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Strange Relations Redefine Confessional Songwriting on -Centrism

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Strange Relations | Kitty Cat Klub | Saturday, March 14
There is a boundless sense of freedom that permeates -Centrism, the debut full-length from the Minneapolis indie-rock trio Strange Relations. Core members and longtime friends/bandmates Casey Sowa and Marisa Helgeson invited guitarist Nate Hart-Andersen to join the band just a few months before they went into Humans Win! studio to record the follow-up to 2013's debut EP, Ghost World.

Strange Relations' music echoes the sonic expansiveness of Blonde Redhead and Foals, the buoyant guitar-fueled pop of Velocity Girl, and the untamed edge of Sleater-Kinney and Fugazi. You better believe such an unsettled musical dichotomy played a key role in the band's creative vision.

Gimme Noise asked Sowa and Helgeson about the wintry inspirations for these songs, and the meaning of "diary rock."

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Gimme Noise: Most of the songs on -Centrism were tracked last winter, a bitterly cold stretch of months. How did your surroundings help shape the songs and the sound of the record?

Casey Sowa: I think it's impossible to fully escape the impact of your environment on something as impressionable as a creative endeavor. The main thing for me is the isolation of the coldest days and weeks. Marisa and I live in a house in St. Paul, and I was a full-time student at the time, so I'd have stretches of time off alone at home while she was at work where I would end up writing. There's something a little "closed-in" feeling about the record, a sense of a pressure descending but a constant hum of defiance pushing back throughout. That's the effect of a harsh Minnesota winter you're hearing.

How did the songs evolve from the early stages to the finished studio versions?

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Casey: Most of the songs start with me sitting in my bedroom writing. Usually I take a lyric and a melody and write out the core parts on a Casiotone, and take that to the group and we build it from there; it's fairly traditional songwriting in that sense. But Nate joined the band only a few months before we headed into the studio to track the record, and he did an amazing job learning the songs, making them his own, and even collaborating with us on some brand new material that ended up on the record.

As a listener, I'm often drawn towards songs with many layers. But for this record we all committed to the ideal of "less is more"; we wanted the songs to really speak for themselves. We live tracked all of the instrumentation for the record over several days, full takes, with a few guitar and key overdubs; I returned the next month to track vocals. We wanted to push a more hi-fi production style on the more minimalist arrangements, leaving in the imperfections, to again play with the notions of balance and expectation we try to explore in our music.

Throughout the album, there seems to be this unsettled balance between elegant melodies ("Underage," "Distraction") and raw, urgent undertones ("Panther's Conquest," "Uprooted"). How did it come together?

Casey: One of our core objectives with this project, from an artistic standpoint, from the very beginning has been to play with the binary. That's where our name comes from, it's a sort of mission statement almost. Marisa and I both identify as queer and a huge part of queer theory and moreover, lived experience, is rooted in exposing and dismantling dichotomies.

All three of us also identify as feminists, so together these have a big influence over how we see the world and what we want to express. In the end, this blend of influences is what creates what we call "diary rock" or "hi-fi bedroom pop": They're both meant to describe a type of feminist pop music that has a thread of punk energy coursing through it.

So yes, we definitely are intentional in attempting to strike a balance between these different types of songs and energies and modes of expression. Part of the contrast you hear is also reflective of how the songs were written. For example, I wrote all of the parts, including instrumental, on "Underage" and "Distraction," while "Panther's Conquest" was born out of a jam paired with a vocal part I had in mind. As we were assembling the track listing for the studio, we purposefully tried to strike a balance between what types of songs were going to be included, and where on the record they would fall.

Speaking more explicitly about our musical influences, all of our favorite records balance scope and specificity to create a world and guide the listener through it; they provide a range of expression without being disjointed. Every time I hear a song by one of my favorite artists, whether or not I've heard it before, I immediately know it's them, yet all of my favorite artists make records that are so wonderfully diverse. I find those records to be so vital, so inspiring, so refreshing -- and quite rare. We hope to be one of those bands someday.

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How has the songwriting process changed for you between the recording of Ghost World and the release of -Centrism?

Casey: There's less compromise in the songwriting on -Centrism than there was on Ghost World. The songs are a little more deliberate, a little more structured overall. We also pushed the production on this record out of the shoegaze realm and further into what we like to call "pure pop" territory.

Casey and Marisa, you've been playing and making music together for quite a while now. How does that creative familiarity help these songs come to life and keep the group moving forward artistically?

Marisa Helgeson: Casey and I were friends before we were bandmates, and it was through our friendship that I became involved in music. She invited me into the first band I ever collaborated and performed in, so you could say she initiated me. Music brought us closer. We have known each other for a long time, and have a keen sense of when the other is settling-- so we support, but also challenge each other quite a bit. There are certain artistic tenets that over the course of working together have become deeply, existentially important to us, and I think that we try to keep ourselves accountable to them.

How did performing these songs live help tighten/loosen them up before you went into Humans Win! to record them?

Casey: It's always a little tough when you're writing in a windowless room with a bunch of other bands practicing around you to get an honest sense of how the song is working. Playing songs live is the best way to get a better feel for how the song's hitting, and to play off the energy to experiment a bit. But we don't look at live shows as practices for getting the recordings right. We're see the live show as a vital part of what our band is about and why we make music, to make that real connection with people.

Marisa, you've done the band's artwork on your last few releases. Does the artwork come after the songs are finished, or do you find pieces that can easily be partnered with the material?

Marisa: It's generally born out of a desire to visually articulate or underscore a mood or dynamic presented in the song. When Casey presents new material, we reach a common understanding of where it should end up by situating it within a mood, and sometimes within a color. The artwork comes as a final step of defining what the song says, and what we want listeners/observers to take away from it. It is a rewarding way to try to bring people in. We've worked together since the band's beginning to develop an aesthetic around our work, with a focus on things being hand drawn to reflect the personal side of our music.

You describe your sound as "diary rock." How do you strike the perfect balance between revealing enough in your songs, but not giving away too much of yourself?

I think I'm probably still learning how to do that. For real though, the term "confessional" has been used in a disparaging way to describe women songwriters for so long; me using "diary rock" to describe our sound, particularly on -Centrism, is my way of expressing a reclamation of the confessional. I see it as a feminist descriptor. Honesty isn't always easy. But why would I make music at all if I'm not going to make something that's real to me, and to other people?

Strange Relations record-release show for -Centrism. With Carroll and Gloss. 21+, $5, 9 p.m., at Kitty Cat Klub on Saturday, March 14.

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