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The finances of working as an indie musician were recently delved into in a piece for Vulture by Uproxx contributor Larry Fitzmaurice. The piece interviewed 17 musicians, ranging from the internet-famous indie lifer Cass McCombs to the backing players in emo luminaries American Football, and they paint a picture of financial struggle in the name of art. “We don’t make enough money to afford an apartment,” McCombs noted, adding, “I know pretty much half of the musicians in existence have a side job of some sort.”
The story surprised some and felt obvious to others, especially when it comes to many of the bands that aren’t regulars in the glossy digital pages of music websites. Responses included the band Mannequin Pussy, who asked whether many bands, particularly ones still finding their audience, even deserved the status of being full-time musicians.
Mannequin Pussy emphasized the fact that for struggling bands, uh, struggle is hardly news. For people who have followed the indie scene closely, it’s a story that’s been told time and time again, with projects that were getting good reviews, attracting solid turnouts at small shows, getting booked in the small print at festivals, and even landing the occasional sync or branded opportunity still falling by the wayside. On the recent podcast Coffee & Flowers, The National revealed that even after the relative success of their third album Alligator, they were of the mind that if their fourth record Boxer didn’t find them taking the next step, that would probably be the death of the band, noting that groups generally don’t have four unsuccessful albums and keep going.
As a fan of aughts indie rock, it was something I’d seen happen to bands like San Francisco’s Beulah (who, coincidentally, released four career albums without ever making a huge commercial dent) and Modesto’s Grandaddy. The former went as far to name their final album Yoko and title a documentary about their run A Good Band Is Easy To Kill (when the release that is pegged to be your breakthrough comes out on September 11, 2001, maybe you were doomed from the start), while the latter openly commented that their eventual demise hinged on the commercial aspirations of some band members never quite being met. Success for many indie bands is not measured in blog posts and 7.0+ Pitchfork reviews. Critical acclaim can rarely pay the rent.
London indie poppers Allo Darlin’ let these concerns infuse their music from the beginning with their fantastic 2010 self-titled debut. On “Silver Dollars,” frontperson Elizabeth Morris painted the picture of being a struggling musician: “I sold all my records but I’m still in debt by two grand / And yeah we played that show but we spent what we made on the cab / I’m even starting to wish that I’d finished a legal vocation / My life would be dull but at least I could go on vacation.” That song concludes with Morris proclaiming “We do it because we love it,” but by the time the band offered up their masterful sophomore effort, Europe, financial concerns had spread beyond their own pockets to an entire continent in financial crisis, with her remarking “I’ve never felt so poor” on the record’s title track.
Lyrics like this made it less surprising when the band called it quits after their third record, especially when they put less emphasis on touring and being what someone would call “a full-time band.” Speaking with her around that time, Morris seemed content leaving the London indie pop scene for Italy with her then-fiance, teaching English to make a living, and not worrying about a traditional model of success. “You don’t want to be about the money,” she said. “But money becomes really important when you don’t have any,” later adding: “I know what bands have to do to live the dream, and I really don’t want to do what they have to do.”
Five years after that final Allo Darlin’ album, Morris is back with a new project, Elva. It is primarily a two-person collaboration, with Morris’ whispy, longing vocals trading time with her husband, soothing Norwegian songwriter Ola Innset. With a project name that literally translates to “The River” in Norwegian, and recorded in a home in the Swedish forest, there’s a peace to this album that never quite existed in her previous band’s oeuvre. That calm matches Morris’ serene voice, as she’s the kind of vocalist who could be soundtracking the apocalypse and still make you feel like everything will be okay. “In that place where we felt young, we realized just what our lives are for,” she sings on this new debut’s opening track, finding a new purpose for the clarity that has always characterized her work. This is no longer the work of a musician struggling with the idea of what it means to be a professional musician. To borrow her own past lyric, it really feels like she’s doing it because she loves it.
The album, Winter Sun, evokes many of the indie pop luminaries that came before. “Tailwind” could easily be a Matador Records track from the ’90s, like Yo La Tengo and Belle & Sebastian unearthed a hidden collaboration from their most inspired sessions period. Meanwhile, Morris’ vocal cadences and inflections have always conjured up comparisons to Michael Stipe, and even though the numbers she leads on this album have shed much of the jangle pop that characterized her early work, her tendency to elongate words and let her voice ring for extended measures still finds her connected to the R.E.M. leader, particularly on the album’s free-flowing penultimate number, “I Need Love.” These aren’t exactly references that are en vogue at the moment, which makes the Elva album that much more refreshing. Beauty, vulnerability, tenderness, emotional honesty; these things never go out of style, even if they aren’t always easy to find.
Details like the couple’s new baby provide color for the record and might explain the comfort that Morris and Innset find in their own skin. And, in the case of one of the album’s most stunning moments, motherhood provides pure inspiration. “Harbour In The Storm” finds Morris offering up a lullaby with assurances of protection and support, while acknowledging the fleeting nature of life and the uncertainty that it brings. Morris has always had bigger things on her mind than being in an indie rock band, as Allo Darlin’s appeal was more her sly humor and keen insights into the bonds of being young, full of love, and aware that the moments we share aren’t meant to last. But motherhood gives her perspective greater weight than ever, with her responsibility to another life bringing a mature sense of purpose to her romantic worldview. It’s this realization that music is an important part of life — but not a reason for living — that makes Winter Sun an essential document of aging gracefully in indie rock. The same warmth that Morris and Innset bring to their family and their craft feels equally generous to the audience, with a record that never focuses on the bottom line, but more on the reasons why it’s important to make music in the first place.
Winter Sun is out now on Tapete Record. Get it here.