“It’s not like I’m feeling much different / Than a woman my age years ago / Liberated is what you wanna call it / How about unfairly choked?” These are the opening lines to “Miniskirt,” the bold feminist centerpiece on Deep In The Iris, the 2015 full-length release from Braids. Braids is a powerful Montreal-based art-pop trio, featuring Raphelle Sandell-Preston, Taylor Smith, and Austin Tufts. Their sonics are at once lush and sensitive, and Raphelle’s hair-raisingly dynamic vocals mix with her unflinching, topical lyricism. Before their show at Philadelphia’s Boot & Saddle, I sat down with Raphelle and Austin to discuss the making of this record.
Yale Herald: I wanted to start by asking you about the title of your new record, Deep in the Iris. That’s a lyric from the song “Taste,” right?
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: Yeah, it’s kind of hidden.
YH: Why that lyric, then?
RSP: Well the line is, “Deep in the Iris / You see a place of hope again.” And it really goes back to us connecting as a band on these retreats and becoming really deep with one another. That was a huge part of the record and the recording process.
YH: You went all over the place to record this album. Could you talk about writing it, recording it, and what influence being all around the continent had on the whole process?
Austin Tufts: More than the specific locations, it was the fact that we were in nature. The first location, Prescott, Ariz., had the most geographical impact on us. We were about 45 minutes outside of this high-desert town. It was really small and remote, and we didn’t see anybody for about a month and a half. It was very impactful, being able to connect with each other in a more raw environment that’s not so played-out like a city, where streets have been walked billions of times and the creative energy is bustling, but it’s almost like the soil has nothing left to give. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you’re pulling inspiration from the rocks and the forest and the desert, these places that are pretty much untapped creatively.
YH: One of my favorite things about this record is the sound of the piano, which doesn’t really appear on your previous records. Why is that sound on this record?
AT: When we were first contemplating the ideas of the record, we wanted to return to a lot more natural sounds. So much of Flourish // Perish was very synthesized. And though I’m really proud of those textures that we created, I was really craving something with that human imperfection and with a harmonic overtone series. A piano is full of creaks and cracks and natural beauty that synths don’t innately have. So our friend “Agor”—Alex Cowan, he’s the other half of Blue Hawaii—he gave us his piano, which has been in our studio for the last couple years. And through having it there, as a drummer I really found my melodic and harmonic platform. When we went on recording retreats, we would always try to rent or locate pianos.
YH: Did most of the songs get written on piano, then?
RSP: Yeah, a lot of them.
AT: They sort of started as bare-bones ideas. Something that we constantly came back to during the recording process was, “Does this song stands on its own? Could somebody just play it on guitar and sing it?” We have a very deep sense of sonics and textures and electronics as a band. But we really wanted to work on our songwriting in a new way, and the piano is a beautiful instrument for that. And then, when we were looking for a place to do tracking, Raph was like, “My friend Martin’s got a place!”
RSP: I was like, “I think he’s got a little cabin.”
AT: And Martin was like, “How do these photos look? Does it look suitable?” And it was this amazing mansion of a home. It’s 180 years old or something. It’s been transformed from family home to dormitories back to family home, right on the edge of the Putney School [a boarding school]. Anyway, Martin was like, “Oh yeah, did I mention that it’s got my great grandmother’s Steinway in there?”
RSP: With real ebony and ivory keys. Really beautiful.
YH: I wanted to talk, Raphaelle, about your voice and the lyrics on the record. It’s way more present in the mix than on previous records, and the lyrics are a lot more personal and direct. How did you get there from what you’ve done in the past?
RSP: A lot of the singers who inspired me were super forward with their vocal delivery, like Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette—all the Canadian ladies I’m reppin’. And Joan Baez. Katy Perry, too, and Björk, they all put their vocals super up in the mix. And I wanted to write lyrics that I couldn’t hide behind with delay and reverb, which I had done in the past. I wanted to write things that were really meaningful to me and that I had a lot of conviction about. I wanted to expose myself and be forward.
YH: So do you think the lyrics came first and then you realized your vocals needed to be more prominent in the mix?
AT: Yeah, for example, with “Miniskirt,” the song started out with these really cathartic, heavy noise jams. Raph was singing a little bit, but it was more just screaming. Once we got to Putney and she started laying lyrics to it, we were playing literally ear-bleedingly loud. We recorded it one day, just the jam. And I was like, “Well what are those lyrics?” And Raph sat down and explained them to us, and I was like, “Whoa, people need to hear this.” She was like, “Is this okay to say these things?” And I said, “This is amazing! Absolutely!” So we pared back the instrumentation, pushed the vocals way to the front, and rewrote the whole song around how powerful the lyrics were.
YH: “Sore Eyes” is a song with another really interesting feminist angle, but it doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as “Miniskirt.” What are your thoughts on that song and its lyrics?
RSP: It was a comment on how we watch pornography a lot as a culture and how we base what we think sex should be on what we see in pornography. I’ve found that when I watch pornography, I don’t feel very good about myself. I don’t feel as comfortable sexually. I am comparing a lot, and I think that happens to a lot of people, especially when you’re not thinking critically about it. There’s not a lot of discussion in schools about what we view online with regards to sex, and I think that’s really important to touch on. Your sexuality and your level of comfort with your sexuality is so important in shaping your enjoyment of life and living.
YH: I noticed that the sequencing kind of mimics the songwriting, in that there’s this sense of breathing and this push-pull of energy.
AT: We always try to make records that flow, that have an arc or a shape, or some kind of story to them. With Flourish // Perish, we presented it in two sides, “Flourish” and “Perish.” Native Speaker was more of a continuous arc, and with this one, we returned to that idea of the whole album having song form.
YH: We already talked a bit about how “Miniskirt” came together, but could you tell me about that “I’m not a man-hater” lyric?
RSP: We’re all feminists through and through. I think that feminism gets a bad rap for being rooted in hating men, and it’s totally not. It’s about loving both genders. The lyric is “I’m not a man-hater / I enjoy them like cake.” And that’s kind of what this song is talking about: the right that women have to enjoy men, to enjoy sex. When a woman does that, she’s considered a slut or a whore, but when it’s a man, it’s passed off as being culturally okay. So it’s about this ground that we’re standing on, which is completely not equal.
YH: What do you think is the role of feminism in music, and why aren’t more artists putting out more songs like this when it’s clearly something that people are feeling?
RSP: People make art for different reasons. There shouldn’t be a necessity to have a feminist stance in your music. I think being a female musician in and of itself is slightly feminist, because it’s a really male-dominated industry. For me, it’s something I’m really passionate about, and I write about what I’m feeling. I think there’s a lot of amazing women who are doing wonderful things for other women; there’s Lauren Mayberry from CHVRCHES, Claire Boucher of Grimes, Lorely Rodriguez of Empress Of. These are all women who are really bringing issues to the forefront.
YH: Any parting words?
RSP: [Looking down at cup of tea] Well, my tea bag says, “Joy is the essence of success.” Maybe students should take that to heart [laughs]. You can be really hard on yourself as a student. I’m really hard on myself as an artist, and it kind of does come back to “Joy is the essence of success.” Also, one thing that I’d really like you to print: don’t get into internet fights. Don’t do it! Internet fights are the bane of everyone’s existence. If you have something to say, talk to somebody about it.
Interview condensed by the Herald.