half waif embraces the healing power of pop music on new song 'torches'
Nandi Rose Plunkett, a.k.a. Half Waif, wrote 'Torches' amid the upheaval of the US election. As i-D premieres the song, Plunkett talks exploring her family's scattered history through powerful synth pop.
In times of heartache and upheaval, music can be a comforting force. And at the moment, when it can feel like the world is on fire, we need more comfort than ever. Fortunately for us, Lavender, Nandi Rose Plunkett’s upcoming record for her project Half Waif, is steeped in that healing power.
Lavender is about endings, and its synth pop can sound more than a little mournful, but it’s about finding light at the end of the tunnel. The songs are imbued with a realism that comes from Plunkett’s perspective. Lavender was written amid the upheaval of the 2016 US election, a time when racist rhetoric began to thrive in the mainstream and many people’s lives were thrown into turmoil. Plunkett says the album’s opening song, “Lavender Burning,” “was written right before the election, reacting to this energy that was pervading our country and our world, that was really terrifying.”
“Torches,” the new single that premieres today on i-D, was written directly after Trump was elected. “We were in Texas at the time, on tour, and it was horrifying.” she says. “The opening of that song is painting this really frightening image of flames burning in a field, and the coast being this healing presence. Like, ‘OK, if I can get to the coast, I can get to water, and there’s more beyond this country that is burning.’”
The daughter of an Indian refugee and an American of Irish and Swiss descent, Plunkett felt like an outsider growing up in the “very white, middle-class town” of Williamstown, Massachusetts, but she came to treasure her differences. “I grew up in this multicultural household... and I really honestly cherished having this background. In high school, it made me feel different in a positive way.”
The fact that she was one of few musically inclined people in her town also made her stand out. “Writing music was a very isolating and isolated process for me growing up,” she says. “In Williamstown, there wasn’t a music scene. There were no venues. Even in school there weren’t a lot of bands. I was awarded ‘most musical’ my senior year but I think that’s because there was no one else that was really writing music!” she laughs.
Plunkett had been playing piano since she was six years old, and moved away after high school to study classical singing and composition at the liberal arts school Kenyon College in Ohio, with a semester abroad in London. Elements of the music she studied have found their way into her music as Half Waif, particularly the melancholic chord changes of 19th Century art music. This provides a lush canvas for her voice, with its sharp edges that hint at her Celtic heritage, to travel across. The music of Plunkett’s parents’ backgrounds has also subconsciously influenced her, from the traditional Hindi bhajans she’d sing with her mom as a child, to the Celtic and folk music she’d practice with her dad. She says, “This interesting mix of sounds must have seeped into me somewhere when I was writing.”
It’s often been said that Half Waif’s music — which so far consists of two EPs and two albums — attempts to reconcile a sense of place. Plunkett had a stable upbringing in Massachusetts, but this wasn’t the case for her family. Its scattered history started when her grandmother moved from India to Uganda for an arranged marriage when she was 18. Plunkett’s mom was born and raised in the Indian diaspora in East Africa, but the family was kicked out of the country by the dictator Idi Amin, and she ended up in the US after plans to study in the UK fell through. Plunkett says, “She ended up here and she met my dad, but she had no plans to come to the US, and the rest of our family are all scattered around the world.”
Plunkett credits this splintering of her family for the restless style of her music. “These stories about my mom and my grandmother have come into me and been expressed in my music. I think the sounds are pretty restless — I like to play with textures and create universes of layers of sounds, and I feel like that comes from this family story of looking for a home and looking for a place to belong. I think every human has that story in some way, actually. Wanting to belong. And while I have had that stable home, there is still this search of wanting to belong to something greater.”
The years following her studies saw Plunkett alternately living in Brooklyn, New York, and out of suitcases on the road, touring both as Half Waif and as a member of the indie rock band Pinegrove. Last summer, she and her Half Waif bandmates Adan Carlo (bass and guitar) and Zack Levine (drums) moved two and a half hours north of Brooklyn to Chatham, New York, to make the new record Plunkett had been writing. “We moved to this beautiful little house on a pond, it was very idyllic. We had so many animals in our backyard! Every morning there would be groundhogs and deer and a fox, and bunnies! Thinking back on it, it feels like a Disney movie,” she laughs. “It was a perfect little getaway for writing this album, and Lavender came out of those few months that we had there.”
The album’s title was inspired by a ritual Plunkett observed her grandmother, Asha, performing later in her life. She never noticed it during the monthly visits she made while studying abroad in London, but years later, when she’d drop in from tour, she began to notice her grandmother boiling lavender on the stove.
Plunkett wrote in a press release for the album, “The first time I noticed her doing this, it struck me as a kind of magic: the small black cauldron bubbling with a piece of the earth.” She soon realized “this quiet little thing” that her grandmother did had meaning beyond making her house smell nice. “It was also a ritual of purification, clearing out any shadows that may have tried to creep into the old English home she’d lived in, alone, for fifty years.” As sprightly as Asha was, at 95, her life was coming to an end. Plunkett says boiling lavender gave her grandmother the quiet calm that she needed.
Rituals like these – burning sage and palo santo, using crystals – are becoming more popular, and it’s not hard to see why. The world is becoming increasingly less tactile, and it’s also no longer possible to be unaware of the tragedies that occur on a daily basis. “Even if you don’t believe like, ‘this amethyst crystal’s going to give me creativity,’ just the act of holding something in your hand that was made by the earth I think is so powerful, and so comforting,” Plunkett says.
Things haven’t exactly gotten less terrifying in the past year; many who live in the US have become accustomed to a state of near-constant anxiety. Plunkett prefers to describe herself as a realist rather than an optimist. She admits that she imbued Lavender with a sense of optimism, although it wasn’t clear until after she’d written the album.
“We were on the road and it was nighttime and I was listening to it and I was like, ‘Oh my god! This album is about the night!’ There’s a line in one of the songs, ‘I’m trying to face the night’; in ‘Torches’ ‘I feed off the night’, and I suddenly realized, looking back at this collection of songs, there’s a part of me that wants to face this darkness, knowing that it isn’t forever. That these dark times will end, just like the night ends.
“When you come into the nighttime it feels like this ending – “OK, the day has ended, darkness has descended. But that darkness, every night, is swept away with a new dawn. It sounds so cheesy!” she laughs, “but it’s recognizing that that cycle – night and day – is emblematic of our lives. And the darkness that descends, or the apocalypses that we experience in our personal lives and in our political lives, we have to tell ourselves that it’s another nighttime, and that too will end.”
For now, we could all use a calming influence to tide us over.