Braids offshoot Blue Hawaii talk "jealousy and competition" in the Montreal music scene
by Mark Teo
January 30, 2013
For the last three years, it seemed that Montreal-via-Calgary songstress Raphaelle Standell-Preston had a veritable Midas effect: First, her main act, Braids, released the gorgeously unclassifiable Native Speaker, which introduced the world to her dreamy, vocal-driven, elastic eccentro-pop. Then, her ex-roommate Claire Boucher—i.e. Grimes—followed Standell-Preston’s lead, exploding from Montreal’s music community, taking her label, the ever-buzzy Arbutus, with her. Through it all, Standell-Preston maintained an oft-overlooked—if every bit as fascinating—electronic project with Montreal producer (and partner) Alex “Agor” Cowan that, through a split cassette with Braids and 2010’s beach-ready Blooming Summer EP, eluded the critical spotlight. Yet for the betting types—us among them—that’s about to change, beginning with their wonderfully complex debut LP, Untogether.
And just like Braids’ work, Blue Hawaii is moving into the genre-eluding sweet spot. “We outwardly discussed not being confined by genre,” says Standell-Preston. “After Blooming Summer we were really hung up with being categorized as a chillwave band. Neither of us really felt much warmth towards that trend in music.”
So much so, in fact, that when penning Untogether, which is due in March, the couple deliberately avoided anything that might sound like Neon Indian, Small Black or Washed Out. “It was really silly,” she adds. “We tried writing songs, and the songs kept flopping because we were overanalyzing everything to such a ridiculous degree.”
The result—which finally came together after a writing session in Vancouver in the spring of 2012—is markedly different from Blue Hawaii’s earlier work. Untogether juxtaposes Agor’s glacial soundscapes and glitchy drum clicks with Standell-Preston’s shapeshifting vocals—in short, it’s their darkest work yet. And its sonic and lyrical matter, says Standell-Preston, was shadowed by a relationship strained by distance.
“I [had been] on tour with Braids for a long time, and felt out of touch with any sort of musical connection I had with Agor,” she adds. “I felt very lost. I guess looking back, the desires going into making another recording together, whether or not it turned into ‘the record’, was to find our musical connection again.
“I started not wanting to record with Agor in the room because I would want to just scream or mumble or cry into the microphone. It seemed like we both needed the record for different reasons, so we naturally just did it apart,” she says. “I guess living together and then being in a band together, there wasn’t much space for us to have our own time, where we could not be together. With the record we found that space while still working towards something together.”
Her relationship wasn’t the only complicating factor for Untogether. Standell-Preston acknowledges that her music exists within the context of her peers—and her ex-roomie-cum-international star Grimes put the sometimes-unwanted spotlight on Montreal’s artistic community.
“With the success of Grimes, our community began to experience bouts of jealousy and this weird ominous feeling of competition,” she says. “It felt as though everyone was turning more inwards and working too hard. I won’t go to into it because it’s personal and I feel weird talking about it too much because Claire is my friend, but [even] I started hating myself and feeling like I had no purpose. I would go work on the record to try and relieve myself of those feelings, but would usually just get deeper into those thoughts.”
But while Untogether was a rumination on “communities parting and our personal struggle with self worth,” Standell-Preston admits that she still draws plenty of influence—and inspiration—from her Montreal peers.
“It’s like how much influence your best friends have over you: you start to pick up their mannerisms, the inflections in their laugh. It’s the same thing within an artistic community,” she says. “We’re constantly sharing our music and going to each other’s shows, and we pick up little bits of each others’ artistry. Claire and I, for example, both attempted singing in a higher register while living together so we both kind of go high in the same way because we’d be singing around the house…. And [a friend recently told me] that Mac [DeMarco] totally ripped off one of my riffs for ‘Viceroy.’ I just chuckled.”
Listen to “Try to Be,” Blue Hawaii’s first single from Untogether, below.