In a different turn of events, NME would have been chatting to Warpaint about their new album ‘Radiate Like This’ more than two years ago now. But when the world was upended by the COVID pandemic, so too were the lives of the LA-formed band.
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Emily Kokal (vocals, guitar), now based between Oregon and Joshua Tree, became a mother and collaborated with acts including New York rapper Saul Williams. Theresa Wayman (vocals, guitar) stayed in LA with her teenage son, launched an underwear line and landed a part in a forthcoming film adaptation of Kenneth J. Harvey’s novel Inside. Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass, backing vocals) moved to Utah, collaborated with acts including Deap Vally and recently released her second solo album, ‘Heart Tax’. Stella Mozgawa (drums, backing vocals) worked with acts ranging from The xx to Sharon Van Etten, and returned to her native Australia where the pandemic kept her rooted.
For a group whose heady, atmospheric music often plays out like a jam session at gigs, Warpaint decided it simply didn’t feel right to release their fourth album when live music was on hold. But good can come from adversity. Fourth album ‘Radiate Like This’ finds the band refreshed, making some of the most gorgeous and intricate music of their career.
“It’s good that we had a break,” Wayman says, speaking on video from LA as her bandmates dip in and out of the call due to poor connections. “We’ve had the ability to come at everything with some new energy, and had time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t. So I think it’s been a blessing that we got to step away and recalibrate.”
With the world now largely reopened, Wayman says she’s “excited to go play live again”. It’s a far cry from a tumultuous period between 2013 and 2014 when a gruelling tour schedule in support of their self-titled second album caused tensions that threatened to split the band. Interviews around their third record, 2016’s ‘Heads Up’, gave the impression that their future was uncertain. Lindberg put it explicitly that year when she told she told The Irish Times: “We almost split up after our last tour.”
Around that time, Kokal tells NME, a song about her “breaking up with the band” was in early genesis. Years on, it’s been shaped into the languid ‘Hard To Tell You’, the best song on ‘Radiate Like This’. But the new record and the band’s recent reunion in LA to rehearse for their spring tour has buried doubts about their longevity. They’ve fallen back into the natural synchronicity that powers their free-flowing mood music, reaffirming their sisterly bond.
“To feel that palpable connection of just being in the same physical space again and to just play reminds me that, ‘Oh, we’re really good at this’,” Kokal says. “It gets me more excited about touring, which was something I wasn’t feeling very excited about because I have a two-year-old. But then when we’re playing, everything starts to melt the tensions and I feel like I’m in the right place.”
The last time Warpaint were on the road, they were supporting acts including Depeche Mode and Harry Styles as well as headlining their own shows. After their formation in 2004 (Mozgawa joined in 2010, replacing Lindberg’s sister, the actor Shannyn Sossamon), they’ve enjoyed critical praise since their 2010 debut album ‘The Fool’. Warpaint have generally been a mainstay of the alternative muso’s world, although they had a taste of mainstream success in 2016 with their first UK Top 10 single, ‘New Song’.
Their new album has all the hallmarks of a Warpaint record: dreamy, densely layered art rock with electronic flourishes and fluid rhythms. But there’s now extra attention to detail, which has resulted in some of their greatest ornate harmonies and melodic songs. While it’s not uncharted territory, recent single ‘Stevie’ is their most soulful yet. Kokal’s breathtaking vocals, coupled with lyrics that nod cheekily to the digital literature of modern love (“your look shot flames in my eyes”), viscerally recall the first flushes of love.
“The immediate difference,” Wayman says of ‘Radiate Like This’ compared to Warpaint’s previous albums, “was the pandemic and being able to sit with the songs for a long time.” After foundational recording sessions in Joshua Tree and LA wrapped in January 2020 with co-producer Sam Petts-Davies, the geographically separated bandmates were later able to “really hone songs and layer them back in our home studios”.
“I think there was a lot more time spent with harmonies and zhushing the top layer, which was cool,” Wayman says. “For the last couple of albums we’ve always started them kind of in-the-box as demos, and then we take them into a room and work on them all together. But this time we were able to bring them back again to a single point of focus – like a more individual focus – which was great.”
“We had time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t. It’s been a blessing” – Theresa Wayman
Wayman notes that it was at times “isolating” to work remotely. “But we were still working together and there was a lot of time to individually try things. That was a huge difference – we usually don’t get two years to do stuff like that.”
Kokal agrees with Wayman, although she adds that more meticulous writing had been in Warpaint’s sight for some time: “Even before the pandemic there was some more intention to zone in on some of the songwriting and crafting, just because we’ve been a band for so long, so there’s always new little areas or curiosities of what we could do a bit differently.”
Although Warpaint have been writing more songs of late, it’s put to them whether writing typically trippy, transportive music is a natural reflex for them. “A solitary guitar-and-vocal song might get more of a direct narrative, but when we’ve written a lot in a space together, starting sounds is how a lot of vocals start for me,” explains Kokal. “Just like speaking in syllables, [with vocals being] an instrumentation to fit into.” NME notes that Bon Iver and Sigur Rós have approached lyrics and vocals in a similar fashion before. “The vocals are often supporting the instrumentation so I think that’s where you get that feeling,” says Kokal.
Work on ‘Radiate Like This’ began in 2019, when the band spent a short amount of time at Mozgawa’s desert studio in Joshua Tree. “It was really fun and magic because we weren’t driving from our own lives,” says Kokal, who explains that the band had long moved on from living together or “just a couple of blocks” down from one another in LA.
“We were staying there and were really hyper-focused,” Kokal adds. “At this point, it’s almost decadent to be able to carve that space out. Even just financially-speaking – how we’re always on the road to pay for our lives. It would be so luxurious if we could take months out of our lives to live next door and go to a [rehearsal/recording] space and not have to worry about all the other things you have to worry about in life.”
For Kokal, those worries are largely centred on motherhood. Her daughter, Franny, was born the day before LA went into its first lockdown. “I got the luckiest time to have a kid, I feel for me personally, because we didn’t have to work and we didn’t have to tour. So I just got to finish the album and be with her and get good at that.”
She doesn’t, however, minimise the impact that her “strong, smart and pretty serious” daughter has had on her and her partner, Jason (the producer j.franxis): “It’s so insane how much a little person changes your life.” Kokal’s family will join Warpaint on tour “at least for May”, she says.
Parenthood has seeped into songwriting for ‘Radiate Like This’ – the skittish ‘Hips’, for example, was inspired by Franny. Although Kokal admits that not all Warpaint lyrics have clear backstories or pertinent lyrics, she did have a vivid vision of a comic book superhero for the song. “Who knows totally what it’s about,” Kokal says, “but it does have elements of the supernatural. I tried to really… let something come through me. If I could make the song’s animated music video, it would be this teenage heroine who’s on a mission in a future world. I saw this young girl who’s supremely full of transformational power to fuck shit up for the sake of good in this world!”
“Is that a future Franny?” Lindberg asks Kokal as the bandmates laugh (giggling is a near-constant symptom of their friendship). “Yeah,” replies Kokal. “Well, her middle name is Aya, which is how the song [lyric] starts” (in the song, it’s a play on the chanted word “higher”). The vision for the video “comes from an energy I get from her – even though she’s only two she’s particularly strong”.
When we return to discussing album highlight ‘Hard To Tell You’, Kokal says: “Honestly, I started that song a long time ago… about breaking up with the band.” She feigns a cry, then adds: “No – it started when we were all kind of feeling this shift of wanting to change after years of touring. We’re four women who need what we need for ourselves. So, yeah, it was kind of about the band. I could never finish it because something about it being really personal made me uncomfortable.
“Our strength, as we get older, is learning to just trust the process” – Emily Kokal
“But then I had a couple friends who were going through break-ups where they couldn’t end it with the person because they were just feeling guilty.” Kokal wanted to flip the narrative to show “how hard it can actually be to be the person who leaves the relationship”. “It’s hard to tell you that what I wanted isn’t what I wanted,” she sings at the song’s heart-wrenching chorus, as bass and drums unfurl and a ‘80s sci-fi synth line befitting a Stranger Things episode rings out.
Despite the troubled context from which it was born, Kokal later found the song to be a saviour. “For me, the catharsis of it was us all playing it, getting it finished and then us coming through the other side. It has a triumph to it. And that’s something we all can relate to actually as individuals in this band who’ve all had that feeling.”
She continues: “I think that our strength, as we get older, is learning more and more that if we can just trust the process and try to not talk too much and just play, things always figure themselves out. Giving ourselves up to the connection that we have through music is our strength. It’s such a beautiful thing, but it’s also hard to share and to trust everything and give yourself over to something bigger than yourself.”
“I feel like it’s a family, you know? I feel like these are my sisters,” Mozgawa says. Lindberg agrees, saying that “it felt like no time had passed” when they reunited recently.
After those former fractures, and with the logistics of them all living in different places, what does the future hold for the band? “I think that it would be really fun to get together to write a record, play it a bunch and then record it live and produce it ourselves,” Lindberg says. For now, though, they have a tour to play. And amid that busyness, they of course want ‘Radiate Like This’ to resonate with fans.
“I just hope that it creates a nice, meditative moment,” says Kokal, “because everybody’s so on their phones, there’s so much stress. For me, if I get a connection to an album that takes up all my attention and I get lost inside it, it’s such an offering. I’m so grateful to that experience.”