Uncharted is our weekly showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week we speak to Crystal Dorval whose psychedelic and serene recordings as White Poppy are turning the heads of lo-fi aesthetes everywhere.
In contrast to its euphoric sound, this record wasn't born of tranquility (we talk about her “terrible” 20s in the interview), but as Crystal notes, it has helped take both the artist and its listeners to someplace more serene: “I realized that music is what gives me peace of mind, and the feedback that I’ve gotten from other people is that [the album] helps them feel peace or calm in their life.”
After moving from Victoria to Vancouver in 2010, an exposure to the city's noise and drone scene coupled with a newly acquired arsenal of pedals and recording gear began the evolution of Crystal's poppier songwriting into White Poppy as it exists today. Call it whatever you like – krautrock, post-punk ambience - labels don't really matter to Crystal. In fact, the title of album track “Skygaze” pokes fun at the constant references to shoegaze in White Poppy blog posts. The artist called a “genius” by White Lung's Mish Way is more interested in creating sounds that flood your dopamine receptors than being a part of any one genre. “Genres aren't even in my mind. I don’t know how to put music into words and genres don’t make sense to me.”
I recently spoke to Crystal over the phone; she told me about her songwriting and recording process, struggling in her 20s, and what must be the shittiest moment of her recent tour alongside Mac DeMarco.
So after you bought your four-track, loop station and all this other new gear, was your philosophy to master the tools first or learn as you were making music?
Definitely learn as I go. Even with recording the album that’s about to come out, a lot of that’s trial and error, and a lot of the songs were like rerecorded, deconstructed and then redone.
What was the most amount of times you had to rewrite a song before it was finished?
Uh, geez. [laughs] Some of them are pretty insane. The song “Wear Me Away,” which is one of the more straightforward songs on the album, that one actually was rewritten, like, I can’t even think of how many times. But the lyrics are from a song that I wrote three years ago. The lyrics stayed around, and it just sort of fit into a few songs over the years, and just kind of rerecorded it a bunch of times. I’m actually going to be putting that stuff up. I’m interested in exposing that stuff. I think it’s empowering to be vulnerable.
What was it about the lyrics to “Wear Me Away” that made them stick around for three years?
I think it was just still relevant. And actually, thinking about it now, it’s actually symbolic to the whole album, and it is about the struggle that you go through in your early 20s when everything’s totally chaotic and aimless and confusing and difficult and then the end of it is sort of like finding clarity as you get older.
How were your 20s chaotic and aimless?
They were just a disaster. I was just super depressed. I’m turning 27 in a couple of weeks, and I’m feeling like I’m starting to chill out. I’m starting to have some clarity and contentment. I don’t really know how to explain [that time], other than existentially based, like, “Is this what life is going to be like forever?” “Now that I’m an adult, is this what it is?” But then you do start to calm down. You get a better grasp on like who you are and what you wanna do.
Taken as a whole, the album feels like a hopeful answer to those questions.
Yeah, and I think that’s my personal philosophy. On a surface level, it sounds pretty happy, it’s not an angry sounding album, but the content and the intention behind it is. So it’s coming to peace with those sort of feelings as well.
Given the importance of lyrics, what was your intention behind clouding your voice in these effects?
It’s something that I’ve just been drawn to for a long time now. When I first started playing music, I didn’t sing. I just played guitar. I hated my voice. So as I slowly started to sing I would just start in the background or be kind of like, “Oh yeah, just put an effect on my vocal and I’ll sound like an instrument.” At first it was sort of like a safety blanket, and it sounds kind of crazy but now I can’t not have an effect on my vocals. It just sounds so dry and so…just so exposed. So in a way it’s hiding. I’m just so accustomed to that sound and really just personally like it. [I’m] the same when listening to other people’s music, too. I’ll just be like “Oh that would sound better if it had an effect on their vocals.” Like, not everybody, but I think it’s just a personal preference.
How is your recording process inseparable from your songwriting?
At this point, it’s just such a part of how I make music, it’s just sort of hard to understand how people write without recording at the same time. I just like to record things all the time because it’s easy to lose an idea.
For me, this album instills the same feelings as new age music but with a different set of tools.
I think someone called it ambient pop the other day, and those things contradict each other. One’s structureless and pop is structure, but I think the feeling of ambient music is in my music, because I listen to a lot of ambient music. It’s kind of mostly what I listen to, right now at least. It’s kind of interesting, the feeling of ambient music coated over pop structure.
The government in Vancouver has a reputation for closing the smaller music venues and generally making things difficult for musicians. What’s going on over there?
Every good thing that someone tries to start just gets shut down. A lot of people that I know who are really fighting to start all ages venues and put on inclusive, positive, legal things, the government just finds a weird loophole to shut it down. It’s kind of baffling. It’s become such a problem that for the first time pretty big politicians are touching on the subject. It’s at least being talked about, so we’re hopeful that it will change. For now people are finding alternative places to play, house shows, underground venues, all that stuff still exists. But I was trying to book my tour kickoff and LP release, and I was like “Where can I play? Everything is gone.” But it’s kind of brought everyone together to find an alternative and play shows. Vancouver has a really cool music scene, and it’s not caused anyone to slow down.
You toured with Mac DeMarco a while ago. Could you give me a crazy tour story?
It’s kind of intense, and not really to do with them. We were in Greenville, North Carolina, and we were playing this show at a sketchy house. All the guys, Mac and everyone, they all went to go find a pool to go swimming, and I was left by myself at this party. It was kind of a culture shock. I’m from the Pacific Northwest in Canada and I was in like, the south. There was a guy that looked like a skinhead who was following me around and he was getting really drunk then he came up to me and was like “I wanna rape you.” At first I was like, “Is this a joke?” Like, who says that? And there were all these dogs running around, it was disgusting. Then this other person kind of rescued me from this situation and said “I know your friends are gone right now, but you can stay in my room. I have a girlfriend, I’m not going to try anything.” It was sketchy and weird. That was probably the grossest.
I don’t know if you wanted a Mac DeMarco story?
Sanity Soap is a website founded by Crystal dedicated to “[providing] helpful resources for people interested in exploring mental health and wellness, while focusing on the creative side of healing and self development.” Visit here.