girlpool’s new era
Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s new album, 'What Chaos is Imaginary,' is a compelling record of transition and triumph.
The members of Girlpool have gone through a lot since releasing their last album, Powerplant, nearly two years ago. When i-D last spoke to Cleo Tucker in May 2018, he had recently come out as transgender and was navigating the changes to his body – and therefore his work as a singer – wrought by hormones. His bandmate Harmony Tividad has also been quietly struggling with mental health issues that have been bubbling to the surface, which she recently spoke about on social media.
Girlpool’s new album, What Chaos Is Imaginary (out February 1 on ANTI- Records), sees the pair address these challenges and come out the other side stronger than ever. Lush synths, drum machines and strings flesh out the full-band sound they adopted on Powerplant. Sometimes tending toward shoegaze with gauzy guitars, other times leaning into melancholic pop inherited from Elliott Smith, it’s Girlpool grown up, and grappling with the costs of coming into their own.
“We’re both interested in communicating honestly and living in honesty,” Harmony says on the phone from Los Angeles. “For me at least, it comes pretty naturally to speak on my experiences to the best of my ability.” “Girlpool kind of got set up that way,” Cleo adds, by way of explanation. “What it is, and has been for so long, is the sharing of ourselves with each other. So inherently, there is intimacy there.”
Having created viscerally personal music together for half a decade now, Cleo and Harmony’s intimacy runs deep. Many of the songs on What Chaos Is Imaginary were written years ago, and reworked for the album. A handful of them appeared in different forms on Harmony’s 2018 album Oove Is Rare, and two are still on Cleo’s Soundcloud in whispery demo form. Cleo says, “The album feels like a very transitional time, sonically, because it’s a lot of these older songs, and then it flirts with these new interests that we have.”
The songs provide snapshots of the pair’s musical and personal evolutions, spanning the couple of years they lived on the East Coast before moving back to Los Angeles. On “All Blacked Out” Cleo still sings of “sitting on bricks in Philadelphia,” but the tune has transformed from a scratchy demo to a languid song rich with atmosphere – and Cleo’s now deeper singing voice.
He has adapted to the change in his voice now, but Cleo says that for a while it was really difficult. “There was this one tour, in February [last year], that I was just not singing. I would step back and stop, every show, because it was so exhausting and I couldn’t catch my breath. So it was a year ago when it was really shifting at a speed that felt so fast. Since then it’s settled quite a bit. But I have only recently begun to design a new comfortable range when I sit down to sing on something or write something.” Cleo’s now lower register means he has to approach singing Girlpool’s old songs differently. “Those are really difficult sometimes,” he admits.
The vocal lessons he told i-D he was taking last year have helped a lot, not only because of his transition, but because of how he started singing in the first place. “Harmony did choir, which is really cool, but I started singing for the first time pretty much around the time Girlpool started,” Cleo admits. “So I learned singing through doing this, and honestly Harmony taught me a lot. Harmony pretty much taught me how to harmonize.”
Harmony is surprised by this revelation and they start gently debating it. “Oh, that’s really nice, I don’t know about that!” she says. “Yeah, you pretty much did. Don’t you think?” Cleo asks. “I mean, I guess I was talking about logistical things, but you have an instinct for things!” Harmony offers. “Yeah, I guess I did have instincts. But I think I learned how to sing through just singing with you,” says Cleo. “That’s so sweet, I’m so touched!” Harmony beams. “It’s true!” Cleo continues, “But anyway, yeah, harmonizing is actually kind of weird for me now.”
Cleo says he considered harmonizing with himself on the new album by using his past recordings. “I have all these demos of some of the songs [on the new album] that I made a long, long time ago – my voice is way higher, it sounds like I’m on helium. I had a fantasy about incorporating those vocal takes in the new record, but I think it’d be cool if somehow they saw the light of day, one day.”
What Chaos Is Imaginary reflects on the disconnect that can occur between the mind and the body, and the self-forgiveness that’s needed to get through this. “I recently have been thinking about how there’s sometimes dissonance between the body’s feelings and the mind’s feelings,” Cleo says. “When I’m feeling something, I have to think ‘where is it coming from?’ Is it just a feeling in my body? Or is it something that I am actually believing in? Our bodies get used to getting triggered with anxiety, and we know what we need to do to change that. We have this knowledge that sometimes is just overpowered by these responses due to trauma and history in us.”
Having been able to address this with compassion, “in spite of the inner noise” as Harmony says, the pair have been able to unearth a more hopeful-sounding Girlpool. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Hire”, their latest single. Cleo’s singing is clear and confident, giving the song an infectious, optimistic energy. “It’s a pretty hopeful song, about coming out of feeling like self-love was on the back burner for a while and feeling stuck and haunted,” he says.
Both of them admit this confidence is a work in progress. “It fluctuates a lot,” Harmony says. “But I think, for me at least, my lowest points are getting higher. When I was younger I really struggled with self-image in a way that was really toxic and hindered me from living the way I wanted to. I’m only coming to terms with it now, how intense it was.”
Despite this, there’s an undeniable light emanating from Girlpool now, a glow of optimism in their outlooks. Harmony continues, “There’s a lot of beauty and a lot to love, and I think embracing those things can take time, but… I’m feeling like there’s a lot of like energy and power that is coming from the world that is really beautiful.”