The Hudson Valley-based Half Waif tackles everyday dramas on her new album, Mythopoetics, one of the year's finest.
Sitting before her bright yard in the Hudson Valley on a recent weekday afternoon musician Half Waif ponders the piano that has consoled her since childhood.
Born Ananda "Nandi" Rose in verdant Williamstown, Massachusetts, the artist began playing the instrument at age six and has since leapt from it to craft some of the finest art pop around. Across five albums, starting with 2014's scintillating Kotekan and continuing with the shimmering Mythopoetics that was released just two weeks ago, Half Waif emerges as a true visionary who digs everyday soil and rises with profound gems.
As she says by phone from her upstate New York home, "I was doing classical piano really early on but as I became more of an angsty preteen, I started writing my own songs and the piano was just this friend and this place of solace." The singer/composer adds that she "grew up across from a cemetery" and chuckles, "Maybe that's where these initial themes of mortality started filtering into me." But, aside from the angst that arose in part from the inherent hardship of her parents' divorce when she was fourteen, she is an almost preternaturally gifted writer of daily dramas.
Like TORRES and Moses Sumney, Half Waif deftly distills big ideas into sharp couplets and grounds abstractions in particulars. On the string-girded standout song, "Ceremonial" from Kotekan, for instance, she sings in her acrobatic tenor, "Now I am ready for the salty water/Now I am ready for the flesh and bones," dipping into the swamp with an incantation. At the start of the "Pyramid Song"-like "And Then They Grow," similarly, she whispers, "I won't question anything that comes my way/Head in water, feel the waves within my brain," facing the emotional storm.
Half Waif - "Swimmer" www.youtube.com
The moniker Half Waif partially stems from Rose's early-career conception that she's continually seeking a home and is a "waif" adrift in the world, and there is indeed a searching quality in her music, which she debuted a decade ago. Following her debut, she released the alternately fierce and pastoral sophomore record, Probable Depths (2016), which finds Rose perpetually seeking inner peace, whether it be by lowering mental anguish on the percussive "Nest" ("Quiet the machines/I'm gonna give you a rest") or by striving to regain momentum on the quietly epic "Stutter Stop" ("I trip over my legs/I fear I'll never learn"). Especially since moving about five years ago from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley with her now husband, Zack Levine of Pinegrove, she increasingly finds calm in nature.
"It allows for this sense of slowness and breathing room where I can kind of ruminate on these smaller moments and take a deeper peek inside them and where things aren't moving so fast," the artist says of her environment. "It's such an antidote to ego; so much of what I do is looking at my life, my narrative, my stories and sharing them. And that can be exhausting. Sometimes, it can feel too consuming and that's not how I want to be in the world. I want to be more a part of the world rather than apart from the world."
In addition to feeling the "interconnectedness of all things" through such pastimes as gardening, walking, and bird-watching, Rose also has a kinship "with ancestors who lived off the land in ways that we don't now." One forebear who she feels especially close to is her late grandmother, a figure who greatly inspired and hovers over Half Waif's cloud-splitting third album, Lavender (2018).
Named for the herb that the England-based elder would burn by stovetop to permeate the home, Lavender explores the themes of death, distance and heritage that Half Waif renders so elegantly throughout her work. Opening with the wistful "Lavender Burning," the masterful record shows the singer "fixated on a hole that won't sell my whole being" as she watches her grandmother confusedly "walk in her garden," having "lost her hearing" and now unable to "notice the cardinal."
Broken by the loss of her irreplaceable family member, on the peripatetic second song, "Torches" she asks, "Are these torches meant to fill the unending silence?" The other songs, such as the synth-zapped "Keep it Out," the operatic "In the Evening," and the arresting "Leveler" ("There's no more motion/Then how do I move?," goes one lyric), are filled with omnipotent longing, yet Half Waif's gift is to imbue that common sentiment and others like it with singularity.
Like the novelist Russell Banks or the short story writer Alice Munro, Half Waif mines the hidden depths of ordinary life and illuminates both its sadness and wonder. She's a songwriter who considers possibilities, such as a lonely existence on "Silt" and a spiritually vast one on "Ocean Scope" from Lavender, and the beauty that can still manifest.
"That's what connects us," she says of the everyday. "That's where we find our commonality and our common ground. I think that so much of songwriting for me is this way to seek connection to the world and to other people." The musician's ability to convey deep pathos through layered yet accessible pop compositions only enriches her artistry.
Last year's The Caretaker, for instance, is essentially a concept album about the titular character who's meant to tend a potentially edenic garden but instead lets it rot. Over handclaps and synth rattles ("Clouds Rest"), though, or piano plunks and percussive taps ("My Best Self"), the record complements its already compelling story with palpable soundscapes that recall those found on Deradoorian's wonderfully adventurous The Expanding Flower Planet (2015) and, before her, on Laurie Anderson's seminal Big Science (1982). Half Waif is undoubtedly one of the most visionary composers in contemporary pop yet her technical flourishes are all, as she says, "in service" of the emotion that she aims to reflect.
Her new record, Mythopoetics bursts with melancholic splendor. Written mostly at home upstate about two years ago and recorded with her brilliant co-producer, Zubin Hensler, in Gainesville at a residency and then Sunset Park in a small studio, the album is as exquisite as a diamond. Just under forty minutes, yet the apex of a sound that the musician has cultivated for the past ten years, Mythopoetics circles desire, heartache, and memory before closing on resilience. "And when I see the ghost of orange blossoms/In the snow/I'll know it was you/And I'm coming soon," Half Waif belts on "Orange Blossoms" towards the end of the record, the piano ever sparkling.