When Liz Nistico and Louie Diller titled Holychild’s first album The Shape of Brat Pop to Come, it was quite a called shot — even if the L.A. duo were being more than a little tongue in cheek when they predicted the evolution of their candy-coated, socially conscious but consciously insolent aesthetic.
But that was in 2015. A few years and one world-shaking election later, the duo found themselves pondering a different question as they began their second album: How do you capture the sound of the future again when you don’t like the present? The answer: Go to Mexico for six months.
“Before we moved I was feeling pretty burnt out on the U.S.,” Diller recalls as he orders lunch at a Moroccan Cafe in Williamsburg, a couple hours before their flight back to L.A. “We hit all 50 states on tour and I feel like we saw — at least I saw — Trump before Trump was elected. It was really bleak everywhere.”
Diller, the producer and multi-instrumentalist of the group, says he chose Mexico City partly because his favorite films from the past decade were all made by Mexican directors. Yet the city offered Diller and his singer-songwriter counterpart Nistico more than just time away from America supposedly being made great again. Holychild’s first LP was an exhilarating rush of crashing drums and feverishly warped beats, but Nistico’s lyrics took direct aim at an American culture still obsessed with glamour, fame, sex and money. It was a lot for a debut album to take on, even one as confident and acclaimed as The Shape of Brat Pop to Come. This time, the pair’s sabbatical south of the border led Holychild to smaller targets that are closer to home but just as potent.
“My family is Italian, and Mexico’s culture reminded me so much of the Italian culture of my family,” Nistico says. “It really triggered a lot in me.” That includes the new album’s first single, “Wishing You Away,” which showcases Nistico’s coy, tattlings vocals atop a classic, march-like Holychild jaunt. The lyrics, though, reveal something much darker than the hands-in-the-air energy of the music — and her delivery — might suggest: It’s about Nistico’s father, who physically abused her mother, and the conflicting emotions a toxic relationship can create.
Family comes up elsewhere on another forthcoming song about her grandfather, while the second single, the deceptively cheerful “Hundred Thousand Hearts,” captures how a relatively small love story between two people can feel as grand and epochal as the cosmos. “For me, going to Mexico started a new phase in my life as an artist, and I think that new phase was honesty,” Nistico says.
It’s not as if Holychild were holding back before. “Monumental Glow,” from The Shape of Brat Pop to Come, examines the emptiness of fame over a sleazy synth bass, while the opening cheerleader-like chants of “Nasty Girls’” — “Hey hey, give it up! We don’t matter anyway!” — are a brutal send-up of America’s commodification of sexuality. Looking back, though, Nistico feels she was using big societal problems as a way to dodge introspection.
“Emotionally, I’ve been trying to open up more to myself and the world about what I’m actually feeling, rather than what I want to be saying that I feel,” she says. “I think that was reflected on the first album. I would say things that were poginant and were necessary to be said, but it would be said in this roundabout way.”
The group also started to question the effectiveness of that approach. When you set your sights on something as big as deeply ingrained society problems, enacting meaningful, tangible change can be hard. “[With our] earlier album, we were all like, ‘Yeah, we can make a difference! We’ll say these things!’ And then it’s like, ‘Bah, that didn’t work. Just fix yourself,’” Nistico says. “I used to think, ‘Oh, I’m amazing. I’m fine. All those things that go wrong, or anything that’s wrong with me are the fault of the outside world,’ and that was what I was focused on.”
“I feel like our first record was Bernie Sanders’ platform,” Diller adds, straight-faced. But while it was validating to see the ideas about commercialism and capitalism they explored in their lyrics pop up in his stump speeches, Diller started to find the current political climate so overbearing that he decided to take a break from addressing it in his art.
“That stuff is still critical, obviously,” he says, “but at least for me personally, I need to have a reprieve.”
This declaration prompts a small but friendly debate across the table. “I disagree, I feel that our stuff now is still part of that conversation,” Nistico responds. She isn’t writing about society’s woes at large, but that doesn’t mean that her own stories don’t have anything larger to say.
“I think it’s political because you’re a woman,” Diller counters. “The things you’re talking about, you’re being honest as a woman, I think that’s political.”
“But ‘Wishing You Away’ is inherently political. Regardless if I’m a woman or not,” Nistico says.
“‘Father of Mine’ by Everclear is about a similar topic [as ‘Wishing You Away’]. It’s not as political. It’s personal,” Diller clarifies. “I feel like strong women are inherently political in our culture, because our culture is not that okay with strong women.”
“I guess when I heard it, I wasn’t like, ‘This is political,’ but now that I’m thinking, he’s talking about socioeconomic issues, he’s talking about a single mother, what it’s like to be poor growing up,” Nistico concedes. “Those are all tied in with what his life is like. It’s hard to take it out of that realm.”
That’s true of their new album’s themes as a whole. (The LP doesn’t have a release date yet, but the group plans to release a few more singles, including a downright filthy one they expect will turn some heads, before its arrival.) Nistico calls the record a “well-rounded view of the female experience” in 2018,” and the politics of that might just depend on who’s listening. If the first album was about speaking truth to power, then the follow-up is Nistico speaking her truth, and it’s also powerful. But she resists the idea that Brat Pop is all grown up and mature now — it’s just fighting a different fight.
“Brat Pop,” Nistico says, “is a rebellion against these constructs that we’ve made against ourselves.”