meet grimes' dark and dreamy protégé, nicole dollanganger
The 23-year-old opening act of Grimes’ Rhinestone Cowgirl tour sounds off on her sickly sweet sounds and why it's important to be open about female sexuality.
Between the images of Dolly Parton and decrepit houses that fill Nicole Dollanganger's Tumblr page, there's an Edward Scissorhands screenshot. In it, the pastel perfect neighborhood's residents are approached by by Esmeralda, an apocalyptic evangelical Christian. She claims to see the sign of the devil on Edward -- Tim Burton's dream boy who only looks as though he walked out of a nightmare. At once saccharine and sadistic, this film still is an accurate reflection of the 23-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter's hauntingly unique sound.
Raised in small town Toronto by two doll collector parents, Nicole first began recording tracks in her bathroom while on extended bed rest. Over the past four years, she uploaded seven self-released records to Bandcamp before catching the ear of Canadian countrywoman Claire Boucher (better known as Grimes), who established record label-cum-art collective Eerie Organization to release Dollanganger's studio debut, Natural Born Losers, last month. The 11-track effort's high-register vocals seem as though they could have been whispered by one of the antique figures that line Nicole's childhood house, but her sound is far more metal than porcelain.
Nicole grew up in the mosh pits of Toronto's thriving hardcore community, which is where she met her best friends and band mates Matt Tomesai and Kevin Jenkins -- boys with sharply spiked dog collars and even more piercing blue eyes. Dollanganger's tracks don't feature the same guttural choruses or fast pace, face-shredding solos the trio was raised on, but the genre's influence is apparent in their intricate, controlled guitar melodies. "I was taken by how hardcore predominantly depends on live performance that has a very aggressive nature to it. When I go watch these people perform and they are giving 100%, I'm inspired to channel that same aggression, but by experimenting with a different sound," she explains while Matt and Kevin soundcheck last week's solo outing at Baby's All Right in Williamsburg.
But the boys aren't only with her on stage. Jenkins donned a latex bondage hood and posed in front of a faintly purple flowering bush for Natural Born Losers' cover. He and Tomesai also appear in Nicole's Angels of Porn II music video, a soft and sticky VHS-style clip in which bearded men in bondage gear slowly lick shared ice cream cones before smashing metal bats into chain-link fences. "With Angels of Porn, I wanted to make something that was both gross and pretty -- to experiment in a space between something that's visually appealing but also kind of repulsive," she explains. "I like a mixture of soft and hard. Someone like Marilyn Manson walks that line; a lot of his stuff is really heavy, but it can also be so sweet at the same time," she says.
This footage is beautifully arresting, but it's Angels of Porn's sexually frank lyrics like "Your fingers up inside of me/ feel like fingers down my throat/ everything's fine in heaven/ but I'll never get to know," that makes the single so strong. Nicole posts her lyrics aside each track upload across various platforms including Bandcamp to Youtube. It's the power of these stripped-bare sentiments that keeps her swelling online fan base so engaged. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I meet girls all the time who are embarrassed to even say they masturbate. Being afraid to admit that isn't their fault; female sexuality still isn't being represented realistically," she said. One of her earliest releases is a collection of love songs dedicated to Dawn Wiener, the cripplingly awkward protagonist of cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse. "When I first started posting some of those songs on my blog, they got a really cool response from girls who'd tell me that my music helped them feel better about their sexuality. When someone speaks candidly about it, things can change," she said.
Though Nicole's been shuttling from coast to coast on the Rhinestone Cowgirl tour, she still finds the time to chat with fans on Tumblr (recently, one asked for a ranking of her favorite Nightmare on Elm Street films -- it was a four-way tie for first place). It's a quality she shares with Grimes, who actively updates her own page with her favorite new releases. Many times, this spotlight has shone brightly on Nicole's work. "Her music is scary/ beautiful and there aren't any bad songs, which is the mark of a true artist. I cannot adequately describe it succinctly, but something like Hurt NIN sound design/ pain w Dolly Parton-esque witty profundity that sometimes gets super dark and contrasty to fluttery expressive cherub vocals," Boucher wrote upon announcing Natural Born Losers' release.
But the pair's creative relationship isn't simply built on swapping likes or reblogged posts. The second time Nicole ever performed live was at her hometown's 16,000 seat Molson Theater alongside Boucher on her joint tour with Lana Del Rey. And though Nicole still experiences regular bouts of stage fright, she says watching Boucher's explosive live performances has motivated her the most. "The most amazing thing to me is that Claire is just this one woman show; she's completely in control. After we finish our set and I get to watch her live, it's always mind blowing," Nicole says. "Beyond a performer, beyond a producer, beyond a writer, she's just this creative phenomenon to me. I don't know anyone like her."
She's not counting out future collaborations with Claire, but for now, Nicole is firmly focused on penning a new record with Tomesai. "When we first started working together, we were just like, 'Oh, this is it!' So it's endless inspiration. We bounce ideas off each other in the car and he's always recording little songs on his iPhone -- they are each little masterpieces." Like Edward Gorey's morbid bedtime stories or Wes Craven's slashers -- twisted little masterpieces.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Sam Evans-Butler