by Lena Nelson
Half Waif is the ongoing project of Nandi Rose Plunkett who is also a member of the New Jersey band Pinegrove. Her ethereal and complex songs bring to mind an underwater impressionist painting, and her often haunting melodies pierce in their emotional intensity. Zach Levine and Adan Carlo, both also members of Pinegrove, play drums and bass respectively in Half Waif. Recently, Rare Candy had the opportunity to ask Nandi some questions about songwriting, identity, and the place of music in times of political struggle.
RARE CANDY: Your music is fascinating to me. I’ve learned about music mostly informally—going to shows, listening to my parents’ favorite albums, hours on Bandcamp, etc. —but I’ve also studied a bit of music history, and your music as Half Waif seems to draw from many different canons. Just listening to “Severed Logic” I hear multiple cultures and generations at play. What do you feel like you’re consciously drawing on? Going back and listening to your finished work, what do you feel unconsciously also slipped in?
HALF WAIF: I feel like whenever I try to consciously weave something into my music, I never really stick to it. Like, I’ll say to myself, “I love how open James Blake’s arrangements are, how he uses such minimal sounds to such great effect.” And then when I start arranging with that in mind I’ll end up filling in all the spaces anyway. So I think consciously, the only thing I know how to do is follow this sort of thread of myself, wherever it takes me. But I’m glad to hear that you experience different cultures and historical references in the music – I wonder if because I’ve steeped myself in different genres throughout my life, from musical theater in high school to the works of impressionist composers in college, those familiar elements trickle into the cracks or perhaps fuse together to create a kind of mosaic. At the end of the day, I’m constantly hunting for new music and new sounds and don’t really look back too much. So I think the influences, whatever they might be, flutter and shift quickly throughout the music.
RC: On your website you talk about identity and home. If you feel comfortable, I’d love to know a little more about this.
HALF WAIF: I was just writing about this in my journal today: the way we create our identity and how it seems to be comprised of many selves that take shape through experience. These selves start out as soft parts of us, then become hard and solid as we confront new situations that define us. Visually, I imagine that we all start out as lumps that continue to gain hard angles as we grow, until we acquire the form we’re in now. The idea of giving concrete form to ephemeral ideas/notions is something I explore a lot in my new EP, form/a. I realized recently that this search of identity and home that consumes me is a passed down to me through the women in my family. My grandmother lived through the British Partition and had to leave her home in Lahore when it became Pakistan, and then years later, my grandmother and mother and their family were forced to leave their home in Uganda when Idi Amin took power and expelled all the Indians. So my granny was a refugee twice and my mother became one too. Lahore, my granny’s home, suddenly took on a new form when it became Pakistan, yet it was still the same physical space, still the same landscape. This transmutability of homes fascinates me – how we ascribe meaning to places and make homes of things, when we are, by design, transient beings and nothing belongs to us.
RC: Within the context of our current political climate in the US, do you feel like these questions of identity and place have been made political?
HALF WAIF: Absolutely. The aggressively nationalist agenda of the new administration is terrifying and seems to address and benefit only a tiny fraction of our population. We’re suddenly being told that to be an American is to be one certain way; primarily, white. This isn’t new, of course, but now the folks in the highest levels of government are enacting policies that are trying to shape the country based around that one identity. Building a wall to keep out Mexicans. Encouraging the deportation of immigrants. Prioritizing the agenda of squashing anti-police sentiments without recognizing the very real dangers that are posed to African-Americans every day. And it’s just baffling because obviously so much of this country is made up of intercultural communities! It’s not America without them! And yet millions are being forced to question their identity as American citizens and the rights that have been given to them.
RC: In your opinion, what is the place of politics in music? Do you personally feel that as an artist you have a role to play in our political universe?
HALF WAIF: After Trump was elected, my first thought was, “well, how can I go on doing music now? Nothing matters except our efforts to combat this oppressor and protect those who need protection most.” I was on a Pinegrove tour and felt really confused about what I was doing. But in talking to my bandmates and other artists, it’s become clear that music is an important activity, now especially, because it has such a unique capacity to connect diverse audiences. Music is also something people turn to when they seek to be soothed, inspired, nourished, motivated, quieted. It can be a lifeboat, a receptacle for fears and dreams, a rocket to a faraway place. So I think even without having overtly political lyrics, music can play a role in the political realm by traversing the space beyond words and reaching deep into people, thus becoming a positive force in building and sustaining communities.
RC: You are also a member of Pinegrove, a band all of us at Rare Candy are big fans of. We have some writers from the Montclair area who have followed the band for a long time, and we’ve all been impressed (but of course not surprised) by how much success you all have had recently. What do you think makes Pinegrove’s music so appealing to so many folks?
HALF WAIF: Evan’s songs are remarkable because they are both direct and serpentine. They’re direct in their narration, their self-awareness, but his use of language is beautifully twisted. I think the sentiments resonate with a lot of people, particularly youth because they deal with themes of growing into adulthood and finding your place in the world. And then the way he describes this is so unique and exciting. It’s always exciting to see someone take familiar elements and devise their own language, and that’s what I aim to do too, though more with the sounds and song structures than with the lyrics.
RC: Evan shared a beautiful message about love and caring for one another at the Pinegrove show some Rare Candy folks and I attended at Irving Plaza during the last tour. Do you see venues and music spaces as possible places of resistance/political action? Do you see Half Waif shows as a space for political messages?
HALF WAIF: Without a doubt, music venues are incredibly crucial spaces right now – which is why we really need to fight for DIY spaces that are under attack all across the country. These spaces are typically all-ages, substance-free, and welcoming for people of all genders, races, physicality, religious belief, etc etc. Little slices of utopia, if we allow ourselves to dream that way.
I don’t think musicians need to feel obligated to say something political during their shows, but I do think we have a responsibility to use this platform we’ve been given to connect with people however we can. On the Pinegrove tour, I think Evan did that beautifully. On the ongoing Half Waif tour in Europe, I’m also speaking onstage about the political situation – not in a way that feels forced, but because I am fully enraged and am channeling that into every outlet I possibly can. It’s been amazing to see how much support the resistance movement has all over the world – the way the Women’s March spread to dozens of countries – so there has definitely been a very encouraging vibe. For some people we’re playing for, we’re the only Americans they’re getting to talk to, so I feel a sense of duty in representing our country and explaining the deeply dangerous situation we’re in. “Keep Calm and Carry On!” said one audience member at our show in Manchester last night, after I finished talking, and I shouted back, “No, we can’t keep calm! We have to rise up!”
RC: Do you feel like you've learned certain things from Pinegrove that you've employed in Half Waif’s music? The music is pretty different, but I’m curious where you may see similarities.
HALF WAIF: I hope that listeners find that at the core of the recordings are songs that could exist in a myriad of different settings. Still, in the recording process I’m really excited by arranging and production. And that’s something that Evan and I definitely share: we’re both songwriters, and we talk to each other a lot about how to be effective storytellers. We may go about that in different ways sometimes, but ultimately we share that common ground of wanting to communicate ideas and emotions through a combination of musical tools.
RC: What do you hope for Half Waif in the next year? How is the European tour going already?
HALF WAIF: Half Waif has been growing since February 2012. It’s been a slow growth, and throughout this time I’ve really had to cultivate patience, which hasn’t always been easy! But it’s given me a chance to refine my songwriting (which is obviously an ongoing process), think a little more critically about what I’m writing, how I want to communicate, and now I feel ready for more people to hear it. We’re blessed to be working with a great team for the first time who are helping us share the music, so I hope that we can continue to tour and reach new people this year. It’s a simple goal, but it’s one I’ve been working at for a long time.
We’re early on in our Europe tour at the moment, but our first few shows have been so fun. I still can’t believe we’re getting to play these songs for audiences overseas! And that people are actually coming to see us! It’s weird to be here with so much going on back home, but we’re seeing this as an opportunity to talk to people and spread a message that we’re out here not just to share our music but also to reaffirm our commitment to being forces for positive change in this world. Every day, we’re trying to flex our political muscles to remind ourselves that even though we may feel small and hopeless, we do have power as individuals, and all of that individual power combines to make a mighty force.
LISTEN TO HALF WAIF: https://halfwaif.bandcamp.com