Photo by Tonje Thilesen
For her newest album as Half Waif, Nandi Rose Plunkett knew she needed a change. Just under a year ago, she and Half Waif guitarist Adan Carlo and drummer Zack Levine (who’s also Plunkett’s partner) relocated from their longtime home of Brooklyn to the much quieter, tinier town of Chatham, New York. They now share a home - and a life - in a small town not far from where Plunkett grew up in Williamstown, MA.
Living this close to home for the first time in years, with a long-term partner, away from the madness of the big city, Plunkett was able to approach her music more consciously than ever before. On Lavender, Half Waif’s sophomore album, she’s unsparing and honest as she explores the complex, potentially ephemeral nature of familial and romantic relationships. Although it’s not unfamiliar subject matter for Half Waif, over the band’s most assured and robust electronic art pop arrangements to date (not to mention some truly haunting piano ballads), Plunkett’s almost philosophical straightforwardness is profoundly bone-chilling, maybe even radical. “There’s something to be said for...crafting something with the conscious thought of, ‘Okay, I want to write the song in this manner. I want to come into it with this specific goal,’” she tells AdHoc over the phone, with Carlo also on the line, as she recounts Lavender’s genesis. Her deliberacy has resulted in a thrilling next step for an already exciting act.
Adan, how has being in Chatham, where you haven’t previously spent much time, influenced your writing with Nandi and Zack?
Adan Carlo: Being up here offered us the opportunity to really be 100% in a creative space. In a place like Brooklyn or even somewhere like Montclair...we wouldn’t necessarily be living together. We wouldn’t have been able to focus on [making Lavender] as much as we did. It was waking up, working on it…’til we were going to bed.
Nandi Rose Plunkett: We don’t really see anyone else except for each other. [Laughs] There are days that are just completely filled with making music. It’s great; we don’t have anything else to do. [Laughs]
Now that you all live together, is there ever a time when you’re not focusing on the music super intensely?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: I really love that I can structure my days and focus on this band. That’s what we hoped to do when we left New York and our day jobs: make this a reality. We have a lot of work to do with Half Waif.
It’s great to be busy with this project, but I also find that, sometimes, I need other activities to give my brain a break from music. I really love reading; I try to always be reading a book just to delve into some other world. Usually, nonfiction will inspire me to write songs.
I have the pleasure of sharing a bedroom wall with Adan, and I can hear him play his music; he’s a songwriter as well. He’s been able to work on his own music, being up here. It’s a very beautiful house and a very creative house at all times. We all like cooking, and that’s another very creative outlet for us.
Adan, is there anything that you ever write that makes its way into Half Waif? Nandi, has any of your reading informed the topics you discuss on Lavender?
Adan Carlo: Something I do often when I’m playing my instrument is just riffing, and even if it doesn’t turn into a full-blown song, there’s been moments in that space when I’m improvising my instrument and then...we will all start jamming on it. In those moments, we’ve been able to find pieces of songs.
Nandi Rose Plunkett: “Keep It Out,” specifically, is a song that started from a rehearsal that Adan and I had when we were living in Brooklyn. He played that really cool opening riff with that sound on the pedal, and that pulled out the rest of the song and the vibe of the song.
We’re generally, when writing songs now, finding that there are a lot of different approaches to take. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, developing new tools and ways of writing songs. Looking at the songs on the record...they’re all connected through the breadth of our playing and our ideas, but the songwriting approach was really varied.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. It’s about creativity and the creative process and viewing creativity as a discipline. What she was saying, what I’ve been thinking a lot about, is that we prioritize...that spark, that moment when things easily come together, that moment when you feel that you’re channeling the divine. I’ve been telling myself, “Right now, I’m not in a very creative period. I’m not writing a lot right now, and that’s okay.” The stuff that I am writing, I’m coming to it really consciously. At some point, maybe I’ll tap into something greater and start channeling again, but it’s kind of a nice reminder that the creative process doesn’t have to be one specific thing.
How does all of that play into the lyrics in particular?
I used to really not focus that much on lyrics. Listening to other people's music, [lyrics] were not really my entry point into enjoying a song. Usually, I would be listening for melody, production, arrangement, rhythm, harmonic movement, all of these other things. Lyrics were just one other facet of that. In the past, I wouldn’t go back and edit lyrics; I would write whatever came out. I was pushing myself more, on this go-round, to say what I wanted to say.
Your lyrics sound deliberate. You open the album by saying that you miss New York, and later you have a whole song called “Back in Brooklyn.”
Nandi Rose Plunkett: There was definitely more thought. Even the idea of calling the album Lavender and then opening with a track called “Lavender Burning”—immediately burn it to the ground! [Laughs] A symbol of purification, just immediately turn that to ash.
What is your relationship with New York like these days, and how has that informed Lavender?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: Even when I was living in New York, it was such a love-hate thing. Everyone who lives in New York knows that feeling. There’s still very much a part of my heart there. It’s where most of my friends are. It’s where Half Waif started. It was a really formative time, so on one hand, I miss that connection with people, and I miss the energy, but on the other hand, I also feel like I’m looking back on a chapter of my life and recognizing that it’s done, that I’ve moved past it. That chapter was so vivid and gave me so much. I’m on to the next thing, and that feels good.
How did your grandmother passing inform the album?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: It’s interesting. She was 95 when she died, which is not an unexpected age at all, but when she died, it was really sudden. When I was writing Lavender, I was anticipating losing her, which is what the songs “Leveler” and “Lavender Burning,” which I wrote in her house when I was literally watching her walk in her garden and knowing that I was going to be losing her soon, [are about]. There was this recognition that I was approaching a time when I was going to lose a person who was extremely close to me.
It’s taken on even more meaning now. It’s something I can offer back to the world, a piece of her. The idea of Lavender and the image of lavender burning is directly from her. It’s a way of sharing her story through me, and I carry so much of her, both in spirit and in blood. It feels even more powerful and important for me to be sharing this record now.
How does what you talk about with relationships of the romantic sort on Lavender apply to relationships that you have with your family?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: I am a child of divorce. My parents separated when I was 14. That is a story I’ve carried with me. I’m still carrying that. I’ve come to terms with it in some ways, and time does heal, but it was really traumatic for me to go through that at that age. It makes me question, “What are the nature of relationships? Is this an inevitability, that people grow apart?” My parents were married for 26 years. That’s a really long time. It’s so painful to see them separate.
That modeling of relationship is something that I think about, especially because I’m in such a healthy and good relationship. Am I combating that model? Am I forging my own path? Am I following down this dark road, that I don’t even know where it’s going to end?
The song “Solid 2 Void” is specifically about my parents and their divorce. They don’t even know the part of me [that stems from their divorce], even though they raised me. Looking at that distance that arises between members of your family, people that you share blood with, even these people who raised you and should know you the most as you get older…. That’s really sad, that you can’t share everything with the people who are closest to you. You can’t share everything with your partner because you can’t turn yourself inside out. You can’t externalize everything that you feel. There’s this necessary distance, and that’s something that I wrote a lot about on Lavender.
Do you think that Lavender was your closest attempt to that sort of externalization?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: I do. I hope that with everything I write, it gets closer to that ultimate communion. I don’t expect it will ever happen; I don’t expect it will ever totally hit at the core, but that’s kind of a fun quest, and I think it’ll keep me going as a songwriter.
How are you able to stay so level-headed when you talk about these huge topics?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: I think part of it is just age. I didn’t write about my parents’ divorce for many, many years. I couldn’t. Part of it was being afraid to hurt [my parents]. I still definitely don’t want to hurt them, but eventually...having more distance from it, and being able to recognize that this really is a big part of my story that has shaped the way I see the world and interact with people…. I want to start talking about it, [but] not in a way where it’s the focal point of any album. There’s “Frost Burn” [from 2017’s form/a EP] and “Solid 2 Void,” but more generally, the experience of watching two people in a long-term relationship fall apart finds its way into other songs.
I’m almost 30. It’s time to put to rest some of those stories that I don’t...want to hold me back anymore. I’m in my next chapter of casting off some of these stories that I’ve made my identity, that feels done now. I’m ready for new stories.
What’s next for you all? What are you most excited about moving forward?
Nandi Rose Plunkett: Ooh, what’s next! [Laughs] It’s fun to think about! The record’s not even out yet, so it’s hard to know what's gonna happen. We’re doing this tour with the band Hovvdy, and they’re friends of ours, so that’s going to be really nice. Some dates with Japanese Breakfast. We’re going back to Europe in the fall.
I’m also really excited to have most of the summer here in Chatham; we’re not doing a ton of touring. I really wanna take some time and space to write, because as I said, I haven't been in a very creatively fruitful period. I'm excited to see what comes out of this next period and being here for the summer when it’s so beautiful. It’ll be a really nice time to dive deep into some new sounds and ideas and keep pushing ourselves to write the best music that we can. I’m trying to get an upright piano for the house. I need to return to playing a real piano! That might be a big part of the next record.