q&a

Half Waif Has Been Unknowingly Working Toward Mythopoetics for Generations

“We had a motto that was, ‘No rules, only guidelines.’” Photo: Alli Cherkis

As she was putting final touches on her last Half Waif album, The Caretaker, in late 2019, singer, songwriter, and producer Nandi Rose packed up for Florida from upstate New York. She had received a recording residency at the “artist-forward” studio Pulp Arts in Gainesville and planned to strip back and reimagine earlier Half Waif songs alongside her frequent collaborator Zubin Hensler, a trumpeter and producer. But ahead of the residency, Rose began supporting a family member who was getting sober — an experience that inspired her to write new music and begin working on a followup record, Mythopoetics. “I didn’t go into it being like, I’m making another record,” she says. “This record crept up almost out of nowhere.”

Rose is speaking from the music room of her home in Chatham, New York (which she shares with her husband and sometimes Pinegrove bandmate Zack Levine), where she wrote all of The Caretaker, a concept album grappling with loneliness that unintentionally became among the first records released during the COVID-19 pandemic, in late March 2020. “Looking back, it was almost too intense,” she says of making the album in pre-pandemic isolation. Rose has always been interested in analyzing her relationship to her surroundings, though — her artist name, she’s said, has come to refer to herself feeling connected to many places while lacking a home — and just as that solitude served The Caretaker’s themes, decamping to Gainesville with Hensler helped Rose create Mythopoetics. “Gaining distance and gaining separation is a big theme of this album,” Rose says. That idea grounds the title, which refers to “the art of making myths.” “When we create stories about who we are as human beings, as people, as families, that is inherently creating distance,” Rose explains. “The act of writing these songs was a way to transform the volatility of some of these deeply painful emotions into something beautiful and something I could stand apart from and look at and not feel the weight of being in those situations.”

Mythopoetics finds Rose at her most urgent, stretching the boundaries of Half Waif’s typical atmospheric synth-pop. Some of its best songs, like the single “Swimmer,” explode into new levels of catharsis, with crisp synthesis and Rose’s most powerful vocal performances matching the piercing emotional specificity of the lyrics. (She’s set to debut it live on a July 21 livestream.) It’s not only the best music Rose has ever made, but the way she tells it, the cap to a larger era of Half Waif. “I’m not saying it’s a perfect album or anything,” she says, “but spiritually, it fulfilled something for me.”

I read a throughline between The Caretaker and Mythopoetics. What was the path from finishing one to starting the other?
We were in the midst of mixing The Caretaker when the songs [for Mythopoetics] started coming out [of my head]. September 2019, I found myself in a place in my life where — and I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about this in a way that feels respectful of the situation that I went through — but I was taking care of someone as they went through a really deep struggle. So in that way, [it was a] very clear through-line from The Caretaker, a record in which I was taking care of myself at a time when I felt the absolute lowest about my sense of self-worth. The fall of 2019 was like, Okay, you’re being tasked with really showing up for someone else who is in the trenches. But recognizing that there’s only so much we can do for each other to make changes in our lives that need to happen.

I was also finding myself absorbing a lot of those feelings — almost being a mirror to this person as they were going through addiction and depression, looking at those tendencies in myself, especially ’cause this was a family member. These are inherited traits. So it became a record about taking care of somebody else, but also looking at how those stories have been shared and passed down, how they’ve come to define us, and how do we break out of those patterns?

It also feels like this shift from being more inwardly focused to more outwardly focused. I had seen this quote from an interview last summer, where you talked about needing “the necessary resistance of other people” in your time alone.
Yeah.

That was after The Caretaker. Listening to Mythopoetics now, it almost sounded like you were talking about the album before it was here.
I actually hadn’t thought of it that way before. My band had just left when I wrote The Caretaker. I was newly alone [as a musician]. And with Mythopoetics, it was very much the opposite of that, which was interacting more with this person who was going through the struggle and looking more at family stories.

The first track on Mythopoetics [“Fabric”] is about how I’ve forgotten how to be alone, because my partner has brought me out into the greater world. There’s something so beautiful about having a person who brings you more into harmony with your surroundings and doesn’t allow you to go to that dark space, that I went to in The Caretaker. That first track of Mythopoetics is like, “Okay, we’re coming out into this wider world, and examining relationships in a new way.”

How did you and Zubin get from deciding that these are going to be stripped-down piano tracks to what I feel like are some of the biggest—
[Laughing] I know.

—Half Waif songs we’ve ever heard.
We had a motto that was, “No rules, only guidelines.” And so we didn’t say, “We have to make a piano record.” It was a jumping-off point. The DNA of that original record is present in Mythopoetics: The first, middle, and last tracks are that record that we set out to make. “Sourdough” and “Powder,” these are the first songs I’ve ever released in which I played piano and sang at the same time. And I think that captures some of that original quality of what we were going for, a more live performance.

I’ve always had this duality — I mean, I’m a half waif. I’ve always had a sonic duality that I’ve been interested in exploring, which you’ll hear on every record. That’s the piano songs, it’s the ballads, it’s the more naturalistic soundscapes. And then it’s the pop songs, it’s the fully produced big beats, catchy choruses. To allow both worlds to exist in tandem: that feels like a full expression of myself as an artist.

The vocals were, on their own, super striking to me. I think about “Sourdough” as one of these stripped-back piano songs, but it has one of the biggest moments, too, on the whole record.
Like, yelling! That was really fun to explore as a singer, the full range of vocal timbres. I think I’m at a point artistically where I’m not afraid to sound imperfect. It’s been an evolution for me, over the years, to let some of those imperfections in in an intentional way. And recognize that the breaks in the voice, the cracks in the voice, the wavering pitch — these are all really important tools for communication. Again, The Caretaker came from such a place of low self-confidence. I think with Mythopoetics I was feeling a little bit more strength in myself, and in my partnership with Zubin as well. It was a very safe and inspiring collaboration.

Thinking about this album’s title, what is your relationship to truth or fiction as a songwriter?
I was starting to think about that on The Caretaker. I remember writing, for a piece I did for Talkhouse, about how creating the character of “the Caretaker” was a way of removing myself from it, because I am a very autobiographical writer. These are my life stories, and there is a tendency or a desire in myself to have full transparency with the world. Even in performance, I feel the most comfortable when I’m being myself. Which is maybe an obvious thing to say, but some people, they want to create this persona — and maybe there is a tendency of myself to do that as well. Because I write so autobiographically, I think in the presentation of the visuals and the music, that’s where I then get to play with fiction. So I guess there is a dialogue between truth and fiction in this record, and there’s a slight rejection of wanting this to be read as fully autobiographical, even though I’m telling you that that’s what it is.

Some musicians I’ve talked to in the past year have said that their albums don’t feel complete until they get to tour them. Does The Caretaker feel complete to you right now, as you’re about to put out this next album?
I specifically don’t think about live performance when I’m making a record. It’s very much about sharing that offering in its intended form. However, I do feel like it’s the forgotten child. I have a pretty strange relationship with it because of how it came out, literally two weeks into lockdown. I had spent a lot of time putting a new band together and psyching myself up to go back on tour, ’cause I hadn’t toured for like a year. So for the preparations to be unfulfilled in that way, yeah, it felt like there was no ending. And I wonder if I’ll feel that when we play some of The Caretaker on this tour in November.

Every record I’ve ever written, before it’s even out, I’m onto the next one. I’m like, Ugh, I can do it better. But Mythopoetics is the first album where, when I finished it, I didn’t immediately start on the next thing. I hope I can give that attention back to The Caretaker, because I do think it deserves it. And just for myself — I’m really working on recognizing the work that went into something and honoring that. Hopefully we’ll get it there.

In the album bio, you said you feel like this is the music you’ve been trying to make for ten years. That wasn’t really expanded upon there, so I wanted to put that to you: What do you feel like you finally reached here?
[It goes back to] the fact that I haven’t started immediately writing another album, because this record feels like the end of something for me, in a really positive way. It feels like the culmination of a decade-long chapter in my life. Both sides of the music that we were talking about — the piano, intimate moments, and then the more electro-pop, synth-pop songs — were fully realized on this album. Like, this is the most pop that I want to go. That satisfied something that I had been trying to do. The essence of what the songs are, the characters of these two voices — it feels like these characters grew up and I can let them go now, and I’m free to explore something else. I don’t totally know what that is yet; I have some inklings, but I’m giving myself the time now to be like, Okay, what’s next? Because I’m sort of done writing in this specific way that I’ve honed in on over a decade. And that feels really good, to let something go on your own terms, and to get to a point where you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Half Waif Has Been Working Toward Mythopoetics for a Decade