Nandi Rose Plunkett explores vulnerabilities on six-song ‘form/a’ EP
The South by Southwest Music Festival, which takes place each March in Austin, Texas, can be an exhausting, whirlwind experience for artists.
This was certainly the case for Half Waif singer and songwriter Nandi Rose Plunkett, who led her band through seven shows jammed with journalists, corporate hangers-on and drunken, badge-clad fest attendees before reclaiming a moment for herself during the group's final performance.
“I just didn't have much energy left in me. But I decided to play a new song at that show, one about my grandmother,” said Plunkett, 28, who joins her bandmates for a concert at Double Happiness on Saturday, March 25. “It was a weird time to play a severely vulnerable new song alone on the piano, but I had this feeling like, 'I don't want South by Southwest to dictate my experience for me. I want to make of it whatever I want it to be … and just be a human singing a song about someone I love.'”
Half Waif's most recent recording, the six-song form/a EP, arrives brimming with these intimate moments, Plunkett confronting everything from her parents' separation, which took place when she was 14 years old, to her growing awareness of mortality. “Will you be here tomorrow?” she sings on “Magic Trick,” her words disintegrating amid a celestial chorus of synthesizers.
“I grew up right across the street from a cemetery ... and my mom tells me that when I was learning the alphabet we'd go hunting for letters on gravestones. So I think my conception of mortality was a natural one growing up, because it was such an everyday part of my landscape,” said Plunkett, who grew up in Williamstown, Mass., raised by an entrepreneur mother and a psychotherapist father. “I'm scared all the time of losing the people I love the most. I'm trying to face those fears in the music more so that the reality becomes less terrifying and — as it was when I was a kid walking through the graveyard — more of a familiar territory.”
Elsewhere, Plunkett wrestles more explicitly with the day-to-day uncertainties that accompany growing older. “I feel both good and bad about my age,” said the Brooklyn-based musician, who also plays in Pinegrove alongside Half Waif bandmates Adan Carlo and Zack Levine. “Good because ... I feel more responsible and more comfortable at this point in my life, and I like that settled weight. Bad because I had certain expectations about where I'd be by this point, and I'm not there in some ways.”
Musically, a similar sea change has taken place, with Plunkett finding ways to synthesize her myriad diverse influences — a Bandcamp bio calls out everyone from Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos to Celtic- and Middle Eastern-influenced singer Loreena McKennitt — into something that feels uniquely her own.
“I know that the music I write can be hard to pin down stylistically. And there have been so many times I wished that I wrote music that fit in with some musical scene, that people understood more easily, that belonged,” she said.
This runs in contrast to a childhood where Plunkett thrived on standing apart from the crowd — both culturally (the musician's mother is Indian, and she was one of the few non-white children living in her neighborhood) and in how she carried herself. The musician recalled being 10 years old and visiting a fortune teller at a small shop in Salem, Mass., where the man asked her to select a favorite animal as part of the reading. “I picked something really weird — a kinkajou, I think,” she said. “He looked at me and said, 'You don't have to try so hard to be different.'”
Plunkett never shied from sharing her Indian heritage, however. She wore bindis to school, brought Indian sweets for her classmates on Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) and, in fourth grade, wrote and performed a musical about the Taj Mahal.
“I felt special, proud of my heritage,” she said. “It's more like the stories of my ancestors, my mother being a refugee, my family fracturing when I was in middle school, have all created this internal restlessness that writhes inside me as an adult.”
These various writhing tendrils all come together in “Frost Burn,” which falls near the midpoint of form/a and in many ways serves as the emotional epicenter of the recording.
“When I wrote that song, and much of form/a, I was back in the Berkshires [in Western Mass.], where I grew up,” she said. “I went back to write, to focus, and thought I'd seek some comfort from the landscape I knew so well. But there were a lot of ghosts waiting for me there. Being an adult means facing the stories we've told ourselves about our lives and, if we're brave enough, changing them.”