“Let’s go in here.”
Holychild‘s Liz Nistico is pointing at Mostly Music, a brick and mortar retail store self-described as “The Heartbeat of Jewish Music” located in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Nistico spent a few months in the neighborhood post-college, and our excursion on this uncharacteristically humid Tuesday in late April was originally designed as a visit to her ramshackle apartment off 49th Street near 13th Avenue, a location her Holychild counterpart, Louie Diller, has never seen. When we arrive at Nistico’s old building, however, a green barricade blocks its entrance, and a dilapidated WORK IN PROGRESS: RESIDENTIAL sign shoos us away.
Nistico, with pink flamingo earrings and silver angel wings attached to her leather fringe jacket, shrugs and concludes that Diller probably will never see her old Brooklyn abode; Diller’s face droops above his pink tie-dye tee. A few minutes later, Nistico is leading us across a bustling 13th Avenue, between Hasidic women and the children they’ve picked up from a bus stop, and into Mostly Music, where Holychild wants to goof around in a store full of Jewish tunes.
Except they’re not goofing around. Nistico and Diller are studying these specialty items, perusing the track lists of albums by Ari Goldwag and Yisroel Werdyger, asking for earnest recommendations from the very clearly skeptical store manager, trying to deduce which Hasidic band is the Hasidic band for them. Nistico wants to learn more about a children’s puppet series called Mitzvah Boulevard; Diller is poking around a hefty blue box on a shelf labeled Step It Up, which turns out to be a Jews-only Dance Dance Revolution facsimile, and wants to know which console the game is compatible with.
When I ask Diller about his pre-existing knowledge of Jewish music, he shakes his head. Then he grabs a CD featuring a gentleman in his 60s with a mighty gray beard and black yarmulke, named Mordechai Ben David. Diller points out a few other Mordechai Ben David albums sprinkled across the store’s end-caps and featured on the ‘Recommended’ shelves, and says excitedly, “Mordechai Ben David seems to be a big thing.” Diller and Nistico leave the store with a Mordechai Ben David album and Hooleh, a full-length from the Hasidic pop-rock duo 8th Day. Nistico says it would be cool if they ended up sampling one of the albums on the next Holychild project. Diller laments not getting the Jewish DDR game, regardless of whether they could have played it.
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Holychild’s Tour of Brooklyn
Aside from providing a fun distraction from the failed apartment visit, the cultural excavation underlines the key to understanding Holychild, one of music’s most promising new groups: its two members ooze curiosity. Nistico and Diller — two international affairs majors who met while studying at George Washington University in Washington D.C. — want to gobble up and refract as much knowledge in their music as humanly possible, and conquer pop with an endless string of edifying ideas about objectification, education, global equality and gender expectation. Their points aren’t fully formed at times, but they wish to prod at a variety of issues and demand more of their conversations.
During our brief tour of Brooklyn, the pair answers questions about The Shape of Brat Pop To Come, Holychild’s forthcoming debut album; Diller tells anecdotes about playing percussion in a Rastafarian band in college, and Nistico flaunts her knowledge of astrology and linguistics (she’s fluent in five languages). But Nistico and Diller are most interested in discussing the Baltimore riots, Iggy Azalea‘s appropriation of hip-hop culture and beauty ideals of the Renaissance period at length. When asked where they hope Holychild will be in five years, Nistico quickly mentions M.I.A.‘s “Paper Planes” explosion in 2008 — an acclaimed artist with something to say, at a time when a radio smash gave her the larger platform to say it.
“You don’t necessarily have to bang people over the head with that stuff,” says Nistico over a syrup-drenched plate of fried chicken and waffles at Cafe Shane in Crown Heights, an hour after leaving her old Borough Park neighborhood behind. “I’m into this idea of the subconscious, where you’re singing along to something and then you kind of embody those [ideas] unknowingly, and then you start to think about it. Maybe you don’t get what it’s saying, but there’s at least something to take away.”
So why get into pop music, which typically limits cultural commentary to a few hooks and three-minute running time? “It’s a challenge,” Diller admits. “I think we both excel at creating within limitations. What’s more fun of a limitation than pop art?”
The Shape of Brat Pop To Come, due out June 2 through Glassnote Records, is not an album bursting with radical ideas. The social commentary on songs like “Plastered Smile” and “Money All Around,” for instance, amount to subtle digs at beauty norms and wealth obsession, while “Nasty Girls” takes aim at misogyny through sarcastic, “Mickey”-esque cheers. However, Holychild’s hooks are devastatingly well-developed: the album zooms with one sugary melody after another, as Nistico’s malleable vocals contort around Diller’s technicolor collections of drums and synths. Brat Pop is a dizzying listen with the Hot 100 squarely in mind, and if Holychild still needs to develop its lyrical themes, the duo sounds like it’s solved the arrangement of pop music on its first try.
“The goal is to infiltrate the pop world from within,” Nistico says bluntly. “I’ve been really inspired by Madonna recently, because I feel like she did that. Lady Gaga did as well. Stromae‘s doing it, too. Those are artists who I’m looking at right now, who I’m inspired by, who got people listening and then delivered these ideas.”
Before Holychild, Nistico was awarded a grant at George Washington to study the “sugar daddy” relationship — slang for a wealthy older partner and a younger man or woman who provides sexual favors in exchange for enjoying that wealth — and juxtapose her findings in the U.S. with existing international data. Nistico and a research partner spent two years tracking down sugar daddies and their “babies” in New York City, asking them about their lifestyles and the inner workings of their relationship dynamics, hearing accounts of true affection and emotional degradation. At some point, the decision was made to bundle the stories into a documentary for public consumption.
That never happened. Nistico and her research partner had a falling-out. She started writing more songs with Diller, who was the musical accompanist in her avant-garde dance class at GW and with whom she started writing songs in early 2011. She and Diller moved to Los Angeles in late 2012, working day jobs and recording on a shoestring budget. The sugar daddy documentary was dead, although Diller insists that his Holychild partner completes the project someday. Meanwhile, Nistico wants some of her unfinished work to bleed into Holychild.
“I’m really fascinated by power dynamics between people,” she says. “It’s all trying to understand if universal truth actually exists, and if relationships are honest. I feel like my relationships with people are not honest, because I’m so influenced by these things and they’re so influenced by other things. Maybe there’s competition, and then what’s the root of that? I feel like it’s a larger cultural issue at stake. If everybody’s thinking about these things, or if one thinks about these things, it’s relatable to everyone. Everyone is under these forces.”
After moving to Los Angeles together, Nistico and Diller decided to grind out self-produced videos for early songs like “Best Friends” and “Watching Waiting,” garnering over 100,000 YouTube views and getting picked up by the Fader and featured on Hype Machine. Label attention grew more intense after Holychild played a string of shows during the CMJ Music Marathon in October 2013, and by January 2014, ink was dry on a Glassnote deal. Nistico and Diller continued writing songs together, with Diller often demoing the tracks in his bedroom and Nistico providing the bulk of the lyrics; Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry) was eventually brought in to co-produce half of the album, bringing “invaluable experience” to the project, says Diller.
Home to bands like Mumford & Sons, Phoenix and Chvrches, Glassnote is known for slow-growing its artists through an endless amount of live exposure. Seventeen months removed from landing on the label, Holychild has been following the same track. After finishing their debut album last year, Nistico and Diller spent this spring plowing through South By Southwest before opening for Passion Pit in North America. After hitting festivals like Governors Ball and Lollapalooza this summer, the pair will open for Walk The Moon beginning in October.
To survive life on the road, Nistico seeks out dance and yoga classes in different cities, while Diller tries to find a game of tennis during his time off. “There’s some really intense parts when you don’t get enough sleep, you didn’t eat right and then everything feels like shit,” Diller admits. “You can have your bad days, but at the end of the day, this has kind of been like a dream of mine to do this full-time, for my whole life, and now I’m doing it.”
For Nistico, who swiveled from hard-nosed research to the rock star lifestyle, Holychild was not a lifelong dream; when she started writing songs with Diller, neither of them was sure who would be singing them. Stumbling into pop music is not just about playing shows and releasing albums for Nistico — it’s about pushing pop music to be deeper by example. The Shape of Brat Pop To Come is a title that ambitiously places its music aside classic albums from Ornette Coleman and Refused, but it also suggests that Holychild has a vision of the future.
“If somebody is being lauded as like an artist, a true artist, than I’m like, ‘Okay, what is this person saying?'” says Nistico. “If I realize, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know what this is saying, maybe not that much,’ then I’m a little annoyed — not at that person or that artist, but it’s frustrating that that’s where our culture’s at right now. You don’t have to say something for everything, but I want to make it apparent that these are things we’re thinking about now. So let’s talk about them.”