Girlpool Embrace Change And Experimentation On The Fantastic ‘What Chaos Is Imaginary’

Gina Canavan

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Girlpool‘s third studio album, What Chaos Is Imaginary, doesn’t sound like a Girlpool record, but that’s okay.

Over two albums and an EP, singer-songwriter-best-friend duo Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad perfected a multilayered, springy-warm acoustic sound. Tucker and Tividad shared vocal duties on every song, their voices blending together and speaking to a shared experience of adolescence, falling in love and figuring out what’s up with the world and how you fit into it. Tucker and Tividad were teenagers when their first EP came out and shook the indie scene — but right out of the gate, Girlpool had a confident, consistent musical style.

What Chaos Is Imaginary delights in upending that style completely. Tucker and Tividad told me that the creative upheaval is the result of a natural evolution of the band’s sound, and some key alone time. After almost half a decade writing, recording, and touring together, Tucker and Tividad spent some time apart after the release of their second studio album, 2017’s Powerplant. Tividad recorded a solo album, 2018’s Oove Is Rare, and Tucker began transitioning (Tucker uses he/him pronouns). On their own, the two played with old songs they’d set aside while recording their other two albums, building them solo before finally joining back together to record them (plus a few new co-written tracks) for the album.

The resulting record is beautifully unsettled. For the first time, there’s a clear distinction between the “Cleo songs” and the “Harmony songs,” Cleo’s with warm vocals and fuzzed-out guitar, Harmony’s ruminative and tending toward acoustics and complex arrangements. What Chaos Is Imaginary is an album that finds beauty in flux and transition. Whether you’re in a band or not, part of growing up is figuring out who you are apart from friends and partners, exploring the contours of your own mind and learning who you are on your own. Change is good. Change is growth.

Recording the record, and revisiting these songs they’d written years ago, was a cathartic experience for the pair. “There was a lack of creative closure with these songs, because all the other songs we were writing together [for other albums] would get fully explored and felt, and then we had all these backlogged creative things that we hadn’t taken a full moment to indulge that feeling we had with them,” Tividad said. “When songs are just floating around and you don’t really give them their full moment, it just feels like a weird, dissociative creative breaking point.”

What Chaos Is Imaginary illustrates the band’s past and foreshadows their bright, ever-evolving future. I spoke with Tucker and Tividad about their experience writing, recording, and living the record. Read a condensed and edited version of our conversation below.

What Chaos Is Imaginary features some of the most varied instrumentals that you guys have had on any project so far — you’ve got, like, strings, synthesizers, drum machines, in addition to the more acoustic sound of your earlier projects. What sparked the decision to experiment with the instrumentals for this record?

Harmony Tividad: I feel like we just wanted to give these songs the opportunity to take up as wide of a space as possible, and see how far we could go with them. I feel like in the past we’ve been on more of a time crunch, or different factors have weighed in that have kept us from fully exploring how far we could take things. And I think we made a decision [for this record] that we wanted to see how much we could really do with these songs and our sound, how much we could expand.

With all of the varied songwriting timelines on What Chaos Is Imaginary, what would you say is the thread that unites it all, if there is one?

Cleo Tucker: That’s an interesting question. It’s funny, because to me the only thing that really threads it all together is time, like the time that most of those songs were created. Sonically, there isn’t really a thread between all of them. There are similar sounds on some of the songs. Like, there’s a couple songs on the record — for example, “Swamp And Bay,” “Joseph’s Dad,” “Pretty,” “Lucky Joke,” “Hire” — there’s kind of this indie rock sound that could be a record on its own. But then there are these elements to the album that feel completely out of left field, that represent a lot of experiment and growth and flirtation.

This record flirts with new sounds and old feelings, and it feels completely transitional, almost like there is no string running through all the songs on this album. The only thing that makes sense about these songs together is their representation of a growing period of time. Powerplant had many, many strings that were tangible to feel and hear on the album, and I think you have to search for the strings on this album for it to all come together. It’s less obvious.

That was one of my favorite things about the album. To me, listening to it, it was like you were looking back on past versions of yourself, acknowledging things that you went through and felt. With a few years of distance and a few years of creating different music, you could go back to these moments in your life.

Tucker: It’s trippy.

Tividad: It’s the summary of so many experiences we shared. Weird nuances in our life together are kind of the string, but it’s not really a public string, it’s like a private string. Our inner string is all these different feelings and moments and things in our lives that happened.

What Chaos Is Imaginary is the first record that you’ve recorded since Cleo has begun hormone replacement therapy. Cleo, has that change affected the way that you think about your voice as an instrument or a means for expressing yourself?

Tucker: It’s weird hearing certain melodies and sounds, things that remind me of masculine characters in my life growing up, that I never sounded like. There’s a joke that I said in another interview, where at the end of “Hire,” I was like, “Why the f*ck does this sound like the Foo Fighters? That’s not me!” Not that that’s not me, because it is me, but there are moments where I’m like “What the f*ck, this is my voice.” That doesn’t affect the way that I think about what I’m singing, though, it’s more of just regaining control and getting to know my voice as it’s evolving. But then again, I do like to use [my voice] as a tool. My voice can get really warm and dark in a way that it couldn’t before, sonically, in this way that it wasn’t when I was singing higher.

Are you tired of being asked to talk so much about your gender identity and sexuality, or is it more empowering to discuss all of this?

Tucker: Sometimes I feel bad that Harmony just has to listen to me talk about this over and over again—

Tividad: I love it!

Tucker: But it is what it is. That’s what people want to ask about. Ultimately, it’s just a decimal point of everything that makes up the music, on my side. The music is a huge garden, and this is one flower that people are really interested in because of culture. We’ll spend time talking about it, but the music hopefully transcends just me.

How was it different writing and reworking these songs separately during your break?

Tucker: Harmony and I really needed that time. We jumped into Girlpool at such a young age, right in the middle of our teenagehood, and were figuring out of songwriting really close together, learning together, and kind of filling in gaps for each other. It dawned on us that we became a little bit dependent on one another to finish a song. [Writing separately] felt like something we both had to do.

[For our previous records] we had developed this method that was working. I had moments where I’d be working on a song, and I’d stop short because I wanted to take it to Harmony, and I knew that she could f*ck it up in a really cool way. But I realized I was selling myself short by not allowing myself to push through those uncomfortable moments while creating. [On What Chaos Is Imaginary] we were practicing and working on those muscles independently from one another. It’s still something I’m working on and doing. It’s hard for me, but I know that it’s something I need to do.

How did you guys come together and finish all the material you’d written separately? What was it like linking back up again?

Tividad: We both knew these songs really well, because we’d been existing in parallel for so long. When we were writing, the first person we’d send [the songs] to each other, and we knew the context the songs were created in, and what we were experiencing and going through. When we came together to record these songs as a unit, there was a mutual understanding that, ‘You wrote this, ultimately you have the final say in what goes on,’ ‘I’m gonna be open to hearing your thoughts and ideas, and I want to.’ There was this balance of including each other, but also knowing that someone had more of an emotional arm in it and a specific connection to it that was different. But, yeah. It was amazing.

What Chaos Is Imaginary is out now via Anti- Records. Get it here.