Collective Ambition: Horsegirl Interviewed

“There’s something going on even if no adult thinks there is..."

In one of his more douchey moments, John Lennon sang, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me’. When it comes to Horsegirl, the Chicago trio made up of vocalist-guitarists Nora Cheng and Penelope Lowenstein as well as drummer Gigi Reece, the inverse is true. “I’ve come to understand myself as a songwriter only when I’m with the two of them,” Penelope tells me over Zoom. The wall behind her is splashed with prints of Stereolab and other ‘90s indie rock trailblazers—the sort of artists that Horsegirl’s murky no-wave sound simultaneously embraces and rejuvenates. “I also can’t imagine doing it with anybody but Penelope and Nora,” Gigi concurs. 

Collaboration and friendship are at Horsegirl’s heart, their non-negotiable modus operandi. After some older music nerds made fun of Penelope for bringing her backpack to a Yo La Tengo gig, the band didn’t hesitate to call them out on Instagram (Matador jokingly apologised in the comments). In other words, Horsegirl always come first—a singular entity. After all, they aren’t called ‘Horsegirls’.

Throughout our interview, it’s evident that the Horsegirl magic—which produced ‘Versions Of Modern Performance’, their exhilarating debut album—is generated when the three of them are in the same room. “Even if one of us brings an idea, by the end of our time in my basement, it will have transformed into something very different from what was brought in. Bringing it to the studio is what makes it become a Horsegirl song,” Penelope says of their songwriting process, which succeeds in obscuring pop frameworks with sheets of fuzzy guitars and ambiguous lyrical fragments. As Nora explains, “We do strive to create these very unusual images, and I think we try to walk this line between beautiful and disgusting—there are pretty melodies and weird dissonant moments. And it’s all combatting forces that we’re trying to make into this cohesive thing.” 

Horsegirl’s backstory is mapped to the city of Chicago and its vibrant, youth-organised arts scene. Kids from across the city hire out venues and showcase the city’s interdisciplinary artistic merit – rock bands, sure, but also grassroots zines such as Hallogallo, “the first important Chicago zine,” says Penelope, and one of Horsegirl’s earliest supporters. She holds up a copy and shows me the first page, a quasi-index of nascent windy city bands. “It was all the records that kids have put out – just deciding to chronicle it even though, at that point, no one was getting traction yet,” she says. “I think it’s just deciding like, there’s something going on even if no adult thinks there is.” 

Once the adults did catch wind, there ensued a bidding war that culminated with the band’s signing to Matador, the label that put out records by many of their favourite bands. But despite converting their heroes into peers, Horsegirl’s heads remain normal-sized. The band’s record release show at the legendary, 800-capacity Thalia Hall – as much a zine showcase as it was a rock show – featured a lineup consisting of their friends’ bands, Friko, Lifeguard, and Post Office Winter, whom Horsegirl also champion with their regularly updated Spotify playlist. “What was amazing about the show was that from the first opening band until Horsegirl, the audience was equally invested in all of it,” Penelope beams. “The first band, which was like this acoustic, scrappy thing – like the whole audience, this massive crowd, was dead silent; they were so engaged.” 

It’s refreshing to hear that there exists an antithesis to the skyline of iPhones that can often blight the modern concert-going experience. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. “It was a very special place to become a teenager,” Penelope confirms, telling me how Nora’s mom would drive the three friends to shows. “I think a big part of me and Penelope and Nora connecting was, we were at this very formative age, like 15 and 16, and we were just kind of realising how fortunate we felt to have been kids in the city,” says Gigi. “We all cultivated this beautiful thing – everybody plays music, everybody makes zines, and everybody loves each other so much, and that is what really pushed us all forward.”

It’s fitting, then, that the band recorded their first full-length album at Steve Albini’s venerable Electrical Audio, the Chicago institution that gave us albums by alternarock legends such as the Breeders and Nirvana. Gigi reveals how their producer John Agnello, whose credits include Dinosaur Jr. and Waxahatchee, would gas the girls up. “He would taunt over us: ‘Oh, this is Kim [Gordon]’s mic’, ‘Oh, I remember Steve [Shelley] would do this’.” After recording wrapped, and without asking the girls, John contacted his old associates, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and asked them to feature on the album. “They do such tiny things, but it makes things full. And it’s also just nice to be like, ‘Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo were on our first album’,” Gigi laughs.

There’s a song on the album called ‘The Fall of Horsegirl’. Its sole lyric – “Don’t let them see you” – cycles narcotically before splitting apart and then altogether imploding. Is it their satirical resistance to the band taking off, an act of self-preservation? The short answer is no—the line was intriguing in its simplicity and the song name is an in-joke.

But how have Horsegirl’s aspirations changed since their newfound success? “Our only expectation was to play shows for our friends and maybe release a song that our friends would listen to,” Gigi admits. “But the fact that there are people that care to write things about us or people in Germany that wanna come to our show—it is something that we never expected. Now we set our goals in different ways; we never even thought we’d make a full record, and now we want to make another one and keep moving forward.”

In that most quintessential of Chicago movies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the eponymous protagonist proclaims, “The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do,’ the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do?’” Horsegirl may have started off asking themselves the former. Now, whether they like it or not, they’ll have to answer to the latter. The fall of Horsegirl has only just begun. 

‘Versions Of Modern Performance’ is out now on Matador.

Words: Hayden Merrick
Photo Credit: Cheryl Dunn

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