Sometimes you find you’ve been waiting a long time for something quite particular to emerge in music, but you didn’t really know what it was – until it arrived.
Think back to the likes of bands who successfully and beautifully fused the heaviness of rock with the delicacy and poetry of folk, a singer-songwriter core, and a completely refreshing, immersive audio experience on the whole. The Cranberries come to mind, Fleetwood Mac to an extent. It’s been a while since something cracked that code so naturally and effectively.
Whimsical are a musical duo I regret not knowing about before now. Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts is their third album release, though it seems like the perfect introduction to a band with a uniquely thoughtful songwriting style; and a creatively powerful musical set-up.
Emerging under the guise of shoegaze, this album actually hits with a little more weight than that genre label tends to imply. The duo’s use of melody, long-form developments throughout, towards mighty, uplifting hooks, is stunning. The leading vocals also manage to pierce through the surrounding fuzz and energy without being loud or course; without shouting. They appear with a certain seductive and calming softness, and they contrast in a superb manner with the weight of the music supporting them.
From the wonderful opener that is The Exception, through the hypnotic warmth of I Always Dream Of You, the album welcomes listeners into the soothing embrace of audio escapism.
Combining personal anecdotes with detailed story-telling, imagery, openness, and enveloping ambiance, the songwriting stands tall in its own alternative, fresh manner. The hooks linger in your subconscious like an Enya track might, and yet the power of the instrumentation, these guitars, these drums, this fullness, takes over your body in a contrastingly energizing fashion.
As the project goes on, eclecticism plays a key role. Fragile sees more of a folk-pop optimism pour through, with intimate, questioning lyrics, and simple yet satisfying guitar riffs that cascade gently around you. Then you get the distorted hit of Earth Angel to pick things up again – with its progressive drop and build-up, balancing acoustic and electric expression to a gorgeously uplifting degree. There’s a sense that a song like this would be sensational to witness at a live show.
This Is Goodbye leans towards that Cranberries sound with blissful adoration. Dreamlike vocals rain down amidst entrancing riffs and a lightness that does indeed pay tribute to shoegaze as much as traditional soft rock. It becomes more clear throughout the album, how personal and revealing these songs are; a quality that lets the recordings connect in a genuine manner.
Towards the end, Trust injects a colourful hit of pop-rock, and Last Dance follows it up with a fast-paced hit of equal brightness and lyrics observing error and regret.
At the penultimate moment, Remember Me slows things down but increases the weight, with sweeping guitars and a mellow BPM that compliments the desperation and longing of the lyrics. Then a decidedly dreamy, mildly psychedelic Solace finishes things up with hints of synth-pop and distant, faded vocals that line the outer edges with poetry and further personal longing.
The very concept of Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts seems suddenly poignant, optimism juxtaposed by fear and regret. A fantastic album, undoubtedly one I’ll be revisiting, and an easy one to share and let play in any number of situations – not least of all the long commute. Enjoy.
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Hi guys – thanks for the chat, and congrats on the new album! What does this project mean for you, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Neil : Hello and thanks for the interview. Our last album, Sleep to Dream, was originally recorded at the end of 2004 but never saw a release until 2017. So Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts is our first actual new music in many years. It was important for us to prove to ourselves that we could still write songs that sound like Whimsical but also expand our sound just as Sleep to Dream did after Setting Suns are Semi-Circles. Our first two albums were written for a “live” band and this time I wanted to not worry about performing these songs in a live setting and just concentrate on writing the songs I wanted to make. There are some songs on this album that just can’t be played live with our usual band and the rest of the songs need to be simplified in order to be performed live. I think we were both happy to spread our wings a bit more and we are very happy that the album is now out and our fans can see what we have been working on for the last 3 years. Hopefully people can hear that we really tried to make a quality album that doesn’t sound like anyone else in our genre.
Krissy : Thanks so much for asking us to do this interview! Whimsical has been a very special part of my life, for so many years. However, until a few years ago, I honestly thought that our days as an active band were just a thing of the past and forever laid to rest. Sometimes it feels truly surreal to acknowledge that we are actively writing and releasing new music again. Being able to pour into the creation of new music together has been such a bonding experience, a true gift and an essential creative outlet for me! In regards to “Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts”, we wanted to make sure that we took our time with this and worked on these songs until we had an album that we both loved and were really proud of. Beyond that, we just hoped that we would be able to reach people with these songs and give them something to connect to. So far, that seems to be exactly the response we have been getting. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and it has been the most heartwarming feeling to know that these songs are resonating with the listeners.
How did you both meet, and what prompted you to make music together?
Neil : We probably met in middle school but we didn’t become friends until around junior year of high school in 1993. I had a somewhat Shoegaze band in high school called Mystified Thinking and in 1995 we were recording our last album when we discovered that Krissy could sing. I had an instrumental song called Skyward at Twilight that needed vocals, so we asked Krissy to improvise some vocals over the top and that was the start of Krissy singing in a band setting. Once that band had ended in late 1995, I knew that I wanted to start a similar band that was more fun and light hearted, but still dreamy and pretty. Krissy was always going to be the singer as I didn’t really give her a choice.
Krissy : Haha, thanks Neil – I am glad you had your heart set on me being the singer and didn’t give me the chance to say no. I actually remember being a bit blindsided when Neil asked me to sing on that first recording for his band, as I’d never done so before. Unless he had listened to me singing along to another bands song in the car or something, I didn’t even realize he had ever heard me sing. I’m glad that he believed in my ability and that we both took that leap of faith, as it has proved to work out very well over the years and I cannot imagine my life without it.
With this being your third full-length project, in what ways do you feel your songwriting and style has evolved over time?
Neil : Our first album was written with only me on guitar and it was also supposed to be a very simplified version of my previous band. The whole album was already written before Mark, our other guitarist, joined and added his two cents to the songs. Sleep to Dream was written with the intent of being a bit more dreamier and sort of a combination of our first album and my previous band. I wanted to expand our sound into a more traditional Shoegaze/Dream Pop sound and take advantage of having the two guitars while writing the new songs. Obviously many years had passed between writing our second and third albums but I wanted to take the melodies that Whimsical is known for and really push the production quality into a higher level. It was very important that there were no rules and I used a bunch of tricks that I had learned through the years to help move the songs along. One of the main reasons why we did all of those cover songs over the last 3-4 years was to learn how we could write new songs while living on opposite sides of the country. We had to really get our technique down, and make it all work with those cover songs, so that when it came time for our originals, there were no problems.
Krissy : I have loved being able to record my own vocals, as it really gave me the opportunity to experiment more with the melodies and harmonies and try different things. Throughout the recording of this album, I would often lay down a scratch track of my initial vocal ideas and then as I listened back I would hear other things that I wanted to change, or layer. Working on this album also felt like a real collaboration between Neil and I, as we would constantly bounce ideas off of eachother. Even if I loved his initial song idea, or he loved my vocal ideas, we would build the song together by offering up constructive criticism (without worrying about offending one another), suggesting certain changes or things to omit, presenting different ideas about additional melodies, etc. We would then draw from that inspiration to create something really special that we both would love in the end. I always appreciate that Neil gives me full creative freedom when writing the vocal melodies and lyrics for these songs. With this album I also loved that we didn’t have to worry about finishing everything by a certain deadline. We were committed to taking our time and working on this until we felt that it was everything we dreamed it could be.
With the lyrics being written by Krissy, and the music by Neil, for the most part, how does the songwriting process generally go – what comes first, and do you ever disagree creatively?
Neil : On this album I did all of the music other than the intro guitar lead on Trust and the basics for Fragile. Those were written by our other guitarist Mark and I’m happy that he was able to contribute to the album because he was very involved with the Sleep to Dream album. The music always comes first and then the song is sent to Krissy to write lyrics and melodies to. I think she usually walks around with headphones on or listens in the car and comes up with the melodies first and then the lyrics. Once she sends me the vocal tracks, I usually have some creative freedom to make the vocals fit into the songs. Sometimes I will have extra vocal ideas that I will then demo and send back to her and she will then record those new ideas in her own style and send them back to me. It’s a bit of a process but we always get there in the end. I don’t think we ever really disagree but we both will make suggestions and usually we both come to some sort of agreement. Sometimes I will start a new song and send her the early demo and she will say she isn’t too into the song idea, but mostly that isn’t the case. Also, there have been songs that are musically finished that neither of us are 100% excited about. However, when Krissy puts her vocals on top, it completely changes how we both feel about the song. Some of these songs have become fan favorites and now we both know not to judge a song until we hear the finished product.
Do you put your personal experiences into your songs, or do you write from an observational, story-telling angle?
Krissy : All of the above, actually. As a general rule of thumb for me, I write lyrics about matters of the heart and human emotion. That is something I feel that everyone can connect with and relate to, on some level. Unfortunately, most people have probably experienced heartbreak and betrayal.
On the flip side of the coin, I’d imagine those same people have also felt how beautiful it is to have a crush, develop feelings for someone, fall in love and be able to completely trust. I like to sing about those things and I’ve had many people reach out to thank me for writing lyrics they’ve been able to identify with. Sometimes my lyrics are based on a dream, or written as I’m walking, inspired by my surroundings and daydreaming. Or, I may be singing about something that I know is going on in the life of someone close to me. Other times my lyrics are pulled from such personal experiences that it makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. However, if that allows me to pour those emotions into a song, and use that as an outlet of expression, it can also be very healing.
Is it therapeutic to write in this way, and do you ever second guess the ideas or emotions you put into it?
Krissy : When I listen to music from other bands, I listen very closely to the lyrics, as they are an important part of songs for me. Although I love music because of the instrumental aspect alone, the songs that really pull at my heartstrings are those with lyrics I can connect to as well. I think there’s something very magical about the feeling that comes along with listening to a song with powerful lyrics and then finding myself thinking “WOW. It’s as if they took the story of my heart and set it to music.”
When I write lyrics, I’m hoping to be able to give that same kind of experience to the listener and leave them with something that emotionally strikes a chord in them. Sometimes that may require me to share a more personal experience, which can leave me feeling vulnerable, but it’s worth it to me, especially if it inspires someone else. Depending on the song, if it’s written about a personal experience, sometimes it can be incredibly therapeutic for me to channel those emotions into lyrics. While that can be a very healing experience for me, there are also some songs I can’t listen to often because they open up painful wounds for me or take me to places I’d rather not remember.
If people only have time to listen to one song from the new project, which would it be, and why?
Neil : Our answers will differ but I think Earth Angel really sets the tone for what I was trying to do with this album as a whole. It has energy and has the layers that I tried to have in each song on the new album. It accomplished what I wanted and sometimes that’s not the case with each song.
Krissy : I would say I Always Dream of You. I think this song is not only one of our most beautiful, but also really showcases the range in our sound and highlights the best of it. I love that there are dreamy guitars, drenched in reverb, and then also a more upbeat chorus, driven by distortion.
I get a sense from listening that a live show is where things would really come alive. How important is performing for you as a band, and what can listeners expect from a full stage production?
Neil : The honest truth is that we rarely perform live anymore. We have only played 2 shows since reforming and hopefully we will play two shows in 2020 to promote this new album. All five of us now live in different states, so it is very hard to get together and make a performance happen. There is zero money in this, so people have to take time off work and travel to a rehearsal location so we can all get into a room together and rehearse for a few days before a show. We love doing it, because it’s always great to see each other and we laugh our asses off. We do have a blast and I think people see that when we perform. We wish we could play more often but that’s just not the reality anymore.
If you could perform at any venue or event in the world, which would it be – and why?
Neil : This is assuming we were a known band and people actually wanted to see us, but I would love to play at night during a European music fest somewhere. I’ve played The Metro a few times in Chicago and that was my childhood dream as a kid, so basically my new fantasy is a huge fest in Europe where people like our band. Haha
Krissy : My answer would echo Neil’s pretty closely. In recent years we have been fortunate enough play at the most amazing shoegaze/dreampop fests in the states (Kalamashoegazer in Kalamazoo, MI and Windy City Crashpop fest in Chicago). Playing those fests felt like a dream come true for me and the feedback after we played was so encouraging. It’s heartwarming, especially considering that there was a time we thought we’d never play live as a band again. At this point, to be able to play somewhere overseas (ideally at a fest with genre specific bands) would be incredible! I’d also LOVE to share a stage with Slowdive sometime. Ultimate dream.
What’s been one of the main things you’ve learned about yourselves and about the music industry in your time as a band?
Neil : I’ve learned there is no money in any of the bands that I do, regardless if I do it as a self release or a release with a label. That being said, this has also taught me that I love being creative and making songs regardless of the outcome. I used to have the dream of “making it” and touring everywhere but these days I’ve become more appreciative of fans and just being creative. That’s enough for me these days.
Krissy : I have learned that it’s SO important to just do it for the love of the music, first and foremost, and not have too many expectations otherwise. We pour our hearts into these songs and try to create music that we are proud of being a part of. Anything else that comes along beyond that is just an added bonus! We know, for a fact, that not everyone will love what we do, and that’s ok! We do really love connecting with our fans and hearing from people who are inspired by what we are doing.
What would be your best piece of advice for indie bands who haven’t yet found their style, or their audience?
Neil : I am not anyone to tell anybody anything, but I guess just be in love with the creative process and try to not copy anyone. Everyone is influenced by someone, but I have always tried to just make everything as melodic as possible and some people associate that as my style.
Krissy : I love what Neil said! I agree that although it’s fine to draw inspiration from your musical influences, you shouldn’t ever try copy someone else or follow a cookie-cutter approach to songwriting. Be original in what you create and develop a sound that is identifiable to you! Aside from that, my overall greatest piece of advice would be to try not to get too hung up on the critique of others. Expect that some people may hate what you’re doing, but do it anyway!
Criticism is inevitable and some people allow the opinions of others to destroy them. If the criticism is constructive, try to learn something from it, but don’t ever let it strip you of your desire to create or cause you to question your ability. You will never be able to please everyone. Create anyway. If you are proud of the music you’ve made, don’t let anyone else take that from you. The right people will hear your heart coming through in your music and appreciate you for it.
If you could sit down to lunch with anyone at all, past or present, who would you invite – and what would you ask them about?
Neil : I have met Justin from Godflesh, Mark from Seefeel, and Neil from Slowdive. I would love to pick all three of their brains about music, but I think the person that I would love to talk to would be Robert Smith. His influence on my songwriting is undeniable and his songs have changed my life in more ways than even I realize. I would ask him about his creative process during the 17 Seconds, Faith, and Pornography recordings.
Krissy : 3 years ago I would have said Rachel Goswell, without a second of hesitation, but the world works in such mysterious ways that I’ve already been able to do that and have become dear friends with her since then. At this point, I’d have to say Liz Fraser. She is such an amazing and original vocalist and a very intriguing and mysterious person overall. I have so much respect for her and the otherworldy ways in which she uses her voice as an instrument. I would love to ask her how she developed her vocal technique and created such a unique and identifiable style with her voice. It’s amazing that there’s never been another vocalist quite like her and the second you hear her voice, you KNOW it’s Liz. I also love that she wasn’t afraid to color outside of the lines and tried SO many different things with her voice. She sometimes sang about literally nothing (she’s the exception to my love for lyrics haha) and yet would still be able to speak right to my heart with her voice and melodies.
What are your plans creatively throughout 2020?
Neil : I’m not sure what we have planned for 2020. I am already writing songs that could make up our 4th album and that is my priority with Whimsical. We hope to perform two shows in 2020 as well. I have the debut album from Loveblind coming out in February 2020, but other than that, I’m not sure I will have any other releases next year.
Krissy : Neil and I will continue working together on songs for our next album! I’m really excited about the song ideas he’s already sent to me. I also actively write and record vocals with another guy, Andy Jossi, (who is all the way in Switzerland, actually). Our band is called The Churchhill Garden and the music also falls under the shoegaze/dreampop/postrock umbrella. We have released 12 songs together so far (a few which have been under another of his janglepop projects called “Blue Herons”). We will also continue to do so in the coming year! Between the two bands, it will be a very busy year for the creation of new music!
Is there anything else we should know?
Neil : We still have a few remixes as well as an unreleased B-Side that didn’t make the album coming out over the next few months. Hopefully people discover our Bright Smiles & Broken Hearts album and spread the word. We love hearing from our fans and that’s a huge reason why we still do this.
Krissy : I just hope that everyone knows how much we appreciate the love and support that we have been receiving! It means everything to Neil and I and it is not something we will ever take for granted. The fact that people take the time to listen to the music in the first place is really special to us. To then receive their beautiful feedback, inspiring messages and encouraging comments is something that really keeps us smiling. We are excited to continue creating music together and are really grateful to everyone who will be there supporting us along the way.
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