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Escape Velocity

Use The Force: An Interview With Hard Feelings
Patrick Clarke , November 18th, 2021 13:19

Hot Chip's Joe Goddard and powerhouse New York singer-songwriter Amy Douglas speak to Patrick Clarke about their bombastic new collaboration Hard Feelings, the power of house and disco, and finding the antidote to global gestalt

Photos by Pooneh Ghana

Amy Douglas likens her creative partnership with Joe Goddard to a scene from the first Star Wars film. “It’s the first time Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca and Leia have to operate the Millennium Falcon, the fastest ship in the Galaxy,” she says with a flourish over Zoom. Even in casual conversation she’s naturally theatrical. “They’ve just met, never interacted at all. For heaven’s sakes, they’ve never even seen a Wookie before! And now they’ve got to take out a whole load of TIE Fighters. But they do so effortlessly, they take out every single fighter like it’s nothing. You watch them interact and it's like they’ve always done it.” So it was when the two musicians formed their scorching pop outfit Hard Feelings. “If you saw us, you’d have thought, ‘Wow, these two have been working together a long time! Just look at how in tune they are with each other’s needs and desires! But nah, man. We just used The Force.”

Goddard, of Hot Chip and The 2 Bears among others, and New York singer and songwriter Douglas – best known for providing powerhouse vocals for Horse Meat Disco and for her storming DFA single ‘Never Saw it Coming’ – started working together after Goddard sent her a Tweet in February 2019. “hey @AmyDouglasSings can we make a tune together?” He had just heard ‘Never Saw It Coming’. “Amy’s voice just jumped out,” he recalls, a calm and measured counterpoint to Douglas’ soliloquising. “I love the voices of the people I’d worked with previously, Alexis [Taylor of Hot Chip] and Raf [Rundell of The 2 Bears], but I was really excited to work with someone with a voice like Amy’s.” After hearing her voice – booming and smooth – he had images of making the kind of “epic, soulful disco and house music,” like Gloria Ann Taylor’s ‘Love Is A Hurtin Thing’ that he has long been a fan of. “It was an itch I had wanted to scratch. We try our best to be epic and soulful and have that kind of emotion in Hot Chip, but we don’t have the same tools for the job!”

Douglas was delighted to hear from him. “When he contacted me I was like, holy hell! Hot Chip! They’re one of the greatest bands ever!” When he sent over an instrumental to work with, she was more delighted still. Classically trained, the piece reminded her of the great composers. “The first thing I thought was ‘Oh. My. God. This is like a Bach Invention! The drama! I’m listening to this piece and I’m freaking out. My husband is sitting next me and I basically stood up and said ‘I have to go now. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be in the studio, but when I come up, I promise you, I’m going to turn in one of the most significant songs I’ll ever be a part of.’ And he said,” she adopts the dismissive tone of a distracted husband, “'OK, you go do that.'” She was drawn to the track’s intricacy. “Most dance music wants you to focus on locking into a pocket, it’s not trying to dazzle you with chord changes like Steely Dan. It’s simple. But not Joe’s. He’s a master craftsman. What differentiates him is that he loves motion.”

Before she could write to such a track, she had to pull it apart and learn it back to front on piano. “This man has handed me classical music, so I have to write Mozart to this!” After stripping it down, she took seven hours to come up with a vocal melody, then another three to write her words, detailing the emotional wrenches of a relationship on its knees, and the title ‘Holding on Too Long’, Hard Feelings’ glorious debut single. Goddard hadn’t given her a brief, but the result was “everything I’d hoped for and more,” he says. “I was really, really hoping that Amy would turn in some kind of devastating song about failed love, that tragic thing that you get in certain soul and disco records that just provides these wonderful moments on a dance floor. It was a great beginning to the project. From that moment we kind of had a blueprint for what we wanted to do.”

This was the first of many occasions where a strange kind of telepathy, something akin to The Force in Star Wars became apparent. Douglas had no idea that Goddard was hoping for exactly the song she ended up writing. “I felt like sometimes I could see inside his head,” she says. There were times when both would type and send the exact same message simultaneously in their WhatsApp conversations. “I started thinking he had some abilities!” In conversation they are very different from one another – Douglas an energetic whirlwind of digressions and pronouncements, Goddard composed and precise – but as musicians they share a great deal. “We have the same goals and values and codes,” Douglas says. “I’m just louder and more obnoxious!” It helps, says Goddard, that both are intensely hard workers, writing almost every single day cross a number of different projects “The reason this thing worked is that we both found another person who’s equally driven to get this done. ‘Here’s some music, I’m gonna nail this, and send it back,’” he says. “No waiting around for months and months because that’s what can kill a project.” He likens his attitude to the song ‘Work’ on Lou Reed and John Cale’s Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella, and there’s that telepathy again. “Songs For Drella!” Douglas exclaims; she was thinking of the exact same reference.

After the success of ‘Holding On Too Long’, the two musicians kept working together. The single became an EP, and the EP became an album. Owing to hectic schedules they had only one session together in person, but The Force carried them through. Great, melodramatic pop songs emerged, all of them following themes of frustration, heartbreak, and the euphoria of release. They took inspiration from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, “this loosely conceptual album where even if you didn’t know the story, the members breaking up, the cocaine, the horror of making that album, it's hard to miss that it’s really the arc of a dying relationship,” says Douglas. Hard Feelings is not a concept record per se, “but it’s something you can start devising your own stories to. It becomes more interactive that way. I want people to go ‘What happened? Did Amy and Joe leave their respective spouses?’” She’s coy as to what, exactly, is behind the record’s tumultuous lyrics. “In every truth there is fiction, in every fiction there is truth…” She offers only that “There’s something to be said about the tone of the album speaking to a global gestalt right now.”

Whatever its source, however, it’s that embrace of drama that makes Hard Feelings such an irresistible pop record. It’s experienced best in the visuals for ‘Holding On Too Long’ and ‘Dangerous’, a two-part narrative that begins with Douglas fleeing a failing relationship, and diving head first into bacchanalian bliss in a church-cum-club. Her performance oozes emotion. The latter scenes in particular are unbelievably intense, a elaborately choregraphed clash of glitz, glamour, sex, sleaze and claustrophobia. Filmed during lockdown, they embraced its restrictions and drew inspiration from “pieces of art where being contained is a part of it,” like The Shining, Suspiria and Sunset Boulevard. Douglas went all in. “It was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I broke my finger, woke up the next day covered in bruises with a big old stye in my eye. I looked like the hormone monster from that show Big Mouth.” In ‘Sister Infinity’, meanwhile, Goddard plays a producer using a form of AI to create the perfect pop singer (played by Douglas), swiping his way through one option after enough. It's camp and fun, taking its cues from the wonky vintage sci-fi of which director Tim Wagner is a huge fan, and a great deal of fun. Yet for all its goofiness, Douglas explains, “we wanted a serious and nefarious subtext, a social commentary about how women are treated. Joe’s character keeps hitting no, no, no. It’s the same mentality in society. Women are just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, aren’t we?”

All these swings and clashes of mood and tone are never jarring, because they’re folded into songs that are simply impeccably written, pop that gallops along with irresistible grace. She lauds Goddard with comparisons to classical composers, but matches those levels as both singer and songwriter. “You’ve got to get out of the song’s way. Listen to what the song is trying to tell you, don’t you talk to it, your job is to sit back and go OK, song, talk to me,” she offers. “You talk to it, and then you hear that click when it’s right, and then you have to know also when to step away and stop second guessing yourself.” When you have two musicians of Goddard and Douglas’ calibre, with such an instantaneously deep connection with one another, that click is a sound that resonates deeply.

It's trust and mutual admiration at the heart of Hard Feelings, one that encourages each of the musicians to raise their game in order to match the way they perceive their collaborator. For Goddard, the record as a platform for that incredible voice that first prompted him to Tweet her, and an antidote to the kind of mentality they parody in the ‘Sister Infinity’ video. “For me, part of the interest in this whole project is that the best house and disco music is about empowerment, and I wanted to empower Amy as this unconventional frontperson. I think there should be more unconventional lead singers and figures, older women like Amy at the forefront of our culture.” Douglas returns the favour. “Making this album has been the honour of my life,” she says. “My faith in Joe is that he could do anything, he could probably do open heart surgery while playing the keys.”

Hard Feelings' self-titled debut album is out now via Domino