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Terra Lopez of Sister Crayon

Sister Crayon photo by Eliot Lee Hazel
27 January 2011

We relish basement music for a reason: it’s organic, it’s raw and it’s intimate. It’s very rare though for basement artists to scale the stairs and find fame or acclaim on ground level. But sometimes there’s an exception.

Sister Crayon are one of the latest success stories to come out of the Californian house show scene. Bringing together experiences and sounds from past bands, the “kids” from Sacramento are creating ethereal melodies filled with layers and contrasts: ambient yet hysteric, with hip hop undertones and wind chime overtones. Copies of their self-released 2010 “Into Holy (Or)ders” EP were swallowed entirely by their burgeoning fan base and they were picked up by heavyweight label for the underground and experimental, Manimal Vinyl, shortly after.

As word of their hypnotic melodies spread, hearing their story of grappling between the big time and the small reminds us of what the music industry is like for most musicians: hard. A van called Mordecai still trips the quartet around the West Coast to venues that have finally outgrown living rooms. All this between pouring lattes, managing San Francisco’s water system and checking tourists into temporary bedrooms to make a buck.

With the release of their debut LP Bellow and an appearance at the coveted SXSW on the way, singer-songwriter Terra Lopez took some time to wax lyrical with Big Takeover about their past, future, and Jeff Buckley.

Congratulations on the release of Bellow. I know its been a while in the making, so how does it feel to have it coming out after so long?

TERRA LOPEZ: Thank you, thank you. It’s amazing. We’re just really excited. It’s our first album so we’ve worked really hard.

Where did you record?

TL: We were recording at a studio called The Hangar in Sacramento, CA. There’s been a lot of esteemed and well-respected musicians and albums that have come out of that place. We were just really lucky to have the support of the studio. We worked with a producer and engineer called Scott McShane and he is just incredible — he has been so instrumental in helping us develop this album. We spent about a year and half fine-tuning everything and trying to work on every single detail and texture. We’re perfectionists, so it took a long time.

It was originally intended for a mid-2010 release. What took so long to get it out?

TL: Well, originally when we signed with Manimal they asked us to release an EP. We had five songs done and we were just going to do a little release of an EP, then they had changed their minds and asked us if we could record a full-length. We had the songs so we were more than willing to do that. It just turned form an EP into an LP.

With the exception of Dani Fernandez, you’ve all played in bands prior to Sister Crayon [Alas Alak Alaska, An Angle, Evening Episode, Kyoto Beat Orchestra, Make Amends, Phantom Float and Scene Index]. Since forming, your “Into Holy (Or)ders” EP sold out and you’ve signed to Manimal. I’m sensing a buzz here. How does it feel to finally be getting some recognition?

TL: It’s crazy because we have been working so hard for so long trying to individually learn what sounds we’ve wanted to make and then be able to come together [with others]. I just feel really fortunate to have found everyone in the band; we get along so well and we’re able to share pretty much the same vision of music that we want to create. It’s really intense sometimes having this finally because we’ve been playing songs on the street corners — literally — so now to be able to get some really good shows and have an album finally coming out it feels really good. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way [in the beginning].

What is the vision of your music you want to release?

TL: Just honest music. We don’t really go to sit down to write a song and say, “Oh, we want a song like this.” We only want to express just how we’re feeling at the moment, and most of the time I’m pretty manic so it’s very erratic. It can be really intense sometimes and it’s all about mood when we think about a song and whether or not that song is where we want it to be.

Your sound is really similar to what’s going on in the popular sub-basement indie and electro movements. You’ve been compared to CocoRosie, and I find comparisons with Zola Jesus, The XX and even the new PJ Harvey release. With a reputable label behind you this seems to be a good equation for something to take off. Where you at all conscious of this when you were recording? Have you detected a buzz?

TL: No. No, no. We went into the studio almost two years ago without any label — without anything — and to be honest we had no expectations for these songs. We didn’t think anyone would ever hear them, we just wanted to record the songs to have something for us. So when Manimal came along and said “We’re interested and we want to sign you,” we were shocked. We all kind of died because we were never thinking that anyone would ever even want to hear the songs, let alone be able to. We’re still just very hopeful. No expectations.

And yeah, you know, we’ve heard people who use the word “buzz” in interview….But we just hang out with each other. We’re really just kind of off, I don’t know how to explain it….No, I don’t think we realized it and then when we play…. We opened up for Little Dragon a week ago in L.A. and that was the first time we really felt a big change from the first shows. People were coming and asking for autographs.

What’s kept you all interested in the music industry after playing in so many groups that met their demise?

TL: I know for me, and I know for the guys, that it was never about recognition. I mean, of course it’s really great and we’re so blessed to have it now but it’s always just been about expression. I personally don’t know what I’d do without music. I know that sounds cliché, but I honestly don’t know if I’d still be here. It’s just the most natural thing for me and the guys to wake up and to make something — to sing or play drums. I think the earlier years of being in other bands were just the building stages. That really helped me learn how to think — that taught me a lot. I’m really grateful for those years.

So what’s the back story behind starting Sister Crayon?

TL: I was in a band, but during that time I wanted to start a solo project because I really wanted to write really honest, quiet music and just felt [in the band] I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. So I started a project under a different name in ’07, played shows, and the fan base started to grow. A year later I met Dani. I had always heard beats behind the guitar work that I was doing; I always wanted a really thick, heavy, beat-oriented presence and she brought that. We just fell in love together. We became best friends and started making music as a duo and that’s when we changed the name to Sister Crayon. A year later we met Nicholas [Suhr], who really vibes off us and I just felt he really connected to the music, so I just really wanted him to be in it. Luckily he played drums. There had been a couple of line-up changes [since then]. We had people in the past just come and play random instruments for a show or what not, but then we found Jeffrey [LaTour] who plays keys and guitar and just texture just worked around it. He’s been in the band for six months now and we’ve just been able to really create new music and work on these songs.

What was the scene like in Sacramento during this time and how did it influence you?

TL: The music scene in Sacramento was really inspiring because there were so many underground venues that you could go and see beautiful music for free in a basement. I played a lot of house shows and I think that really influenced my music a lot because it was just house parties and house crowds and me playing with a guitar. What really made me want to start Sister Crayon before that — and I had no idea how idea how I was going to get to this stage — was I looked up to the electronic scene: I looked up to Flying Lotus, or the whole Brainfeeder crew. Electronic music was where I wanted it to go and I remember looking at a magazine with Flying Lotus on the cover years ago and I remember saying, “I wanna do this kinda music.” I think that’s definitely what inspired the idea.

I go to a lot of house shows and generally think that a look of the bands are undervalued because the general public doesn’t get to see them. How would you bridge this gap?

TL: That’s a really interesting question because I’ve always thought about that. I’ve always thought if we were to ever play bigger venues and have the option to pick our own openers or people who go on tour with us, we would — and we always talk about this — try to bring a friend or someone who’s always been there along the way because there’s so many talented friends of ours who just blow our mind. We would definitely bring along everyone if we could because they are just so amazing. We have so many friends who are just making really innovative music.

Are they in bands? Do they have names?

TL: Yeah. Chelsea Wolfe — she’s based out of LA, she just moved there. She’s doing really good things. There’s also Voice on Tape, whose voice — oh my God — his voice is the most magical thing I’ve heard in a long time. There’s a really cool band called Ellie Fortune in Sacramento. These people are just doing really innovative work I know will get out there.

You worked with photographer Robert Ascroft for the “(in) Reverse” film clip. He’s worked with renowned mainstream Hollywood and music industry celebs like Brad Pitt, Usher, Beyonce and Mariah Carey. Where do you see Sister Crayon fitting in to that world?

TL: Well it’s so strange because we just feel like we’re so different from that world. We definitely appreciate it, but to us we’re just some silly kids compared to Brad Pitt or Usher. It was just really amazing with Robert that we befriended him and he believed in the music so much that he wanted to do our first music video. We just had such a great time with him and we’re just very grateful to know someone of that calibre. His work is amazing. To be honest we just think about the music all the time. I’ve honestly never thought about that question or that aspect.

Going back to influences, I know Jeff Buckley is one of your favourites, as he is one of mine…

TL: Oh yeah, I love Jeff Buckley! I mean I am absolutely obsessed with him. It’s so crazy, I really love that you love him too because I get chills still when I listen to Mojo Pin. I just got a tattoo for him a couple of months ago. I really feel he is still inspiring and I learn so much from him. I study his voice: I sit down and I just try to emulate his octaves in the hopes that I can broaden my range. I still have a long way to go but to me he is my God. I know it sounds silly to say that but he is my biggest influence.

Did you ever go to New York to see the Sin-é Cafe?

TL: No, but I want to so bad. I’m so crazy, I want to go to New York and see all of his spots where he played. I also want to go to Tennessee and see the house that he lived in and his recording studio. I’m so, so crazy. I wish I could have seen him live.

If given the opportunity to sing with him do you think that you could keep up?

TL: Oh God, I think that I could try but I would just be so intimidated that I don’t know. It’s funny because we’re working on a cover of “Corpus Christi Carol”. We have all the music down and I’ve just been working on that. It’s really intimidating to sing a song of his, but I could probably talk about him forever.

Then we can….What was behind the choice of “Corpus Christi Carol”?

TL: When I first heard it, it was years ago and I just broke down and cried. I had no idea who it was, I don’t remember how I heard it, but it was on and I was like, “Who is this?” I just started crying in front of a friend and that’s never left me. That song has never left me. That imprint will forever be there, so when it came time for figuring out, “Hey let’s do a Jeff Buckley cover” I think even though I love all of his songs I thought, “We have to do that” or at least attempt it. If it does work out that’s great, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

I’d say it’s a pretty tough song to cover. What does your version sound like?

TL: You know, the music is pretty much to a tee — Jeffrey learned that note by note. So I’m just working on feeling comfortable with all the notes, so hopefully we’re going to go into the studio soon and finish the vocals to that. But it’s very very similar to the original.

I very much look forward to hearing it. You’ve done the David Bowie cover of “The Bewlay Brothers” [for the tribute album We Were So Turned On (Manimal)] too. What’s going on in your heard when you think a) about the calibre of the musician you’re covering and b) that the cover is going on an album shared with Warpaint and Duran Duran?

TL: It was really last minute to be honest! The record was pretty much done and Paul called us from Manimal and said, “Hey you have two weeks, do you want to do this cover?” And we were like, “Learn the cover, get comfortable with the cover then record the cover in two weeks? I don’t know…” It was while we were still working on Bellow, so it was pretty nerve-wracking, but I mean we couldn’t say no. The opportunity to do that is incredible, even if we had to do everything in a hurry.

So considering Sister Crayon’s past and present, what are you most looking forward to in the future?

TL: I think the biggest thing for us is that we just want to play. We just want to evolve and just get better as musicians and performers and we’re just really excited when we play new venues for new people. That’s when we really thrive. Thats what we thrive off. Definitely making income of course, that would be incredible. You know, that would help us focus more on the music instead of having all these other distractions but we just want to focus on playing hard for people who’ve never heard us and affect them if we can.


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