Name: Nandi Rose Plunkett aka Half Waif
Occupation: Producer, songwriter, singer
Current release: The new Half Waif album Mythopoetics is out now via Anti-.
If you enjoyed this interview with Half Waif, visit her website for more information and music. She is also on Instagram, bandcamp and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The impulse to create comes from so many different places. Sometimes it’s a moment where I notice something out of place - like last night I was driving on a busy highway and a big green firework flared up out of nowhere in the purple twilight. My first impulse was to sing about it, so I sang and recorded something on my phone. So I like keeping an eye out for those unexpected moments.
Other times, it’s a feeling that billows up inside like smoke and I have to write it to give it a shape. Or I read something in a book or a poem that turns a key and unlocks a new door and suddenly I understand something I didn’t before. Dreams are like that too - messengers from the just-beyond, giving us a new way to look at things.
And of course, nature is the truest, quickest source. There’s no better way to quiet the ego than to sit in a circle of green trees and listen to the birds. And you have to quiet the ego in order to write, otherwise you get in your own way every time.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
It’s a balance for sure. I have a tattoo on my arm of a rose in two forms: the organic form, with soft edges and shadows, and the abstract one, with hard lines. I feel like it represents my two sides, because I’m both a dreamer and a planner. And I have to have both outlets, and I have to respect the two sides. They play off each other. For a while I might be the dreamer, dreaming up a song, and then the planner pops up and wants to know what it’s called and what key it’s in and what’s the tempo and where should it go on the album. It’s a good push-and-pull that keeps me creative and committed, slowly moving things forward.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
It depends on the record. Mythopoetics was written with little preparation, because I didn’t know I was writing an album at first. I hadn’t even finished The Caretaker yet. So it kind of snuck up on me. But now, I am in a long phase of preparation and woolgathering, making little notes on my phone about sounds and ideas and textures that interest me, jotting down phrases, listening to a lot of different things. I’m laying the groundwork for what’s next, and that feels good because I’m not writing anything really, but I still know that I’m preparing, that this time has a purpose.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I don’t know if I have specific rituals, but it does help to be in an inspiring physical space in order to write. An ideal situation would be a rainy day, with low light and maybe candles in the room. It’s a small room, and my keyboard faces the window, and on the windowsill are little stones and feathers. It’s very nest-like.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It’s always different - sometimes piano, sometimes a phrase, sometimes a synth sound or a drum pattern. More and more, it’s voice memos or field recordings.
I used to think that starting was the hardest part but I’m feeling more as I get older that starting is the easiest part, because all is possibility in the beginning, there’s no wrong way to turn. You just launch in and the sound breaks your fall. What comes next is difficult, making the decisions that nurture the song and take it where it needs to go. Sometimes a song will tell you what it needs, but sometimes it’s stubborn. I often hit a roadblock after the first verse or chorus and it takes a lot of discipline to push on.
Collaborators can be really helpful in that regard. I’m thinking of “Take Away the Ache” especially - that song was basically a verse and a chorus when I brought it in to work on with Zubin during our residency at Pulp Arts in Florida, where Mythopoetics got started. He really helped me figure out where that song should go, and we ended up writing the whole end section in the studio, which I’d never done before. So sometimes the answer is letting other people into the process and being open to new experiences. You don’t have to do it all alone.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
The balance between specificity and universality makes lyrics good. Poetry makes lyrics good. Unusual turns of phrase and observations. I strive for all of this and am constantly trying to be a better lyricist. It’s the part of songwriting that I struggle with the most. I tend to write melodies first, and then it’s hard to go back in and fit the words to the cadences.
I’m trying to do the opposite now and set music to poetry. We’ll see how that works out!
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
The best songs come with very little guidance. That’s the “it wrote itself” feeling I yearn for, and it’s hard to beat that. But I’ve also learned that it doesn’t have to be that way, and if a song needs a bit more coaxing, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good. You just have to maintain that ember of excitement around what you’re making. If it goes out, it’s time to move on.
There will always be more ideas, and you can always repurpose old ones. The pre-chorus of “Fortress,” for instance, is from an old song we used to perform called “Hide.” We tried to record that one for Lavender but it never felt right so it got cut. I remember someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to rip yourself off.” So I jacked that section from “Hide” and now it has a second life!
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It’s definitely spiritual, and it’s always a surprise. It feels to me like trailing your fingers absentmindedly through the water and then suddenly finding a fish in your hands.
Making a life around creativity means always being primed for inspiration, ready to catch what comes. Patti Smith is a great teacher to me in this regard, because she approaches everything she does as poetry. The simplest tasks are ritualized and looked at through the lens of an artist. It’s about intention and attention.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Physically finishing things is actually something I’ve never had a hard time with - I can be very decisive at the end, making lists of what needs to be finished, and then just methodically working through (that’s my planner brain at work).
But emotionally it’s hard, to leave that space of creating and know that all the possibilities are over and now you have to give away what you made. There’s no going back. Often I’ve finished a record and felt like, “wait, I can do that better.” And so I immediately start on the next one.
It’s different with Mythopoetics. I’m not writing another album. I still feel very connected to this music, and I think I finished a long sonic chapter of my life with this one. So I can sit with that and let it breathe and kind of honor the journey I’ve been on.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
There’s always a measure of refinement over the period of making something, but generally, I try to treat it as a time capsule of who I am at that moment, which means I try to write and record as close to when I wrote the song as possible. In an ideal world, all albums would be an imprint of a moment - and I know some bands do record this way, making an album in a handful of days.
With these kinds of arrangements, it takes more time to produce and flesh them out, but I still think in the grand scheme of things, I work pretty quickly. I don’t want to draw that out. We are always changing and growing and gaining new experiences, so it feels important to me to honor and mark each period of my life with music. And that means writing a lot, and it also means not holding onto things for too long.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I have no idea what happens in mastering, and I’d say I probably have a low level of knowledge of mixing, and that’s totally okay with me. Earlier on in my career, I felt like I had to know how to do everything - otherwise I wouldn’t be a “serious” musician. That’s a lot of internalized misogyny right there.
Thankfully I’m now at a place where I understand not only my strengths but where my true interest lies, and I can follow that path rather than get bogged down with feeling obligated to invest my time and energy somewhere else. I just really love playing with sound. As a producer, it’s a great joy for me to take the raw material of a song and figure out what sonic world it fits into, what sounds make it come alive. I try to take my demos as far as I can go in terms of arrangement and production, and then I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with some excellent producers who know more about the technical side of things. We can really complement each other’s skills that way.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Oh I love this question, and this is exactly what I was talking about when I brought up Patti Smith! I mean yes, writing a piece of music is different than making a cup of coffee, but only in its vehicle of expression. It can have the same impulse and the same spiritual effect. One act just feels more ephemeral to me, and one more tangible. And it’s really good to have a mix of both experiences.
When I’m getting frustrated musically and a song won’t come, that’s when I go prune the garden or make a cup of coffee or arrange a vase of wildflowers. These are all small acts of care and intention, acts that are in service to beauty and to the stimulation of the senses. And that’s the spirit of creativity right there. You can find it anywhere and everywhere, if that’s the perspective you bring to your days.