Braids isn’t shy about vulnerability.
In May, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston wrote an essay for Pitchfork about her sexual abuse as a child and how she channeled the experience into an opportunity for personal healing through Braids’ song “Miniskirt.” Since then, the sound and connotation of Braids, who’ve been best friends since post-pubescence, have come to mean courage; not just for survivors of sexual abuse, but for anyone familiar with the inherent vulnerability of pouring your heart out to find out what’s inside.
That’s been the motive of Braids since they started playing together over a decade ago, something that’s not only expressed in Raphalle’s singular Bjork-like voice, but in the inspired, moving songwriting of drummer Austin Tufts and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith as well. Together, the three create brave, experimental electronic pop that mirrors the ferocity of Rapahelle’s lyrics; raw, building ballads with impossible highs and crushing lows which accent refreshingly unorthodox melodies rich in texture, meaning and intention.
When I saw Braids at FORM Arcosanti a few weeks back, this came through loud and clear. The honesty of their songs made an instant connection with the audience, who became rapt at the emotion the band was able to evoke within less than a minute of performance. By the end of it, I looked around and noticed many people dabbing at their eyes and studying their forearms in awe of the wash of goosebumps that had prickled up. I don’t know if it was the tangible chemistry between them, the rawness of their lyrics or some other divine force, but it was clear they found strength in performing the vulnerable.
I wanted to find out what the driving force behind Braids’ ability to evoke such emotion in their audience was, so I caught up with singer Raphaelle at a little cafe in Echo Park. There, I asked her too many questions for her to eat her salad properly and she told me everything.
Where do you find the inner strength and confidence to make music that touches on such vulnerable chords?
Our band is just a really safe environment for us to be creative in. I think we all give each other the strength to get really deep and vulnerable with ourselves and one another. I’ve spoken a lot about my personal experiences of late, actually, both in my songwriting and elsewhere. I wrote a piece about overcoming sexual abuse through song writing. It’s called “Reclamation Through a Microphone.”
What kind of response did you get to coming out about what happened to you?
It was fine, actually. I was expecting the typical internet trolling. It didn’t happen at all. The only thing that I’ve gotten from people was like, “Thank you for writing it.” And a lot of friends reaching out like, “Hey, I didn’t know that this happened. Way to go for talking about it.” It was really positive. I ended up reconnecting with my step brother who I talk about in my article.
Is that what “Companion” is about?
Yeah. It’s about losing him through that process. I ended up reconnecting with him which is really cool. We’re going to see each other in Calgary.
It was a really positive experience though. It was really uncomfortable when I released it in some ways because I was like, “Oh. Everybody knows about this thing that was deeply personal and disturbing.” At the same time it was a relief to be able to talk about it in a matter of fact way. It’s nice that this topic can be given a voice. A lot of people feel alienated talking about that kind of stuff. It makes you feel different. It makes you feel gross.
Yet, you talk about it so eloquently, which is partially why when “Miniskirt,” came out, there was much written about Braids being a “feminist” band. However, that term has a lot of subjective and personal meaning. What does feminism mean to each of you? Do you agree with the feminist label many music blogs have given you?
Feminism to me simply means the belief that women should be given the same political, social and economic rights as men. It’s acknowledging the current inequalities that still exist and trying to change them. It’s being aware of language, of societal constructs and roles that limit or control women and challenging them. It’s very important that the world become feminist. IMO.
People are sometimes frightened by it because there is a lot of political correctness that goes along with defending it and it can get confusing and messy. But, I really think aside from all the language or the labeling, that feminism is nothing more than the desire to have equal opportunity and respect as men. That’s the basis for me. And if you believe that then you’re a feminist.
For the men in the band, what does it mean to you to be a feminist man? Do you think such a thing exists?
Austin and Taylor are not with me right now so I can’t speak for them. But! I believe that yes, a feminist man does exist. To me a man is feminist if he believes in the rights for women and for women to have the same opportunities as men, which both the boys do. They are great men. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such supportive and loving guys.
You guys are able to talk about sexuality in a very frank way that’s also thoughtful and empathetic, something that’s really hard to do. Why is that important to you guys, and how do you approach that topic?
Hmm … I’ve always just enjoyed being really honest and sometimes a little lewd when speaking about sex. It’s a topic that everyone can relate to in someway and that we are all pretty curious about.
I feel a great disconnect when sex is displayed in an unrealistic way. I often strive as a lyricist to create a feeling of openness and honesty, so when it comes to speaking about sex, I just say it like it is — if it was fantastic, or bad, or awkward or reassuring then I’ll represent it in that way. It’s a topic that evokes a lot of response in people so being a little vulgar about it can be fun … like the first record we did, I had no filter as I was younger and curious about exploring my own boundaries with being explicit … people really couldn’t handle it at times!
You guys seem really close as a band, and as friends. How has friendship and mutual understanding affected the music that you make?
I think the place where we get the strength and ability to make the music that we do is because we’re so close as people. So close as friends. Especially with the recording of Deep In the Iris, we created a very, very safe space for us to record in. Where you could be very vulnerable, and where we could try and do anything. We were really supportive of each other. If somebody had a bad idea, or if they came up with something that sounded like nails on a chalkboard, we would still let them see it through to the end in. I think when you know someone well, it’s easier to go to those extremes with them.
I just felt really supported in that environment. I think it was their support that helped with me writing those lyrics. I don’t think I would have done that if I had just done a session with some random person I had met. It was because I’ve known Austin, the drummer, since I was 12. We’ve known Taylor, the crazy multi instrumentalist, since we were 15. We’ve moved cities. We’ve moved across the country together. We’ve done a lot together. I think that’s where it comes from.
What advice would you have for people trying to express themselves? It’s hard to tapping into that kind of gripping vulnerability that you guys do.
I can only speak for myself with this, but lately, I’ve been really into transcendental meditation. I think it gets a bad rap because it can be considered kind of cult-y, but it’s not. It’s been really grounding, but it’s actually helped me with performance. It’s made me want to connect and feel connected to other people more, like I have this vibe of openness, which really helps with expression. Especially if I do it before I go on stage.
I think it made me more capable to access my vulnerability. I’ve always been a heart on my sleeve type of person, which has acted against me in some ways, or I give out too much information. I think it balances you to the way that you should be.
So in a sense could you say that in order to tap into the vein of honesty Braids does, you need to find a mode of inner validation?
Yeah. A self affirmation. So many people need some sort of external validation, which is something I would look towards in reviews. All of us look for validation whether it’s from our friends or our families. To a certain degree you can get a lot from how other people perceive you and how you’re making them feel, and that’s valuable. But it’s hard to be honest and expressive without tapping into some truth about yourself.
To some degree, Austin and Taylor make up the music that lives up the vulnerability and the rawness of your lyrics and voice. What’s the process for that like? Are they heart-on-the-sleeve people as well?
We all write the music together. It’s all very collective. Austin, even though he’s the drummer, he did a lot of the chordal movements for Deep In the Iris, and there’s been times where Taylor has told him to change one of his drum parts or something … It’s all of us coming together on it. We’re all heart on the sleeve people. At least we are when we’re together. It’s like a no bullshit environment. One of us will be able to say, “You’re trying to write with the intention for it to be a pop song. Is that really what you want?” If it is, that’s great. If you’re just doing that because of an expectation, then we try and erase that.
You guys just released a gorgeous video for “Joni.” Can you tell us a little about the idea behind it?
I just really wanted to make it. I had to convince the band to give me $1,000. We had these really complicated plot lines and I was like, “What if I have a fake boyfriend and it’s about a relationship that’s ending?” Which is what the song is about. It’s about a lot of things. I wrote it when I was touring a lot and I didn’t feel like I had a home.
It’s about trying to find a home in yourself when you feel like you don’t have one. Or just that idea of making a place that you can go to that is your own. It’s a reference to meditation too. The lyric is, “Can my home be here inside of me, even when I’m on the other side of where I want to be.” So even when in a city you don’t want to be in or a relationship is ending, or you’re having a hard time with a friend, or you’re living out of a suitcase, can you still find that nice place to go to in yourself?
That’s what the video is birthed out of. This relationship where they’re trying to figure out their own autonomy and their own personalities while being in this relationship, which happens a lot in relationships. If you’ve been with somebody for a while, you’re like, “Who am I? Am I my own person? Or am I them? Or am I their person?” You know. So then I had Bob LaMonte be my fake boyfriend, which was hilarious because I had never done a staged make out with limited clothing.
I feel like this is the quintessential every human on a screen gets asked when they do a “sex scene,” but I’m legitimately interested, so I’m going for it … What was that like?
It was funny. My mind told me that I wasn’t into it, but then my body told me differently. I asked him, “Were we into this? Do you act that you’re not, or that you’re into it?” He’s like, “Well you try to, it’s acting. You act like you’re into it, but you don’t get into it.” He did a really good job at being an actor with it. He was very professional about it.
Doing this for as long and as profoundly as you guys have, you must have had to make certain sacrifices (i.e., when early Braids band mate Katie Lee left the band.) What keeps you going?
I have no idea! I have no idea. Sometimes I wonder that. How do I do seven shows in a row and sleep in the worst hotels ever? I’m driving a mini van and don’t sleep a lot. Why? Sometimes you have these conversations where you’re like, “We could go get a good job. We could go get nice apartments. I could get a dog.” I really want a dog. Like the last two nights. I’ve been quite introverted. I haven’t wanted to go out and socialize. I’ve been spending time looking at dog adoption websites.
So … Braids is motivated by the potential for dogs?
*laughs* Probably …
Braids brand-new EP Companion is out now … a follow-up to 2015’s much-acclaimed Deep In the Iris, it’s … really good. Listen to it here.