The first time I heard Half Waif perform “Lavender Burning,” the first track off her newest LP “Lavender,” Nandi Rose Plunkett sang it over the sparse cry of a solitary keyboard, creating a vortex of stillness in the heart of Times Square.
On the album, the song starts similarly with precise, spartan lyrics juxtaposed against open spaces of silence. But its recorded version takes the song to a new level when, on the final verse, the track is suddenly undercut by an explosion of instruments and beats.
This is a progression that defines “Lavender,” an album that oscillates from restraint to abandon, from euphoric free-fall to solid ground, and constantly interrogates the relationship between the two.
It’s no surprise that the album has received a fair amount of press; it seems to beg to be written about. It is the kind of art that seems made to catalyze more art. “Lavender” as a whole feels enchanted; it explores the transition from sound and silence, and it springs from the friction between a desire for freedom and longing for connection and love. I miss New York, but I that’s the loneliest feeling, Plunkett sings on the first track, before repeating, I miss New York—but adding but I don’t wanna think about leaving.
On the frenetic “Lilac House,” Plunkett maps another change of heart, singing I’ve been looking on the bright side for my whole life. Now I’m looking for trouble. But later she questions who she has become after all this changing, asking, Mother, do you recognize your daughter? The departed always returns, and then it goes away again.
“Lavender” is a marked artistic ascension for Half Waif, and it feels like a project that has been steeping for a long time, much like the seminal burning herb that inspired the album’s title. It was recorded in a house in upstate New York. Plunkett had been living in Brooklyn when not touring, a move that inspired the tense indigo-moody piano ballad, “Back in Brooklyn.”
Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth between New York City and upstate New York, and I know there’s something special about the vertigo unleashed by the feeling of leaving the dark and gleaming city for the green north—as if all the city’s chaos and cacophony has suddenly been cast into the light, given liberty to lick its wounds, to begin to regroup and join the flow of nature. “Lavender” embodies that feeling of escape, of release, that heave of relief and simultaneous surprise that comes from leaving New York (or from leaving any sort of home you’ve made), casting off old shells and falling into the unknown. It is at its heart an album about leaving—leaving for the road, leaving lovers, leaving who you used to be—and about returning changed but unable to forget the magnetism and undying legacies of the people and places we have known. And the musical arrangements reflect this, defined by motifs of sonic blooms and contractions, ascensions and plummets. As things—lovers, homes, meanings—are found and then lost again, the music soars to pulsating highs and then collapses into wispy static.
There are so many beautiful moments throughout the album, but my favorite is the one lyric I keep returning to that mark’s the first track’s final verse, the point of almost alchemic transformation from stillness to sound—“burning lavender over the oven.” This is a reference to a practice Plunkett learned from her grandmother Asha. In this instant of revelation, the music explodes with color while the lyrics counter their previous lostness with a small promise of redemption, through a return to the earth, to the magics channeled through things like burning herbs and creating music.
In June, I was lucky enough to get to ask Nandi Rose Plunkett some questions about Lavender (starting with track-by-track questions then expanding to more general ones). Here are her responses:
1. Lavender Burning — What does a ‘strange kind of loving’ look like for you? That line always gets to me because it reminds me of all the little connections and moments of light that are easy to forget in a world that honors vast, dramatic love affairs—and I’d love to know what you were visualizing when you wrote this.
The line first came about because I loved the weird slant rhyme of “oven” and “loving.” It felt odd and domestic and awkward and whole – which I think feels true to a lot of types of love that one might experience in life. As you said, it’s not all grand romance. Love can be quiet and yet full of creaks, in the way that a house shifts and sighs and has its own sounds.
2. Torches — the lyric are there gods in the fields? I’ve never quite been able to hear that lyric properly but that’s what my mind tells me it’s saying, which opens up this whole set of imagery of very surreal, spiritual and strange Americana mythology in my mind. But if it’s something else entirely then I’d be interested to know what it’s actually saying.
“Are these gods in the fields?” – yes, there was a feeling of the Southern gothic in this line, a nod to American literature. Something pagan and holy, yet brimming with terror and hinting at a vast unknown. Flickering flames become personified, giving the elements a magnificent power.
3. Keep It Out — There are a lot of contrasts on this album, from keep it out to keep it in to solid and void—as well as a lot of sonic contrasts. Do you feel like you’re a person who has a lot of contrasts within you, and if so how do you visualize their relationship?
I think so much about contrasts, about the conflicting worlds we contain. The very name ‘Half Waif’ hints at that, as does the tattoo on my arm (a rose: half geometric, half organic). So it’s a theme that comes up a lot for me when I’m writing. In regards to relationship, I never was much of a relationship person growing up – I was more of a loner, the typical songwriter type. I got to know my solitude well and became fortified by it, and then when I found myself in my current relationship – which is serious and strong and fulfilling – that part of me started fading away, or at least shifting. My life feels kind of divided in two, in some ways: being alone, and being in a partnership. I’m learning how to bridge that gap within myself, to reconcile the halves.
4. Lilac House — What kind of trouble are you looking for?
This song was specifically a reaction to being a woman in a man’s world. There is a veneer that’s applied to us from birth by a patriarchal society, an expectation to be a certain way, to appear meek and quiet. Time to chip that away, cause a ruckus, make noise. Being held back behind a glass case is exhausting.
5. In The Evening — Throughout, you mention the night—I feed off the night and I’m afraid of that, you say in Torches, and then later, you know I’m trying not to be afraid of the night. What’s your relationship to darkness and/or nighttime?
I have always been afraid of the dark. When I was a kid, my parents eventually installed a clapper light on the third floor of the house, where the TV was, because I couldn’t go up there alone when it was dark, and they were tired of having to come with me every time. Even now, when I’m alone at home overnight, I have trouble sleeping because of the fear of the darkness. I’ve never been a night owl, never pulled an all-nighter in college, always preferred bright early morning daylight to the opaque screen of near midnight. But in trying to understand both sides of the contrast, I know I need to face it, understand it, absorb it, and come out the other side, back into the day, stronger.
6. Solid 2 Void — You moved to a house in upstate New York to write this album—which I remember you referenced in “Parts” in the line the void of this house. Does that void house figure into this song? What’s your relationship to this void? What was the house like? What was it like to live there —was it haunted, was it disconcertingly quiet, was it warm?
“Void House” was actually a joke my bandmates and I came up with to describe the genre of this album. Void denotes the existential questioning and emotion, while house nods to the electronic nature of the arrangements. I managed to find a way to sneak that into the lyrics of “Parts” – I wrote the lyrics for the bridge while sitting on the porch at night, imagining the husk of the house when we would move out at the end of the summer, at the end of recording the album. Houses and homes are so important to me, and yet what makes them feel warm is the feeling of being inside them. Without human life or presence, they’re just empty vessels. My childhood home was torn down in October, which is also the month we finished recording. There is something very poignant in that dovetailing of events.
7. Silt — This song builds up quite a bit to one of your characteristically complex electronic beats, which I think differentiate you from a lot of indie/folk artists. When did you start writing with electronic instrumentation, and what draws you to it?
I started experimenting with electronics in college, after taking a Computer Music class. After years of just writing with piano and voice, it was so exciting to suddenly have any sound at my fingertips. It’s a lame analogy, but it did feel like expanding my box of paints. I can write/record entire demos in a small room with my computer, the screen opening onto a wide field of sound. When I’m writing a song now, developing the arrangement with synths and beats helps me get the emotion across more wholly. Or I’ll choose to keep it more naked, which is also a tool for conveying emotion. But beyond all that, it is so incredibly fun to move a bunch of sliders and completely change the quality of a basic sine wave, coaxing it into whatever you want it to be.
8. Back in Brooklyn — The piano part here is gorgeous. Nandi, you play keys onstage—when did you start playing piano/synths and what kind of relationship do you have to the instruments? What kind of gear do you use onstage and to write?
I started playing classical piano at age six. After a few years, my parents got me a baby grand piano, which sat in our living room by a big picture window that looked out onto the street and the cemetery across the road. It wasn’t until senior year of college that I got my first synth, a Roland Gaia SH-01. Now, I play a Nord and a Korg Minilogue onstage, and I use those to help me write, along with a Korg Monologue for synth bass parts, and a whole bunch of MIDI synths in Ableton. I also got a Yamaha Reface DX a year and a half ago, when I was beginning to tour more – it has built-in speakers and is battery powered, so I can bring it on the road with me to help me write. It was on that synth that I wrote Lavender Burning, Torches, Parts, and Solid 2 Void.
9. Parts — This song expands from a place of desolation to immense strength. Where do you find this strength in your life? Do you have any mantras, etc. that you use when—as you sing—when worry floods you?
This is a great question. I draw strength first and foremost from singing and writing music. I wrote Parts in a green room in San Francisco, feeling pent up and restless and sad. And there, slumped on the couch in a moment of solitude, I released those feelings, and from that release, there came a song. I also draw strength from my partner and my friends and family. From books. From the animals in the yard. From stretching. From stillness. From my ancestors.
10. Leveler — This is a more logistical question, but I grew up upstate and now live in NYC and just in trying to visualize this. Which way are you taking the last train…back into the city or out of it?
I am taking the train over the ocean to England, where my grandmother lived and died. It is a magic train that traverses the water, a train that you can never miss. In an alternate universe, I was on that train, and I was able to say goodbye.
11. Salt Candy — The arrangement of sounds and instruments in this song work together so beautifully—how do you do the instrumentation for your music? Do you work it out together as a band, or does it get created in pieces in solitude and then shared?
Each song came together in its own way, but generally, I would work on the arrangement on my computer, and then would scurry up to Adan’s room. On his computer, he had the same recording program with the same plug-ins, so we could easily bring the files back and forth. Together with Adan and Zack, we’d listen and wonder about each sound: Does this snare work here? What if we brought in a low synth pad there and did a filter sweep into the chorus? Slowly, the sections would come together, sounds would be replaced or edited until they felt good to all of us. It was like chiseling away at stone until all the angles caught the light in just the right way. Other times, the light was never right, and then we’d have a ceremony where we’d cut that song from the album. “You have been chopped,” we’d say, and strike it from the track listing.
12. Ocean Scope — This last song seems to grapple with emptiness, fixating on the an open road that feels endless. Why did you choose to end the album with this song and with the lyric I don’t want to know how this ends? In the grand scope of things, I know.
This song, plainly, is about death. It felt like the right ending to an album about endings, because we all know how it ends. Very early on in the conception of this album, I knew I wanted this to be the closer, and I knew I wanted it to only have two verses with a long instrumental in between – like water bridging two islands. The song ends on a major chord, with something that feels like, if not resolution, then acceptance.
What inspires you in the natural world (other than lavender)? What about in urban landscapes?
The shifting colors and textures of the sky. Clouds. I get giddy around rainbows. I love to watch birds, and I get especially excited when I spy mammals in the yard (deer, groundhogs, squirrels). In cities, I’m inspired by red brick, sunlight on chrome, and the sight of painted doors.
What kind of headspace and locations do you feel provide the best conduits for your songwriting and creative work?
Space – both mental and physical – is extremely important when getting in the mood to write. I recently reorganized my “office” and the effect was immediate. My keyboard is at the window now, overlooking the yard, so I can see the train going by outside, beyond our green lawn. I write best when I’m alone in the house and no one can hear me. I also tend to write most when I’m feeling somber and solemn – then the music catches me like a net and in my smallness, I feel held and contained.
For me as a listener, the album seems to constantly oscillate between feelings of detachment (and joy at the freedom that this kind of abandon allows) and feelings of desire for connection and homesickness. Was your intention to create an album that grapples with these two opposing desires or did that happen organically (or is that just my own interpretation)? Did you begin creating the album with a specific theme or idea in mind?
Those are definitely some of the major themes, and I think those emerged just because I think about the push and pull between aloneness and togetherness a lot. So it wasn’t planned per se, it’s more that it’s the exposed brick of my mind, in a way: the guts of how I view the world, holding up the structures of the songs.
You’ve toured with and discussed your friendship with Julien Baker, Mitski, and a lot of other bands—do you feel your performance changes depending on who you’re touring with? Have those relationships influenced you in any particular way?
I’d say my performance deepens as a result of touring with artists I admire. I observe and absorb and then I settle more into my own skin. Julien and Mitski have very different ways of performing – both uniquely powerful – and I like to think I’ve learned something different from each of them.
You’ve often been asked about the album’s relationship to Trump—I remember reading that on Torches, you refer to the kind of violence going on in America right now. Then later, you say I’ve had enough of this apocalypse. Where are you in thinking about how to conceptualize Trump right now? What’s your relationship to America?
Oh boy, this is a big one! I think Trump and his cohorts represent the absolute worst parts of humanity and capitalist society. So one way to look at it is, now that we can see the darkness, we can better know the shape of what we’re fighting. Touring across the whole country, I have seen so much beauty, and kindness. But there’s also a tremendous tremor of fear. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this country.
Nandi, I read that you’re a fan of Maggie Nelson and Rebecca Solnit, both of whom I personally adore. Are there any other books, poems, etc. that have been on your mind or that influenced this album?
They are so amazing! M Train by Patti Smith was a big one for me when starting work on Lavender. I’ve also been inspired by Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit – I think about it a lot when getting started on new material. More recently, I just finished Tenth of December by George Saunders - he is such a fresh, funny, unique voice in fiction, and some of his stories have a Black Mirror-type dystopian bent that feels very relevant.
What are your rituals, pre-show practices, etc.? Were there any particular invocations you repeated while creating Lavender? Do you practice any sort of spirituality in general?
We made Lavender while living in this kooky house on a pond. I would walk down to the pond every morning with a cup of tea in hand, to see what wildlife would be there, and to witness the change in the color of the water, the growth of the plants. We kept a whiteboard that detailed the progress of each song, and we checked off each instrument as it was finalized. It felt like a kind of ritual – I have the completed board hanging up in my music room now. I grew up around a lot of spirituality – my dad is Buddhist and my mom has followed the teachings of the Indian guru Satya Sai Baba – so while I don’t practice anything in a specific way, I believe very much in the soul, in reincarnation, in the power of nature, in signs and in a kind of knowing that transcends consciousness. Which is to say, I believe in magic.