Horsegirl: nu-gazers leading Chicago’s musical renaissance

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'd have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite bands. This week, Chicago's Horsegirl talk suburban inspirations and the songwriting lessons learned from their heroes Stereolab

Not long ago, Norah Cheng, Penelope Lowenstein, and Gigi Reece were just three newly minted black midi fans from Chicago. “I actually didn’t know their music when we arrived at the venue,” Cheng confesses. “I was just making fun of them because of their name.”

“But then they got onstage and blew our minds,” interjects Lowenstein.

“We couldn’t see them at first. There was a big mud pile and we couldn’t get close,” continues Reece. “But then Spencer Tweedy came and cleared it up so we could get toward the front [of the stage].” Yes, Spencer Tweedy as in Jeff Tweedy’s son. Chicago musical royalty personified.

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Now known as Horsegirl, the trio of Cheng, Lowenstein, and Reece is deservedly turning heads with their own music – and doing so at a time when the entire city seems to be undergoing a musical renaissance. Chicago is positively teeming with young talent, from the breathless, caterwauling Lifeguard to the indie hip-hop stylings of Serena Isioma to the playful post-punk of Spread Joy. But no artist has introduced themselves more strongly and with greater immediacy than the arty, wise-beyond-their-years nu-gazers of Horsegirl.

Theirs is not a story of an unexpected, overnight explosion of TikTok streams. There is no Horsegirl TikTok page at all in fact, and according to Cheng, the only TikTok video she’s ever seen featuring her band’s songs, much to her and the rest of the band’s amusement, features advice from a woman about watering and caring for houseplants. The band has instead built their audience the old-fashioned way: through the kind of genuine community support that comes from intimate local gigs, word of mouth, and a bit of serendipitous press.

It was at one of these local gigs just prior to COVID lockdown that they met the producer of their most recent single. Nico Kapetan, who fronts the band Friko and shared the bill with Horsegirl that night, excitedly approached the band after they played and suggested they allow him and a friend Jack Lickerman record a song in his basement. “We were flattered,” says Cheng. “And it was nice to work with people who understood the production side of things.”

Horsegirl
Credit: Sun Picture Music

The resulting track, ‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ was self-released in early November as a one-off just as they had their previous self-recorded singles, “Forecast” and “Sea Life Sandwich Boy.” But their rather modest plans were rather quickly upended by a surprisingly lengthy profile that ran in the Chicago Tribune, the city’s flagship daily newspaper, shortly after the song appeared on streaming sites. That feature story touched off an avalanche of notices that culminated in a track review on Pitchfork, and they now share a management with the team that reps Kurt Vile, Snail Mail, and Sheer Mag. One presumes a proper label home isn’t far behind.

On ‘Ballroom Dance Scene’, the band mine familiar terrain – the textured, multi-layered soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine, and the somnambulant rhythmic pulse of Yo La Tengo are easy marks – but they treat their source material with a rare and delicate intimacy, a kind of hushed reverence that draws you in even as the tension builds.

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The song itself is deliberately inscrutable with highly impressionistic, intertwining vignettes sung separately by Lowenstein and Cheng. “Fingernails fall like snow, hair falls from your crown / do you shake as a dance as you lie on the ground,” intones Lowenstein in a dense, rumbling low end.

By contrast, Cheng’s airy lilt wafts above the fray, somewhere between a reverie and a solemn incantation. Her lyrics are no less abstract, but she has a knack for making a prosaic observation – “sitting with no makeup on with both legs crossed until your neighbour comes” – feel like an ominous turning point.

NME asks them what it all means and while at first Cheng demurs, she eventually offers: “I realise this may sound intense but I’ve always felt it was about suburban death.”

Lowenstein adds: “We’ve always been fascinated with the suburbs. I remember watching an interview with Stereolab’s Letitia Sadier and she said when she was in [the band] McCarthy, she was told to never write lyrics about heartbreak or her own life and I feel like that’s the way we approach lyrics in Horsegirl as well. I do understand why people write about their personal heartbreak. It’s just not our style.”

This is the other striking thing when speaking to the members of Horsegirl—how often they unconsciously lapse into “we” or “us.” When together, Cheng, Lowenstein, and Reece seem to function almost as a single organism, intuitively understanding how each contributes to the greater artistic identity. This connection is reflected in the music, which according to the band, is always written collectively in a room together at the same time. It may sound quaint or even a little old-fashioned, but Horsegirl insists their togetherness is what imbues their songs with that sense of familial closeness and inviting warmth.

“Technology has made it easy to be your own band,” says Cheng. “But for the classic bands, it was all about the relationships they had with each other. And you knew the name of every person in the band. There was an entire culture around it that went way beyond the music, and that’s the vision we have for what we want to represent.”

It is a wildly ambitious plan considering the rather fragmented state of things in 2021. But to hear Horsegirl tell it, they’re not reimagining what a band can be just for the challenge or even as a way of paying tribute to the legendary acts that came before them. The truth is, for Cheng, Lowenstein and Reece, it’s simply the only way they know how to operate.

Horsegirl’s debut 7″ is out on Sonic Cathedral on April 2

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