Nobody likes to feel pain, but pain is a fact of life. Physical pain triggers the nervous system, alerting the brain to the fact that something is off and sending reflexes into defense mode. It’s why we jerk our hands away when we touch a hot frying pan or prick our fingers on a thorny bush. Pain is necessary for survival because it helps shield the body from life-threatening fatality.
But emotional pain is a different beast entirely. Nothing stings quite like betrayal, and there’s only so much pain that the mind can endure before it closes itself off to communication entirely. How does one learn to open up, to connect, to trust again when their goodwill has been worn down to a nub by the people who were supposed to be in their corner?
This is a question that Miki P. of Kansas City trio The Swallowtails is still grappling with. On The Swallowtails’ latest album, The World Still Spins, Miki (guitar/vocals) and her bandmates Adee Dancey (cello, vocals) and Rachel Lovelace (bassoon/vocals) weave an intricate tapestry of chamber pop chronicling their emotional highs and lows, from breakups to getting older and the end of friendships against a backdrop of devastating lyrics, lush harmonies, sometimes a chorus of them, and earthy sprinkles of cello and bassoon.
From the vindictive rager “Saving Myself” to the somber Big Thief-worshipping “Twilight of Our Youth,” The World Still Spins is a perfect distillation of how it feels to be a human in limbo – the middle ground between craving intimacy and loathing co-dependency, building a tough exterior just so you can protect your gooey soft interior, and being grateful for the wisdom you’ve acquired from getting older while simultaneously grieving your fleeting youth.
A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents sat down with Miki P. of The Swallowtails to discuss her unique ways of processing grief, the intimate shared language between bandmates, and her biggest comfort listens of the year.
OH MY GOD, can I just start with the friggin horns on this album? I love it when I hear horns!
Well, that’s kind of a trick because it’s just a bassoon!
I can’t remember if we layered the bassoon in the first song. We did a little bit of layering on this album, which we didn’t do on our first record. But the bassoon and cello are in stereo with each other and harmonizing with each other.
For context, how did you meet the current lineup of the band, and how has your connection with them evolved?
So right now we’re a trio, but this record was recorded as a five-piece. This project originally started in 2018 when I was putting out solo work and I didn’t have a plan for the band to become what it is today.
I met Rachel who plays bassoon and Adee who plays cello, and then we added a bass player and a drummer on our first record. And then for this record, I played drums, and then our friend John played bass.
We’re mostly a trio now because it’s a lot easier to coordinate our schedules and I love playing the songs as a three-piece, cause you get to hear the textures of the bassoon and the cello, which are such gorgeous instruments unplugged. I wanted it to be unplugged, but make it rock and roll somehow.
That sounds like an experiment that Brian Eno would have done in college.
Yes, yes! But let’s scream about it, you know?
Something I wrote down about this record is that it sounds like an emotional cleanse. You sound like you’re purging.
Yeah. Quite a bit. Both of my siblings messaged me asking if I was okay after listening. I’ve always used my music as a therapeutic release. Ever since I put it out, I’ve listened to it a couple of times and I’m just like, “Oh yeah, wow, I guess I needed to get that all out.”
And what’s interesting is that when it’s happening, you probably don’t even realize you’re doing it. Or maybe you think a song’s about one thing, and then you realize you were writing about something else.
Literally, yes! I feel like my most natural songs come from me not thinking or trying very hard. Whatever needs to come out is gonna come out. I feel like a lot of times I’ll also go back through my songwriting journals, and I’ll realize how depressed I was for a certain period. I can read it and trace exactly when I moved out of that phase, and what I was processing during that time.
It’s fascinating what songwriting can tell you about yourself. What were you listening to when you made the album?
I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees. I listened to them for like six months. And then I wrote the first song, “Determined to Find.” And that’s the most like Bee Gees/ABBA-inspired song on the record.
I can’t remember what else, because I started writing the album like four years ago. So I feel like I’ve listened to a lot of music in that period, but I’m also more of a comfort listener. I’ll go back to an album that I’ve heard a million times and it just hits. I just really like the simplicity of something sounding good.
What are some of those comfort listens for you?
I’ve been listening to Adrianne Lenker’s songs album a bunch. A lot of Bon Iver and Radiohead. Those are all comfort artists for me. It’s like a pillow from the harsh reality of the world.
I love that you brought up Adrianne Lenker because she’s someone who’s been a slow burn for me.
I feel the same about her! Even Big Thief, I haven’t gotten into it very deeply either. But there is something about her that is so enchanting. It makes me want to listen to that album a hundred times before I move on, and that’s how I feel about her now.
Do you ever feel like the best new stuff hits you when you’re not looking for it?
I do. I always get into cycles of listening to something thoroughly over and over again, so I love it when I get hooked on an album by an artist that I never thought I would have connected with before. And then it’s like, “Oh, I love this new piece of work!” I love the Punch Brothers and that’s kind of the vibe I’m going for with the Swallowtails. I love those intricate acoustic parts. Chris Thile has a million amazing projects and one of them is Nickel Creek. And I’ve liked some of Nickel Creek’s songs before, but they just released an album called Celebrants. It’s a long album, but I’m hooked on it. It took me by surprise.
When you were making the album and felt at capacity with your emotional baggage, did the writing help you out?
Definitely. It’s just the creative process in general.
And also your connection with your bandmates, when you have that moment where it’s just like, “Oh, let me just play this. What if I add this? Oh my God, did we just write a song? I love that song. Oh my God. I’m so glad we’re in a band together!”
Totally! I love every step of the process. I love being in the studio. If I had the opportunity, I would be in the studio every day. The most therapeutic part is writing the songs and just kind of letting it be free on the page. I have a really hard time writing songs around other people. I’ve always been alone or just kind of giving myself some space to get it out.
With the Swallowtails I’m always asking Rachel and Adee what fits because I don’t know how to write for a bassoon or a cello. So I love coming together and having them add their emotional layering into it as well. I love every step of the process. And then I just want it to be out. It’s such a long process, but I also really love that sacred period where the song is only mine. And then I’m sick of it once it’s out and I can’t listen to it for another couple of years. And then I can come back to it a few years later and appreciate it differently.
You can definitely burn out on listening to your favorite thing. And that’s not always something that I’ve been able to control, which is really sad, cause then it’s like, “Wow, I used to, really love this album and now I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to connect with it the same way again,” cause I’ve listened to it a million times.
Are you a lyrics first person or a melody first person?
I usually come up with the chords first. But the melody kind of writes itself as the lyrics are being written, if that makes sense. So I don’t know, the only melodic thing happening is the chords, but then the singing line is just kind of like appearing as the lyrics appear.
A lot of times, if I come up with the chords, I honestly just set my instrument down and just write. And I don’t know, the melodies just kind of happen if that makes sense. But it’s really hard for me to write words to a melody that’s already been created. Depends on the day, honestly.
How do you reconcile loving someone’s art if their morals go against what you believe in?
There was one electronic instrumentalist who I found through YouTube and movie soundtracks. The music he made was so beautiful and it really connected with me on such an emotional level. When I was feeling the most sad I would put it on, and it would give me a lot of hope. I’ve always returned to his music and connected with it in different ways and I feel like it’s always brought out that really innocent part of me.
A couple of years ago, I discovered that he’s a super misogynistic right-wing grifter and it honestly broke my heart. I didn’t understand how someone could make something so beautiful and then go against these very basic human principles I believe in. I can’t separate my feelings from this because it affects me directly.
That makes total sense. I used to be a massive fan of Death From Above 1979, until I discovered one of their members is allegedly a member of the Proud Boys.
Yeah, that sucks. But at the same time, there’s so much art in the world. Eventually, someone else will replace that artist in my heart. But I also think part of the conversation is to ask ourselves why we’re holding these people to such impossible standards. And why are we looking at celebrities in this light?
Because the only other things people worship with such zeal are sports and religion. I think celebrity worship is just an extension of that.
Exactly! These people are rich and beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to live that way? And now we’re living amongst a generation of people who want to be internet famous, and to me it feels like the same thing. I always want to push against that. And I’m not anti-trend, but if everybody starts doing the same thing at once, it just becomes ugly to me, because everybody’s doing it. Now we have the internet and it’s kind of terrible, cause I feel like I have to be a machine to keep up.
I just want to make music. If I go back to what my purpose was as a kid, what I loved to do was lock myself in a room with a guitar. And then I just wanted to take that to the next level and show a room full of people. But now I have to be the songwriter. I have to pay for the recording session. I have to market my music. I have to be the one booking my shows. I have to be the director of my own music videos. I need to be making consistent content for all the social media platforms. I am so burnt out all the time.
And it really makes me sad because I want to enjoy creating, and at this point, it feels impossible.
Have you found any successful ways of re-centering yourself and reminding yourself why you make music?
I feel like I’m still trying to work that out for myself right now, just because music has become a means to an end for me. So it’s made it very hard to truly connect with it. During the pandemic, it was different because I was actually able to just do music without having to worry about performing because that wasn’t an option. So I think that reignited my creative fuel. But I’m still on the journey to find that spark again at this point in time. And now we’re performing the songs that we’ve been working on for the last three years. But I’m sure once I get to the next batch of songs, I’ll remember where my heart is, because I feel the most centered while I’m creating.
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