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Escape Velocity

Heavier Elements: Nicole Dollanganger Interviewed
Karl Smith , November 19th, 2015 12:00

With her sprawling, cinematic pop belying a lyrical fixation on darker matters, the singer-songwriter talks to Karl Smith about horror and hardcore influences, honest depictions of female sexuality and touring with Grimes

Nicole Dollanganger has been making (and publishing) music for the last four years under the same name, but there's every chance that you've only become aware of her output, only come into contact with that eponym, since the middle of this year – if, that is, you're aware of it at all. She suffers from fairly chronic stage fright and never considered playing live to be part of what she does, but you'll presently find her providing main support for Grimes on the North American leg of her Acid Reign tour. (I write this introduction on a plane Montreal with the purpose of bearing witness to exactly this.) Her music, now more-or-less fully realised on Natural Born Losers, her latest release and first not to be recorded at home, is artificially, deceptively placid – possessing of a saccharine quality, a lightness, of a kind of sonic bubblegum flavour – on its surface, only just covering (and frequently revealing) something altogether darker beneath.

That is to say, Dollanganger is juxtaposition incarnate: a die-hard horror fan and hardcore kid whose aesthetic and undeniably pop musicality might, at first, seem to be from the same stock – grown in the same garden – as Lana Del Rey but, in reality, has more in common with Marilyn Manson and glassJAw; a plum picked fresh from the tree with the promise of light refreshment, only to discover the fruit inside has long gone the way of all flesh, and subsequently become a home for wasps.

While the idea of a "message" is always kind of a warning sign in my book when it comes to music, as the first release from Grimes' Eerie Organization, Natural Born Losers' sudden notoriety has afforded Dollanganger a chance to be heard, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Not only will more people literally hear her music – online and IRL – than ever before, but that music will offer to so many a chance to examine without shame or fetishisation (in a way more commonly found in cinema, and only the very best of pop music) the realities of life and death in possession of female sexuality.

You've actually been making music for quite a long time now, mostly totally under the radar of people outside of the Tumblr sphere and, in a way, ostensibly for yourself. This seems much bigger…

Nicole Dollanganger: When I started writing Natural Born Losers I was still under the impression that, though it would have much better production - because it was recorded outside my home - it would exist in the same way all my other records did. I thought I'd just finish it, post the songs, move along. It's been surreal to have it get exposure and to adapt the songs for live performance.

Live performance was never really part of the plan, right?

ND: I never really saw myself ever performing live! I get terrible stage fright, but also I didn't really know anyone who was putting on shows that would be conducive to my style of music. So I never really thought about it seriously until recently.

I knew playing the new material live wouldn't really be possible with just me and a guitar, so I contacted my two best friends about becoming the backing band. Now we've played three shows locally and we're getting prepared for the tour! It's scary and surreal and amazing.

I was going to say, "Does it feel like a lot of pressure all of a sudden?", but it's the wrong sort of phrase; obviously, with the amount of work you've built up to this point, it's hardly like you're starting from scratch. So, I suppose, the real question is, "Do you feel like it's a lot of pressure all of a sudden, or like it's of vindication of all that you've done to this point?"

ND: There is definite pressure. Performing live is a whole other can of worms; it's an intimidating side of music and I get very nervous. But it's also such a wonderful opportunity, and there are some circumstances that are too good to turn down, despite any kind of nerves. Sharing a stage with Grimes... even the recent shows where we've opened for two of my favourite bands – Exalt and Old Wounds – no matter how scary live performance can be, it's worth it.

Exalt and Old Wounds are brilliant hardcore bands – and I'd read recently that you were a fan of the genre and a part of that scene – but I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you'd played a hardcore show given the surface nature of your music. Personally, I think it makes sense: some of my favourite songs of all time are from glassJAw's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence, and it's the same thing that strikes me about your music. For them there's tenderness juxtaposed with surface violence and for you it's the other way around.

ND: Yes, exactly! And Exalt are so incredible live. It was actually many years ago, when I saw them playing a basement show, when I was sort of struck with this desire to make music myself.

If they did that for you, what is it that you hope people will take away from your music? If they read or pay attention to the lyrics it's going to be a very different experience to what they get if they're just listening for melody.

ND: Truthfully, I'm not very sure. It's not something I think about too much: when I start to worry about other people's perceptions or interpretations, I get too in my head and everything comes out really weird. Whenever someone reaches out and says, "This song really resonates with me" it's the highest compliment and it's all I could ever really hope for in that department.

Self-awareness is great for making good art, but when you start to let other people's perceptions dictate that, I think it can make things very convoluted...

ND: Yes! And you also become very scared to delve into certain topics, or explore the things that you want to. I know that everyone listens to music for different reasons, and everyone appreciates different aspects of it, but if I get too hung up on what other people think it will never come out in a way that's honest to me.

You said about first wanting to make music after that Exalt show, and I wondered how you think that style bleeds into the instrumental parts of your work? To my mind there's a lot going on there: '90s shoegaze-y elements, post-rock, hardcore, sprawling pop...

ND: I think so many of the heavier elements in music lend themselves to pop. I love anything that can be simultaneously soft and hard: when I showed Matt [Tomasi] - my guitarist/drummer and a collaborator on Natural Born Losers - a few of the songs on the album, we ended up mic'ing up his drum kit, and he created these really industrial sounding drums over an otherwise soft song. I was like: "This is it! This is the magic!"

It's a kind of a wonderfully grotesque mixture, really. Music can be so tribal and exclusive – to acknowledge that these things actually work together is quite powerful.

ND: Some of my favourite bands of all time are sort of the masters of the soft/hard combination: Type O Negative, Danzig, Manson.

Manson, of course, also the master of highlighting the spectacle and the beauty in what is generally considered horrific.

ND: Yes! The name itself a play on celebrity culture and the macabre, acknowledging the relationship between the two.

Between your music, your Tumblr and reading other interviews, it's pretty clear you're a fan of horror in the cinematic sense, too? (I saw this morning you'd posted a Lost Boys image, too, which I actually rewatched last night.)

ND: I am a die-hard fan and defender of the horror genre! I'm actually going to see Eli Roth's Green Inferno today, and I'm sure it will be a horrific two-hour mess of torture porn and blood – but I still must go! And yes, Lost Boys is a classic. Kiefer Sutherland is inspired in it.

I think it might even be my favourite Kiefer Sutherland role…

ND: It would be so hard to choose, but probably mine too.

And all the other stuff going on – the family dynamic, etc. It's kind of a masterpiece: actual vampires, but also vampirism as metaphor for the slow death of those kind of American towns.

ND: Absolutely. I wrote a paper in school about vampires as a metaphor for our culture's shaming of sexuality. They're interesting mythical creatures.

And I think that idea bleeds through into your lyrics: I hope you don't mind me saying that your voice has a kind of sweetness to it, but the prevalence of sexual imagery in tandem with that feels like a championing of the rights of 'normal people' to be sexual beings.

ND: Absolutely. When I was in film school, the first professor I met more or less immediately had a large talk with us about the weirdness in the West when it comes to portrayals of sex and violence in art. She believed that sex was a normal act and shouldn't involve shame, censoring, guilt, regret, etc., etc. and films that celebrated sexuality were fine. She pretty much said: "Don't you dare bring me some short film with explosions and guns and mass deaths and dudes killing other dudes and blood. I am so, so, so sick of seeing it." She was probably one of my first introductions to this idea that sexuality – and, in particular, female sexuality – could be explored without shame. That it could be honest and that honesty didn't make it vulgar.

It sounds like we might owe her a lot in terms of influence on your music…

ND: Up until I met her I had a very warped understanding of how sexual I was allowed to be – of what was appropriate for me. I remember being at a sleepover with two dudes I was friends with once, and they were like, "Do you masturbate? I don't know any girls who masturbate." And I was like "no", which was an obvious fucking lie — but it was true: I had never even met one girl who was able to say she did so. It was ridiculous. This embarrassment around it that's completely unnecessary.

In that sense, as much as your music is for you, do you think of that part of it as being for other people as well? A kind of reassurance?

ND: Well, if I can help to normalise certain subjects for people in the way that others have done for me, then that's amazing and wonderful. That's incredible actually.

It's interesting, too, that you went to film school because it kind of vindicates a feeling I have about your music in that I think of it as having a real cinematic quality – the lyrics and the instrumentation. The guitar and the drums on 'You're So Cool' remind me of that long panning shot in Godard's Weekend, for example, as much as the lyrics on 'White Trashing' make me think of Gummo.

ND: I love Gummo, and the majority of Harmony Korine's work so much! It's so cool to hear you say that. I definitely work more in terms of visuals, or what visuals I'm thinking of when writing. Even when collaborating, I'll have a hard time expressing the idea I have, unless I can speak in visual terms. I had so much fun shooting the video for 'Angels Of Porn (II)' because it was my first real opportunity to create the visual component to the song.

The lyrics are so image-heavy that – even though, of course, they're sung – they have an almost aesthetic quality to them. Do you tend to write the lyrics first and then build a more detailed textural world around those images with music?

ND: Sometimes. Some songs are based on poems I write, or sometimes I'll just record myself 'freestyling' for an hour or two and see what I can get out of that. I do care the most about the lyrics, though. I'm most fussy and particular about that. With any music that I listen to, I'm more lyrically oriented than I am sonically.

Natural Born Losers is out now on Eerie Organization. Nicole Dollanganger is currently supporting Grimes, playing tomorrow, November 20, at Paradise Rock Club in Boston, MA, before touring; head here for full details and tickets