Blue Hawaii’s sophomore LP, Untogether, is dark. Beautiful, layered, and energetic, but dark. The electronic/melodic album is an echo chamber that lures you in with siren vocals and syncopated beats. It’s the type of record that could be listened to socially, but is best reserved for introspective moments: candlelit baths, subway rides, rainy days.
Alex ‘Agor’ Cowan and Raphaelle Standell-Preston, the no-longer-romantic duo who comprise Blue Hawaii, readily discuss how Untogether was borne out of dislocation. The eleven-track album is an assemblage of disassemblies, influenced by life’s losses: friends moving away, relationships becoming fraught from too much and too little distance. There’s a coldness to Untogether that can only be attributed to winter in Montreal, where the two worked on the album, separately under the same roof.
If you have ever listened to Braids — Standell-Preston’s inaugural band — or Blue Hawaii’s debut album Blooming Summer, then you know that Raphaelle’s voice can break hearts. But it’s the kind of heartache that makes you feel alive, like that beautiful-terrifying sensation of falling in love. On Untogether, Raph’s vocals move between ethereal echoes and cold clips. Paired with Agor’s meticulously placed beats, the songs make you want to dance, then cry, then dance even faster to forget about crying.
But that is the album, and not the live show. As the band discusses below, the two “couldn’t be more different” : the live show is replete with pulsing electronica feel-goodery.
How, then, did they move out from the darkness of their recording? By turning Untogether’s themes of dissolution into their performance process, separating certain beats and vocals to loop or merge during their live shows, in faster or slower tempos, depending on the feel of their set. The same sounds that evoke feelings of isolation and introspection on the album are rearranged to form high energy electronic music, bringing their audience together through dance. (“Sounds like molly talk,” Agor jokes, but what’s more beautiful than the love-high of molly?)
Our interview was over Skype, but the connection was so fickle that halfway through we switched to chat. Fitting, for a discussion about dislocation. Here is the stitched together conversation.
How do you feel about the album’s critical reception?
It’s interesting. Our last album was probably more accessible than our current album, but we’ve had more of a push behind this one. We didn’t tour for the last album, we didn’t promote it in any way; we didn’t play shows or have any articles written about it. It was just released on the Internet as a free download and that was the end of it. This one was pushed in an ‘industry’ sort of way, even though from the consumer perspective it’s a little less accessible, less poppy, colder. What we did with the album was completely different than what it was conceived to do. When we were making it, it was almost this cold and nasty feeling, like falling apart. But I feel like we’ve turned that energy into something really different, into this really uplifting, energetic, live dance-house-techno kind of show, which is something I didn’t see coming at all.
Raph, it seems to me that your creative process really ties a lot of the lyrics to a specific place. In connecting your lyrics to a certain state of mind or place that you’re in in your life, is it hard to perform those songs live over and over again? Are you able to dissociate from that place?
Raph: I wrote lyrics that I really like the words to, aside from whatever emotional impact that they have with me. I think that some of the songs are just good poetry, so I don’t mind singing it night after night. Halfway through our set, we really move away from anything that’s preplanned or preconceived, and I sing whatever lyrics are in my head and have a really strong emotional connection with how I’m feeling in the moment. I just kind of see them as two different performances.
Agor: We’ll merge into an improv zone where it’s a lot like a DJ set. She’s doing vocal looping and singing, but the lyrics are all really impromptu, really second nature kind of feelings. A couple nights ago it was funny because it was like, ‘fuck you’.
Raph: Yeah, I think I looped ‘fuck you, fed up’ or something. That was how I felt in that moment. I think that as a vocalist, lyricist and performer, what I’m still trying to get used to is going back to that place when I first wrote the lyrics.
How do you feel about overplayed singles?
Agor: Arguably, the one single off of Untogether is “Try To Be,” but we only play that song in certain contexts. We only play that single ten percent of the time, so when we do play that song, it really stands out. The entire room is completely quiet and we start the song really nicely, and then the reins are handed over to Raph and she sings, and goes back to the place where she was when she wrote that song.
Raph: It’s been really nice for me to only play a song in the environments where it’s meant to come across. That way I feel like I haven’t exploited it, which must happen for a lot of singles.
How would you describe the listener’s experience of listening to the album, versus the experience of hearing the songs played live?
Agor: Album listening for me is more about meditation and personal space. Most of the music I listen to at home is subdued in some way, ambient or minimal. But when I play live or attend a show, I search for energy. So when we play live, it is a lot more unpredictable and a lot heavier. We took the album, and took short loops of the songs, and sample them back with a lot more constant and heavier beats. And Raph sings the same vocal lines but more strongly.
Have either of you ever done that before musically? Or is this new terrain for you guys?
New terrain. We figured it out on the Purity Ring tour, which was like playing a mini festival night after night, because there was a crowd of a thousand people every night, most of whom did not know our music. We would have to win them over, and we definitely did so by making our music easier to access through the form of dance.
That’s really fascinating to me, to take something that seems to have come from a dark place and revisiting it over and over until you turn it into something positive. Like catharsis. Does it feel that way at all?
Yeah, definitely. Also because our relationship changed. We broke up over Untogether, and all that negativity was too much to go into night after night. So we took it and turned it into something new and something positive.
I wasn’t sure if you wanted that on the record.
What does the album represent to each of you personally? Does it mean the same thing, or do you each approach it differently. I know it means different things to you both technically, but what about in terms of that it stands for?
Raph: For me, it’s a big accomplishment in our friendship and relationship. It brings us together. It’s also a big accomplishment for myself because so many times I wanted to quit it.
Raph, I read in interviews that you want to showcase and remind people how real and important it is to feel vulnerable. Is that still maintained when you guys play live and have people dancing?
Raph: Yes definitely. I really expose myself when im yelling and screaming and dancing around stage.
Agor, how have you pushed the boundaries of electronic music?
Recently, I feel like I entered into a brand new world of electronic music—because that’s what it is. I am eager to dive deep into this world because I really appreciate the purity of a good dance set. When I look at what I am good at in my life, it’s reading people and energy levels, and technically applying myself to obtain the most out of them. In thoughts, on a dancefloor, in romantic situations, I want people to feel comfortable and open up to each other.
Does Blue Hawaii always get labeled as a Braids side project’? Do you feel that way about it?
Raph: I don’t feel that way about it anymore. I find it difficult to go back and forth between the two, so next time around I will endeavor to separate the two record cycles, because I start to feel divided as a person.
What’s next after your tour? Are you both planning on returning to Montreal?
Agor: No, I’m done with Montreal. It is an amazing place which has reared the best in both of us musically, and given me the best friends of my life, but it’s not a home for me. I’m going to Vancouver for a bit, then moving to Europe where I’ll be able to play a lot more of the kind of shows I want to be doing. We have some things going on in London and Berlin in the fall, and I’ll be bouncing between those cities, hopefully DJing and definitely producing. Raph will be touring with Braids for 6 months, so she’ll be everywhere.
Blue Hawaii plays in Brooklyn on August 2nd, at 285 Kent.