“Back to self-remembering”: Naked Lake break down their fearless debut, 'Should We Go Home Now?' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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In July, Philadelphia’s Naked Lake released their debut album, Should We Go Home Now?, which singer Abbie Painter first envisioned more than two years ago. They call the album “equivalent to a journal,” its tracks marking all the months in Painter’s first year taking hormones during their transition, after an intense 2020 summer when “quarantine allowed [them] to confront their relationship with themselves and their body.” Painter held this artistic vision tightly when they met Jordan Hartsfield on the internet that summer, and the two quickly became close, trusting friends as they focused in on recording this album together.

While the project unfolded over a year, they also recorded the darling Dreaming Of EP in 2021, packed with grooves, emo, punk and pop rock electricity on four tracks Painter and Hartsfield both wrote. Should We Go Home Now? turns up similar sounds and a fantastic emotional range, from theatrical balladry on “Pictures of God” to the tender “Under My Skin” and the roaring “Oil Spill.” All the variety sounds like a scrapbook, like the collage we see on the album cover, a testament to the duo’s deepening friendship and their fearless commitment to sounding like themselves: unedited, bare. And from start to finish, we hear Abbie’s voice and attitude change through a year of growth and regrowth, as they move closer and closer to somewhere they call home.

I spoke with Abbie and Jordan of Naked Lake in August about how they got started, how they felt recording a new song every month, and how the band feels today now that this vital project is complete.

Naked Lake - Should We Go Home Now album trailer

Thomas Hagen: What musical backgrounds and experiences, if any, did you both have before you started recording as Naked Lake?

Abbie Painter: I took piano lessons when I was very young for like six years, though I could never really concentrate; it didn’t really go anywhere. But I was really into theater: I grew up around actors because my mom is an actress, and she has this whole little theater school in our hometown, so I would go to voice lessons as well. I was playing piano and I remember playing Lady Gaga songs, and I taught myself guitar—just the basic stuff. But then when I was a senior in high school I recorded and put out an album but basically just for myself, so that was two weeks in my childhood bedroom. During high school and middle school I would host open mics at the school, part of the literary magazine club, and I sometimes would MC or participate, so that was really fun and it was kind of like a G-rated version of basement shows. [laughs] So I had music under an alias, but it’s nothing that I would be like, you should listen!!

Jordan Hartsfield: I started learning guitar on my own when I was 8 or so, mostly learning just by teaching myself songs. Eventually I got a guitar teacher, that lasted like a year but then my grades weren’t good enough and my parents were like, “you can’t go to guitar lessons anymore ’cause your grades are bad.” [laughs] So I was teaching myself and I was in a band in high school, it was this terrible metalcore band and I don’t like metalcore but that was kinda the scene there. At the very least, I picked up the technical skills you need to play that kind of music, which I use in Dreaming Of with the fast picking and strumming—but other than that, no formal music training. A couple years ago I recorded a solo EP, it was just something I recorded in like two weeks, just recorded in my bedroom too. But that was all my experience until Naked Lake, other than playing a few open mics and a few solo shows!

TH: How did you come together to form Naked Lake, and when did you come up with this vision for your album?

AP: We actually first came together with the concept of the album—after quarantine, when I got back to college I had this idea because I had just started my hormones. And I knew I couldn’t do it justice by myself, and I also really wanted to play with people and make it more of a collaboration rather than just me on my own. So I posted in “DIY Philly” and I said, “Heeeeeeyyy I’m trying to find members to make a band and create this concept,” and I didn’t make the ideas all public, but when Jordan then responded, I told them and we had a Zoom.

JH: It’s funny cause I don’t go on Facebook at all anymore, but at the time I would check Facebook maybe once every two weeks ’cause — it feels like a literal lifetime ago — that’s where a lot of the local shows were posted, and that paradigm really shifted over the pandemic. It just happened that I stumbled upon that DIY Philly post, and I thought the project Abbie was doing was really cool, and impactful and meaningful, and I was super excited to be part of the project because I felt I could kind of relate to it, and their ideas were so emotionally charged, and their way of songwriting from their older project was really cool.

There were also two other people that joined in at first, that are doing their own thing now. So it was us four for a month or two, and I was the only one that stuck around. And so me and Abbie kept practicing and finding other musicians to work with, eventually landing on my friend Kelvin [Ayora] who recorded bass on a lot of the album. From there, we started playing some songs I had half-written and fleshed out as a band, and Abbie was like, “We should totally record these and release this as an EP.” So we recorded one song in a studio and recorded the rest in my bedroom, so that took a few months and we put it out and it was awesome. I wrote the songs “Sour Spit” and “Darling, I know”, and then for the other two — “Dreaming Of” and “Haunt Me” — Abbie and I came together, they came up with melodies and lyrics and I did all the instrumentation.

TH: How did the writing process unfold on this album? Did you write a new song every month, or did you have 12 songs prepared before you began recording?

AP: The entire Should We Go Home Now? is a song every single month! So I wrote “Baby Girl,” recorded vocals and actually we kept the trumpets that I recorded on my keyboard, all the day before I started hormones. And I thought, “I want to keep track of this metamorphosis,” because I often feel like I’m not articulate, which is funny because I had written songs. So I would write a song each month, and I would make sure I had it in my calendar, “you need to record vocals by the end of every single month.” Just vocals each month for a year, then after the majority of vocals were recorded, we went into Zach our drummer’s basement where there’s a studio, which is amazing and Zach is unreal, we love him so much, he’s such an amazing person and friend. We spent a lot of time there on instrumentals just pairing up with the vocals, everything stripped except the vocals. And then we built from there—some of the songs are insanely different, like “Fairyhouse”, it is a wild experience to listen to what it was—we would do that over the summer.

There is a song actually in there that I did not write! It was the eighth month song, shit was going on, I had just had a breakup, I wrote the worst song in the world. Because I just was so flat, you know, it was dry, and then I went to Jordan’s house, and we were like, “Aughhh, whaddo we dooo, whaddo we dooo” and they were like, “I just wrote this song this morning!” So we listened to the song twice, and then I just kind of sang it out my ass, and that’s “Aisles,” by the way.

JH: The process of recording was the coolest thing ever, though it was also really challenging, cause we were starting from demos, basically going into the studio with the mindset of fully re-writing these songs. “Fairyhouse,” I believe the chords are even different than what was in the original scratch track. Abbie kept emphasizing, “I want this to be more upbeat, dreamy and kind of chaotic,” so Zach and I took that and really ran with it, and that’s where you get the crazy synth coming in, that part where I’m just tapping the notes and we’re going insane. And that was a lot of fun cause we started with something to build off of, because when I write music I never build off of a vocal track. So it was a challenging procedure doing that for the rest of the songs too, because they really developed and changed in the studio. We would go in one day and do a bunch of recording, then the next day we would listen back like, “What if we changed this entirely?” It was so much fun, it was the best summer.

AP: I brought the bones, and we built the body. [laughs]

JH: I’ll also mention Kelvin, who threw a bunch of really sick basslines in there, that added a lot to the songs, too.

AP: “Under My Skin” I wrote a chorus to, and I wanted Emily Bloom, who is one of my best friends ever, we’ve been best friends since we were 4. And we have actually been talking about things like sexuality and gender since we were that young, so it is perfect that she was so gracefully willing to hop on, especially cause that song is a tear-jerker for us. I basically sent her a karaoke track with my vocals and the empty verse that she sings, then she wrote the verse and recorded it and sent it to us.

Naked Lake - Aisles

TH: Did your experience recording vocals change at all throughout these 12 months of your transition?

AP: Yeah, it was a challenge because I didn’t know where my voice would be at. So when I was writing the songs, and I would start playing guitar, I would try to sing and it would be too high but I could still reach it and sound good. But then I wasn’t able to get up there, and I had to retrain how to sing; I had been in vocal training for a total of maybe five years sporadically. You know, when you’re in your register, say you have a song on and you can easily find the harmony, I could do that so easy, but then as my voice began to go lower, that was so hard for me. I would sing and I couldn’t hear if it was right or not, because I would think I was singing a certain note like I would do prior, but it was almost like a tonedeaf experience. I had to retrain how to find melodies easy and how to match my voice to the key; I think I have almost perfect pitch and I had to completely retrain that. So then writing the songs was really hard, I think between when “9:45” started and then “Aisles”, that was all really hard—I didn’t know where my comfortable register was at, my muscle memory wasn’t in check because obviously I had to rebuild.

TH: How do you feel about listening to recordings of your own voice? How do you hear yourself in it, and has that changed at all during your transition?

AP: I usually hate listening to my voice—I can’t watch videos of myself or hear my voice if they weren’t within the past year, except for the album. The album is so comforting to listen to; it feels like the most validation you could ever get. I’m so happy listening to it knowing that’s the way it was and now it’s this. Having that tracker feels validating and grounding. You know when you’re feeling chaotic, like sometimes in the morning when I take my medication and I drink coffee on an empty stomach and you have that airy, cloudy feeling in your head? At least for me, I feel so, “where am I right now?? what am I saying?” Listening to the album gets rid of that feeling, it brings me back to self-remembering. Remembering back to something pre-transition, something that wasn’t right, now I’m like, “I’m so happy that I’m here.” It’s so easy to be hard on myself and be internally transphobic to myself, but the album is just a reminder that I did do the right thing for me, that I am doing the right thing. Ugh. I wish I could send you my brain right now, I feel like my wording is silly and doesn’t do it justice!

OH—perfect! I literally just thought—It’s like a video game! Like I’ve completed all these levels. You start at Level 1, which was “Baby Girl”, and you don’t think you’re gonna get past that challenge but then you do, and you’re at Level 2 at “Good Mourning”. And it’s completing all these challenges in your life and all these striking changes, physiologically, physically, mentally. And then I get to look at all of it, and we get to look at all of it—it’s great.

TH: You both seem deeply focused on staying compassionate and vulnerable with each other. How does this influence the time you spend working on music together?

JH: It’s been a wonderful experience just randomly meeting this person, because we’ve formed such a wonderful friendship in really a short period of time that has impacted me a lot. Going to the studio and recording with Abbie and Zach was just so much fun—we just had a good time. We would go in Zach’s parents’ pool after some recording sessions and just hang out. I don’t know how to describe it; it didn’t feel like working on a group project, although I’ve been in a band where it felt like that. Working with Abbie is just hanging out and playing music together, goofing around, maybe a quarter of the time we’d spend actually practicing. [laughs] It’s just been so awesome.

AP: Yeah. I remember last winter break, we were finalizing instrumentals, I was in a very uncomfortable position and I was down in the dumps—I went to Zach’s and it felt like cold-water refreshing. We would sit in the basement so cozy, with lighting and a TV, people you’re so comfortable with and who you share so much with, whether that’s stupid conversations or watching stupid YouTube videos. It was just very comforting, peaceful and authentic, and I feel like that’s why we focused so naturally on self-compassion and vulnerability.

JH: I also wanted to mention how wonderful recording with Zach was, because he’s such a brilliant sound engineer and recording engineer, and his family was so welcoming to us whenever we would come over to record. We spent a lot of time chatting with his parents in the garage, and his mom was struggling with cancer for a long time, and unfortunately she passed last year. So that had a big impact on our approach in the studio, because it was really hard going back there missing somebody. There was that somber element but also the big necessity to be together in that time, and I remember feeling very sad but also feeling so connected with Zach and Abbie then.

AP: Yes, it was such a warm and wholesome feeling. It feels like after a long day of work that you don’t want to be doing and then you get home and it starts thunderstorming, and you have all these cozy blankets, and you’ve got TV, you’ve got snacks that you want and you’re with the people that you love and you’re very cozy, it’s that type of feeling. Especially in the heart of so much grief, that was so naturally essential, and just so naturally happened. Like we were all stripped to the bone, not just because of the music we were making, but also because we had experienced the death of our friend’s mom, who he was so close with. All the love to them.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Should We Go Home Now? came out July 21, 2022, and is available on Bandcamp. Naked Lake plays Khyber Pass in Philadelphia on October 28th with Tula Vera, Kipani and Maya Lucia.

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