Text and Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
Photos: Landon Speers
Idyllic setting be damned, there are very few moments of peace in Half Waif’s video for “Frost Burn.” The interruptions are as consistent as they are self-imposed and mysteriously foreboding. We can’t see the source of our dreamy-eyed protagonist’s fear, nor her melancholy, and we’re left to assume it comes from within, an ache deep and massive enough to extract and project far into the woods surrounding her warm house. Even her tea, encased in a mason jar, can’t bring warmth; she inexplicably pours it, mid-picnic, onto the snow.
There’s a heavy truth to this storyline: Nandi Rose Plunkett, the driving force behind Half Waif, recorded her new EP, form/a, entirely alone, in a house in the Berkshires—where she grew up—far from her boyfriend (one-third of Half Waif), her friends, and her home in Brooklyn. Like the cyclicality of a mandala, that brief clear-headed escapism gave way to an exploration of her own history, memories, and fragmented sense of self. “And on my island, I cannot escape the violence,” she sings in “Frost Burn,” a rueful sort of musing on the inability to ever, really, escape one’s own hidden monsters. form/a is carefully but barely restrained, Plunkett’s rich, heartrending voice weaving into and pushing against delicate synths and strange soundscapes, sometimes pulled from her self-imposed retreat (a loud radiator makes its way onto one track).
Plunkett, whose parents’ cultural influences have seeped into her ultimately genre-less, beautifully meandering work (her father is Irish-American; her mother, an Indian refugee from Uganda), is a child of divorce, and she’s been open about the exploratory need to find a sense of home, the conceptual, internal kind that exists somewhere between one’s past and present. form/a carefully explores this narrative, along with the existential nomadism between self and other: the relationships we build and the natural conflicts that blossom at the intersection of self-discovery and empathy, as we attempt to give shape to the intangible spaces between us. Relationships, particularly the kinds with ourselves, are hard.
Still on tour promoting form/a, Plunkett spoke to us over e-mail about these themes, about being kind to oneself, about where, exactly, musical influences go, and what it was like to record alone.
When I was growing up, my parents loved so many different types of music, and it stayed with me forever. How did your familial history make its way into this EP, and in turn, how did you break away from that?
You know, I often wonder where any music that I listen to goes inside my own songs. How is it absorbed? What influence does it have? I can’t really hear it specifically, I guess because I’m too close to the songs. So I can’t say I was thinking specifically about music that I listened to when I wrote the EP, but I know that there is this bedrock of sound in me that came from my childhood. The new territory comes from layering years and years of influences, ideas, sounds, thoughts over that bedrock and creating something that feels like the current iteration of myself.
I know you’ve answered this before, but what made you decide to go on this retreat? Did living in an idyllic place allow you space from yourself, or did your inner thoughts/worries/dreams/fears make themselves visible?
I wanted to get away from the city and also spend some time alone, away from my partner. I was a pretty lonely kid, and I didn’t have many boyfriends, so I used to write freely from this place of solitude. Now, I’m happy to say, I have a lot more friends and a strong relationship, but the negative side of that is I don’t really write in the same way I used to! And I miss that feeling sometimes. So I was hoping to recreate that by going back to the Berkshires, where I grew up, and isolating myself for a week. It didn’t work, though, because obviously I’m not the same person I was when I lived there as a kid. It wasn’t a delicious solitude I found; it was fitful and frightening and hard. But that was something I needed to learn about myself in the present.
Did you work on the entirety of the EP alone? What was the process like—I am imagining you waking up and writing immediately, but there was probably more wandering, recording found sounds, daydreaming…
I worked on it alone up to a point, and then once the songs were recorded, I brought in my friend Zubin Hensler to add some masterful touches to the beats, notably on “Frost Burn” and “Severed Logic.” But the writing and recording was all me. When I was up in the Berkshires, the days were frustrating. I had envisioned working in a focused manner, two hours of writing, two hours of reading. But I was so restless. I’d start working on something, then get distracted, go for a walk, start something new. I spent a lot of time at the river that ran next to the house. I got samples of the geese squawking in the yard. When I left at the end of the week, I thought I had written nothing. But then I listened back and I had complete demos of what would become “Frost Burn,” “Magic Trick,” and “Night Heat.” So that was a nice surprise. I think I need to trust myself and the scattered process more next time.
It wasn’t a delicious solitude I found; it was fitful and frightening and hard. But that was something I needed to learn about myself in the present.
In a former relationship, my partner and I talked about the inability to truly give shape to what we felt inside, no matter how much we shared with each other. There’s no way of getting inside someone else’s mind or manifesting it physically. In your interview with Stereogum, you describe trying to give a physical form to your thoughts and feelings. Can you explain this?
That’s the heart of this EP: how do we give form to our formless interior worlds, so that we can create better understanding? That’s interesting that you and your partner talked about that. I don’t think Zack and I had ever explicitly talked about it, but it’s something I think about a lot. We spend so much time together, living together and playing in two bands together, and yet there is this part of me he can never know or see, because that’s the part of me that exists when I’m alone. So form/a was kind of my way of working through that, and coming to terms with it, and then sharing those thoughts with him.
One line on “Night Heat” really struck me: “I’ll follow you forever so you know me well/Then there’s no need to really know myself.” Is this a reference to how easy it can be to lose yourself in any kind of relationship, how it can come to protect you? How do we overcome that?
It’s partially that, yes! This song is about the importance of retaining autonomy in a relationship, even though the lyrics kind of naively pretend that it’s okay to blindly follow someone and lose yourself. Because that feels safe in a lot of ways. It’s also about how we seek out relationships so that the other person can do some of the work for us. We let the other person be a mirror for us and we come to understand the curves of ourselves based on how the other person reacts. And if another person loves us, we think maybe they can love us enough for the both of us, like you don’t have to love or know yourself that well because your partner will just do that for you. Which is definitely not always healthy…
You are the daughter of a refugee, and you’ve said that you carry with you the search for home. Is music itself a kind of home for you?
Absolutely. It’s the one thing I can carry with me, now that I’m on the road all the time and really don’t have a permanent residence. Someone said something to me recently like, “as we grow, we make new definitions of family and home.” And it’s true; there are other things that can ground us. For me, that’s the music and my bandmates, who are a new kind of family for me, rooting me firmly on this strange and interesting path I’ve chosen.
In another interview, you apologized to yourself for projecting negative energy onto your own being. I so relate! What are you doing for self-care right now? Times are tough, and tougher still for people with fragile self-esteem.
Great question! Self-care is a really important concept, particularly right now. We can feel so small in light of momentous changes, or hate ourselves for not doing enough to enact positive change. So it’s good to remember that taking care of yourself is step one in being able to face the world and create and facilitate beautiful things. I’ve taken to giving myself little pep talks, especially before shows when I’m feeling most vulnerable. Just like, “Hey, Nandi. Sweet girl. You are doing your very best. You are so brave for getting up on that stage. I’m proud of you.” This sounds cheesy and trite but it feels really good and soothing to feed kind words back into myself.