Artist and producer Real Clothes has dropped an array of creative projects in recent years, not least of all the stunning new EP Precaution.
We were blessed with the chance to interview the songwriter behind it all, to talk about her journey so far, how the music came to be, how the events of 2020 have impacted things, and a whole lot more.
A big thank you to Real Clothes for her time and insight. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hey – thanks for the interview! For those who don’t know, what is Real Clothes all about, and how long have you been making music?
No, thank you! I suppose I didn’t really have a name when I began the project, which was actually around 2010. I would record myself singing on my cell phone and upload the “tracks” to Soundclick under an old nickname of mine from childhood before I settled on the stage name of Nico Fox.
After university, I would go to local cafes and sing Appalachian folk covers; which was appropriate for being in Virginia. Eventually, I was asked to play at an actual venue and made the decision to become a proper four-piece band. Real Clothes was a last minute silly thought to put on the poster and it stuck.
We would play indie rock originals that I’d written and my bandmates would transcribe my humming of melodies into something that worked on guitar, bass, and drums. The lyrics have always been poems that I’d written and we’d try to make this fit coherently with the disparate musical style. This went on for about 3 years and ultimately the band ended up dissolving due to creative and emotional differences after releasing Queen of Daisies EP.
Not wanting to stop making music, but feeling a bit dejected, I took a break of about a year and started to teach myself how to work in different DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) with a focus on Fruity Loops and Ableton Live. This led to my first album Object-Oriented where it is a combination of instrumentals, poetry over field recordings and static, and one of two attempts at traditional songs. It’s extremely disjointed but gave a good idea of where I was going.
Later, when I had learned more about production and had settled on a decidedly experimental style, I created the album Modulation in my apartment. The lyrical content was mostly about my feelings regarding the dissolve of the full band, the end of a long-term relationship, witch rituals, and family history. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever put out but for the over-compression, haha.
These themes continued with my next album Apotheosis, which was leaned more occult and dark as I was living in a city in which I was very unhappy. Every song is pretty depressing and it’s actually difficult for me to listen to now. Surprisingly, people liked it, so there’s that. It’s also the album that led to me playing regularly in New York. Regrettably, it is also my least favorite release as the vocals were not mixed in a way that I had envisioned. It was the first that I had gone to an actual studio engineer for and why I decided to work on Precaution by myself in full. COVID definitely had a hand in that as well.
Congrats on the new EP – a beautifully immersive collection of originals. What can you tell us about this project – what inspired it, how long was it in the making, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Thank you so much! As you can imagine (and I’m sure the sentiment is fairly common), I haven’t been able to sleep due to intense stress that the pandemic and racial reckoning the US has been experiencing. When I do sleep, the ideas behind the music come to me in dreams and nightmares: wisps of smoke, loud mortars, crushing silence, being frightened, and forgotten spaces. I had wanted to write something about the horror of institutional helplessness, instability, loneliness, and lost love: with a beat. Also: the feelings of revenge present in those that are oppressed in many ways.
Like I said, dreams. The song structures are freeform and unexpected, not dissimilar to reaching your hands out in the dark. I began working on it in November of 2019 and honestly it lived on a folder on my computer with the instrumentals completed until March.
Once there was more free time, I decided to finish the project and re-tool the instrumentals as well. It actually came down the wire as I wanted to make it perfect. But that’s impossible and it would have never come out if I had waited that long. I hope people relate and find respite and maybe even experience some escapism listening to it. It’s meant to feel cinematic in nature.
What does the title Precaution represent for you?
It is a bygone wish that proper precautions were taken, as all events today and forever, were preventable. It is a reminder to be prepared for the future as that is all we can do.
You’ve stated that authoritarianism and instability are prominent themes on the EP – the music explores these, and many other heavy issues that 2020 has brought upon us, in a decidedly powerful and unique way. How do you go about creating such complex soundscapes relating to such intense issues, where do you even begin?
This is such a difficult question that I actually fielded it to friends of mine, haha. I hope I’m able to answer it properly.
I tried to set moods for each song. I had wanted this album to feel “big” and cinematic as the current moment calls for it. The first song, Lazaretto, is meant to feel like you are stepping out from the security of indoors to the rush of the world outside and it’s supposed to be overwhelming. Overarching choirs, bells, washed out vocals vs. direct ones, disembodied voices stating schizophasic poetry, etc.
Parable of the Choir is actually less serious as it started from receiving late-night texts from several exes and was indicative of how lonely people felt, and also how annoying that feeling was. It was a song about obsession and I wanted there to be a cacophony of hands clapping and singing to signify that this is likely a common situation lately. It’s all of us.
Taiping Rebellion started as a water sample arpeggiated as I had climate change on my mind when it was written. Control after reading about how people were stuck in living situations where they lacked control already and due to the pandemic there wasn’t a chance of foreseeable escape.
Erinyes is a wish for comeuppance for the pain being caused by the callous and that started with a poem after reading articles on Greek mythology. And King Seven resembles my earlier work on Object-Oriented where it’s a threatening voice and that is a somber goodbye to the old world. The track slows down and stops at the end and there is a sample of the album rewinding and clicking to signify that these are just historical cycles. Things repeat.
Do you have hope or faith that the future can and will be brighter?
Well. I don’t believe that’s really the way I think I guess. I believe that things will always change and be different. Not necessarily good or bad or brighter. Just different. And we will adapt. So maybe no? Haha. I think a lot of work needs to be done, but I know we can at least create change if we all work together.
There’s a notable level of depth and poetry to many of the vocal aspects – where do you source your samples or voices, your lyrics, and do you craft a soundscape around these, or vice versa?
Thank you. I write poetry and prose in my free time and these typically become the lyrics to my songs. It’s a big reason why the songs don’t have standard structures. I don’t really alter them, I just…sing them to the music and they’re done when the poem is done.
It’s only recently that I started repeating verses so that they are closer to typical songs after some feedback from Apotheosis. I kinda find this to be boring though. The samples (with regards to water, etc.) are generally field recordings. The vocal samples in Lazaretto and Erinyes I actually created with a text-to-speech program I found online. They’re just saying poems I’d written out and then warped to match the music. So, in short, starts with a poem.
Is there a live aspect to what you do, or to your plans, and do you play many instruments or is all programmed?
When I had first started performing in San Francisco and then New York, I used to wear and make elaborate costumes and set pieces. There’d be tulle, candles, flowers, vines, incense, you name it. However, being one person, this was really difficult to carry around and set up (especially after work) and as I played more regularly it was pared down to just a tablecloth.
I also used to bring my guitar, my mixer, and a small keyboard. But since I record myself at home anyway, I started pre-programming everything so I only had to worry about my laptop, cables, and mic. Just easier as a solo artist. I had just started dancing around at sets towards spring as I *still* get nervous.
There are a few choir-led moments on this project, not least of all the simple yet striking A Brief Moment Of Silence For The Dead. What influenced you to take this creative route, and how does it feel for you to listen back to and reflect upon a composition as poignant and topically relevant as this?
I had gone for a walk in the cemetery and I was thinking about how we have had no recognition or acknowledgement for the massive loss of life we are experiencing (as of today 163k in the US). As in, it’s been really wearing on me and I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it at all. I wanted to make a song, but it didn’t feel appropriate for singing or anything loud and wanted to give space to actually give silence for those who passed. I thought something simple would evoke honor and reverence for the dead. Almost like a prayer or to offer condolences. Almost like sitting in a chapel in the cemetery.
As I had said before, the album was meant to be a bit of escapism. But placing this directly in the center of the album with two upbeat songs: it’s meant to make you stop for a moment and reflect. Because we need to. It’s the only song I’ve ever done like this.
What is Taiping Rebellion about, and why the sudden dance energy and simple melody here?
Honestly, Taiping Rebellion was meant to be a song about climate change and how futile that fight feels. It’s where the water sample and bells representing peace come from. The music came first. However, as I got further along in the songwriting, it became a song about two lovers on opposite sides of a war in battle. The chorus was the first set of lyrics written and those didn’t change after the rough draft.
It’s dancey as war is chaotic and loud, but has a rhythm to it. Simple melody just because. I don’t have a reason behind it, haha.
How would you introduce this album to new listeners, and which track would you recommend for those who only have time for one – and why?
Hm. I guess I would say. Creating experimental or idiosyncratic music as a Black woman (or by extension, woman of color) can be difficult as it is a space gate kept in the industry by white, cis musicians. I believe this is a systemic and deliberate offense of the music industry as a whole, as there is a focus on palatable marketability and profits rather than creative expression.
There is a rich depth of inspiration that is lost when we cannot fully express ourselves within the medium and the modern era is a boon as technology allows those who would not typically be platformed to find an audience. I definitely know I wouldn’t have without the internet, for sure. It is shameful that it takes a calculated search to find avant-garde or genre-bending artists who are Black (much more if women), as those who cannot be labeled as an “Urban” category by industry standards simply fall through the cracks and lead the perception that Blackness is a monolith.
Precaution is, in my opinion, specifically written from a Black perspective with regards to rising instability in the world in a less common format. If they’ve never listened to my music before, I’d say it’s kinda a continuation of those ideas and to try something new.
I’d likely recommend Lazaretto as I believe it is the most dynamic of the tracks and kind of has an example of an idea used in each of the seven songs as an introduction.
If you could sit down for a chat with anyone at all, past or present, who would you choose – and what would you ask them about?
Oh my goodness, I would love to meet Sade Adu. She is such a lovely and poignant songwriter (Pearls is BEAUTIFULLY devastating) and she’s a very private person. I’d ask her about her lyric writing process and inspiration. Honestly, she could talk about anything and I’d listen intently.
What are your plans creatively for the coming months and years?
At this time, due to Covid-19, I’m likely not going to be performing in the foreseeable future. I’m pretty sad about that. In lieu of that though, I have already started work on my next release to be in 2022. The title will be Floriography & Avifauna and it will be based on the symbolic/metaphysical meaning of flowers and various birds. So far, poetry and song titles with meanings have been written. I think it’s going to be much more experimental than my last two releases.
If I’m lucky in music (or I guess luckier, I’ve been hella lucky as it is), I’d hope to be a full-time musician with proper funding and tour outside of the US in the coming years.
Is there anything else we should know?
I’ve never had anyone ask such in depth questions, so this was cool as I actually got to express exactly why and how this album came about. Also: I have a cat and he is a huge part of the songwriting process and everyone should know that haha.
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