When playing Pitchfork is also about personal growth | Pitchfork | Chicago Reader

When playing Pitchfork is also about personal growth 

Girlpool, Japanese Breakfast, and (Sandy) Alex G refresh the indie tradition of foregrounding emotional development, not just musical evolution.

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From left: Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, (Sandy) Alex G, and Cleo Tucker of Girlpool - ILLUSTRATION BY ANNA WHITE
  • From left: Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, (Sandy) Alex G, and Cleo Tucker of Girlpool
  • Illustration by Anna White

On Girlpool's 2015 album, Before the World Was Big, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad sing, "Is it pouring out my body? / My nervous aching? / I like that you can see it." They've evolved on their subsequent releases, but they still honor the venerable indie tradition of diaristic lyrics whose openness borders on exhibitionistic—they're not growing just as musicians but also as people, figuring out what their needs are, processing their motives and feelings, and learning to take responsibility for themselves. This spring Tucker came out as transmasculine, arguably an even bigger step, but Girlpool haven't put out any music since then.

Girlpool share that emotional territory with at least two other acts playing at Pitchfork this year: (Sandy) Alex G and Japanese Breakfast. All three also occupy a liminal zone between their pasts as DIY sweethearts and their futures as artists signed to big, respected indie labels. (They're now on Anti-, Domino, and Dead Oceans, respectively.) Musical and personal growth is important to all three. Their careers are still new—they range in age from 21 to 29—and adolescence isn't too far behind any of them. Picked up by the indie spotlight at roughly the same time, these bands have matured in parallel, carrying with them different aspects of their DIY roots.


Girlpool
Sat 7/21, 5:15-6 PM, Blue Stage

Japanese Breakfast
Sun 7/22, 4-4:45 PM, Blue Stage

(Sandy) Alex G
Sun 7/22, 6:30-7:15 PM, Blue Stage


The music of Japanese Breakfast, aka Michelle Zauner, has developed most obviously in the quality of its production—her two albums under that alias, 2016's Psychopomp and 2017's Soft Sounds From Another Planet, have been scrubbed clean of the lo-fi grit that roughed up her previous Bandcamp demos and the even earlier releases by her band Little Big League. "It felt like something I wanted to grow out of," Zauner says. The layer of professional polish on her recent albums doesn't interfere with the directness of her lyrics, though. "The songs still feel very real and like a real person is writing them in their bedroom—and then taking it to the next level with nice production."

The music of Alex Giannascoli, aka (Sandy) Alex G, evolved more in its content—as he grew older, he realized he'd been framing his struggles as though he were a victim, even when he wasn't. He began to feel manipulative, like he was playing for sympathy. "I don't want to keep going back through this vulnerable perspective when I'm writing," he says. "It's not the part of me that I want to keep reflecting, I guess." Giannascoli's extensive discography (which already includes 14 Bandcamp releases, most of them album length) extends back to songs he recorded in high school, and he's working to move away from what he sees as that old material's occasionally self-indulgent candor. "I'm trying to make something more universal when I'm writing now," he says, "and when I was younger I think I was trying to be universal by being hyper self-involved."

Tracking a musician's development can be like making periodic pencil marks on a door frame to watch someone grow. "You put out a record, and people think that that's you until you put out another record," says Girlpool's Tucker. "It's easily forgotten that all that time in between, all this shit is happening." Girlpool released Powerplant, their most recent full-length, in May 2017, and immediately after the end of their last tour to support it, Tucker began testosterone therapy. This is the band's first festival season since then.

When I spoke to Tucker on the phone, I could hear that their voice was deeper. The change has definitely complicated the execution of the band's characteristic harmonies. "Playing shows was really difficult, but now I've reworked a lot of my parts," they say.

It took me a while to pinpoint exactly why I group together Girlpool, (Sandy) Alex G, and Japanese Breakfast in my mind—they're all relatively unpolished indie acts that lean heavily on guitars and singing, but that's not the main factor. I think it's their transparent, autobiographical writing—though of course it's impossible to tell for sure with only the songs to go on, these artists seem genuine to me. They don't shy away from emotion, even when it's ugly or self-incriminating. That's why their music resonates so strongly with me—it reflects the painful, confusing, and complicated process of turning into an adult.  v

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