Raphaelle Standell-Preston of BRAIDS and, of lesser notoriety, Blue Hawaii is, if naturally affable, something of an aloof wanderer – fleet yet demanding of foot, she scours EC2 in leisurely, no less than determined search of a branch of EAT I’m less sure than she exists. She’s distractible too, pleading we enter into an otherwise abandoned trinket trove in order that she acquire two Babar the Elephant postcards for Alex “Agor” Cowan, a fellow Canuck beatsmith currently back in Montréal, who’s best known as her other half in Blue Hawaii. She’ll soon openly admit to now having a clearer sense of direction “in life” than she does in London, as we take a pew in one of east London’s umpteen Pret A Manger outlets. Its chairs may be better suited to the practising of the Alexander Technique than they may be passing comfort, but Standell-Preston seems at ease regardless as she elongates limbs like a ballerina about to leap into the most elegant of action.
First, she’ll ransack the eatery for salmon protein pots. “They’re for the boys” she placidly assures me, cohorts Taylor Smith and Austin Tufts back at XOYO themselves so meticulously prepping what transpires to be a truly inspiratory performance in said venue later that same evening – the second I was fortunate enough to have witnessed that week.
But with her anticipation visibly beginning to brew, she’ll intimately tell of the intricately differing kinds of milky coffees – again a tad distracted – when not ravenously tearing at a croissant. Caffeinated permutations aside, Standell-Preston incidentally “used to make croissants, ‘cause I used to be a baker. But I wasn’t very good at making croissants – it’s very difficult.” Yet when rustling up altogether more complex musical structures than the pastry she fiddles with throughout our time together, she appears to have rather less of an issue. Indeed, for someone to have openly “declined university”, the masterpieces contained within BRAIDS’ sophomore opus, Flourish // Perish, sound more Gordian than most theses, knots and whatnot.
However, the Calgary ensemble still find themselves in something of a transitional phase, having relatively recently downsized from a four-, to a three-piece, dear Katie Lee having infamously departed in 2012. Multiple pauses and speech disfluencies ensue as Standell-Preston recalls the period, plus the aftermath thereof, a palpable distress still etched into her features. “It was very painful, and I think it’s something I still think about” she concedes, at times revealing more than she intends to. “Sometimes I’m shocked that Katie isn’t there” she says, “because we’d been together for so long and had done everything together.” She distantly recalls their latest return to the Iberian Peninsula just last week, helplessly reminded of a similar trip to Spain some two years ago in support of Native Speaker, before again boarding that same train of thought. “But I think the songs, and creatively where we’re at, is because she’s not in the band – and that’s difficult to come to terms with.” A brutal assertion perhaps, but Standell-Preston isn’t without her admiration for her erstwhile associate, insisting: “Katie was a very important, and integral member of Native Speaker, and [helped] make BRAIDS what it is.”
She cites the term “confrontation” recurrently, reiterating just how difficult, and indeed personal the parting of company felt for all involved. Ultimately, “it ended very poorly, and I haven’t spoken to her since the day we spoke about moving on as a three-piece. I think she just wants to be left alone now.” Thus from croissants to personal rapports, difficulties seem to be eternally paramount. She concludes, “It was a big deal, her departure, but I think we’re [at last] getting over it. And finally, we’re now able to play live at the level we were at before. But it was difficult to find the right balance [again].”
But with the band’s dynamic irrevocably altered in terms of personnel, it’s perhaps ironic that, as a live force, BRAIDS are now as their most dynamic yet. “Yeah, it feels very powerful” Standell-Preston enthusiastically concurs, before continuing: “We had that before, but I feel like we were always being held back by this overarching sense of democracy. We were super, super equal to the point whereby nobody could achieve anything greater than anybody else. So nobody could find their niche, whereas when we went into record Flourish // Perish, everybody knew their strengths.” Lee of course left midway through that particular recording process, the strengths she contributed to the album therefore somewhat equivocal, although so far as Standell-Preston, Smith and Tufts may be concerned, their roles and responsibilities within the band are now unmistakably apparent. Raph now represents BRAIDS’ lead melodist and abiding mouthpiece, both onstage and on record; Smith has become so proficient a producer that she reliably informs that the technical genii of Ableton have previously come to him for help; and Tufts is among the most inventive, and with it impressive contemporary percussionists around. There is no ambiguity, but instead a united drive to produce the most rewarding music they’re collectively able to. “We’re all so comfortable and excited about those strengths these days” she stresses, “but there’s been so much change that I now kinda want my life to level out a little bit. It’s been a lot to deal with” she accepts, tearing at another wayward piece of pastry.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t merely this shifting in shape (and so too style) that took its toll in recent times, as touring Native Speaker incessantly for no less than eighteen months paid a heavy price personally, as much as it did musically. “Tour killed us” Standell-Preston confesses, sounding genuinely exhausted in doing so. “It was so crazy, and looking back now, we pushed ourselves way too hard. And that really hurt our relationships – everybody was very broken by the end of it. Like, I didn’t really like anybody in the band.” London, by contrast, is a city that has always looked upon BRAIDS fondly: then performing as a four-piece, they in fact took to XOYO’s cramped, but cavernous stage only a little over two years ago. And high praise though this may indeed be, however exemplary they may have been back then, they’ve vastly improved upon that very performance since. “I think we’ve definitely surpassed that” Standell-Preston definitively confirms. “We’re much better. I guess just to shed some light on experience, we used to get really upset when one, or all, of us would mess up, and we’d call it ‘falling off the train’. So before we go onstage, we’re always like: ‘If you fall off the train, get back on!’ Whereas before we would fall off, and wouldn’t be able to get back on. And it’s a really hard set [during which] we really push ourselves. Though we have a computer, it’s only generating the sounds – it’s acting as a synthesiser, because it’s really small and [therefore] cheap to transport. Rather than flying a load of crazy fucking synths!”
The “crazy fucking synths”, one might argue, play a rather more fundamental role within the context of Blue Hawaii, Standell-Preston and Cowan’s sophomore effort of yesteryear, Untogether, nigh on entirely techno-oriented. And it was during an interview with said duo that Raph admitted to sensations of alienation when it came to playing her PRS guitar, whereas “in BRAIDS, I’m actually going back to it!” The two outfits of course serve opposing purposes to an extent, functioning as two almost mutually exclusive entities. And as such, she divulges: “Taylor really doesn’t want to go back to it, but I’ve been missing it – it’s really nice to have something so close to you. I saw it as [something] weighing me down, but I think I kinda needed to abandon it to realise, like, how important it was. And I see that trend in so many parts of my life, where I need to abandon something in order to realise just how much I appreciate it. So I’ve now really come back to the guitar.”
The instrument was, needless to say, that bit more prominent throughout Native Speaker than it was during Flourish // Perish, thus suggesting that this rapprochement of sorts is something of a recent development. Indeed, when quizzed on her relationship with songs from the latter, strained, she bides her time, biting on another bit of croissant. “It’s just that… we wrote the record not in a live environment, so it was written on the computer, rather than through playing. So we’ve tried playing every song on the album live, but now we only play about five songs. Or even four, because some of them just wouldn’t fly live – we couldn’t sculpt the energy properly.” Given its frequently synthetic timbre, it’s of little wonder that a) certain pieces were impossible to reconstruct correctly, and b) she should suddenly feel compelled to return to the guitar, for its tonality appears incompatible with much of the current live setup.
And the theme of attraction, repulsion and contradiction is key to the title, Flourish // Perish. It positively thrives on the dichotomies between life and death, and light and dark that it naturally implies, with these typographically symbolised by the two iconic forward slashes that, together, slope upward from the foot of Flourish’s ‘h’ to the peak of Perish’s ‘P’. But Flourish // Perish is anything but a double album – it’s barely even a tale of two halves. I, for one, had anticipated one side to represent a logical evolution of, say, Peach Wedding, with the other to pertain to that more electronic aesthetic that infects the majority of the album. “Interesting” Standell-Preston muses, prior to recapitulating that it is in fact “one piece, so the ‘slash, slash’ and the two different names are different within the album itself. And they don’t relate to anything outside of it. But there’s two halves to it”, with which songs belong to which side essentially dictated by “a general feeling [sensed] when we listened back to the tracks. We wanted ones that felt kinda new, with renewal, rejuvenation and birth – that feeling of newness and light – and then the heavier back path, which is more dark and contemplative. It’s very sonic in feeling, but the lyrical content is all over the place.” When then recited live, it’s Standell-Preston’s task to harness the show’s every emotive element, and this is her most arduous of all. Doubtless exacerbating the exhaustion incurred by the band’s dizzying touring patterns, a slurp of whisky serves as her prerequisite tonic. But, “what the songs evoke as a whole”, is therefore a gloriously disorienting spectrum of discernibly human emotion, and this is to the Canadians’ immense credit.
Although that more electronic orientation they’ve more recently adopted isn’t merely due to Smith and Tufts’ enhanced proficiency in that particular faculty, but also because, as can so often be the case of greatest influence, it was somewhat comparable musics that they felt attracted to during the process of completion with Flourish // Perish. “Until a couple months ago, maybe three months ago, I hadn’t listened to any acoustic songs for, like, two years – it was just techno, unless somebody put on something else” Standell-Preston rather proudly informs. “But for two or three years, I wouldn’t put anything that wasn’t electronic music on. I just loved it, and couldn’t get enough of it, and it sounded completely new to me – I had never heard that kind of music before, ever. It’s not like it’s on the radio, ‘cause in Canada it’s all Top 40, and then you have your college radio stations, which are all Can-Rock [Canadian rock music] and kinda folky stuff, so I’d never really heard all this.” It’s for this reason, first and foremost, that both Flourish // Perish and Untogether sound almost unrecognisable when set against Native Speaker and Blooming Summer, and so too that BRAIDS have since crossed wires and collaborated with the likes of Max Cooper.
Complying with a rather more human impulse however, and fresh from the ladies’, attentions turn to gender as genre. “I hate that topic – ugh! It drives me crazy, and that’s why I haven’t really done that many ‘women things’.” Her dissatisfaction is wholly comprehensible – it’s a largely vile, and quite rightly reviled topic of ignoble conversation for the most part – but I feel compelled to pose the question, as Standell-Preston happened to feature in the most tastefully compiled piece I’ve yet seen on the subject. That would have to be The New York Times’ ‘Three Indie Frontwomen Who Are Leading The Pack’ article of last summer. And when prompted, Raph retreats a little: “I take that back – I don’t hate that stuff. I’m just not a big fan of it, because I understand that there aren’t as many women [‘Who Rock’, as Rolling Stone would likely put it] but there are a lot of women. It just feels unequal, and [all this] just adds to [the] inequality of being gender-specific. Whenever you’re gender-specific, I think you touch upon inequality by definition. And when you admit to feeling smaller, or mistreated, as a woman, then you’re victimising yourself to a certain degree.” Speaking with poise and purpose likewise, perhaps she was right to wander away from the well-worn path leading toward McGill University after all. Persisting, “You’re perpetuating stereotypes. And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t talk about it – if you believe in it, then you should definitely talk about it – but you should just act confidently. It is sometimes sexist – if you wear a low-cut shirt onstage, boys will sometimes look at your boobs, or whatever – but rather than talking about that, I just try to wear a high-cut shirt and behave powerfully and confidently.”
Of said ‘Three Indie Frontwomen Who Are Leading The Pack’ piece more specifically, one in which there were no vulgar over- nor undertones, she says: “That’s the only time I’ve ever done something like that, and it felt really nice.” She’ll reference the fact that she wasn’t made to feel as though she, Carmen Elle of DIANA and Izzy Almeida of Hunters were “struggling” – an inherently problematic present participle in itself – but that it instead “felt like a celebration. And there wasn’t that undertone of ‘The Hardships That Women Face’, y’know? It was just, like, here are some girls that are really good at doing stuff.”
Of course, in playing the guitar and so too exploring the finer niches of contemporary electronic music, both as one third of BRAIDS and a half of Blue Hawaii, Standell-Preston goes against two prejudiced grains. But, as she avows, “even more than the guitar, it’s DJ culture that doesn’t have any women [within it]. There’s that one girl, who’s extremely beautiful [Nina Kraviz], who did this one interview talking to a guy. One shot is of her in a bathtub, and you can’t see [anything] – she has bubbles all over her body – but I was talking to some guy friends of mine the last time I was in London, and they were like: ‘Oh, yeah, she’s just using her sex to sell herself.’ And I was just, like, ‘Oh my God! Why, if this woman wants to be in a bubble bath, is she suddenly some kind of antifeminist? If a woman wants to have a fucking interview in a bubble bath, then can we not focus on how it’s sexually provocative? Because women are sexy, they constantly get pinned and you have to be really careful [because of that]. I don’t want to come across as being shallow, or as using my sex to sell my art because I’m becoming more interested in fashion, and I like photography that’s really beautiful, and sometimes sexy. But I’ve been really confused by that, and [by] how far I might want to go down that path. Because I want to still be taken seriously, but it doesn’t have to be such a negative thing.”
Food for thought, although no further bites of croissant remain. However, to take a chunk out of a Facebook statement published by none other than Kraviz after said interview was first published, ‘Sexism and all similar bullshit must die. And the first step to it is to let artists be who they are regardless of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation ect.. [sic] People cliches are for those who have less crafty brains.’ Sentiments with which I’m quite sure Standell-Preston empathises. “Human beings, in general, are just very sexy. And I think that makeup, photography and lighting makes for a very sexy combination, even though I don’t feel it [said NYT article] was selling that. I just want to still be taken seriously, and I don’t know how to do that without losing credibility. I’m just thinking of, like, Miley Cyrus, and how that’s so provocative, and controversial. That Wrecking Ball? And that female DJ, in a bubble bath, giving an interview – there is absolutely nothing exploitive about that. When you think of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus twerking on MTV, and then her video… I don’t know what our point is, but just to talk about it… Ugh!”
Swinging away from such polemic topics, and moving on toward other Wrecking Ball-shaped objects, the sleeve artwork to adorn Flourish // Perish has itself caused almost as much of a rumpus as the record itself. Rightly nominated, if wrongly neglected for the Best Art Vinyl 2013 award, it’s one that, reputedly, has since been “blatantly copied” not once, but twice. “They can’t change it, ‘cause so many record covers have been stolen, but I could understand [that bit better] if they’d come out, like, five years later. But three months?” Returning to the positives, if evading any potential lawsuits and evacuating the courts, it’s a work of divine inspiration that couldn’t possibly better suit the record it encases. As bastardised for the image at the very top of this piece, it depicts a completely digital “floating globe/ ball/ orb thing” set against a photo the supposedly plagiarised artist in question, Mark Rimmer, took. “He came up with the concept of the globe – he’s such a genius – which is this looming, ominous thing. A symbol of struggle, with this light [beyond it] that represents the rebirth. And then it represents the digital realm coming together with nature.” Dissective as a history of art seminar, it’s a particularly intriguing perspective from a fellow artist who, although fundamentally involved, in this instance is also something of an observer. Of its conception, “We just told him the overall feeling of the record, and that we’d like it to be in black and white. The white is [in fact] cream, but that’s just because of the paper we printed it on. So we just told him it was a digital record, and he’s the best.” And increasingly, few could go against the same being said of BRAIDS in their respective discipline, as they emerge from struggle to bask in the light beyond.