Aug 28, 2013, 07:00AM

Writing My Way Out of a Funk

A conversation with singer-songwriter Nedelle Torrisi.

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Nedelle Torrisi has never struck me as an especially forceful or intense singer, but there's something undeniably resilient and sweet about her vocal tone, how it is forever yielding, girl-next-door chummy, endlessly thermal. Indie rock is full of likeable female singers, but from her Nedelle & Thom days to her stint as Nedelle to her two-album stretch in Cryptacize with Curtains/Deerhoof guitarist Chris Cohen, Torrisi has stood apart; one could never imagine her spending her 30s and 40s dining out on touring horror stories. She was meant to sing in the way that Tom Brady was meant to play quarterback.

You hear her controlled, sparkling quail, and somehow know that special things are to come. The first few times you hear her new, self-titled (and self-released) solo album, you might not be certain that it's something special. Torrisi lacks the cute, chirpy casts of previous albums; it presents upfront as a multi-faceted interlude suite moving drowsily along at tortoise half-speed. Stick with it, though, and two strands emerge: 1) this is totally a breakup album, and 2) this is totally an album for people who grew up on multi-racial 1980s pop R&B. From the hopscotch lite synth chords and beats of "Double Horizon" to the echo-drowned, girl-group isms of "Emotional Money" to stinging, longing torch song "The Perfect Timing" to the Beach House-afloat-on-an-ocean swell "Don't Play Dumb"—which I always imagine Torrisi singing atop a grand piano at a well-appointed hotel bar—we're firmly in Gloria Estefan territory here, that sonorous instrument of hers fairly shimmers, rolling around in keyboards and strings and perfectly calibrated snare-taps. She's airy, she's incisive, she's a bit lost: the tenor shifts from song to song, cycling through the stages of grief, from shock gradually through to acceptance. Throughout, though, Torrisi and collaborator/producer Kenny Gilmore construct a sound world that feels as real, in its way, as the most finely detailed Pixar fantasias. And, yes: those interludes do enhance the appeal of the whole.

In an email interview earlier this month, I quizzed Torrisi about the end of Cryptacize, her new album, and her new musical direction. 


Splice Today: Before we talk about the new album, what can you tell me about Paradise? You were playing with Cryptacize, then that project slowed down, and there was word that you were working on a new band project. Then I got an email about this solo record. So I guess what I'm asking is this: how did you get from Cryptacize to the present moment?

Nedelle Torrisi: It's maybe more simple than it seems. After Cryptacize dissolved, I started writing new songs. I was pretty heartbroken at the time, so I wanted these songs to be deliberately happy, poppy and hopeful. Probably didn't succeed in that, but it was an attempt to write my way out of my despairing funk. This concept, along with one of my favorite poems, "Kubla Khan" and some other reasons as well, informed my decision to call this new project Paradise.

But there was never a band between Cryptacize and this solo project. I mean, I have a band that plays these songs, they're incredible, but we're not a band in the collective sense. Okay, so then when I started to think about putting out the record, the threat of my fickle nature loomed—I was afraid of not liking the name Paradise in the future, so I decided to end the madness of always changing band names, by changing my band name! So I'm rolling with my full name now.


ST: What led to Cryptacize dissolving?

NT: The band started and ended with a relationship. Luckily, I am still very close to Chris Cohen; he is a real talent.


ST: Why self-title this album?

NT: I consider this album to be a rebirth of sorts, in the sense that I haven't put out an album since the second Cryptacize record, which feels like a lifetime ago. I am really proud of this album, and so I wanted the title to be simple, like "Hello, again, nice to see you." And to me, self-titling it was a way of saying that.


ST: See, I think it's somehow more than that. It took me a few listens to warm up to this album, to really settle into it. But when I did, and I started jotting down notes, I realized that it's because this record is kind of like a quantum leap for you—it's like a line in the sand between what came before in the future, where before you were operating in a sort of indie-rock sphere, but now you've almost drifted into a pop/adult-contemporary realm. It's like two different universes; there's a different confidence. When you first played this record for other people, what were their reactions?

NT: Wow, thank you. I feel like a very specific feeling inspired this album. I worked really hard on writing these songs, and I was drawing from the feelings I got during all those nights when I would be pretending to do homework but was secretly tuned into 98.1 and dancing around my room listening to the unabashedly love-stricken songs of Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Sade, et al, while desperately trying to cultivate my vocal vibrato a la Whitney. I mean, nothing comes close.

Like I said earlier, I was trying to write a pop record—a pop love letter to the world, to find my own personal happiness in a time of depression. And of course other things informed it, too. I listen to a lot of Ravel, who I then learned was a big inspiration on Prince and Joni Mitchell! You can't go wrong, guys: bust out those Ravel pieces and listen to those catchy melodies and his surprising harmonic movement! He's my man. My friends were really excited about this batch of songs; they love this album, and that means more to me than anything.


ST: I think I know what you mean: there was something really special happening in late 80s/early 90s radio pop, this sort of semi-grown up mystery and wonder. Music seemed magic because of the ways in which it was being produced, but also because we knew so much less about the people producing it. This album is definitely is keyed into that vibe.

NT: Have you heard Stevie Wonder's version of "Redemption Song"? That production really blows me away, it might be the epitome of what you're referring to, unless I'm misunderstanding. In my opinion, it's crazy that he thought it was okay to execute a version like that. It shows that a good song could be produced in a million different ways, and be very far from the original version, but ultimately, it's the song itself and its spirit that shines through. When I listen to this version, I feel kind of nauseous. It's too much of a good thing. Stevie Wonder is so raw and unhinged in his delivery—maybe that's the type of "wonder" you speak of. No pun intended. But despite my nausea, I want to weep with joy. 


ST: Can you tell me the story behind "Can't Wait," both the meaning and the songwriting? It reminds me, really strongly, of Gloria Estefan.

NT: Sometimes, when I'm writing a song, I'll think, "This part would make so-and-so smile," so I'll continue to write the song with that friend's spirit in mind. And when I show the song to the person, it's really gratifying if they actually laugh at a part or look surprised or something. That's the best! I had my friend and producer Kenny Gilmore and my friend and bassist extraordinaire Gabe Noel in mind when writing "Can't Wait." They're total music nerds and love a good chord change, so all those exciting jazzy changes were to amuse them. And at the time I was also loving these YouTube videos of the cellist Jacqueline du Pre, and so I wrote what I thought was a pretty, but silly, Bach-esque intro.

In terms of the lyrics, well, it's about waiting (obviously) and longing. The line "I just can't wait" has a double-meaning, in that the person can't wait to be with the other, but also the person won't wait for the other, so they better make their move. The other lyrics are pretty self-explanatory.


ST: Not to get us off track, but do you remember whom you were writing for when you wrote "Mythomania"? That was my favorite Cryptacize song. What led the band to stop playing together?

NT: You know that quote from Hannah and Her Sisters when a character says something like, "If Jesus came back and saw what people were doing in his name, he'd never stop throwing up"? Well, the lyrics to "Mythomania" are a little like that sentiment. "Every time we turn around the moon is laughing at us." And, of course, the term mythomania has been replaced by pathological lying, but it refers to creating your own fantasy world through lying. You might know that you're lying, or think you're telling the truth, or a combination, but in the end, you can't keep track of the string of lies you've told and you lose touch with reality. The narrator of that song was tormented by the horrible sound of the moon laughing at him/her. 


ST: Do you ever receive invitations to appear on other artists' songs?

NT: Oh, sure. I've sung on a few records through the years, sometimes just a blip of background vocals, sometimes more. Recently I recorded a duet of a Janet Jackson song with Blood Orange/Dev Hynes, and sung some background vocals on his last record. Sufjan Stevens and I helped Chris Schlarb record a Beach Boys song that recently came out on his new album. Just sang on Thelma Houston & Janitor's upcoming album. Sang a little on Ariel Pink's Before Today. Sung leads for a Saturday Looks Good to Me track, backgrounds on a Curtains record. Somebody stop me! Am I hurting your feet dropping all these names? I mean, I've been around for a while, and I really enjoy collaborating.


ST: I feel silly now; I had no ideas that those collaborations happened, and I consider myself a fan of yours. The funny thing is that there are a couple moments early on on Nedelle Torrisi that remind me a lot of Ariel Pink, who tends to tap into the same bygone era of radio pop you're circling here.

NT: No silly feelings necessary. You would have to dig a little to find a couple of those recordings. You know, it seems most people only consume what's right in front of their faces, if not spoon-fed to them. So the fact you know about my music is a real accomplishment in the first place. Wink.

As for Ariel Pink, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, "I don't sound think I sound like him at all, pfft." But he is a great songwriter, and has gotten under the skin and into the bloodstream of a lot of musicians, and perhaps especially with people in Los Angeles. And of course, Cryptacize opened a tour for him—you really get to know someone's music on tour. That said, the fact that Kenny produced my album could be a cause for sounding in any way similar to him. I do believe the songwriting is very different. Well, any similarity is sure to be lost with my next recording, which I'd like to be very stripped down and different than this record! Not in any reactionary way, just that I like to challenge myself.


ST: When you listen back to your early 00s albums, does it ever seem like you're listening to a totally different artist?

NT: Yes, to an extent. But really, doesn't every artist just write the same song over and over again? To me, every one of my albums is similar in the sense that my songs are somewhat traditional. I love a good melody and chorus. There is always a strong girl-group influence, a tinge of R&B, and perhaps an obvious obsession with Burt Bacharach! But the style of my records vary from one to another. My hope is that regardless of the delivery and/or production, my songwriting is presented clearly, and the albums have gotten progressively better.


ST: When and where did you record the new album, and what was the atmosphere like?

NT: Kenny Gilmore and I started out in Sacramento at this studio, which is now in Marin County, called The Hangar. We spent two straight weeks living and sleeping in the studio and working 17-hour days. We recorded the basic tracks for every song, and recorded a string trio and harpist, as well. That was a real roller coaster, because we were trying to cram so much into those two weeks. There was some fighting, some stress, some mental and emotional breakdowns, but mostly laughing and complete giddiness.

Back in Los Angeles we went to therapy (kidding) and then kept working at his old house, which he shared with this band called Inc. They had a set-up in their garage. We re-recorded all the strings, and worked for quite some time there. Then we recorded some at his parents’ house, and finally finished recording and mixed the record at a studio in L.A. called Lone Palm Studios. This was all between May 2011 and November of 2012. Oh, yeah, and then we recorded "Can't Wait" and made a new version of "Cathartica" sometime thereafter. 


ST: Those keyboards on "I Love Thousands Every Summer" are really magical and madrigal, they just seem to go on forever.

NT: Why, thank you! Kenny and I worked very hard on that sound, so I speak for both of us in saying thank you! That is really his specialty: he searches endlessly for the perfect sound before recording any instrument. He can always hear it in his head, and won't stop trying until he's found it. He'll tinker with a synthesizer for hours, or layer different synthesizer sounds, all of which he found by tinkering for hours to find; this sort of dedication and energy is why he's so great. The Hangar had a ton of analog synthesizers, so it was a sort of heaven for him. So that sound was made by layering different sounds, and affecting them in different ways. 


ST: Are you planning to tour this album?

NT: Yes! I'm opening a tour for Julia Holter, which starts in Los Angeles on Sept. 11. We go to the east coast, and then I added a few shows on the way back to California. But that will mostly be a road trip in which I'm going to see all the things I've never seen before, while going through these places on tour. You know, Graceland, Grand Ole Opry, Grand Canyon. All the G's. And speaking of, Kenny Gilmore is coming with me, playing keyboards. He's a real magician, I'm so excited. Gonna be good!


ST: This isn't something I usually ask or bring up, but I'm interested in talking about your promotional photo for this album. There's a glamor and sophistication to that shot in contrast to the covers and inlays of your early albums, and the telephone call simulated adds a sense of possibility to everything. Can you tell me about how and why you chose it?

NT: A dear friend of mine, Boru O'Brien O'Connell, and I went on a road trip to the Madonna Inn, a fantastically gauche, tacky hotel (in other words, right up my alley) with theme rooms and fake waterfalls, etc. He is an incredible multi-disciplinary artist who has a solo show at the Kitchen in New York in January and I feel comfortable around him, so we got some great pictures that day. Some of the photos were used in a 7" record that came out on Thin Wrist last year. It has very elaborate packaging—nine inserts of different photographs, all 7" by 7"!

This particular shot with the phone is theatrical, which I think fits the music on this album, and also goes with the idea that I'm returning after a long period of not releasing anything. My expression looks like I'm trying to get something across. Also, I have a Tumblr blog that acts partly as a love advice column, so the photo works in that context, too. And totally unrelated to music, I volunteer for a crisis hotline. I guess I really love to gab.

—Nedelle Torrisi will be released on Sept. 3.


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