meet cici valentine, la's pysch rock sensation
Carly Russ is back with a new alter-ego, sound, and fearlessness.
Photography Dylan Peterson
There is something both powerful and frightening involved in walking away from a relationship, whether romantic or professional. It was during the spring of 2018 that after three years and two successful EP releases, folk-pop act Girlyboi decided to call it quits. Carly Russ, one half of the former duo, took some time away from recording to delve deep into personal challenges. “So in between that time, I struggled with a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. I did a lot of writing, worked through a lot of stuff with a therapist,” she reveals, and through this experience ultimately found her way back to music. Untethered from previous musical attachments, and with a fresh sense of artistic purpose, Russ’ newfound fearlessness led to the birth of a new alter-ego, Cici Valentine, and a new musical project: the L.A. based indie-psych band VALENTINE with creative partner Dylan Peterson.
Her upcoming EP Fool is slated for release in the fall. Today, Russ shares her new single “Against Me.” With its 60s style organ intro, we slide into a rhythmic world where Russ is vulnerable yet unwavering, her voice simultaneously intimate and disaffected as she grapples with feelings of uncertainty. As Cici Valentine, Russ’ sound has evolved from folk sensibility to 90s grooves (think Mazzy Star and Fiona Apple) fused with 60s psych and Brit-rock inflections as she explores issues of anxiety, scorned lovers, and intrusive thoughts. i-D spoke to Russ about her vintage clothing line, Celine Dion, and her newfound creative identity.
Have you been working on a lot of music? I know you also model and started a vintage collection.
I am doing a lot of modeling and its actually been really nice because a lot of the stuff that I’m getting booked for is music related, and it’s cool that I can bring those two worlds together. I’m also working really hard on my other love, which is vintage. I have a curated vintage site where I pick all the pieces out and style it myself.
You’re originally from Chicago, correct? Did you grow up in a musical household?
It’s Chicago, yeah, and I did. My mom would laugh at me for saying this but she’s got a really pretty voice. I think that’s where I get it from. We were all encouraged to be involved in something musically or creatively. My sister sings as well, my brother is incredible at guitar, we grew up going to music classes. My mom and dad shared their knowledge of good music, but they didn’t play their own music.
Were there any records you were obsessed with while growing up?
It’s funny because I think other people maybe wouldn’t admit to this but I spent my days listening to every Celine Dion record that she ever made. She’s a queen and everything that I know about music really came from her. She’s so talented. I grew up listening to John Denver and Johnny cash, and I loved Cher. I think my mom can’t even stand to listen to her anymore because that was all we listened to. I loved Shania Twain – so things like that were my first interactions with music.
You found success with Girlyboi – a creative and personal endeavor with your former partner. When did you know it was time to stop moving forward with that project?
There was a specific moment where I had to make a decision. Lucky for me it was a very specific circumstance that forced me to decide. Around March or April of last year is when I was like, “this is not healthy anymore.” People break up all the time, but to have to work with that person afterwards is very difficult. There was a specific moment when I hit a head. I created so much of that project - it was definitely a shared contribution, but I put so much energy, time, and love into this that it was really difficult for me to walk away. It’s funny how the universe shows you that the situation isn’t healthy and you have to make a decision: are you going to deal with this and handle the unhealthiness or are you going to walk away from it because that’s the healthiest thing to do?
Sometimes the most difficult things are the most important things. What were you doing during the lapse in time between then and now?
I gave myself the time to digest what happened. I think a lot of people jump from one thing to the next and that’s okay. I personally and mentally needed this time to release everything and not be a part of the music industry in general. I walked away from it. I knew I would go back into it at some point, but allowed myself to process as long as I needed. I did everything I could so that I would be okay for this next venture. Now I feel stronger in my art. I do have a bandmate [Peterson]; we work proactively together and that’s really amazing. As far as this project, it differs so much from my last. I have a lot more to say creatively. I worked hard on myself, I think that was the biggest thing that I did, and I started working on the vintage. That’s when things really started to come around for me with the music and the name.
How do you think your own relationship with sound has shifted since embarking on this new project?
My relationship has changed with it so much due to how much creative control I have now. I think that there was a precedent in my last project where there were specific roles and this time my bandmate wants me to speak up about stuff that I feel strongly about. Now I feel more confident in my music because it’s coming from my personal experiences. The things that I went through this last year, I’m using all that pain to drive my music and that’s why I’m so protective of it, and I’m so attached to it. I’m way more in tune with it now. Its personal experiences that I’m telling people, its vulnerable.
What can you tell us about your new track “Against Me”?
It’s about that friction of working with someone who is supposed to be your partner and lifting you up in your art, but instead it feels almost like they’re working against you and sabotaging you. There’s this dissonance of self-doubt in it; I’m thinking, “This is my partner. Of course they want what’s best for me.” But when I look at their actions combined, it’s not lining up. I started to realize that there’s no way that they could be making these decisions if they actually cared. The very first line is, “If you’re against me, I think I should know.” That’s something I thought about all year after I left Girlyboi. I wish I had just known there was something against me. It’s my track where I realize the reality of my situation. It was like, “Go ahead and do your thing.” I’m banding in my confidence and leaving.
Valentine’s Day is around the corner. What can you share about your alias Cici Valentine?
I was actually thinking about this the other day because a lot of friends asked why I picked “Valentine.” Valentine’s Day historically speaking, has a two-sided opinion to it. People either hate it or they love it. For me specifically, it has been a day of heartache and it’s also been a day of love. I’ve had great Valentine’s Days but this is my way of taking back the two-sided version of Valentine’s Day and making it my own. On the other hand, my nickname is “Cici” because my first name is Carly and my middle name is Christine. My brother and my sister used to call me “Cici” growing up – so I used that and then named the vintage “Valentine” because all of our stuff is very Valentine’s Day in the 80s or 90s. I wanted to put it all together in one category.
How do you feel about yourself right now as an artist? Did you discover anything surprising about yourself?
I realized so much this year about myself that I think was totally being suffocated. One valuable thing I learned is that I am a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. I did not give myself credit for how strong I am as a person, a musician, just in general. I’ve always been really hard on myself. This year, I’ve had a realization that that is not what I should be doing. I should be realizing how strong I am as a person and how I can actually do music on my own, I can do it with specific people who are uplifting me in the best way. I’m really proud of myself and who I am. I have not felt that way in a really long time and I think that through this process of leaving Girlyboi, I became a new person and I’m so proud of that person. That sounds so cheesy but it’s just the truth.