Why Girlpool's 'What Chaos Is Imaginary' Is Their Most Individualistic Album Yet

Gina Canavan
Girlpool

Togetherness was the defining quality of Girlpool’s early music. Guitarist Cleo Tucker and bassist Harmony Tividad sang in unison on their charmingly scrappy 2015 breakout, Before The World Was Big. Its wide-eyed observations and thin, drumless arrangements were delivered in a way that was loud and sonically spacious, nestled between the intimate fervor of house-show indie and the pipe-down-and-listen-up character of bare-bones folk. The L.A. duo introduced full-band instrumentation on 2017’s Powerplant, but they continued to stack their voices and retain their dualistic quality.   

On the cover of their third album, What Chaos Is Imaginary, Girlpool are inseparable, but the record itself sees the two at their most independent. Many of the songs were written when they were living in different cities, which translated into either Tucker or Tividad taking the lead on their respective tracks; the two rarely sing at once. In a phone call with Billboard, Tividad says that the songs were inspired by “the fantasy mind,” which comes through on rich, dreamy songs like “Where You Sink,” “Roses,” and the title-track, recalling the fantastical shoegaze of Beach House or Slowdive.

Unrelated to their writing process, Tucker came out as a transgender man since their last record, and the hormones he took completely changed the tone of his voice. The opening note of the album features a warm, masculine register that he sounds especially comfortable with on standouts like “Hire” and “Swamp and Bay.”

The two recently took time to chat with Billboard about writing independently, the lag between mind and body and Tucker’s new voice.

Was there a specific sound you wanted to accomplish while writing What Chaos Is Imaginary?

Cleo Tucker: The album is kind of us in motion. Us figuring out our own identity separate from one another musically, and our separate interests. And there’s individualism in this album that maybe wasn’t as visible on the last couple records that we’ve made together, where we were much more intertwined.

What were some of those sounds that you said you were pursuing on here?

Harmony Tividad: I feel like this record kind of comes from a place of more inward work. I feel like the difference between other records we’ve made and this record is that these songs come from inner communication and other Girlpool songs come from outer communication. Like talking to each other and writing them that way. And these songs were written by ourselves and then worked out together.

So what was the reason that you two wanted to write songs separately and then come back together?

Tucker: We started writing songs together at such a young, pivotal time in both of our lives. Pretty much in the middle of our teenage-hood together. And so we formed a lot of our work ethics and creative grooves with one another. And that kind of set into cement for a little while when Girlpool first picked up, which we didn’t even think would ever happen. So it kind of happened so quickly in this way where we developed this dynamic that was really powerful and magical. And I think that as we grew with time, it sort of dawned on us that our own songwriting muscle needed to grow without one another.

We were living separate from each other, Harmony was in Philly at a time and I was in NY at a time.... And we were writing songs and sending them to each other and I realized I was kind of crutching on Harmony for certain aspects in my process. [I felt like I needed to] just sit with it and do the work and push through it, instead of go to Harmony and have her kind of fill in these spaces that I knew she could because those are her strengths.

Cleo, obviously because of your transition since your last record, your voice has changed quite a bit. What was it like to re-learn how to sing with your new range? Did that impact your process at all?

Tucker: It was probably the most challenging on a tour we did last February. It just felt like it was totally out of my own hands, and I would open my mouth to sing on tour and I couldn’t control the notes.... And even when we were recording this album, that was almost nine months ago, and my voice was still settling into itself -- and kind of still a bit of a stranger to me.

The way that I feel about my voice now is so different than how I felt when I was even recording this album with Harmony. Not that it’s even changed that much, but I know it nine months more. I’m getting to know it. I’m getting more comfortable and I’m singing more. It’s a process and it’s required a lot of patience and love and it’s exciting, I really like it.

Were you ever worried that you weren’t going to be able to sing at all, or in the way that you wanted to?

Tucker: I just remained curious as to how it would sound eventually. I knew it would, like, relax and when it was moving it was like, “OK, you just have to allow it and be patient." I never was worried about ending up with a shit voice or something because I think that the voice is so intimate. I just don’t believe that anybody can’t sing, I think that anybody could sing. And if you want it to sound any way you just have to focus.

In “Stale Device” you sing, “I’m trying to be in the myth and in the thrill.” What do you mean by that?

Tividad: I’m obsessed with god theory. The theory of how we create celebrities into gods and how people regardless of if they’re in isolation will create gods. The myth is kind of like our own selfness. The myth of myself, I’m trying to be in the myth of myself and feel this special sacredness with my life. But then also the thrill is like the disposal and nihilism of it. The myth is the godliness and the thrill is the nihilism.... It’s like sacred and secular living simultaneously.

What does the phrase “what chaos is imaginary” mean to you?

Tucker: In the last few days I’ve been thinking [a lot] about this idea, which is how the body has a lag. And how we learn things, and we understand, and we come to conclusions, and we grow as people and make changes to the way that we feel about people and symbols in our life. And the body has a longer time digesting those conclusions that we make in our mind.... And I recently learned this and once I learned that I thought it was so interesting because sometimes I’ll feel things that almost don’t belong to me. And they’re old, and I already understand why I don’t need that thing in my life or why I have any kind of animosity with something.

And so recently, I’ve been thinking about how that is what What Chaos Is Imaginary is about. Where is this feeling coming from actually? Is it in my body or is it my reality? Kind of differentiating my feelings and my sensations from what I believe and who I truly am.