On Mythopoetics, out now via Anti- Records, New York synth-pop artist Nandi Rose—as Half Waif—shares a musical portrait of strained yet resilient longing, depicting a gradually brightening search for relief from burdens that are more-than-physical. The music feels strong yet careful, like a sonic reflection of the welcoming presence of a close friend who understands.
Mythopoetics is emerging not long at all after The Caretaker, Rose’s last, full-length album as Half Waif, which she released in March 2020.
“I kind of like to think of Mythopoetics as continuing the story or at least being in dialogue with The Caretaker, because the themes of caretaking on The Caretaker—that was more reflexive,” Rose explains. “It was more about, ‘how can I take care of myself and weed the garden so that more things can grow and I can be healthier in myself.’”
Mythopoetics explores somewhat expanded territory.
“I think a lot of people can relate, but my family, we have a long history of alcoholism and addiction, so I was helping someone through that,” Rose says, discussing the thematic background for Mythopoetics. “But because that’s a genetic thing, I also was looking at myself and how those tendencies might show up in my own life.
So, it was both caretaking someone else and then taking the mirror to myself and saying: ‘OK, how might I also have fallen into these patterns, and how can I break that?’ This is not the kind of lineage that I want to continue on. This is a family story, a history that we have carried. It’s a myth that has shaped our family, and that was something I was really starting to take a look at in a conscious way and be like: ‘This is not going to be my life.’”
Rose sees Mythopoetics as like a “storybook” with “almost dark fairy tales,” she shares, and the subjects come from her own life and family background.
“My mom was a refugee, and her family—they lost their home twice, in India and in Uganda, so that’s a story of displacement that’s been coming through that side of my family,” she explains. “And then this other side, which is like addiction, and depression, and a lot of darkness and trying to work through that.”
Developments along these lines, Rose says, have affected her on a profoundly personal level.
“I don’t like to use the term empath lightly, because I think people throw that word around a lot, but I know that I am hyper-senstive to people’s energies and emotions,” she says, discussing the background for the new record and the care that she provided for someone close to her dealing with issues like addiction. “And I’m sure, to some extent, this describes everybody, but when someone that I really love and care about is going through a hard time, a devastating time, I am catatonic. And in this case, when this was happening, the reason I was writing so many songs about it was because I took on this person’s pain.
“It was so hard to witness it. And I’m working on creating boundaries in my life. It’s something that I have a hard time with. You want to have that porousness. You want to have that connection with someone, that fluidity, where you can empathize with them, and you can feel what they’re feeling, but you need to be able to turn that off, and maybe songwriting is partially my way of doing that, of creating that boundary and telling myself: ‘OK, you can stop carrying this.’”
Instrumentally speaking, Mythopoetics is emotively dynamic throughout its runtime, with mixes that feel cinematically lush.
Rose blends warm, pop beats with earthy pianos, and her singing proves strikingly passionate, moving right along with the emotions of the work. While inviting, the beats often feel subtly yet dramatically resounding, making for a sometimes whimsical but always forward-moving trek.
Meanwhile, Rose alternates between emphasizing the pianos and synths. “Fabric,” “Sourdough,” and “Sodium & Cigarettes” feature prominent, standout pianos, making Mythopoetics feel starkly grounded. Overall, the music often sticks to a somewhat meditative pace and feels contemplative, with plenty of space in the melodies to settle in.
Rose worked with friend and collaborator Zubin Hensler for the record, and only the two of them perform across this new full-length, which began coming together amid a late-2019 recording residency at the Pulp Arts studio in Gainesville, Florida. Thus, the record began growing before the pandemic, Rose observes.
According to Rose, “the original idea was to go down and record acoustic versions of old Half Waif songs,” but plans shifted.
“Right before we went down, shit went down in my personal life, and these songs just started coming out,” as she puts it.
“We had so much fun recording this album,” Rose shares. “I think we didn’t go into it necessarily being like it’s only going to be us two playing on the record, but at a certain point, we had created such a kind of nourishing atmosphere between the two of us creating this album, and so it felt really important and special that we would make all the sounds. So that also limited us, but in a really cool way where when we were in the studio, we really just had what Zubin and I were capable of doing.”
Rose and Hensler honed-in on the personal performance element.
“We did something that I’ve never done on a record before which is perform live and record the take with piano and vocals,” Rose explains. “We did that on ‘Sourdough’ and ‘Powder.’ And for ‘Powder,’ Zubin was actually in the studio, in the live tracking room with me.”
The sounds that Rose and Hensler crafted ended up steeped in “high drama,” the musician notes, and the duo felt as though they needed to “tone it down” ahead of release.
“There was one point where we listened to all the works in progress of the record,” Rose shares. “And we did a full listen through, and it finished, and we were like: ‘This record is really intense.’ I think we actually need to tone it down a little bit, because every song was just high drama, and every song was—lots of different sounds and soundscapes.”
Still, ample breadth remains throughout the music. Rose notes, for instance, that she “was inspired by that more grand horn sound on this record”—Hensler is, among other areas of expertise, a trumpet-player—and that inspiration translates into what she characterizes as “bigger symphonic gestures” across Mythopoetics.
“In general, I definitely think of the arrangement as just as important a tool for conveying an idea as the lyrics,” Rose adds.
As for the role of Rose’s singing in those arrangements, the musician shares that she sees her vocals as “in service to the emotion.” She says that she’s been exploring sticking more closely to that emotion in place of the classical vocal performance techniques that she’s learned and used in the past.
“I definitely went into this record wanting to push the boundaries of my voice and try to use it in new ways,” Rose explains. “I think my evolution as a singer has been such that I’m almost unlearning my classical vocal technique. That’s not to rag at all on the years that I spent learning how to sing and be classically trained, and I’m really grateful for that, but it was so ingrained in me to sing on pitch, and being pitchy was the worst thing that you could possibly do.
“I sang in acapella for many years, and just the idea of being pitchy or not the right timbre—it was so scary to me that, looking back now and listening back to older records, I can tell that I’m holding something back because I’m trying to get a ‘perfect’ take. That’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about and wanting to navigate around, so on this record—hopefully I’m not pitchy, but if I am, it’s in service to the emotion. […] I still have far to go, I think. I want to keep giving the voice some space to be itself and to not be so in control.”
“It’s interesting when the instrument is your body,” Rose adds, discussing her singing. “You’re so in control of it, and you’re bringing so much to those vocal sessions, to that space, and anything that’s holding back in your body is going to come out in your voice. So, just as this record emotionally is pretty raw and exploring some deeply painful things, and I wanted to go there emotionally—also, I wanted the voice to be able to go there.
“So, trying to yell more, trying to belt more—and then, the belting is also because I love pop music. So, on one hand, wanting to not be so classically trained, and on the other hand, wanting to be a pop singer. I just wanted to see how far I could push that. I think I’ve pushed the pop thing as far as I want to go on this record, but it was a lot of fun.”
Overall, the relative focus in Rose’s songwriting imparts a sense of emotional warmth, adeptly placing the album’s instrumental explorations within Rose’s lyrical context of relationships with loved ones. Rose ventures through themes like, on “Swimmer,” watching the toll of Alzheimer’s disease on a family member, and in these overcast moments, she finds space in her steadily breathable songs for a sense of healing, even if shadows hang in the background. Both instrumentally and thematically, the music consistently feels movingly honest.
“I try to end all of my records with that sense of—if not hope, then release and relief, because writing these records, it helps me so much to dislodge these thornier feelings,” Rose observes. “I think people are sometimes surprised to meet me, and they’re like: ‘Oh, you’re so happy and upbeat, and you write really intense sad songs!’ And I’m like: ‘Yeah, I can be a happy and positive person, because I put that into my songs, and then it’s not clouding the rest of my life.’
“And so, I hope by the end of the journey of the record, there can be for the listener also some sense of: ‘Okay, I’ve gone through this, and I’ve processed it, and I’ve sat with it.’ I’m definitely a big proponent of feeling your feelings so that you can be more present with them and look them in the eyes, like look that fear, and sadness, and grief in the face, and then know it, and understand it, and then you can move on.”
Listen to Mythopoetics below, and pick up a copy here.
Images courtesy of Half Waif. Featured image credit: Ali Cherkis.