After nearly a decade as somber songsmiths in local folk-rock band Fitzgerald, the husband-and-wife team of Nathan and Mandy Tensen-Woolery had an epiphany that would ultimately turn their music-making world upside down.
"There was a moment when it clicked for me that it's actually quite fun to have people dancing at your shows," admits Nathan. That simple realization led to a drastic overhaul in the sound of his new project, Ghost in the Water, the synth-pop duo he co-fronts with Mandy. "When I first got into songwriting in my early college years I remember playing a sad song in this coffeehouse and making someone cry. It felt weirdly powerful to be able to move a person that deeply and that sort of became the primary goal for a while. I'm finally looking around and realizing I can move people in many different ways. I can make them dance. Hopefully I can make them happy."
Shooting Stars and Battle Scars, Ghost in the Water's just-released sophomore album, lives up to its creator's newfound everybody-dance-now ethos. An 18-track home-recorded romp through giddy synth-pop pastures, SSABS is a fizzy and fun-loving pick-me-up. Broken hearts give way to block-rocking beats on tracks like the uproarious bedroom-disco celebratory anthem "Can You Drop It Like It's Hot?" If the song's combination of primed-to-party lyrical come-ons ("I apologize/The light was in my eyes/Please slide again") and hot-and-heavy retro synths doesn't bring a smile to your face, it's probably time to check your pulse. Ghost in the Water is dead serious about getting silly.
"Obviously 'Drop It Like It's Hot' is totally silly," admits Mandy. "Half the time when we sing it I'm cracking up on the inside myself. But to me, if you can write a song that's fun and joyful and has youthful enthusiasm, that is equally as valuable as moving someone with a song that's very intense and tormented. Everyone that's felt lonely has also probably felt giddy at some point."
It's this sense of adolescent giddiness that powers much of the album. The couple is unmistakably having a blast reinventing themselves as polar opposites of their prior musical venture. They've gone from dour folkies singing about gruesome amputations—"Bloody Stumps" was a highlight of Fitzgerald's 2004 album Raised By Wolves—to party-starting paramours extolling the virtues of clandestine crushes ("Secrets for Science") and late night automobile make-out sessions ("More Than a Friend").
"Driving around in a car with someone you have an intense crush on is just such a universal experience," offers Mandy. "There's an element of inherent nostalgia in being 30 and writing songs about teenage life. It's fun to go back to sort of being 16 in your mind and express those feelings as an adult who's hopefully more verbally and emotionally competent."
The nostalgia trip isn't just lyrical, as many of the album's best tracks overtly invoke the Minneapolis pop sound of the '80s. Tracks like the slinky "Break It Down" boast varied synthesizer textures and Prince-inspired hot-lick guitar fills that feel like they should be soundtracking a particularly steamy Miami Vice nightclub scene.
"Whether it gets acknowledged elsewhere or not, this album is really in my mind a tribute to the sound of '80s Minneapolis and people like Jam and Lewis and Prince," says Nathan. "I definitely feel connected to where I am and proud of that. At the same time, it's strange because with the internet we've also become part of a larger electronic music world overseas a little bit. Our previous record was released by different indie labels in Australia and the U.K., and we've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of French and British artists on remixes."
Regardless of how the rest of the world now responds to their upbeat-melody makeover, Nathan and Mandy are clearly revitalized by the shake-up—and maybe just a smidge terrified. "Making this record I definitely went through bouts of absolute terror," admits Nathan. "I had more than a few moments of freaking out and thinking, 'Wait a minute, this is all horrible! What have I done? I've gone too far down the rabbit hole on my own!' Ultimately I've come to terms with the fact that I'm a bit of a genre-hopper as a songwriter and that's okay. With this album, more than anything else I've done before, I felt like the sound in my head is what's reflected on the record. That's all you can really ask for."
GHOST IN THE WATER play their CD-release show with the New Monarchs, DJ Matty V, and Little Ghost on SATURDAY, AUGUST 6, at the 331 Club; 612.331.1746