Interview

Meet Horsegirl, three teenagers keeping no wave alive in Chicago

The race is on to finish their album before they head off to college

“I think we kind of really bonded over the fact that, like Sonic Youth, there’s all these bands and scenes that kind of don’t exist anymore, and we’re all really into those. It was something that we kind of wanted to be able to experience even though we couldn’t,” says Nora Cheng, one-third of Chicago’s Horsegirl, via video-chat. The other two band members, Penelope Lowenstein and Gigi Reece, concur, bright-eyed albeit serious faces nodding along. Horsegirl’s inception goes beyond a meeting of minds; it was a meeting of musical soulmates. 

“Another part of it was just figuring out that we all have the same music taste and developing our music taste together,” Lowenstein adds, citing Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl In A Band, My Bloody Valentine, the Belle and Sebastian documentary and The Year Punk Broke as fodder for their friendship/obsession/inspiration. 

The longing for an era gone by is a familiar feeling to many music obsessives, but often good comes from the bittersweet feelings. In Horsegirl’s case, chasing the noisiness of no wave and shoegaze led three high school musicians to each other – and to live shows around Chicago where they confirmed their dedication. 

“I think in Chicago there’s such a supportive [scene] of not just musicians but also artists,” Reece says. “Especially when a lot of the meaningful events we’ve gone to have been teen-run, teen-sponsored events where we can play music, but then there’s also art everywhere. So it’s really a community of artists supporting artists, which we admired when we were underclassmen and now we’re juniors and seniors and we are hoping to create music that people feel they can support and be in a community with.” 

So, the three teenagers set out playing live sets and experimenting with collective songwriting, including the two tracks for Horsegirl’s debut AA single (via the Sonic Cathedral label): the imagery-driven ‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ and the addictively head-boppable ‘Sea Life Sandwich Boy’. Both songs betray a talent and propensity for experimentation not found often, and which at first will make listeners double-take – are they really in high school? 

“Our songwriting process in general is we really work best when it’s just the three of us in a room being like, let’s write a song, and then we’ll do it,” Reece says. “And we just feed off of each other, and we’ll have a few inspirations thrown out – just, like, what we’re sort of going for – and then we’ll work towards that and it works well and we all understand each other very well.” Reece speaks with the confidence of a settled musician but the hope of a young one, something that becomes even clearer when they express their gratitude for the opportunity to watch films, listen to music and then feed off the inspiration and create something of their own. 

“Recording [‘Sea Life Sandwich Boy’] was kind of the first time we dove into recording in this new way of Nora and I sat down and layering feedback over and over and trying to make an arrangement for a recording of the song,” Lowenstein elaborates, “which was kind of different from our live set, which was kind of a new thing for us, just because recording takes a lot of tools and we were getting better at it.” 

“‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ – that’s about stuffing away your past or something,” says Cheng. “It’s kind of like all these characters united under this. The idea is that these are all people that you could know in your life, and kind of just align that with each one. There’s that line ‘Marianne who’s older now will stuff her soul in seven plastic bins’ – that’s like growing up in the suburbs perhaps, maybe. Which was not… we’re not from the suburbs.” 

According to Reece, they just love thinking about the suburbs. But, it’s clear that the energy and community in Chicago is as much key to their music as their love for Kim Gordon, or their wish that they could’ve seen Yo La Tengo in their prime. 

“We come from a very live setting of playing music – like, in a community of people who play live together in a music program that was very focused on playing live, so I think because of that we know how to play together very well when jamming,” Lowenstein says. “Playing improvisationally together is important to that process.” 

Experimentation is truly the mother of invention, proven by Horsegirl’s repertoire, written together with all three members involved. Maybe someone has an idea. “It could be this vibe, and then it ends up when we all play together it could take a completely different form from the original idea, but it’s very much so built when we’re all together,” says Cheng. 

However, the band had to adapt during lockdown. Live shows abruptly, indefinitely cut off, endless hours spent inside led to a frenzy of songwriting. “I think it’s been a focusing time for the band,” Lowenstein says. “We were playing shows every weekend and it was hard to find time to write new stuff, and we really have been unable to stop writing songs since the pandemic started, which has been really wonderful.” 

Now, with some quarantine measures lifted, the band are able to see each other, and in fact call into our video interview from the same screen. But, they won’t be together forever. Reece and Cheng are seniors, and are both set to head off to college in New York this fall. Lowenstein, one year younger, will be in Chicago. But no need to worry – they have a plan. 

“That was always our goal – to make an album before we go off to college,” Reese says. “’Cause it’s like, this is our high school band and now it’s hopefully gonna be more our life band. But making an album before Nora and I go to college, it’s sealing our high school years.” They’re planning on getting it done sometime this summer. 

“It’s going to happen and it’s going to be recorded before they go to college,” says Lowenstein. 

“And it’s gonna bang, I promise,” says Reece. 

“You have our guarantee for those three things,” Cheng adds. 

“We should advertise like that,” Reece says, and the three erupt into laughter. That’s the best thing about Horsegirl – they don’t hold themselves in such high esteem that they’ve sacrificed a sense of humour. Just look to their name for confirmation. 

“I thought of Horsegirl because of the girls who like horses, like with the really long hair,” Lowenstein says as she explains the thought behind their name. She thought of it in middle school, while dreaming of being in a high school band.  

“And they neigh and whatever. It’s a little bit of a play of like… it’s a joke. It started as a joke online and we don’t take ourselves seriously,” says Reece. “We are serious about our music and we love writing music and we love listening to music, but it’s also fun to joke about it and joke around and have a good time.” 

“To be honest, I kind of thought it was temporary,” Cheng says. This time, we all crack up. 

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