Long Read: We spoke with Half Waif about isolation, the new album The Caretaker and about what’s happening in our world at the moment.

What a crazy time to be living in, where the lack of creativity and motivation comes upon us, but there’s always a strength pushing us forward and fortunately there are artists that make a difference by pushing themselves into doing more and better. Half Waif‘s new record, The Caretaker, feels like it came out at the right time. It’s a record about introspection and dealing with loneliness; the way Nandi Rose puts herself being into her music is just incredible. We spoke with Nandi about isolation, the whole conception behind The Caretaker and her thoughts about everything that’s happening in our world at the moment.

First of all, I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. How are you dealing with the isolation and anxiety knowing everything that’s going on right now?
Thank you – and the same to you! One of the hardest parts about right now is not knowing when this will end and when we can resume gathering and being out in public. Normally, we have these things to look forward to – trips, tours, birthday parties – but now there’s nothing really to anticipate. That can make it hard to stay motivated during the day. I’m just trying to take it day by day, to focus on the little bit of time in front of me and figure out how to spend it as meaningfully as I can. That means unearthing and celebrating sources of private joy: birdwatching in the backyard, reading in the bath. This is a time to go quiet, go small, and understand the very basic parts of ourselves. It’s funny, because those are very similar circumstances to when I wrote The Caretaker, in a kind of self-imposed exile from the world, from friends.

I listened to your new album just before I went on quarantine and then listening to it now it felt different, with a new meaning. It just feels like it describes in some ways how I’m feeling right now. You worked on this album when you were by yourself at your home for a long time, while dealing with loneliness and introspection. How do you look back to those times comparing to nowadays?
It’s like a warped version of where I was a year ago. A more nightmarish version, because we’re all experiencing it, and the consequences are so huge and far-reaching. But in terms of the day-to-day, it’s not so different for me. While writing The Caretaker, I wasn’t seeing many people. I live in a tiny town two and a half hours north of New York City, and I don’t really have friends in town. My husband was touring with his band a lot, so I would be alone for long stretches of time. I had to make sense of all that space. In that vacuum, all the noise went away and I was just left with myself. That’s when I started hearing this internal monologue that was like, “You’re not good enough. With your friends, with music, with your partner.” I felt really beaten down, and I needed to understand why.

Early during the lockdown, you started to do livestream of your performances, such as on Facebook/YouTube/IG, and the first one was the album’s release show live from your living room. It was an inspiring live experience to see and feel from afar. How was it like for you to do these performances – that in a way, as you said, was an evening of celebration in isolation?
I think there are definitely pros and cons to the livestream situation. It’s amazing that there’s a sense of inclusivity to the live streams because anyone can join and watch from anywhere. My release show was supposed to be for 200 people in Brooklyn. Instead, I think more like 500 watched it live from all over the world, and more people have streamed it since then. I also love that there can be an informality to the streams, inviting people into your living room, breaking down barriers and connecting more directly. And there’s a sense of camaraderie, because we’re all experiencing this global pandemic together. But they still aren’t a substitute for in-person shows. There isn’t that same energy of all being in the same room. It’s just not the same thing, but I think live streams have a lot to teach us this year while they’re our only option, and I imagine musicians will continue doing them even when it’s safe to tour again.

You released your amazing album Lavender back in April 2018, and now 2 years later you released The Caretaker. What did mainly differ between the two albums regarding the writing process?
Lavender was written in so many different places because I was on tour for a lot at that time. So there are songs on that album written in green rooms across the US and Europe, from the back of vans, from random houses. It was a tapestry of transience. In contrast, The Caretaker was written in one place, as a meditation on stagnation as the seasons pass you by. Physical space has so much influence on what and how we write, so I think that led to two different approaches. Also, Lavender was arranged and co-produced with my bandmates at the time. We had a safe space of working out arrangements together, bouncing ideas off each other. For The Caretaker, I found myself alone and without a band for the first time in many years. So it was a much more solitary, isolated project while writing and arranging.

The Caretaker feels much bolder and musically more diverse than your previous album, where you expose your personal growth and self-acceptance during a certain time in your life. You were always great conveying that into your music. The album itself feels like a concept album where you created this special character. Can you tell us more about this character and what led you to create it?
The character of The Caretaker emerged late in the process. Part of it was wanting to separate myself from the subject matter of the songs – in some ways, I was too close and needed that distance to feel some sort of protection from this extremely vulnerable outpouring. And in other ways, I had evolved past that point in my life, and I needed that separation to mark a line in the sand. I also just love the idea of having a character at the heart of this record, to guide you through. She’s very vivid for me in my mind: androgynous, smudged with dirt, pacing the porch at twilight and watching the fireflies, the headlights of cars, the red blip of cell phone towers in the distance. She’s supposed to be taking care of the grounds, but instead she finds herself sinking into her surroundings, lost in memory. She knows that she has failed as a caretaker, but this album is her journey towards figuring out why. She emerges from that summer stronger in herself, ready to return to the world.

The first song you unveiled off this album was “Ordinary Talk”, which you also released a Kenna Hynes-directed video, where we see you dancing throughout the video, giving a contagious energy to the song. What’s the song about and how did you develop the concept for the video?
The song is about recognizing that in order to feel human and alive, we have to experience the full range of emotions. Sometimes that manifests as pain, sometimes as joy. It can be crying in our coffee cups, or simply folding the laundry. Because I was feeling so isolated at this time in my life, I was really looking for those universal moments, a way to reach out and connect. When I was first thinking of the video, I had a clear idea for the opening shot: me singing “baby don’t worry about me” up close, but as the camera pans out, it’s revealed that I’m in a super uncomfortable position, almost bound. It’s supposed to be a bit playful and cheeky. I also had this image in mind of these Elizabethan courtiers, repressing their emotions and then gradually becoming unleashed. Kenna and I worked on fleshing out these ideas over many months. At one point, we thought maybe I’d be on a harness strung up in front of a green screen projection of a universe, dancing. That clearly didn’t happen, but it was fun to throw out grand ideas and see what we could actually pull off. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on – a very fun and inspiring collaboration all around.

Is dancing and having choreographies something that you want to explore more on your upcoming videos and even on live shows?
Yes! I actually did a project my senior year of high school all about choreography. So it’s something I’ve been into for a while. I’m so inspired by people like FKA Twigs who seem to say, “why not?” when faced with a challenge. Why not learn pole dancing because you have an idea that you’re pole dancing in a video? Why not see how far your vision can take you? I don’t think you’ll see me pole dancing anytime soon, but I have it in mind to continue to push myself outside of music.

The single that came up next was “Halogen 2”, along with another mesmerizing video directed once again by Kenna Hynes. You wrote this song at home in Upstate New York last March. What was the inspiration behind this one?
This was written at the height of this period where I was feeling very isolated and removed from the world. I was also listening to a lot of Robyn – I love her style of emotional dance music. So I was thinking a lot about that, how a pop song and a big hook can be so freeing and transformative.

The last offering off the album was “In August”, which was released with a gorgeous lyric video created by Sarah Sheikh Bridge, featuring Nuria Riaza’s illustrations. How was it like to work for this video and the connection with the song?
I’ve never done a lyric video before, so I wasn’t sure at first what it should look like. I was looking at some nature videos on my phone, things I’ve taken over the last couple years in places that are meaningful to me, and I had the idea of layering them. A collage of seasons to match the lyrics. Sarah Sheikh Bridge rendered the video beautifully – my jaw dropped when I saw the first draft! I love the mixed media feel, with the animated illustrations and the lo-fi video footage supporting the unfurling of the lyrics. It feels nostalgic and poignant, like a dream.

August is your favorite month and I guess it was a different month to live through for everyone in general. How was August of 2020 for you?
It was definitely a very different August than the last. Last year, I was getting married in August, surrounded by loved ones, experiencing pure celebration and joy. It’s a completely different world now. This year, I was up in Maine at my family’s cabin, doing some envisioning work. I wanted to really look at my life and make some conscious decisions about how to move forward in this new world in a way that feels meaningful and fulfilling. The biggest thing that emerged for me was that in addition to music, I wanted to find work in nature, in a way that had immediate benefit for others and could be of service to people in need. So when I got back home in mid-August, I started volunteering with two amazing local organizations, an educational farm and an herbal mutual aid network. That was a real turning point for me. I feel like I’m at the beginning of something new now, embarking on a path of herbalism and land stewardship. And of course that happened in August, my favorite month!

Tell us a little about the artists behind the cover artwork (Brian Vu) and the illustrations (Nuria Riaza) and how they got involved. Let me say it’s a terrific work of art.
I’m a huge fan of both of these artists and it is such an honor to have their artwork be a big part of this album. Brian’s work is bold, surreal, modern, playful, and powerful. These were all things I wanted to convey with the cover. When I was writing this album, I was thinking a lot about being more direct with the lyrics and melodies, generally cutting things down to the bone and being as specific about what I was conveying as possible. Likewise, I wanted the cover to convey a sense of directness and confidence that I haven’t explored with artwork in the past. My past album covers are more muted, with my face turned away from the camera. This cover feels like an invitation, or maybe it’s The Caretaker saying, “enter my world if you care to. I’ll be here either way.

I met Nuria at a festival in Borriana, Spain, in 2017. I’ve been following her work ever since, waiting for the chance to collaborate. When I teamed up with Brian for the cover, I knew I wanted a counterpoint to his sensibilities – something more organic, softer. Her pen drawings are really intricate and detailed and often depict nature. I also love how the blue color is reminiscent in some ways of cyanotypes, which are prints made by the sun. Because this record was so much an ode to summer, I liked this little hidden reference to warmth.

The song “Generation” deals with the fact you became 30 recently, I relate to that since last year I’ve become 30 as well. How does it feel to listen to that song now due to what we’re living now?
This song is about recognizing and ultimately relinquishing our past narratives. Turning 30, getting married, changing my name: these were milestones in my life, a concrete expression of growing up, and I didn’t want to enter this next phase of my life being bound by some of my old sorrows. “Shouting at clouds, I’ve done enough now” – this was me telling myself, okay you’ve had your time to rage against the world, but now you need to go quiet and relax and accept yourself and move forward, with love and confidence. I think that makes even more sense now in light of what’s going on in the world.

“Window Place” feels so accurate to this moment. The phrase “My life feels like a window, I keep it clean.” just fits the atmosphere we’re living right now. What’s the story behind this song?
This is one of those songs that just seemed to want to be written. I started with the piano part, which felt so ominous and unsettling. When it came to the chorus, I wanted something more uplifting, like a flare of light, and I wanted a hook. I was really aspiring on this record to write more hooks and catchy choruses, because they’re so fun to sing! Lyrically, this song came at a time when I was reading Michael Pollan’s book A Place of My Own, which is about architecture and building spaces that contain our selves, our dreams. I can’t totally remember the details now, but in it he talks about the concept of a “window place” and I thought that was such a lovely image. Looking out from the windows of our eyes, separated from the world, our bodies can be prisons or they can be shelters, and often it feels like both.

“My Best Self” is another gem of the album. Who is singing with you? Was it a collaborative song?
That’s just my own voice! It happened as an accident at first, when I tried to transpose the song just to hear what it sounded like in another key. But I ended up loving how it sounded, because it further deepened that feeling of there being a character. I imagine the verses of this song being like you’re looking into a dollhouse and watching a little scene play out.

How did you end up signing to ANTI- Records?
They heard the rough version of the album last spring and connected with it. I understand that this music is not for everyone, that of course not everyone will like it, so it was really important to me to find a label that understood what I was going for at those early stages – not just seeing it as a financial investment, but encouraging me as an artist to push myself, make a statement, and grow. I feel very welcomed by the ANTI- family and it’s an honor to be a part of their roster.

You put on sale a very cool limited-edition merch: The Crying in My Coffee mugs and The Caretaker Coffee Blend, and myself being a coffee lover, I simply loved the idea. How did you come up with that?
I love seeing people come up with “alt merch” that relates to lyrics and album themes. I first had the idea for the coffee mug, and then someone at ANTI was like, “why don’t you do a coffee blend? And in fact, I know this great roaster in Western Mass.” Turns out it was a cafe where I had performed on the first ever Half Waif tour, and I know the owners. It’s 20 mins from my house. So it turned out to be a very special collaboration, celebrating this local coffee roaster and harkening back to the roots of this band. I’m also a big coffee drinker, so it’s fun to get to share that with people.

Regarding everything that’s happening and how we were forced to be in insolation for the best for everyone, as an artist, did you find yourself feeling creative and inspired with all that you’re experiencing at the moment?
Somewhat. I think in the first weeks of this new world of quarantine, everything felt too raw and new and unsettled to write. I wasn’t feeling inspired at all, which sometimes I felt guilty about, but I really try not to put too much pressure on myself to write. Otherwise it wrings all the fun out of it. I was keeping creative in other ways though – sketching, journaling, writing essays. Now that things have settled into a new routine, I’m starting to get back to my music room. I was getting close to finishing a new album when this happened, and I’m curious to see what kind of new turn it will take. I can’t really go back to writing about what I was writing before. I actually just saw my mom post a relevant quote on Facebook, from Alice in Wonderland: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” This has been the most jarring fork in the road, and I’m hoping that it will at least lead me to an interesting place creatively. We’ll see.

Looking back to these past 6 months that went by, what did you do to say motivated while in isolation?
It’s been hard. The world is sick, at such a deep level. We are seeing the way illness permeates all aspects of our lives. Our culture is sick, our politics is sick, our bodies are sick, our planet is sick. Staying motivated doesn’t mean having blind positivity, because we can’t ignore what’s happening, but it does mean focusing on the deeply fundamental elements of what makes us feel good as humans. Spending time with family and spending time in nature. Being there for others. Showing up for ourselves. Remembering and learning from our ancestors. Putting our hands in the dirt. Preparing nourishing foods. Learning the names of the living beings all around us. That’s what I’ve been doing to stay grounded and connected to my life. And that’s what’s keeping me motivated to move forward.

What are your best advices for everyone that’s home and doing their best to stay safe and keep other safe as well?
Be kind to yourself, be curious, be quiet. Listen. When we turn down the noise, what we thought was silence is actually rich with sound.

In your press released, you said “In my heart, I am always reaching for that summer evening.” I feel like that’s something that we are always trying to reach after a long and cold winter, and now much more due to everything is happening. Unfortunately, you had to cancel your upcoming live shows. Since we don’t know how long it will take to be out and safe, what are you hoping to do on these uncertain times?
I’m hoping to continue to write and to make sense of what this life is. I’m hoping to make the most out of what we’ve been given. I’m so grateful to be spending quality time with my husband. And spring is here! So I plan to spend a lot of time in nature, trying to learn the names of things and identify bird calls. I find that being in the woods is the best antidote to anxiety.

Is there new music in the works for Half Waif?
Yes! I’m terrible at keeping secrets, I’m a big over-sharer, so it’s hard for me not to say more. But I’m very proud of this new work. It took some time to figure out how to work on it during the pandemic with my collaborator, but we did, and seeing this project unfold has been another motivating and grounding force for me in the last six months.

Words: Andreia Alves // Photo: Tonje Thilesen – The Caretaker is out now on ANTI-.

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