Interview: New Portals
There are few things more elusive and precious in life than finding someone who is passionate about the same things you are to share it with. I know this first-hand, having met my partner whilst studying music at university and going on to form a band together. Aside from the obvious complications of coupling your romantic and work life, it’s also difficult to negotiate the line between endearing rawness and sugary sweetness. Particularly as couples in bands are becoming all the more common, which Wendy Fonarow of the Guardian attributes in part to more women gaining access to equal roles in bands, rather than the usual trope of ‘male front man/female backing singer’. This has led to more ambiguity surrounding the relationships of these couples, leading to incorrect assumptions, a good example being the rumoured ‘brother/sister’ relationship within The White Stripes, which is something indie electronica duo New Portals know all too well. I spoke to singer Ruth following the release of a brand new video for their latest single ‘Cage’:
KM: How did you first make the transition from a husband/wife relationship to musical collaborators?
R: We met at a gig when we were around 14 or 15, and hooked up shortly afterwards. In the early days we learnt a lot from each other. Mike taught me about chords and I taught him how to harmonise, so music always was a big part of our relationship.
KM: Do you think having that connection gives you any advantages in music writing?
R: Well the fact that we are self employed and we write at home means that writing is super convenient, and we can play around with ideas while we are cooking or just hanging. But we usually do have set times where we write. Working together can also be brutal too as we can be fast to get into arguments which might not happen if we weren’t married!
KM: I also write music with my other half, so I know exactly what you mean – things can get heated! Your music has this luxurious mix of RnB and electro-pop, and you create a beautifully immersive sound by integrating retro synths with airy, processed vocals. How important are the production elements to your songwriting process?
R: We believe if it’s a good song it can be performed under any genre, unplugged or with a full band. We always start out writing under really stripped back conditions- one simple instrument, usually keys, and vocals. If we need more energy we’ll use our drum machine. This way we can gauge whether the song is any good before it gets taken over by production.
KM: The vocals in your work really take center stage, whether they are processed and sampled, or natural and breathy. How does having two vocals affect the narrative of your songs and how you work?
R: We just try to make the best of what we have and we do enjoy playing around with two vocals but we try not be too clichéd in our delivery. It drives us nuts when we can predict every vocal turn duos take – traditionally a harmony will usually come in on the pre chorus and stay there until the chorus is finished. We like to mix it up a bit more.
KM: That does come across in your work – so many male/female duos end up sounding really kitsch. I feel like there’s an interesting contrast between the dark quality of the instrumentation and the sweetness of the vocals. Was this intentional?
R: Yes, again we are just making the best of what we have. I have a very feminine vocal and actually Mike’s voice is super high too! So if the production was sparkly and sweet the whole package would just sound a bit ‘Bubblegum Pop’ so we have to counterbalance this with darker vibes and moody synths. We don’t always get it right; we’ve made a few things in the early days when we were figuring this out that we had to abandon because they sounded a bit too cute and sweet for our tastes, but you live and learn.
KM: Your latest release, ‘Cage’, is incredibly emotive. I particularly like the smooth and dissonant chord progressions in the chorus paired with the urgency of ‘Don’t tell me what to feel’. What inspired you to write this song?
R: Thank you – we enjoy the chord progression too, it makes ‘Cage’ really fun to perform live when we hit that crescendo moment, we kinda scream “don’t tell me how to feel”. It’s a lot of fun and you can get the rage out too. We bought our kid a guinea pig and realized its imprisonment, which inspired the opener “took me outta the woods, put me in a cage”. Then as the writing developed there was flurry of human trafficking stories coming out in our local town AND we were asked to write a few songs for a feature film about trafficking in Canada, which led to ‘Cage’.
KM: You recently released a video to accompany the single, directed by Emily Macdonald of Hilow films. Tell us about the story behind the video.
R: Emily pitched the video to us and I got shivers, I haven’t seen many stories like this since Pretty Woman and I haven’t seen it in a music video although I believe Ed Sheeran has this sort of story in one of his vids. But we wanted the female to be in charge of the situation rather than the usual ‘oppressed female, given a second chance by a kindly prince charming’ so we enjoyed the role reversal of the guy despairing at the end. He totally nailed that look we think.
KM: I feel like a lot of your music is about finding the beauty in the everyday: whether prostitution turns into something utterly romantic like this video, or the simple joys of watching someone you like dancing, like in ‘Groove Boy’. Is that something that’s important to you?
R: Yes and no. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves not to waste our days that I can get stressed out. We flipping carpe diem everything- it’s exhausting! We have two children so we go through periods of real daily grind and lying low, so yeah it’s nice to find beauty in the everyday for sure and I’m sure this permeates our music.
KM: Quite far away from the everyday is your upcoming trip to New York in November for a round of Sofar Sessions. How are you feeling about the trip?
R: We are about to knuckle down and do some major preparation in October – we have to rethink our set for an acoustic performance, so according to our own logic mentioned above, the proof is in the pudding whether our songs are any good!
KM: You certainly have a busy autumn ahead in terms of live shows. What can we expect from you guys in 2017?
We’re gonna do as many festivals as will have us and we’re hoping to release a chill out EP which we have mostly written- it’s more minimalistic than our previous work. We might release an album if the timing is right, and tour our voices off till it hurts! Thanks for the interesting questions, it’s been a joy!
KM: Thank you Ruth, it was my pleasure.
‘Cage’ is out now.