Photo by Tonje Thilesen
Half Waif is the sound of a creative mind constantly searching for balance. The music created by New York-based artist Nandi Rose is a painfully sweet push and pull, walking the line between light and dark, analog and digital, and themes of both solitude and community. Her sound comes in flashes of Kate Bush and James Blake, marrying a more traditional songwriting sensibility with playful sonic exploration and fearlessness.
You may have read Pitchfork’s review of Half Waif’s last album Lavender, which they deemed “a woozy dynamic of pushing people away while simultaneously drawing them close”, or else seen her Tiny Desk Concert which features the longing pull of her voice and four other multi-instrumentalists. Having toured with the likes of Iron & Wine and Alex G, Half Waif has a lot of miles and three albums already under her belt, but still much more to say.
To celebrate the release of her fourth album, The Caretaker, we had a chance to sit down and dive into the depths of Half Waif’s creative process.
Half Waif – “Ordinary Talk”
Tell us about what The Caretaker means.
As I was writing this album, I was contending with a number of friendships in my life transitioning and falling apart, and I had to really look at why that was happening. It felt like a failure. It’s really painful when you can’t be there for people in your life, for whatever reason. I looked inside and there was a lot of inner collapse, really low self esteem and I hate the term ‘self love’, but there was a real lack of that.
What I was working through on this album was recognizing that to be a good caretaker for others and for this land – to be a steward of this beautiful planet that we inhabit – there has to be a real fortitude of spirit and a true love of self. I think in order to take care of the things that we care about and love in our lives, there is a certain amount of innerwork that has to be done too.
What was your process for making The Caretaker?
I really wanted to spend a lot of time on this record. My previous work was written while I was on the road, a little bit in snatches here and there, often in cars, in vans, in greenrooms, but this was really a deliberate choice to be home and to give myself a longer stretch of time to be very present with these songs. I wanted to generate a lot of material, knowing that a lot of it would be bad, but it felt like a luxury to have the time and to also have the physical space.
I’m in the room right now where I wrote the album, which is my little music room in our house in Chatham, New York. I have been off the road for a year now and I wasn’t even touring that much right before then so this was an attempt to pay a lot of attention to what I was writing and not necessarily have it be in this gush of inspiration. What if it was more methodical? What if it was me being in this room everyday and trying different exercises to jolt myself into inspiration, trying different pathways into what it means to write a song? As a result, the process was really varied.
This record is a lot about finding that balance between isolation and community. Moving here was so great for me in so many ways because it felt like home. I love being surrounded by nature. I have space to write, but it is very isolating to live in a small town and be a solo artist, which is what I am now after years with a band. I kind of returned to this being my solo gig and I don’t collaborate with a band at this point in time.
Something I was exploring in this album was finding that balance between carving out space for yourself and enjoying your solitude, finding it productive and then recognizing that that can go a little bit too far. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and recognizing that in order to enjoy those spaces of solitude, you have to have the necessary counterpoint and the necessary resistance of interactions with other people. I’m trying to find that balance now in my life.
What were the easiest songs and what were the hardest songs to write on the record?
Definitely ‘Brace’ and ‘Generation’, which are the two traditional keyboard or piano songs and those were all in one go. Those were examples of songs that kind of wrote themselves, which was me at a keyboard and the lyrics and chords happened simultaneously. But there were other songs that I approached like a challenge.
The song ‘Siren’ for me was a tough nut to crack because I had this beat that I really loved and this chorus that came about really naturally. But I thought, ‘okay, where does this go?’ and I really had to work at what felt like a satisfying bridge and conclusion to the song. Ultimately I did my first ever modulation *laughs*. I was like, ‘how is this song gonna end?’ Why don’t we just modulate with no lead in? Not even a, ‘how do we get into this?’ We’re just gonna go there.
It’s a very power ballad move. Very Celine Dion, very Mariah Carey.
It really felt like that. I also think that points to something that’s nice about getting older and doing this for a while. I’m less afraid of what sounds cool and more concerned about trying things and having fun with it. I know in the past I would have thought that that was too cheesy or stupid but when I was writing I thought, ‘this feels great’ and I had the confidence to do it. I felt like it was time to do a modulation.
Having the time to work on this was a fun exercise in utilizing new songwriting techniques that I hadn’t before, and listening to and analysing other artists that I really love. Throughout the process of writing this album, I would ask myself, ‘Why do I love that song and what is it about that section that feels really good?’ and then put it into practice, trying it out in my own songs.
What were you listening to at the time or what are those influences on the record?
A big one for me then and now and always moving forward is Frank Ocean. Blonde was really influential to me and I think many many many songwriters of our generation because of how fluidly he moves through genre. I think he really displays that confidence of trying something that you wouldn’t necessarily think would fit in a song, but it does.
I think another person who does that is Alex G, who has become a friend of mine and someone I’ve toured with. I’m super inspired by his ease with genre and his sonic explorations, which all feel like a part of his world. It’s not like, ‘he’s attempting a country song’. No, it’s, ‘oh this is Alex G doing a country song’. It doesn’t feel like a stretch and I think that speaks volumes to his playfulness and confidence to try new things and not shy away from what a song needs. I think that if a song needs a fiddle, put a fiddle in it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had a fiddle on your song or if you’re not the kind of artist who would have a fiddle.
The songs are everything. What a song needs is priority over what your own preconceptions are for what kind of artist you are. The song, ‘Blinking Light’ is an example of that because when I started writing it, it felt like an indie rock/classic rock song. I think in the past, I would have thought, ‘that’s not me, that’s more Pinegrove’, which is the band I was previously playing with. I would have thought this was a song that they would write but not me. But again, I think by getting older and being more open minded, I decided I wanted to see where it could go. I have this weird guitar sample in there that doesn’t totally come to mind immediately, but it felt like it fit, so I left it in there.
The song ‘Lapsing’ was very inspired by Nils Frahm, who I was listening to a lot during this period. His economy of sound and ability to transform one instrument and coax a huge range of sound out of it. ‘Lapsing’ is two of the same synth, the TAL-U-No-LX synth plug-in which emulates the Juno 60. With that song I did an improvisation. Never did a modulation, never did an instrumental, so why not push myself to take that on? I’m usually very crafted and that comes from my perfectionistic tendencies. I played in the synth part and then I performed the automation. I went back, armed the track and performed with the synth parameters, opening up filters and having that slight pitch warble come in. The filter was affecting the pitch and that emulated the sound of summer insects, which I also layered on as a fun soundtrack. Having that synth kind of fly off the pitch center slightly recreated that sound of insects chirping in the night.
Your songs pack a lot of punch emotionally – they’re short, and there’s a huge amount of contrast between the various sections. How do you accomplish that?
What I’ve learned about songwriting is that every section should be exciting. If you love the chorus in a song that you wrote but the verse is just okay, rewrite the verse and get the verse to a place where it is just as exciting as the chorus for you. I’ve been challenging myself to have every section feel really great and make sure I’m not just rushing through the verse because I want to get to the big juicy chorus.
In terms of short songs, part of it is this kind of conventional restlessness; I love writing songs, I’m done with this one, I want to write another one. Also I think there is something to be said about short songs with a lot going on encouraging repeat listens. It makes people wonder, ‘what did I just hear? Let me put it on again.’ So hopefully people will come back to listen more.
A new mantra that I picked up is, ‘the more you look the more you see’. I love the idea of music being that way too. Where you can get something from it the first time but it pulls you in the more that you listen. You start discovering new little gems and that’s my favorite kind of music to listen to. I hope to be able to create that for other people.
Half Waif performing on the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series
Who else has their fingerprints on this record?
I brought in David Tolomei who is a producer and engineer/mixer based in California. He mixed Lavender and I had a conversation with him early on in my demoing process of The Caretaker. I said, ‘I would love to bring you in a little bit earlier in the process this time and get your help in fleshing out this world and sharpening the sounds.’
I wanted to go into a studio to replace some of my MIDI sounds and really build this thing out, so we went to the Clubhouse studio in Rhinebeck, New York and we recorded upright bass, violin, bass clarinet, and flute. Those were all parts that I had just played MIDI parts for, but we brought in players to get the real sounds on there.
We also recorded at the Synth Sanctuary in New York City, which is this incredible playhouse of the most beautiful analog synths, and we had a couple days there to flesh out ideas. We used an Oberheim, Juno, Prophet – a lot of the big guns that I don’t have access to otherwise. We still have MIDI flute on the record and we still have a ton of soft synths but it’s built out in this way that I think made the album more three-dimensional.
Then, David mixed the album in California and I went out there and did a few days with him to figure out what sorts of effects we wanted in general. If you listen to my demos, this album basically sounds like a much shinier and better sounding version, which is to say that I’m proud of where I’ve gotten as a producer.
I have been learning more about the term ‘producer’, in the way that there is creative producing and technical producing. I love playing with sounds. I’m not super keen to spend my time understanding how all of that works technically. Me saying this is also recognition that I’m no longer embarrassed to say that. I think, especially as a woman, I used to feel like I had to do everything, otherwise I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now, I’m really proud of the work that I do writing music and producing. I do rough mixes just to get a sense of the automated details and how I generally want sounds to sit in the mix and I’m totally fine with bringing someone else in to help me with the technical side. It was wonderful to find someone who complimented me and was able to co-produce it in that way with me.
Let’s talk about how you’re using your voice and getting the sounds for your vocal. What did the two of you do?
I borrowed David’s gear to record vocals. I record vocals on my own. I don’t like people to be here. I’ve tried in the past to record in a studio and it just doesn’t work for me mentally. It’s a lot faster for me to be able to run the DAW while I’m recording. I can just go, ‘nope, that didn’t work for me. Let’s go back to that point’. Instead of, ‘Can you set me back two measures?’ and then they are like, ‘okay’... and then count in… you totally get out of your headspace. I just need to be in control. Be in the zone. I go to a pretty dark place when I record vocals. It’s hard to listen to yourself over and over again so I don’t want anyone here for that.
From David, I had the Neumann U87, which was really nice, and a Hilo interface. And this is the thing, I don’t even know all of the gear and this is where traditionally I would be, ‘I’m so embarrassed, I don’t even know what gear I use’. Now I’m like, ‘It’s fine. I still engineered my own vocals’.
My voice is my primary instrument. It’s the instrument I have the most control over and I can coax a lot of sounds out of it. It’s the first instrument I go to if I’m writing a song and I need a fuzzy pad and maybe I don’t want to figure out what soft synth will work, or I don’t want to go to my Korg Minilogue, which I use a lot. I record a bunch of vocals and effect them because it’s my most readily available tool.
On every song I have one or more tracks that are called ‘mutants’ because there are always some weird processed vocals on every track. Whether that’s pitch shifting or Grain Delay. I put that on a lot of stuff. That spray that happens, I think is so cool and I use that on vocals and synths. There are a lot of affected vocals on all of the songs because I think it’s an expressive instrument and it’s the one I feel most comfortable with.
Through all of your experimentation and evolution over previous records, what are the things that are definitively Half Waif? Do you have sonic signatures and tendencies you always come back to?
It’s in the interplay between major and minor chords which is something that I have always done and probably will always do. Those are the progressions that I most love, that soar and dip through those tonalities. In general, I use more adventurous chord progressions which feel really tied to the emotion. I’m not just throwing in weird chords to throw in weird chords. If the emotional impulse takes it there then I just follow it, and sometimes that leads to more unconventional chord progressions or movements between sections.
Traditionally, I’ve used a lot of layers and combinations of soft synths and electronics with acoustic and more organic textures. I think that’s something I’ve always done and I will always continue to do. I’m trying to refine that and be deliberate and careful about the sounds that I use. How much can you say with just a few sounds? That’s what I’m working towards.
The Caretaker was released on 27th March. Keep up with Half Waif on Bandcamp, Instagram and Twitter.
Text and interview: Erin Barra