Q&A with Half Waif

by Kara Kokinos

Q&A with Half Waif

In a candid interview, Nandi Rose Plunkett talks to Kara Kokinos about her musical journey as Half Waif, as well as her new EP, form/a, out February 24th via Cascine. Catch Half Waif playing tomorrow, 1/12, at Great Scott in Allston!

There’s a notable excitement that prefaces the conversation to follow; Half Waif has just premiered the newest single, “Severed Logic,” on Stereogum from forthcoming EP form/a, alongside an insightful interview that touches upon relationships, soundscapes, and art form. Nandi Rose Plunkett begins our interview buzzing with anxious eagerness at the traction her song and the interview have already gained. 

“(During) the (Stereogum) interview I was definitely nervous and drinking a beer. Reading back I really just went in on everything,” she laughs, “I was very honest but I’ve already had a couple of friends message me (saying), ‘Thank you so much for your honesty, it’s really cool to read an interview where you’re baring everything,’ which is cool, I didn’t totally mean to do that but I’m glad (they) got something out of it.”

Launching into a discussion of the honesty that fueled that interview, Plunkett mentions that she was sitting next to partner and Pinegrove/Half Waif bandmate Zack Levine when initially reading the interview. While the interview touched on a lot of aspects of their relationship, she articulates that, “it’s not anything to hide, it’s not saying anything bad; it’s just the nature of relationships and when you’re in one and you’re an artist you’re going to be writing from a place of being part of a relationship not a place of solitude…I feel good about it but I was definitely a little embarrassed at first.”

As we chatted more about the importance of candor to musicians, she stated, “I’m going to go with this policy, I going to try to be really honest in interviews, it’s going to be my thing,” and she definitely holds true to her words. Check out the rest of our discussion below and be sure to check out Half Waif’s show tomorrow night, 9 PM at the Great Scott, with Brittle Brian and Forth Wanderers.

For those of us are who have only heard the one track from form/a, is there anything you would want listeners to take into consideration before sitting down with your new work?

Definitely! I’m really curious what kind of feeling people get from the new music, this is the first thing that I’ve recorded on my own. That was kind of a scary process to embark upon but I demo out everything that I’ve written. In the past records I’ve had demos and worked with producers to realize them a little bit further but this was the first time I was like, “You know what? This is really me, the way that it sounds. It’s not super polished, it’s not going to be a really slick production but the sounds feel really like me. This is the way that I conceive of arrangement and production, I’m learning a lot and I hope I continue to grow and get better as a producer but this is the first time I felt like I wanted to share that aspect of my process with a larger audience.

You mentioned in that interview discussing songwriting with Evan (Stephens Hall). Obviously these two projects are incredibly different, but are Half Waif and Pinegrove two entirely separate experiences for you, musically, are they part of a larger entity?

Well, Half Waif was birthed from Pinegrove in a funny way. In the last two years of college, I stopped writing – I got kind of confused about what music I wanted to write because up to that point I just wrote very easily without a lot of editing. I realized that the music I was writing wasn’t something that I wanted to listen to; it came out of me but it didn’t excite me.

I had stopped writing when I met Evan, who has always had this very clear vision of who he is as a person and as an artist, which is something I really admire about him. Pinegrove has always had this very clear vision and we all moved to Brooklyn after graduation then I started getting this itch, like, “I love singing with Evan, I love playing with this group of musicians, but there is a part of me that’s not being expressed through this. How do I find that voice again and be a little bit more mindful and conscious of the music that I’m writing?”

It was while I was living in that house in Brooklyn that I started going into my room and writing these songs that fully became Half Waif. I don’t know if Half Waif would have taken its shape without my experience in Pinegrove. In that way they’re very much linked and, stylistically, they’re quite different in the way that we conceive of arrangement and song form but Evan and I are both songwriters at our core. That’s something I always hope comes across in my music – there are a lot of different sounds swirling around them but at the core these are very much songs. Evan and I have a lot of conversations about songwriting and support each other to continue to explore the songwriting process to be the most effective story-tellers that we can be.

So I’ve seen you a few different times, as Half Waif and as part of Pinegrove, and your blend with Evan is absolutely insane. What’s your background with vocal training?

Well I’m glad that you noticed that about me and Evan because that is why we started playing together. We started singing together and realized, “Wait, this is crazy.” Sometimes when we’re both singing and we hear a recording, we can’t tell who is singing. We’ll listen back and say, “Oh, that was the harmony that I wrote, that’s me singing, I really like that line,” and (then the other person) will say, “No, that’s my harmony! I sing that line, that sounds like me.” It’s really incredible and I’m so grateful that found each other in this way.

But I’ve always been a singer; I think the greatest element of my life is having a voice and being able to use it as singer, it’s so cool that it’s part of my body. I discovered at a really young age that I loved singing, I had my first band when I was nine, started taking voice lessons in eighth grade, did a lot of musical theatre in high school, and I sang all through college – I was a music major and my primary instrument was voice. I started doing classical singing and for my senior thesis I wrote this piece that studied the Baka tribe of Central Africa, who use their voice in this incredible way that’s akin to yodeling, so I wrote this piece of music that had singers flipping their voice between head voice and chest voice very quickly to create a kind of yodel effect. I think voice is so cool, I’m constantly trying to find ways to explore it and expand my range or just test out different places of the voice. Like any instrument, there are so many extended techniques that you can try. My voice is changing as I get older, when I listen to how I used to sing, even a few years ago, it’s getting more robust and deeper and that’s cool. You’re a living being so it makes sense that your voice is a living being also.

I’ve heard a bunch of different influences on the various tracks on “Probable Depths.” I remember thinking that the title track seemed like St Vincent, partially because of how playful with traditional song structure it is, but you’ve also built your own sonic rules and soundscapes within this album and even the individual tracks. Can you speak to how you broke down and reconstructed some of those musical expectations of form and instrumentation?

I really want there to be an element of songwriting at the center of these pieces but I kind of get bored with the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus thing. I might start with something that feels like a song, with a verse and internal structure that feels logical in terms of phrasing, rhyme, and chord progression but often it’s the music speaking for itself. For example, the other day I was thinking about the song “Cerulean” on the new EP and it has this really weird structure (of) three verses separated by instrumentals that act as their own section with their own melody. I definitely did not go into it thinking that I (would use that structure) but writing it, you would get to that end point. I write a lot with a computer so often I’ll be experimenting with beats or maybe a synth line and it just sort of unfolds organically, even if it feels like an inorganic form. It might feel kind of swirly but it’s where the music takes me.

I found this last album kind of unsettling, you’ve got a bunch of warning lyrics and the swallowed scream on “Turn Me Around” just makes you want to crawl out of your skin. As a listener, it was cathartic to have the sonic build of tension and release, was it the same for you while writing and performing?

Very much so! That stifled scream was right around the time when I was really listening to Mitski’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek and she has the song “Drunk Walk Home” where she’s screaming. I remember listening to that and there are so many elements of that album that are pretty – her voice is beautiful and there are some really beautiful melodies, that are so pure and perfect – and then there’s a track where it’s heavy and she’s screaming and it all exists in one space. It all exists in the space of one album and I remember looking at that and thinking that that feels real That’s how we experience life, as a series of really beautiful, pure moments and then the next second you could be totally swallowed up in this rage or overcome by this really strong mood. I’m a really moody person and that happens to me a lot, really, really quickly. In the course of one day my mood fluctuates very intensely, much to Zack’s dismay because he has to be on the other end of that, but it’s something that I do want to explore in the music and was working on in Probable Depths. Having some really pretty moments that feel cinematic and you get swept away in and then other, more jarring elements, like the breakdown in the title track. At the beginning it’s this pretty piano ballad and you’re like, “Okay, cool, we’re here, I get what this is,” and then it totally flips on its head. That feels so real to me.

So you brought up Mitski, and, as a mixed girl myself, it’s been amazing to see artists like her, you, and Japanese Breakfast putting out such quality music across such different genres. What unique perspectives do you think your background brings to your music? Whether that’s form or lyrics, or just who you inherently are.

That’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out too, doing more interviews asking “what’s your story?” and I wanna have a story! Something that I think about a lot and informs who I am and the kind of music that I write, is this feeling of home and searching for that. I come from a multi-cultural background, my mother was a refugee, and I grew up in a really beautiful safe space but since college I’ve been bopping around, trying to find a musical home for Half Waif, trying to find a home for it in the industry, (fueling) a constant search of belonging. As I result I think the music sounds fractured, it sounds like it’s searching for a place that feels wholly its own. I don’t think it’s settled anywhere because I don’t feel settled. I’m touring a lot these days and I don’t know where I’m going to end up. I really want to create music that maybe feels a little unsettling but also, when you listen to it, it feels like it’s its own world. It maybe doesn’t belong in one specific sphere; it’s not tied to any one place but as a result it creates this fragmented universe all of its own.

Thank you so much to Nandi for taking the time to interview with Kara Kokinos of WRBB, and thank you to Andi at Cascine for coordinating.

Listen to “Severed Logic”, the first single off form/a, here:

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Catch Half Waif on tour:

Jan 12th | Great Scott | Allston, MA (tickets)

Jan 13th | Baby’s All Right | Brooklyn, NY

Jan 14th | Comet Ping Pong | Washington, DC

Jan 15th | Creep Records | Philadelphia, PA