The building blocks of Kississippi's 'Mood Ring' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Kississippi’s Mood Ring is a long way off from the band’s debut EP We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed, with bandleader Zoe Reynolds exploring a well of heartache through sparkling synthesizers and drums. Reynolds takes notes from the pop universe, and enlists other indie names like Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver, Bartees Strange, and Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Marshall Vore. 

That sense of teamwork creates her most fully-fleshed out album that incorporates synths in ways subtle and overt, and puts the guitar in the backseat to add the perfect subdued texture. The singles off the album, “We’re So In Tune” and “Around Your Room,” explode as pop anthems, while ballads like “Hellbeing” and “Big Dipper” get to heart of what makes Kississippi great as a band: Reynolds’ ability to stab at the heart of longing. 

She spoke with The Key shortly after her first show since the start of the pandemic, and discussed her influences for the album, why she put her guitar down for this record, and the life event that shaped the sound of Mood Ring, if not the writing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TK: For this record, you kind of leaned really hard into like a pop sensibility. What were you listening to at the time that you were writing and recording this?

ZR: I was listening to a lot of Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, Muna. I actually didn’t really get deep into Taylor Swift until people started drawing the comparisons. And I was like, “Oh, I need to get more into this!” But there were some songs. I was like, “I would like to make a Taylor Swift-sounding song,” but it took some really digging into her stuff. But yeah, I don’t know, all across the board though, those are my pop inspirations. I also really love Purity Ring. But yeah, I also am a big indie-head, so a lot of Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie and stuff like that.

TK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you recorded at least part of this in L.A. Where were you in Los Angeles? 

ZR: So I actually recorded most of the record in Seattle, but I did two studio sessions in L.A., mostly writing sessions. I wrote “Hellbeing” with Marshall Vore in L.A….he has his home studio in Pasadena, so we worked on the song together there. And I also went out to L.A. to collaborate with Sarah Tudzin from Illuminati Hotties; we did “Around Your Room” and “We’re So In Tune” together. And I also was going back-and-forth working on some of the songs with my friend Derek Ted. He also has a home studio. Everyone has their school home studio setup.

TK: I was wondering about the guitar on this. There was a good amount of guitar, but it mostly relies on drums, and I know you’re such a great guitar player. Did you still get some chances to kind of flex that muscle?

ZR: The thing is, I actually hired studio musicians for this record and I didn’t even play guitar on it, which I kind of really liked. That’s the thing, I really do love playing guitar, but I am trying to lean more into the synth stuff, and would really love to at some point be able to just be singing on stage.

TK: Did you miss playing guitar on this record? Or are you saying you really, really love to just kind of sit back and let other people do that?

ZR: I really, really love sitting back and letting people do it. Honestly, I think I get a little nervous just writing guitar parts in front of people, because I don’t know much about music theory. I’m not classically trained in any way, I just kind of play what I know sounds good. So yeah, I get a little nervous with that. And we had such amazing studio musicians. It was like there wasn’t a point where I felt like I was missing out on anything because I was enjoying watching them and collaborating with them so much.

TK: Like you said, you’re not writing the songs on guitar in front of everyone, so then how were these songs written? What instrument were you putting those down on?

ZR: When I wrote the songs, I was demo-ing them on guitar and synthesizer at home, but once we recorded them in the studio, other people played those parts. But there was a lot of wriggling around with it. I definitely built mostly synth songs, like a lot of these songs kind of sounded like video game music when I started writing them, I was just trying to write fun, cathartic stuff. It’s funny because I feel like I was thinking I was writing a happy record, but it’s kind of a bummer one.

TK: Which one came first in your musical learning? Were you a piano person growing up? Were you a guitar person growing up?

ZR: I was actually a bass person growing up. My sister started playing guitar, I think when she was 10 years old, I was like 8 and I really wanted to play guitar and always wanted to start a band, like my whole entire life I always wanted to sing in a band. So I wanted to play guitar too. But my mom was like, “No, you’re going to play bass instead so you and your sister can start a band together,” which, I think that she kind of said that so we wouldn’t end up getting jealous of each other, but it was a good thing we never started an actual band together. We played some little coffee shop things when we were growing up. But yeah, bass was my main instrument for a long time. And then in high school, I started picking up on guitar a little bit just because I wanted the opportunity to be able to sing more. But the first band that I was really and I played synths in, so I’ve kind of been all across the board. But bass has kind of been my number one.

TK: And I read that you worked with Andy Park on your vocals to kind of push your limits there on this record a little bit. So what did that look like in the studio?

ZR: Honestly, I think I kind of had these things in me, but always had a little bit of anxiety about projecting. And most of all, what Andy helped me with was actually projecting myself and actually letting myself push the emotions of the songs in the studio. And yeah, I feel like I listen to some of my old stuff and I see that I’m kind of holding myself back from fully sharing the emotion of a song or my voice in general. But most of all, he really helped me get out of my shell with that, and that was the main way that he helped me with my vocal stuff for sure.

TK: So what’s the song that you feel really exemplifies you kind of breaking that barrier and projecting?

ZR: Hmmm, “Big Dipper,” one hundred percent. It was a big one for me, definitely. Going into lower registers than I’m used to and really allowing myself to belt. It felt so good to do it at the show the other day. It just felt so…I don’t know, it was the first time I was able to perform that song in front of anyone. So I felt really good to be able to really feel the emotion of it on the stage.

TK: I also read that you had a ton of contributors on this album, I’m just going to name a few like Jessica Dobson (Deep Sea Diver), Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, and then you mentioned Marshall Vore (drummer for Phoebe Bridgers) before. You also say that you wanted total control over the process, and that kind of came from being taken advantage of by men in the music industry. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that. You don’t need to get into specifics, of course, but in what ways were you taken advantage of?

ZR: Yeah, it’s funny because I feel like that was something I held more strongly onto when I was working on Sunset Blush, and I feel like this record was actually my chance to kind of let go of that stuff. I had some issues with a label a couple of years ago, while the release of Sunset Blush was happening and we had announced our record release and like three weeks later, Side One Dummy, the label that we were working with, collapsed kind of as a label, and just started working with their legacy acts and dropped all of their smaller acts. And we were the only band that was in the middle of a record release when that was happening. And that was really kind of soul crushing. 

Before that, I just had many years of playing with a lot of rockstar-attitude type of men who did not really give me the space to share in the ways that I needed to. I don’t really know how to explain that now, but this record kind of made me change my mind about all that. The last [record], it was really like, “I don’t want anyone to touch this because I want this to be mine and only mine.” But with Mood Ring, I think the best part of working on this record was the collaboration, and I think I wouldn’t have been able to do anything like this if I didn’t allow people into that. And some of those people were men, you know? [laughs] It was a relief, from my past experiences, working with people like Marshall and like Derek and Andy.

TK: So lots of songs on this record make nods and references to themes of nostalgia, childhood, adolescence, and I think that the title of the album really cements that notion. I mean, why was that on your mind when it came to making Mood Ring?

ZR: I mean, to be fully honest, I was going through a breakup with someone who I was engaged to, and I looked back a lot on what my childhood perceptions of love were, and along with that was thinking a lot about those crushing feelings that you have when you’re a kid, when you’re first starting to realize what love is. And yeah, that was a lot of where that was coming from.

TK: So was that in 2019 when the album was being written?

ZR: Yeah. It was actually in the middle of the record being written. So the record definitely took some kind of crazy turns there, but it’s definitely what it was meant to be. And yeah, there’s no bad blood between me and my ex or anything. He is a good friend of mine still, but definitely a lot of things to process after that.

TK: So you’re talking about this idealized notion that you had as a kid of what romance is – marriage, engagement, and all that stuff. I mean, what did you think it was? And then compared with now, what changed in that time?

ZR: It’s funny that you ask, because thinking about it now, like this is the first time someone’s really asked me that, I don’t know if anything has changed. I grew up with divorced parents, so it wasn’t really like the love that I grew up with, it was like the love that I wanted to find, or I wanted the opposite of what had happened to them, I guess? I guess, nothing has changed about my perception of love and marriage, because I think I’ve always kind of had, not fully negative feelings about it, but nervous feelings about it.

TK: It’s interesting that you say “nervous,” because I was going to say “realistic.”

ZR: I know. But I mean, it is realistic, you know? [laughs]

Kississippi’s Mood Ring is out now, and can be ordered via Triple Crown Records. The band plays Union Transfer opening for Tigers Jaw on Friday, October 22nd. Tickets and info on the show can be found at the Union Transfer website.

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