The “love, enchantment, heartbreak, loss, and hope” of Swahili Blonde

Nicole Turley has become a dear friend of PHILTHY MAG over the course of the past two years.  We first met her in 2014, when she was discussing the roots of Kimono Kult, the “supergroup” featuring herself, alongside Teri Gender Bender, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, John Frusciante, Dante White, and Laena Geronimo. And just this past July I caught up with her to discuss the release of Swahili Blonde’s (Turley’s solo project and primary musical outlet) Deities in Decline EP, which I described as, “The perfect blend of morose post-punk and the funkiest brand of ‘90s alt rock, with dashes of new wave’s interpretation of disco.” Well, January 22nd will see the release of And Only the Melody was Real, Swahili Blonde’s fourth proper release since 2010.  The album is more stripped down than the EP, but remains reminiscent of many of the most beautiful popular musical subversions of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and those of the second stages of Lollapalooza.  It could perhaps best be described as the grooviest post-punk breakup record of the century… if not of alltime (… They would seem to be a rare breed to begin with…)  Over the holidays Nicole and I once again got the chance to catch up and discuss the most recent incarnation of Swahili Blonde.

Izzy Cihak: So it hasn’t been too long since we last chatted and I know you always seem to be working on various projects and artistic mediums. What have you most significantly been up to since the release of Deities In Decline, in addition to the recording of And Only the Melody Was Real? Were there any particular highlights of that period?

Nicole Turley: Well, it took longer than usual to finish And Only The Melody Was Real. My studio situation this year was a bit wonky. The album was recorded on a bare bones portable studio while I was traveling. Mixed once in my old studio in LA. Then remixed a second time and mastered at my friend’s studio, House Under Magic, in Brooklyn. So a mixing and mastering process that usually takes me maybe two weeks, ended up taking a couple months.

But since the LP’s been done, I’ve been keeping myself busy with the usual creative things: more music and writing. I’m still really enjoying that orchestration program, East West. Having a lot of fun with that. And I’ve been working on a pilot script (almost done) loosely based on my early twenties living in Koreatown and the first band I was in — an all-girl band called Seventh Sea. It’s a coming of age story, in a similar stylistic and humorous vein as Wes Anderson.

Izzy: The last time we chatted you mentioned wanting to start getting into playwriting.  Has that happened yet and, if so, how has that been so far?

Nicole: I haven’t gotten into playwriting yet, but that’s one of the things I’d like to learn more about in 2016. Actually all kinds of writing — plays, fiction, screenwriting, etc.

Izzy: You specifically mentioned being a huge fan of David Mamet, and Edmond in particular.  I have actually seen and read that and Glengarry Glen Ross is actually my favorite play (although the movie is terrible), but I haven’t seen or read any of his other stuff.  Any other Mamet recommendations for me or our readers?

Nicole: Oh man… I saw Glengarry Glen Ross in New York a few years ago and was so excited. It had a great cast — Al Pacino, Richard Schiff, Bobby Cannavale — but it ended up being one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had. It was early on in the play, there were only two people on stage conversing. Then a guy a couple rows behind started snoring. And it kept getting louder and louder. Then really, really loud. Then he wouldn’t wake up. And then, someone yelled, “Call 911.” At this point the audience is moving around, talking — Richard Schiff is on stage, it’s his turn to speak, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t know whether or not he should continue the play, considering that someone’s possibly dying in the audience. He was just looking out into the crowd, like a deer in the headlights. But he kept going. And the snoring guy eventually came to and was escorted to the front of the theater where the ambulance was. It was very weird and surreal.

On another Mamet note: I just recently re-watched State And Main. It’s the only comedy David Mamet wrote and directed — and is one of my alltime favorite movies. The timing is so odd and funny. And the casting’s great – Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Sarah Jessica Parker — and my favorite characters: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon. I also started reading a book Mamet recommended for writing called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. It breaks down a lot of fairy tales and shows how they’re structured and why. It’s very interesting.

Izzy: Okay, and back to the music: Did you have any particular favorite reactions to your EP, whether from critics or just fans or friends?

Nicole: No, not really. Just happy it’s out in the ethers for people to listen to if they want.

Izzy: How do you feel your upcoming LP compares to your last EP?  Do you feel like the songs were a logical evolution?  What were the biggest influences behind And Only the Melody Was Real?

Nicole: The EP and LP are pretty different from each other. The only things they have in common really are that they’re the most personal albums I’ve done, as far as subject matter goes. But all the songs for the EP were written and recorded back in 2012 — and I mixed, mastered, and released them in 2015. That album’s pretty sparse compared to my usual production style (lots of layering). But that’s what I was going for– a less is more kind of a thing.

Emotional influences behind the LP are love, enchantment, heartbreak, loss, and hope. The biggest production influences for And Only The Melody Was Real were the Simple Minds LP Once Upon A Time, Annie Lennox, and Peter Gabriel’s early solo records. I was also listening to a lot of Pema Chodron audio books as well — which I think may have contributed to the orchestration parts on the LP. Trumpets, cellos, and violins are always so ethereal sounding to me. Those sounds connect us to something much grander than ourselves.

Izzy: I think “The Diamond Room” is officially my first favorite song of 2016, so I have to ask how that particular track came about.  This is a weird and geeky characterization, but it sort of reminds me of a riot grrrl who idolized Nico, fronting a post-punk band.  (Hopefully that’s taken as a compliment…)

Nicole: Your song descriptions are always so interesting. And always taken as a compliment 🙂 Glad you like the track.

“The Diamond Room” was the last song I wrote for the LP. My good friend Jennifer P. Fraser had worked with me on vocals and lyrics for most of the LP, but “The Diamond Room” and “Rose My Emperor” I had to finish by myself, as she was in New York and I was in LA at the time. It’s a song of healing on many different levels. This year I’ve been very fortunate to have the guidance and assistance in healing through some very wise and talented women. I’ve learned an immense amount about self-acceptance, truth, honesty, integrity, and love. One of the women I worked with would do these healing visualization exercises with me. So “The Diamond Room” really stems from that. The things I would see during the exercises.

Izzy: And finally, what’s next for you?  You always seem to be balancing so many things at once. How do you hope and plan to spend 2016?

Nicole: I hope 2016 is filled with joy and abundance. 2015 was a very intense and heavy year; so much loss and letting go. I really hope 2016 will be about filling my life up again; rebuilding my beautiful tower (like tarot). Filling my life with new places and surroundings, new home, new friends, new education, new travel, and new opportunities for creative growth. I’m optimistic. I have my hope. And have learned, at the end of the day, that’s always your best weapon.