In our Track by Track feature, artists break down the stories behind each song on their latest record. Today, Half Waif explains her Mythopoetics.
Former Pinegrove member Half Waif has today released her new album, Mythopoetics. Stream the effort below via Apple Music and Spotify, and read a complete Track by Track breakdown of the LP by the artist herself.
Mythopoetics continues the art-pop direction Half Waif’s Nandi Rose began exploring more on 2020’s Caretaker and 2018’s Lavender. Including her 2016 Probable Depths debut, this latest release marks her fourth full-length overall. It also finds her once again reuniting with composer-producer Zubin Hensler, the mulit-instrumentalist Rose has collaborated on each of her albums.
While much of the new material finds Rose dealing with strife brought on by addiction, loss, capitalism, and of course COVID-19, it also sees her coming more confidently into her identity as Half Waif. “My voice is changing, and my confidence has reached a point where I feel that I can sing however I want,” she explained in a press release. “I’ve finally come to a place where I don’t have to conform to what I think other people want it to sound like.”
To hear more of what Half Waif has to say about the sounds and stories of Mythopoetics, read on for her insightful look at each track on the record.
I write a lot about the line between independence and interdependence. How do we maintain our sense of self when by design, in the relationships we form, we are being continuously woven into the fabric of other people? This song is about someone you love drawing you out of yourself and bringing you more into the world. It’s meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. Like, “How dare you make me a part of things when I just want to be apart from things!?” It’s so easy when you’re in a state of misery to want to retreat and recoil. But in order to love and be loved by someone – and I mean both romantic love and familial love – you have to share the weight and communicate and ask for help. There’s not an option to block out the world. You let yourself be led back out into the light on the thread of this love. You have to try, for them, for yourself.
I also just really wanted to try to write a short song after hearing Kacey Musgraves’s perfect song “Mother.”
Lying in bed after visiting my aunt, who has Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept fixating on the way her arm felt when I touched her — so soft yet solid — and how much love I tried to pour from my fingers, from my voice, into the vessel of her body. It’s a brutal disease and it took her away from us really quickly. But there are things that can’t be taken away. The memory of her swimming at our family’s cabin in Maine, the feeling of my fingers on her shoulder, the song. I started singing the melody of what would become “Swimmer” that night, just a loose scrap of a verse. The next day, I had this impulse to turn it into a dark pop song. I guess because transformation feels like the best way for me to handle grief. So the song became something I could shout and dance to, and in the accompanying music video, the woman becomes a flower and is set free.
I love what Zubin did with the arpeggiator on this song. In my demo, it was a flat sound that went along mechanically throughout the track, but he gave it so much life and shape. It feels like a voice of its own.
“Take Away the Ache”:
I really like that this song comes next — after I’ve been singing “they can’t take this away from me, take this away…” the first line you hear is “take away the ache.” It shifts the perspective and transforms the line from a mantra to a plea.
I rarely use the looping function on my Boss VE-20 vocal pedal, but I was messing around with it one day and made the vocal loop that starts this song. I haven’t listened to much Arthur Russell, but for some reason I always think of him when I hear the vocal part that goes “nonononono”. It’s just one of those associations the brain makes. But aside from the opening elements of the song, this was a very tough nut to crack production-wise. Zubin and I must have gone through five or six different versions of the second verse, trying to keep a sense of space while also letting the song grow and intensify. We actually wrote the end section in the studio. I don’t usually like to write new material in the studio, around other people, but it’s a testament to our level of trust and connection that I was able to come up with those ending call-and-response vocal melodies with Zubin at the board. It was a real slay-the-dragon song and it feels like, for us as a team, it was a triumph.
This song kind of harkens back to “Fabric” in its lyrical undertone. It’s a bit sarcastic — “well great, now I’m ruined to the universe because I love you so much.” But it’s also an expression of deep fear. When you take that leap outside of yourself and love someone else, you become so vulnerable. The death of that person would destroy you. And that’s something you have to live with — it’s a sacrifice we all make again and again, and would make again and again, because loving is so beautiful and rich and real. But there’s always a dark side. You can’t close yourself up in your fortress and deny yourself the connection with people, but you also have to be prepared to fall. There’s a sound on this song that sounds like I’m laughing, but it’s sardonic laughter. It’s the laughter of understanding something profound and inescapable.
The pre-chorus section, “I guess this is all for you,” was actually from an older Half Waif song called “Hide” that we were recording for Lavender. It didn’t make the cut for that record so it feels good to breathe new life into it and repurpose the melody here. I often think of a piece of advice someone gave me years and years ago: “Don’t be afraid to rip yourself off.”
There’s something nightmarish about this song, like you’re caught in a bad dream, waking up in the early morning as the sirens wail and you can’t distinguish one reality from the other. It’s about how sometimes when you see someone you love struggling, it can be frustrating because the solutions seem so obvious. You can see all the steps they need to take, but you can’t take those steps for them. They have to do it themselves. And making those changes can be extremely difficult when someone is trapped in destructive patterns. Still, all you want is to see them try.
Arrangement-wise, of all the songs on the record, this one changed the most from where it started. It originally had a classical piano accompaniment, but Zubin started messing around with a Moog while we were at our recording residency at Pulp and came up with this ominous yet jaunty arpeggio part. Probably the craziest thing we did on this album was record the piano first, without a click, to get a natural performance, and then Zubin had to go in and literally measure-by-measure map out the tempo so that the arpeggiator would lock in. The tempo is constantly pushing and pulling in this song, but you don’t necessarily notice it, which I love.
I have a hard time putting up boundaries. When someone I love is going through something profound and painful, I feel it flood my whole body. I find it hard to function. I guess people call that being an “empath,” though I know that word gets thrown around a lot so I’m hesitant to use it. But the feeling of being demolished by a loved one’s struggle permeates this record, and “Sourdough” is at the heart of that. I really would do anything to take the pain away from my family and friends, but then where does that pain go? It’s like handling a hot coal. And of course the painful reality is, you can’t really take the ache away — no amount of self-sacrifice will make them stop hurting.
I think this is the only song I’ve ever written entirely away from an instrument. I wrote the melody and lyrics, from start to finish, in an hour-long car ride, driving away from the source of pain. When I got home, I went straight to the piano and figured out the chords. I like that there’s almost a country feel to this song, with simple chords and lyrics that verge on being corny and three-part harmonies that remind me of The Chicks. I was also thinking about the book The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, in which the protagonist has the blessing and the curse of being able to taste emotions in what she eats.