Ballet School, a Berlin-based three piece led by 29-year-old, Irish singer Rosie Blair makes me crave recess and my first boy-girl party. The group melds shoegaze and dream pop characteristics with creamy R&B and bright reverb, while its lyrics allude to youthful tropes like lost children and playground taunts. The Belfast-born Blair tasted success years before forming Ballet School, when she was contributing vocals to electronic artists such as DJ Paul Mogg and getting featured on DFA compilations. But life happened, and Blair moved home to take care of her dying mother. Then, a chance encounter with guitarist Michel Collet in a subway station at 5am was the catalyst that formed the Ballet School.
Now a trio with Collet on guitar and Louis McGuire on drums, Ballet School will release its first single, “Heartbeat Overdrive,” on August 19th, with an EP due in October. The single was featured on Pitchfork, The Guardian and Stereogum, and Grimes gave the group a shoutout on her Tumblr , which on the internet is like being endorsed by the president. Childhood themes are everywhere in Ballet School’s music, suggesting Blair’s strong connection to the loss of innocence she experienced after her family collapsed. Here, we talk to Blair about the genesis of her new project, the end of innocence, and her nostalgic tendencies
Tell me about what led to your move to Berlin.
I went home to Ireland after university. I looked after my mom. She got cancer and it was like one week she was fine and the next the whole family was told she was going to die in three months. It was so intense. Everything had to stop. She lived for like 9 months and we tried chemo and did all this stuff and it was really a mess. She ended up passing away after about 9 months. I think everybody has this experience in his or her ’20s where we have something fucking crazy happen to us. Life is going to happen to you and it’s going to interfere with all this shit you’ve got planned for yourself. You’re going to have to deal with some real shit and come out the other side of it and piece whatever you have left back together. That was the state of mind in which I moved to Berlin in. I had given up my job, my relationship had ended, and the DFA project just fell apart. I had nothing and my family was just over forever. But I was still writing songs.
Were they really dark?
They were so fucking dark. I made like a whole album that I’ve never released.
What year is it at this point?
My mother died in 2009 and then I moved to Berlin in May of 2010. I was just hanging out and working at Odessa and just piecing everything back together again in a really gentle way. Socially I was just useless. I hadn’t gone out of the house that whole period my mother was ill. When she passed, I realized it’s over. Childhood’s over. Whatever that was, it was over. I felt completely different.
How did you meet Michel?
I met him on the U-Bahn. He was playing the guitar and I was getting home. I was living in deep, deep Neukolln. It must have been January 2011. I was living at Hermanstrasse at the end of the U-8 and working at Odessa. One night I was working till like 5 or 6 in the morning and then went home on the U-Bahn when it was kind of grim outside. I was so tired and going to the steps and I could hear this amazing Cocteau Twins-vibe guitar. I thought it was a boombox but then I saw this physical personal playing it. I listened for a while and I totally just asked him to start a band.
Why did you choose the name Ballet School?
It had to do with my mother and her incredible grace that she had when she was really suffering. Whenever you watch a dancer they’re very silent. Yet inside, there’s a tremendous amount of physical strain and pain, and it’s really intense inside the body. But you don’t see that. You just see this beautiful movement. And that really resonated with me. This idea of emotional grace in the physiological realm.
When you’re writing, is it just you with a pen and paper or do you play with a guitar?
There are certain beats and trigger songs that I really love, and if hear them I will immediately be able to write a song.
Can you give me a recent example of this happening?
What happens is that I have a playlist of the songs I really like, things I listened to on the radio as a kid. These tracks will be with me forever. I know them by heart. These songs are kind of terrible but they’re in my head. There’s big reverb on the snares, a huge fucking chorus, there are very sensual female vocals. That definitely informs my music. It’s hard to explain, but if I hear a beat I love, then I put together two or three chords and a minimal but catchy bass line and then it’s done. The song is done. Then I’m writing the vocal melody and it’s heaven. It always starts off very complicated, then I reduce it and reduce it until it’s something more accessible.
Tell me about your nostalgic tendencies.
A lot of the songs are influenced by an ’80s childhood. I’m always looking to the time before and the concept with boyhood. I’m fascinated by boyhood. For the song “All Things Return At Night,” I was writing about this ex-boyfriend, and he was really boyish, and I was so in love with his boyishness. I really think a lot of girls think that’s dazzling and beautiful. It was about having this girly crush on someone. Part of you wants to mother them and take them home, and then another part of you is almost jealous that he or she can be a kid and so fucking cool.
Who do you think Ballet School will appeal to?
I seriously don’t know. I think this music won’t appeal to a mass audience. I think it will appeal to people around the same age as me and that have the same nostalgia triggers. I think this trigger is going to become more apparent in music in years to come. It won’t be my year. It will be the kids who were 8 in 1995 who will get triggered. It will take a long time for culture to get over the 20th century. For the next 20 years or so, kids are going to pick over the ruins, and the new stuff that come out is going to be about the ruins and the gold and hidden records and so many moments that you could re-use. Culture will be nostalgia obsessed for a while.