn.” And the growth that was evident across those earlier releases has blossomed into something else entirely on Lavender. The album has already garnered more attention for Half Waif than any preceding release, and for good reason: Plunkett’s assertion is correct. It’s her strongest collection of songs to date, a deeply personal and emotive album that can burrow deep into your being and linger with you for a long time.
Along the way, there have been continuing themes in Plunkett’s songwriting. Much of it boils down to identity: Plunkett’s family comes from two very disparate backgrounds, one an Indian refugee lineage eventually settled in England, one a Northeast American strain. There is duality at her core, and many of her songs try to reconcile that, moving their fingers along the fault lines between familial connection and the distance from home and the people you love that comes with being a traveling musician, between the anxiety and fear and doubt that her parents’ divorce produced regarding relationships and her own long-term partnership with her bandmate, drummer Zack Levine. On Lavender, all these narratives are still at play, but they collide and clarify each other in new ways.
It’s the result of a steady progression that has unfolded for Half Waif over these last six years, but Plunkett’s life as a musician began well before that. “It just seems this was an inevitable thing, looking back on my life,” Plunkett muses. “I couldn’t have done anything else, it wasn’t as if I even had a choice.” She jokes that her first performance happened when she was three years old at an aunt’s wedding: After awakening from a nap during the ceremony to discover her older sister singing as planned, the young Plunkett wanted in on it and stormed the stage to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” “It’s funny, because I’ve since developed a lot of stage fright,” she laughs after relaying the early childhood anecdote.
Plunkett came from a musical clan — she refers to her father as the “bard” who would organize big singalongs when his side of the family got together. There were instruments around the house, waiting to be explored. When her parents divorced, she was 14 and had just begun actually considering herself a songwriter; one of her first compositions from that time, during which she used music as a vessel for processing loneliness, was called “From A Broken House.”
A few years later, she found herself in college studying music. For a time, she was pulled between two worlds. After years of writing her own music, there was a nagging dissatisfaction. “[Songs] poured out of me, I would sit at the piano and songs would come out,” Plunkett remembers. “I had this moment in college when I realized the songs I was writing in that way were not the kind of music I wanted to listen to. It wasn’t edited, and I think it provided catharsis but it wasn’t music I was proud of sharing.” As a result, her ambitions at the time leaned more towards the contemporary classical world than the pop sphere.
You can still hear Plunkett’s classical training — all the way from childhood piano lessons to formal vocal instruction during college — in her music today. It’s one facet that sets her apart. Her vocal melodies often move in surprising directions, a result of pop and classical mingling with the Celtic folk melodies that might just be in her bloodstream. Spare and ruminative Lavender tracks like “In The Evening” or “Back In Brooklyn” betray a dexterity, both in where Plunkett can take her voice and in how she approaches keyed instruments and accompanying arrangements. (The former track has a part where Plunkett’s delivery sounds almost operatic.)
But before that, she did choose the indie world. She may have started a classical singing group during college, but the direction she followed was joining a band called Pinegrove and subsequently moving to New York upon graduating, back in the beginning of the ’10s, to pursue the project full time. (Pinegrove is currently on hiatus after its primary songwriter/frontman, Evan Stephens Hall, issued a lengthy statement about being accused of sexual coercion. It’s a matter that, despite no longer being a member, Plunkett has commented on before, but she declines to speak further on the subject.)
Plunkett often fondly recalls those times of the band coming together and later finding popularity in the indie landscape — it is, after all, how she met Levine as well as her bassist/guitarist Adan Carlo. (The latter is now a full-time Half Waif member and no longer in Pinegrove.) Yet along the way, there was something starting to eat away at her as well. “It was a heavier band than I had anticipated in terms of live performance, and I felt like my voice was kind of lost,” she explains. “Like, physically and sonically hard to hear in those DIY spaces with no monitors. I was kind of forced to find my own voice again and develop my own project. Because if I felt I wasn’t being represented fully in this ensemble, I had to create that for myself. So when we all lived together in Brooklyn in 2011, I started Half Waif in my bedroom as an outlet.”
With Pinegrove being a band in which several side projects flourished, Half Waif co-existed with it for years. It wasn’t uncommon to see Plunkett’s solo work during that time compared to Kate Bush — somewhat of a stereotype when it comes to ethereal, synth-driven music made by a woman, but also not an unfair antecedent. (Plunkett admits that she’s actually not deeply familiar with Bush’s catalog, and jokes that she can’t allow herself a Kate Bush phase for fear that if people hear it all over her music now, who knows what would happen then.) Even as she’s carved out her own space, you can hear some other echoes in her work: Her voice and melodic sensibility sometimes recall St. Vincent, but delivered over music that’s almost like a softer and more human Radiohead.
(The latter was actually a formative influence for a young Plunkett, who received burned CDs of Kid A and Amnesiac that helped inspire her songwriting ambitions. “What really resonated with me about their music is that the songs are so good, it’s songwriting at its core,” she says. “And yet it’s bolstered by very intriguing and textural and unique sound worlds. That, in a nutshell, is what I try to do.”)
Last year, Plunkett left Pinegrove to focus solely on Half Waif. Around the same time, she penned an essay for Esquire titled “Don’t Call Me The Girl In The Band,” a more-than-deservedly frustrated missive on the music community’s deep-sewn sexism and her own encounters with it. As Plunkett pointed out, she was often playing keys and auxiliary percussion while also singing in Pinegrove, but being a multi-instrumentalist didn’t stave off internet trolls claiming that “The girl is beautiful and has a nice voice, but she doesn’t do anything for the band.”
“[Half Waif was partially about] wanting to prove myself and sometimes feeling like, as a woman, you have to prove yourself in so many ways,” Plunkett says. At another point in the conversation, she says the impetus was to prove she could do it all — like Grimes on Art Angels, write and produce and play every instrument.
Connected to the imbalances tipped unfairly for women in the music industry, part of Plunkett wishes that the growing acknowledgement of Half Waif had picked up when she was a little younger. We talk about how the industry, and the media, can fetishize a brilliant debut from a new, young artist, especially a young woman, thanks to how our culture generally fetishizes youth and especially prizes youth in women. It’s easy to sympathize with an anxiety that could fester from that artistic impulse to be a wunderkind, to be celebrated at the very beginning of your career, vs. the slightly less hooky narrative of “It’s been six or seven years and Plunkett’s project is better than ever.”
Consequently, she appears to have a slightly mixed reaction to her earlier work. “Part of me listens back to what I did five, six years ago, and it’s like ‘Ugh, why is that public?’ Why does the public have access to my growth?” she says. “That’s shaming, on one hand. On the other, that’s entirely human. I’m really proud of the fact that you can hear growth in this project and that it is public. I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to fall into those dark pits of self-doubt and shame. I want to celebrate the fact that it’s a hard industry and I’ve done it because I love writing music. I’m really grateful that people are listening now, and it’s OK that it didn’t happen when I was 22, because I think I have more to say now that I’m 29 than I did when I was 22.”
Of course, all of that was necessary, not just because there on songs on Kotekan and Probable Depths that should be out in the world, but because they do allow you to see the growth, the arc, that gives Lavender its impressive weight. Half Waif has always been a synth-based project, with earlier songs occasionally operating in a more straightforward synth-pop mode, or in lurching experimental forms. What makes Lavender musically striking is that there are so many songs that feel almost diffuse initially. They move like wind, beginning to wrap their way around you, until an emphatic moment — a cutting lyric, a beat change, a particularly beautiful synth motif — locks you in before letting you drift out again.
The cumulative effect is a dreamlike logic appropriate for the interior concerns Plunkett is cataloguing, grief and memory and the impossible feat of truly knowing another person and truly allowing another person to know you. Songs often begin and end in strange places, in media res or feeling like there should be one more chorus rather than an ellipsis. Over several listens, it all makes sense. The music lulls you in, gives you space to examine your own experiences as Plunkett shares hers, while giving you concrete placeholders as guides on an album that can take you out to sea emotionally — conversational and precise, yet also impressionistic and enigmatic.
The impact of these compositions is also partially attributable to Plunkett’s newfound focus on the stories she was telling. “I spent more time and reconnected with what it means to write lyrics,” she explains. “For a while, when I listened to new music I was more enticed by the melody or production.” She cites some of her peers, like her one-time tourmate Julien Baker, as reawakening this part of her songwriting. “It was very inspiring to see this musician … [whose work] can be confessional and vulnerable and naked and poetic and obscured,” she remembers. “I think finding the balance between those things was something I was trying to do more on this record.”
This dovetails with some of the aesthetic songwriting decisions Plunkett made this time around, too. In the past, Plunkett felt like you had “to be dense in order to be serious, that you needed the layers to be saying something worth saying.” On Lavender, especially songs like “Back In Brooklyn” or “Leveler,” she’s realized that stripping it back, allowing her voice and piano-playing to shine, can be just as powerful as a bigger, more dramatic sound. She wanted equity between her roots, that piano-based and lyrics-forward singer-songwriter tradition, and where she’d gone, the more “experimental and textured soundscapes.”
“I think going forward, I want to continue to embrace both sides,” she says. “I think in dualities a lot.” She pulls up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo on her upper arm, her namesake rose rendered both like a realistic flower and a geometric design. “It’s the two sides of myself,” she explains. “One is abstract and organic and creative, and the other wants to impose hard lines and order.” That’s a particular tension, between artistic expression and mathematical musical understanding. Many of the songs on Lavender are so impactful because Plunkett often does manage to find that balance.
It’s a balance that’s hard-fought, however. Narratively, Lavender is an album that gets very, very real. Some of the strands Plunkett has explored or discussed before reach conclusions, or pivotal turning points, with this set of compositions. Her grandmother, with whom she’d had a very deep connection, was close to dying as she was writing Lavender. Its opening track, “Lavender Burning,” and its title, are a reference to the fact that her grandmother used to burn the titular plant in her house; the album opens with a conflict, Plunkett visiting her grandmother in England close to the end of the latter’s life, yet also pining for her life back in New York, torn between the two.
Grief hangs over much of the album in different forms. “I’m gonna find a way to see you again/ I’ll take the last train/ I’ll make it in time/ I’ll be holding your hand/ While you’re leaving your mind,” Plunkett sings on “Leveler.” She stretches the last word out into a ghostly cry, the song weaving into a mournful yet pacifying outro of voice and synth notes fading into the distance.
The death of Plunkett’s grandmother isn’t the only loss that pervades Lavender. “Solid 2 Void” once more returns to the topic of her parents’ divorce and the division that inscribed upon her at a young age. “I’ve had enough of this apocalypse,” she sings at the beginning, as if trying to dismiss this anchor once and for all.
But it, too, has ripple effects throughout the album. Some of Lavender’s most affecting songs are when Plunkett writes about relationships. They come from a complicated perspective, a person in a happy and committed partnership not detailing romantic travails or woes, but questioning the basic implausibility of two people being able to love and support each other for an entire lifetime. Interrogating the perspective on relationships she inherited at a young age against finding happiness in her 20s, interrogating the battle between being an artist constantly plumbing existential depths while also seeking stability.
“I think it’d be hard to be doing a deep excavation of issues in a partnership when you’re living with and playing with a partner. There’s an element of being too seen,” Plunkett says of this corner of her songwriting. “I think because there’s this deep level of trust and stability in our relationship, I am able to then explore not necessarily what’s wrong with our relationship, but relationships in general. So it’s not like I have a bad relationship and I’m looking at this, it’s more like, ‘What does it mean to be in a relationship?’”
Lavender’s gut-punch lead single and standout “Keep It Out” approached these ideas with nuance, mulling over relationship anxieties in a manner not so common in pop music. It is unsexy because there’s no big tumultuous drama — instead, it is paralyzed and questioning, depicting the slow, encroaching distance that can simmer between two people supposedly closer than any others. The plaintive “In The Evening” might hit even harder, thanks to the gradual way in which Plunkett pulls out the words, addressing a partner and demanding to maintain her own life:
Don’t expect me to come home in the evening
You know that I’m trying to face the night
There is something to be learned from the hue
Of the sky when it loses all its light
In the morning, there’ll be tea and coffee
And milk just the way you like
And we’ll go back to the same old story
We know we can’t divide
Plunkett talks of how her songwriting functions as giving her a box to put these thoughts and emotions in, to give it a shape so it could be examined and, perhaps, figured out. One of the reasons the results are so leveling on Lavender, so cerebral and disorienting while also being so deeply empathetic, is that all of Plunkett’s favored themes collapse together.
“Torches” might seem like a long-distance relationship flare-up at first, but it was written while Plunkett was on tour in Texas upon the election of Trump. It moves from a furious meditation on the American landscape to a futile conversation between the narrator and friends back home, as the former’s life continues to take her further and further away from normal routine, being present with others. There are lines that invite multiple interpretations — “Leveler” could be about saying goodbye to a person at the end of a relationship or at the end of their life, the opening lyrics of “Solid 2 Void” could reference any number of apocalypses, “Back In Brooklyn” is similar to “Torches” in that it’s about growing estranged from friends but could fit right alongside the relationship songs of the album.
“I think there are some of the same themes, and maybe those will be my stories,” Plunkett says of returning to this ground on Lavender. “We wrap ourselves up in our stories, and sometimes those stories don’t serve us anymore or there are things that we tell ourselves about our lives. I don’t want to necessarily perpetuate those themes in my life. I want to overcome perpetual feelings of self-doubt but there are some other things — this is the way I identify with myself and how I interact with the world and the best I can do I think is bring the lens of the telescope in closer and closer and focus in on new details.”
All of this may make it seem as if Lavender is a heavy, sad album. And while it may certainly be the former and sound like the latter, there is some degree of resolution. That growing older and gaining perspective may give you the tools to, if not erase your past and exhume your demons, at least learn to keep moving without being weighed down by them.
“Each time I come back to [these themes], there’s new perspective,” Plunkett says. “I don’t seek to necessarily eliminate it, I seek to illuminate new aspects of it.”
“By illuminating it, are you making peace with it?” I ask.
“Co-existing, I guess,” she responds. “This is my story and my journey and these are things I’m grappling with, and yeah, how do I take control of that narrative rather than letting it control me.”
The album, after all, is named for a plant that supposedly has healing properties. A plant that Plunkett’s grandmother burned in, as she believes, a cleansing ritual for her home. Absence dominates Lavender: the mortality of family and family structures, the geographical and psychological chasms that can yawn open between friends and partners. But there’s presence there to counter it, a song like “Lavender Burning” as much a song of tribute as it is grief-stricken, as much a reminiscence for a person who is no longer here as it is a tangible representation that keeps them here. Those complexities weren’t always clear in Plunkett’s music before. Now, there’s something enduring and evocative in how raw she is willing to get in these confessions, but the fact that she locates healing, locates the moment any of us may encounter, when we need to accept the foundations of our own lives and the decisions we’re going to make, or not make, as a result.
That’s a fitting thread for an album where an artist is fully realizing herself. There’s a universality to those stories, of sifting through where we came from and how it formed us, and in turn the ramifications that has on our perceptions and relationships in the present, as we age. Plunkett has been working on that all along, making sense of identity from different sources. Yet while Plunkett may have achieved a new clarity on Lavender, these aren’t processes that ever truly end, or ones that she’d want to end.
“It’s sort of about shedding identities,” she says of the track “Salt Candy,” but also unintentionally capturing what makes Lavender resonate so profoundly and wholly. “There’s a certain amount of fear or apprehension about losing parts of yourself you were connected to, but there’s also this huge relief. ‘I don’t need to carry that anymore, or I understand that now, or: I can carry that and not feel so burdened.’ Our culture is so focused on youth. No, I want to have a life that blossoms. I want to have a life that opens up. I want to discard old selves. And get new ones.”