Fusion Food: Lady HD's Ciaran Wall on amplifying his Peruvian heritage and channeling grief into radiant psychedelic pop - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Lady HD is the fuzz-funk project of Ciaran Wall, whose songwriting is inspired by his Peruvian heritage and the “high definition” forces and people in his life. 2020 is set to bring us two different Lady HD releases in forms that they’ve never taken before. While typically playing with his band members, Carly Brand, Beau Gordon, and Alex Held, these EPs were conceived within Ciaran’s own creative thinking and brought to life with outside collaborators.

Chifa, the first EP due out early August, is a collection of Lady HD songs that have been in the works for the better part of a year, with Wall manning the helm of all performance and production aspects. Yogi Noir, the second release, sources some prominent local session musicians and is a dedication to Wall’s friend Amanda Medina, a yoga instructor, bartender, and friend to many in Philadelphia’s music scene, who passed away last summer.

With various resources to pull from, these two collections seamlessly blend funk, psychedelia, and South American Chicha music all while set to a lyrical space of coping with a personal loss and making it into something to learn and grow from. Wall does this expertly, and hopes listeners find some meaning within it.

The Key: Before we get into releases, who is Lady HD? I’m sure you can tell me a more personal origin story than the one I read on your Spotify page.

Ciaran Wall: A few years ago, I’d just moved back from California and everything just kind of sucked out there. I started working a lot, and then my friend Dusty Moon hit me up because he’d started a label with his dad, who was a composer for Cartoon Network. He worked on stuff like Cow and Chicken and Johnny Bravo, and I loved all that growing up so I was really intrigued by the prospect of recording out there. So he flew me out, we recorded five songs which became the first record, and that’s pretty much how Lady HD came to be. It’s a collaboration between myself and Dusty. Guy was doing a lot of the composition, like the horn arrangements. It was cool, and Dusty does more of the mixing and production and he’s also an incredible drummer. We’ve been at it for a few years, and now I’m kind of by myself on this new record and that’s why I wanted to call it Chifa. It takes the pressure off because at the same time I’ve also been working with a bunch of different people on this, and the Chifa mask symbolizes that there are a lot more people attached than just me.

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TK: You mention in an NPR last year following your appearance at Nuevofest that a lot of your songs draw on your Peruvian roots. What does culture mean to you and how do you find ways to portray that in your music?

CW: I think I’m really the white sheep of my family. I show up to family reunions and I’m just like this oddball. I was raised with my mom, who’s from Lima, and a lot of the influences I draw from are from old Chicha cumbia records, which is like Peruvian psych music from the 70s. Even the mask I use for Chifa; chifa is “fusion food,” [and] I feel like I’m “fusion food,” being Peruvian and Irish. It’s a weird mix with the only line that connects the two cultures being potatoes.

That mask I wear is traditionally used in this festival called Takanakuy, which translates to “to settle” in Quechua. It’s held near Cuzco, and basically once a year all these people just get together and beat each other up. They settle disputes, to phrase it nicely. So in everything I do, I try to incorporate some Peruvian traditions. I love the history of it and I love the culture. I’ve studied the Incas a lot, and it’s always fun to try and use that in songs.

In the Lady HD song called “Inca Queen,” the lyrics are about the Lady of Cao, this badass queen that ruled the Incas. They recently found her body completely mummified, and she had these amazing tattoos all over her. So when I saw that on one of my trips to Peru, I was so inspired.

TK: That’s certainly something that makes you stand out just from an uninformed listener’s perspective. I don’t know of any local band that really draws on South American culture as much as you do, and to have lyrics that tell such specific and inspired stories like that is an important way to validate and honor who you are and where you come from. All while putting those lyrics to a psychedelic soundscape – it’s such a unique listen.

CW: I don’t think anyone would have guessed what the songs are truly about, either. I go to Peru a lot and I play these songs for my family. The last time I was there I played at a hostel and opened up for my cousin’s salsa group. It was funny to just have me up on stage with a guitar and a computer playing those tracks and seeing which songs people were getting.

TK: Does the name “Lady HD” hold any relevance to you?

CW: There are a couple different stories to it. Growing up, I wasn’t doing well in school, and I was having a lot of problems with communication. My first language is Spanish, and so going into school I was having a hard time. On top of that, they told me they thought I had A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. So it’s kind of a play on words, but that’s sort of its origin. On the flip side, though, I was heavily influenced by my mom and my aunts. They’re some of the biggest pillars in my life. My one aunt in Peru has designed all of our album artwork. Another aunt always worked so hard growing up, and then my mom is very spiritual. They’re the “high definition” women that I looked up to while growing up, and I think a lot of my music is that. Interaction with people, mostly strong women who influenced me – even things like the Lady of Cao. So there are a lot of things that wrap itself into one name.

TK: And you’re releasing two very different EPs this summer, correct?

CW: Right. We’re finishing Yogi Noir now but that release date is TBD, and we’ve already finished Chifa for early August.

TK: Were the two writing/recording processes different in any way?

CW: Chifa was from the first couple rounds of doing a lot of producing, and I’m pretty much just playing the first three songs. We hit a lot of walls along the way because you learn a lot, so it was more of just a struggle. Now I’m finally putting it out after two years. That process was kind of arduous and took a little longer than I would have liked. But it took a lot of people who helped get it to where it is.

Yogi Noir is a dedication, like you said, to a friend of mine who passed away last year. It goes through the whole club experience. I dropped everything I was doing at this time last year – it’s crazy that it’s actually been a year – and I decided I was going to move to this house next to a nightclub and I began throwing shows, working the door, and actually becoming a bartender which I’d never done before. Thankfully Amanda worked there and had more experience. Writing this was just a walkthrough of emotions I was going through last year. Like those nights where you’re working and you don’t make much money, or just writing lyrics to pass the time. It just encapsulates those moments for me. The EP is about something bigger than myself rather than about me, and when you look at it that way it becomes a lot easier to work with.

TK: Are the sounds of both EPs similar? Or is Yogi Noir more of a one-time project with a different feel to it?

CW: You write to what you live in, right? In the beginning of Yogi Noir I was writing very polished funk infused with psych rock. I also think Philly’s a little bit rougher now so I wanted to incorporate some fuzz and distortion. It’s definitely different than what I’ve done in the sense that it’s “fuzz funk,” but it’s still very dance friendly.

TW: I like that this is still a reflection of you and your sound. I think that when you listen to pieces that are for people, specifically about loss, they sound really heavy and this sounds very much the opposite. Do you think the feel of this EP encapsulates who she was as a person? Is it something that you think she’d like to listen to?

CW: Yeah. We were really tight after knowing each other for maybe only six months. She would come to my shows and bring a crowd with her. That was just who she was. She lit up a room. She was always the epicenter of things. This record isn’t about someone passing away but more about moving on and planting the seed of that person into your life so something new can blossom and keep growing for the good of the people around you. I hope it has that effect. I think it’s about living and actually leaving a mark.

Video by communion.media

TK: Are there any sort of explicit themes like that in Chifa, or is that release more about letting the listener pull what they want from the songs?

CW: Chifa is about the alter ego, and I wanted to have that in order to take the pressure off myself and to play another character. It’s less of, “hey look at that guy, he’s got a unique look to him, I wonder what he’s about,” and more of just wanting people to listen to the music for what it is. The mask represents a lot of people who were behind creating the music. It’s not just me, it’s Lady HD, and then it branches out past a single songwriter.

TK: Can you take me through the collaboration, then? Who worked on this with you?

CW: This time I’m producing it myself. I’ve been working with a mixing engineer in El Paso, Texas. We’ve been doing Zoom sessions. He’s mixed some stuff for Beach House. It’s not just myself overall, I have a lot of people who I trust that want to be a part of this. Trap Rabbit and Will Brown from Deadfellow and Astronaut Jumpshot played on it. It took the pressure of me having to play all of the parts. I did play all the parts on Chifa, but I had the time. I got some seriously good players for this one and it’s been the easiest process. I do have a band that I play out with, but I wanted to go the session route this time. And I think it’s cool to collaborate with other bands and have them all do something together. It’s like a joining of worlds.

TK: Has quarantine affected your work or do you feel like you have a new creative outlet?

CW: The beginning of Yogi Noir was actually supposed to have a choir on it. I collaborated with the CCP [Community College of Philadelphia] music department and their vocal ensemble. The head of the department Robert Ross was like, “You have to write this all out. Five-part harmonies and everything,” so I went back and wrote out like 14 pages of sheet music. We were going to record the whole thing in an auditorium and it was going to be awesome. Then COVID hit and I had to find a new place to work on that. So the sheet music is ready to go. But COVID has definitely given me some bumps along the way, but it wouldn’t be worth it to me if there weren’t.

TK: From what a lot of bands have said through quarantine, the reviews of writing, tracking, and performing remotely have all been very mixed. Some bands are really loving all the free time and are at their best creative selves with nothing else to focus on, and some feel super burnt out just from the pressure they’ve put on themselves to make something worthwhile because, again, we have nothing but time right now.

CW: It’s crazy how everyone’s adapting. With all the time I had, it was kind of perfect. I wanted to do Yogi Noir for a while and I was just wrapping up Chifa. I felt like I didn’t have the time with Yogi Noir and there were a lot of factors that were unfinished. The demos weren’t ready, and I like to demo and then go into the studio and execute. So quarantine has given me so much time to actually try things. I was waking up every day and looking for tones or looking for influences, reading articles on bands and producers I liked. So in that aspect it definitely helped me advance, but a lot of studios weren’t open for a while. Even now, we’re all wearing masks. There can’t be two people in the control room. There are definitely still hurdles. People are working with it, though.

TK: Can you build me a playlist of songs that you listened to while putting together Chifa and Yogi Noir?

CW: When I was working on Chifa I was digging into a lot of older music, like stuff from the 70s. It’s my favorite era of music because it’s right before everything went digital and computers were a part of everything. I like rough and live music. Those tones are great. Barry White was a huge influence. “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” has such a great drum track. That one is always a reference. My playlists have a bunch of random stuff. Yogi Noir has a more specific playlist…

TK: If somebody wrote a dedication piece about you, like you did for Amanda with Yogi Noir, what would you hope it would say?

CW: I think it’s more about the impact on other people rather than one person. I just think we’re here, and life is so short and fragile, and it’s about people in this day and age forget that life is about people and not always about yourself. Some of the most important movements in history have come from a body of people – they’re movements, and I hope I’ll be known to have a part in some kind of movement. I think I’d like to leave that mark, and that’s why I think Amanda left a legacy. She had a movement. She was a yoga instructor, so a lot of people knew her in that aspect. She was a bartender. She was a friend. That’s how you make an impact, just by reaching out to a bunch of different things and pulling them together to make one body. So I hope to achieve that with what time I have.

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