Blue Hawaii find their freedom

We talked to the Montreal duo about technology, relationships, and feeling like spies

October 13, 2017

“We’re just in ever so slightly a dilemma,” says Raphaelle “Ra” Standell, laughing as she answers the phone. She’s in the backseat of a car on the highway between Montreal and Toronto, on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of a tour that will take her and bandmate Alexander “Agor” Kirby through parts of North America and Europe. The sunroof of their car, an old Mercedes, is stuck open, and it’s raining. But it’s okay; technology does that sometimes.

Technology—and our relationships through it—is at the centre of the pair’s new album, Tenderness, their first since debut full-length Untogether four years ago. Their previous release dealt with emotional isolation in beautiful, minimal soundscapes and fragmented vocals; a break-up record about the end of their romantic relationship (“which we didn’t really realize until releasing it,” Standell says).

“We needed some time apart from each other just to reground and have enough time to build a friendship again,” she says. Standell was busy with her other band Braids, while Kirby was DJing, living in Berlin and then Los Angeles. In 2016, Standell spent the winter in LA. They rekindled their friendship and started making music again.

At the time, Standell was getting out of a relationship that, because of distance, often took place online. “Probably to my detriment, I fell into reading a lot of my messages,” she says, “and had a really hard time with the type of person that I felt like I was online.” Those feelings filtered into the album, which starts with a relationship’s dissolution in “Free at Last” (“but I won’t feel that for a few months or so,” Standell sings). “There’s this whole arc with the record of finding your freedom on your own,” she says, “going through a lot of reminiscing, really missing the person and feeling really bad about yourself, and having some highs of that time that you spent with them. And then finding out how to have strength on your own.” It’s less a break-up record and more a blueprint of what it feels like to find yourself, to learn how to treat yourself well.

And sometimes, today, that means getting away from a phone screen. Blue Hawaii grapple with this most literally in the video for “No One Like You,” a delightfully disco-inspired single about selectively remembering the good times. A melancholy Standell trades her phone and a black-and-white robotic dog for nature and a real-live canine, getting visibly happier in the process. There’s nods to the grounding influence of analog throughout the album with live instruments, new territory for the duo, including saxophone by Adam Kinner and strings arranged and performed by Owen Pallett.

But Blue Hawaii is still at its heart an electronic project, and perhaps even more overtly now than ever. “The record itself is a little bit heavier than Untogether,” Standell admits, “and I think that’s because we really enjoyed how our live set started evolving on tour.” You can hear the results of that evolution in the edits album Kirby released in 2014, an imminently danceable aesthetic that peaks out on Tenderness in beats that sound like echoes of the ‘90s, ‘70s and five minutes from now.

I always record stuff that sounds good. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a spy.

Raphaelle “Ra” Standell

Some voices and instruments are recorded on a iPhone, and real-life examples of daily interactions with electronic voices are woven between the songs: a sportscaster over the radio, a flight attendant making an announcement and a voicemail from Standell’s Aunt Susan about some mysterious big news. “I was thinking maybe you’re pregnant, or somebody is,” she speculates into the other end of the phone. (I asked, and here’s the Standell family big news exclusive: an uncle is retiring.)

“I always record stuff that sounds good. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a spy,” says Standell. “If I’m on a train and I hear a really, really great conversation that’s happening behind me, I’ll—this is probably wrong—but I just love recording snippets of it.” For example, she overheard a little girl explaining to her grandmother how to use an iPad. “The grandma was kind of floored about the daughter’s colouring book on the iPad. I was like, I have to record this!”

“I find that over the past couple of years I’ve gotten really into meditation. I noticed that it’s made me a lot more interested in what’s going on around me, like hearing sounds or seeing colours more. It’s something I’ve been more passionate about doing, just like recording the sounds of the train or a dog who has a really nice sounding bell on its collar or the Metro sound. I just pull out my phone and record it. Because you can! And we put it all over the record.”

As the album nears its conclusion, it lives up to the sound of its title, starting with the soft, flowing “Do You Need Me.” “That’s my favourite kind of singing to do,” says Standell, “really loose, kind of almost mantra-like sounding lyrics where you’re repeating the same thing over and over again, and it’s not like a really rigid kind of pop structure.” It flows into the title song, which has the strongest gut punch of a lyric: “I learn to greet the day / with as much tenderness / as if I were laying in your arms, / learning how to be / alone without you / and happy to be with me.”

It’s an important thing to learn how to do, in today’s world of performative social media and constant communication, and for every other future time to come.

“I think tenderness for me is a lot to do with patience for the many stages that we go through in life,” says Standell, “whether it’s loss or grief, or even feeling really self-confident, or being really in love and then not having love…being soft to that. That’s something that I feel like I really had to work through with the recording of this record. Just kind of taking stock of where I’m at now and not feeling judgemental of that, like whether I’m lacking now or whether I’ve gained something. Just trying to be soft to ourselves, just really very literally trying to be tender to yourself. As though: how would you hold a baby? And holding yourself in that same way.”

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