Listening to Horsegirl’s debut album Versions Of Modern Performance, it’s not immediately apparent the songs were written this decade. Tracks like “Option 8” and “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” evoke the grittiness and intellect of groundbreaking post-punk artists like Sonic Youth and Wire. It’s not the kind of sound you’d expect to hear from a trio of musicians in their late teens — and that’s deliberate.
The Chicago-bred band, composed of high school senior Penelope Lowenstein and college freshmen Nora Cheng and Gigi Reece, don’t usually write music with a theme in mind, but they do have one overarching goal: to empower other young people to explore overlooked eras of music. In an age where their generation has access to millions of songs at their fingertips, Horsegirl still reveres classics like Brian Eno, Slowdive, and The Microphones. Their music is naturally influenced by modern experiences; as kids born into the internet age whose last years of high school were eclipsed by a global pandemic, their music reflects an understandable sense of detachment. But when asked over Zoom what era of music they wish they could have lived through, their answer was an immediate consensus: The ‘90s, categorized by their favorite label, Flying Nun, which houses early music by Sonic Youth and Pavement.
Their adoration of Sonic Youth is anything but a coincidence. In their eyes, Kim Gordon is the ultimate rock icon. Reece even wrote an entire paper about one line in Gordon’s memoir. “I’ve consumed a lot of Kim Gordon media over the years,” Lowenstein said. But one thing that stuck out the most is Gordon admitting she didn’t know how to play bass very well when starting out in Sonic Youth. “We were around a lot of musicians who thought being technically good at your instruments was important and valued,” Reece said. “Even though we view ourselves as musicians, we have the perspective that we are also artists who are performing and creating — and less is more a lot of times.”
Horsegirl have translated that idea of “less is more” in their music, something which becomes clear when listening to the album. The LP includes sparse lyricism, instead opting to focus on the deluge of brash instruments. Their album-opener “Anti-Glory” previews what’s in store for the 12-track effort, creating an enticing soundscape with droning electric guitar chords, a low, propulsive snare drum, and monotone vocal delivery. Other songs like “Live And Ski” feature bending chords and delicate vocal harmonization.
Much of their songs open with a cacophony of dissonant tones before tightening into unmistakable melodies, masking the self-aware humor that’s omnipresent in their music. The album includes song titles like “Beautiful Song,” “The Guitar Is Dead 3,” and “The Fall Of Horsegirl,” a song which has characteristically few lyrics. Even their band name itself, Horsegirl, is a nod to edgelord memes about the most obnoxious white girl archetype. Their humor and friendship is not only apparent in their music, but was more than tangible even over Zoom. Between each question, the trio would reference inside jokes, cackle at each other’s accidental studders, and reminisce on core friendship memories.
Unlike many high school relationships, their friendship grew through shared interests rather than convenience. Growing up in a big city like Chicago, each member of Horsegirl independently took advantage of all the music institutions the city has to offer, Girls Rock and Old Town School Of Folk Music to name a couple. Though they all went to different schools, they bonded over their love for re-discovering no-wave music. Eventually, they became each other’s go-to show-going buddies, attending a handful of Chicago’s expertly organized DIY and warehouse shows. Eventually, they decided to put their musical knowledge to the test and start a band.
All three members admit growing up in Chicago “100 percent” influenced their sound. Part of that was thanks to the city’s organized DIY scene. “When we were young underclassmen in high school, the older kids would have their own DIY thing going,” Lowenstein recalled. “If we didn’t grow up in a place where we would see kids booking their own shows, hosting their own events, and starting their own bands, it never would have seemed like a possible thing to do when we were younger.” Reece added: “As we grew older, we realized [the DIY community] is a really special thing that Chicago has. There is a very prevalent young scene happening and that has influenced us more than anything.”
Watching other young people make music fueled their drive, but their musical vision really came together during lockdown. The three would hunker down in one of their mom’s home office and take Zoom classes side-by-side before spending the afternoon playing music. “Us spending so much time together, we were able to, without even playing music, foster this idea of what we wanted Horsegirl to be,” said Reece. “We feel fortunate for that time we had together.” Afternoons of noodling around on instruments led them to release a few songs in the form of the three-track EP jokingly named Best Of Horsegirl. It wasn’t long before their music was discovered by their “dream label” Matador, who ended up signing the band via a Zoom call. Their reaction to being asked about signing to Matador was pretty much the exact response you’d expect to hear from a teenager: “So embarrassing,” they agreed. They went on to describe how all of them were “freaking out” during the initial call and weren’t able to hide their apparent idolization of the label.
Signing to their dream label as high schoolers is anything but ordinary, but Horsegirl manage to keep their school life and their band life relatively separate. “Honestly, people don’t really care that much, which I think is nice,” Lowenstein said about her classmates’ reactions to her musical success. In fact, most of Lowenstein’s teachers didn’t even know she was in a band until she informed them she’d be missing class to tour. “I’ve been working really hard on this album release all year and my teachers had no idea. I kinda had to go to my teachers last week and be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be out for two weeks. I’m in a band.’ And they’re like, ‘You’re in a band?’”
Other than celebrating her high school graduation by playing a hometown album release show the same night, Lowenstein isn’t sure about what’s next for Horsegirl. When asked about where they see themselves in five years now that they have indie label support, Lowenstein joked, “We’re going to be in our experimental phase.” Cheng chimed in: “It’s only going to get weirder.” “We’ll go ambient then, maybe,” Reece added. Like most others in the transitional phase from high school to college, Horsegirl’s members are unsure about their futures. But one thing’s for certain: They plan on continuing to inspire and be inspired by the young creatives around them. “This is what we love to do, so we’re excited to do it for as long as possible,” Lowenstein said.
Versions Of Modern Performance is out 6/3 on Matador. Pre-order it here.