Sometimes the tiniest things we do for ourselves can feel like the biggest luxuries: going to bed with sheets straight from the dryer, listening to a podcast, adding guac to your burrito, journaling. And though cigarettes might be a bad habit, there’s nothing quite as relaxing than a contemplative smoke in the tub after a long day.
On Bathtub Cig’s reassuring ballad “Frankie on Lake Street,” Hilary James sings of a shared promise "that we’ll never be afraid, and we’ll both be OK.” Old Light, the band’s debut EP (out this Thursday on the Sad Cactus label) is full of such confidence boosters for introverts. As James sings later in that song, expressing the fear of entering a new relationship, “All I wanted was to mean something to you/But I don’t know what I have to offer you./My hands are shaking and I don’t know how to stay/But I'll keep trying anyway.”
That song title references Frankie Cosmos, and like that indie-pop band’s singer and songwriter, Greta Kline, James has an ear for sweet melodies that build worlds out of everyday minutiae, with dark undertones at times. On “Anxiety Obsession,” James reckons with her fascination of My Favorite Murder, a comedic true-crime podcast.
“I am both horrified and fascinated by serial killers,” she says. “It's like a train crash that you don't want to see but can't look away. I'm not sure why, but I think it's because I don't understand why or how people can murder a human and I want to understand.”
A strain of empathy runs through Old Light, an uplifting, sentimental record that addresses themes of overcoming depression but without sounding, well, depressing. On “All Bummer No Summer,” James sings about how draining and numbing sadness can be when everyone else seems to be enjoying a summer day. “Do you want to sleep all day/Just dreaming the sun away?” she asks, before the musical arrangement comes to life in an act of perseverance. Old Light is filled with such resonant moments of hope.
A member of the punk-band Fiji-13 and a cello teacher by day, James started the project two years ago, armed with a Casio keyboard, as a way to branch out as a songwriter. “I feel like a lot of this band in general is kind of an outlet for my anxieties and my feelings,” she says. “I have realized that the more I ignore my feelings, whether they’re good or bad, the worse it gets. But I’m also really bad at communicating what I’m feeling, or knowing what I’m feeling, or being vulnerable, and I feel like songwriting is the most vulnerable you can be.”
James first got Brent Pennington of the Awful Truth to sing harmonies and help flesh out the songs, and he encouraged her to officially start the band. Eventually, bassist Addie Strei (Adelyn Rose, P●PL) joined, and Jordan Bleau (Cheap Fantasy, Frankie Teardrop) was recruited to play drums and record the album. Now the band lives together, and the intimacy of their music seems inseparable from their closeness as a group.
“I think because everybody has this nice foundation of making music, nobody is defensive,” Pennington says. “We’re all just working for this arrangement together, and I think it shows in how the songs play out.”
“I think I have the fear that I’m not good enough, or my feelings aren’t valid, especially with these songs that are my intimate, secret feelings that admit that I want things,” James says. “I think I was scared the songs would suck on a technical level, or if I tell people my feelings would they hate me or not like me anymore? So it’s a good exercise for my life to do these songs. I feel like since having this band, I feel like I’ve been able to do that a little bit more outside of the songs too, which feels like a life point.”
With: Wetter and Iceblink
Where: Moon Palace Books
When: 8 p.m. Thurs. June 28
Tickets: All ages. $5. More info here.