13 years after leaving the Mormon church, Whitney Mower is finding her voice, channeling her late mother, and fighting the patriarchy.
Whitney Mower, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind self-described “womb pop” project They / Live, is on a quest to channel her late mother—one synthesizer note at a time.
“My mom Kathryn was a classic ’80s babe,” Mower told AdHoc over email in a recent interview. “She was tall, thin, tan, with big blonde hair, and she rocked the heck out of some acid wash denim.” Mower says that ever since her mother passed away, after years of struggling with chronic illness, “There’s a nostalgic essence I’m always searching for that reminds me of her. A certain tone of synth.”
You can hear that “tone of synth” on the first two singles—“The Path” and “Dreamer”—from They / Live’s forthcoming debut LP, Ablation. You can also hear it on They / Live’s latest cut, “Circles,” which premieres today on AdHoc with an accompanying music video, co-directed by Mower and Jon Conner.
“Jon and I went through a handful of concepts for a video,” says Mower of the production. “At some point, I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it.’ I want to dance my ass off in a leotard and some scrunchy socks against a backdrop of neon lights and try to match the level of passion with my body that I feel when I sing, ‘Tell me what your love is what is like.’” The video depicts Mower doing just that.
The track is a moody, atmospheric synth-pop number that centers Mower’s immaculate vocals; a late guitar solo reinforces the sense of unease. “Maybe ‘Circles’ is about trying to understand someone you love and figure out how they want to be loved,” Mower says, hesitant to land on a single interpretation. “Or maybe there’s a person on the other side of a closed-door who is refusing to receive love.”
Mower spoke to AdHoc about her experience leaving the Mormon Church 13 years ago, the deeply personal story behind the record’s title, and some of her creative inspirations, which include Carl Sagan and the Teen Wolf soundtrack. Check out the “Circles” video below.
Ablation is out May 8 via Born Losers Records.
AdHoc: What’s the track about?
Whitney Mower: I think it’s up to the listener. But maybe “Circles” is about trying to understand someone you love and figure out how they want to be loved. Or maybe there’s a person on the other side of a closed-door who is refusing to receive love. Maybe the narrator here is inept at introspection or selflessness or vulnerability and, because they don’t have the tools to love this person, keeps trying to solve the problem, berating their lover with questions and metaphors instead of looking inward. Maybe the connection is irreparable. Even still, the lover cries out into the void, unable to let go: “I keep asking to come in but you don’t hear my voice.”
What was your vision for the video? Who did you work with to create it?
The music video for “Circles” was made in Houston, directed and produced by Jon Conner, with the help of Filmatic Productions.
Jon and I went through a handful of concepts for a video. [Eventually], I found some weird jackets at a thrift store. I bought some blue lipstick. We built out some sets and Jon called in favors from around the city. I’m not the greatest dancer, or the thinnest, and I haven’t had the healthiest relationship with my body because of a disease called Endometriosis. But I have to say that twirling around in a warehouse to a song you wrote is pretty goddamn exhilarating. I’m very excited to further explore movement for this project.
Tell us a little bit about your forthcoming debut, Ablation. What are some themes or moods that come up on it?
After some health problems and general big city bad luck, I left LA and went back to Houston, where I had attended grad school (and where the community is unbelievably supportive) to try and get calm. When I wasn’t bartending, I was sitting in my room playing with free Fairlight samples on a crappy MIDI keyboard. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was staring at art and not feeling anything, and that troubled me. I’ve been making and recording music for 15 years now. In 2019, I was trying to figure out if I should keep creating, or “use” my masters degree to become a paralegal and think about… my 401k or something? Existential crisis, you bet. But I wrote a bunch of songs.
For the first time, I was having musical conversations about things beyond the things you think you’re supposed to write songs about as a songwriter, and/or as a woman. About things other than falling in or out of heterosexual love. Ablation is not only about dealing with physical and mental pain, but the challenges of dealing with those pains alongside someone close to you. The act of offering support and tenderness is something I’ve watched my family fall short on more than once—and something I’ve fallen short on as well. I think Ablation is about digging through apathy to feel again, to deal with hurt and hurt you’ve caused. How do you look outside yourself when you’re struggling? And can you still be a citizen, even then? Are you being self-centered or are you practicing self-care?
The Trump years have been surreal for all of us; we live in a legitimate dystopia. Perhaps my song “Dreamer” sums up a main theme of the record: “So I go in deeper than I ever have before / Here we are the dreamers but they wove us into war.” For me Ablation is about going deeper. I’ve failed in my life so many times to show compassion, to support and connect to people. I’ve failed to take care of myself, or take myself seriously, when a lot of doctors told me my pain had no source. In certain respects, we’re failing miserably as a human race to respect each other and our surroundings.
I’ve been very lucky to have had the resources to return to Los Angeles, a place where I feel accepted and heard—where everyone is talking about how to make the world better, more open, less oppressive. In 2020, I want to go deeper. Deeper into empathy and education. Deeper into my community and country.
Where’d the name “Ablation” come from?
“Ablation” is a word I learned in 2019, when I had surgery to remove numerous growths inside my pelvis, known as Endometriosis. It means “removal,” “taking away”—or, in my personal case, the “excision of tissue.” The term can also refer to melting and evaporation, or pieces of a spacecraft falling off in flight. I love how it’s medical. I love how sci-fi it feels. For me, it invokes body horror, which has been a theme of my adult life, living undiagnosed.
Also—I left the Mormon church 13 years ago. I was shy and awkward and scared to assert my voice for a really long time. The patriarchy is everywhere, but in Utah, it’s IN THE WATER. A lot of my past identity had to be removed for me to commit myself to art, for me to be comfortable in my body, for me to go out in the world and invent a life for myself from scratch. I’m an extremely late bloomer. I still can’t believe it when I see powerful women doing badass, world-transforming things—Mormonism really had its hooks in me. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you dazzle.
On the one hand, Ablation is about getting the disease out. On the other, it’s the process of actively carrying yourself away into new energy, to find new light sources and new strengths. I love music because even when your life is in the shitter, to put it bluntly, you can create something organized, structured, and pristine. Thank God art is there to offer us beauty and order when we can’t find it anywhere else.
What are some recent musical or creative inspirations in general?
There’s this term I use that is kind of funny: “womb pop.” I think a lot of my inspiration for They/Live comes from this idea. I was born in 1986, and my mom Kathryn was a classic ’80s babe. An incredible singer, musician, and dancer—she was tall, thin, tan, with big blonde hair, and rocked the heck out of some acid wash denim. I know she cruised around in her Ford Pinto, singing along to all the pop hits while I was hanging out her belly. Unfortunately, she later struggled with chronic illness and lost her life to it. Now there’s a nostalgic essence I’m always searching for that reminds me of her. A certain tone of synth. A certain sweeping riff that connects me to the time period in which she was a carefree woman in her prime, bouncily walking through the Salt Lake City Mall, or sitting down at the piano to play Fantasia No. 3 in D Minor, her favorite.
Creative inspiration for me comes from so many places. Fiction. Carl Sagan. Entire days of quiet and stillness. I listened to Structures from Silence by Steve Roach a billion times last year. I’m obsessed with the original Teen Wolf soundtrack. Kate Bush and Janet Jackson. Juana Molina is A BIG DEAL. Why is Nelly’s “Country Grammar” still the most fun thing to listen to on the planet? It just is. What can I say? I love hooks.