By Jazz MonroeThere's something nobody tells you about Raphaelle Standell-Preston: she loves to disagree. During our chat, the Bambi-eyed singer disagrees that self-obsession and vanity are a kind of psychological deformity. She shoots down Jonny Greenwood's theory that synths are just as authentic as guitars (even though she actually agrees with it), and so sensitive is her rejection-reflex that when I quote her own words back to her — words from this interview — she disagrees with herself. Something about the 22-year-old inspires equal frustration and admiration: though bright and deep, Standell-Preston is making shit up as she goes.
"I have a really fast mind," she concurs, before catching a flurry of giggles. "Not like, in terms of intellect or anything. I just mean my mind — I think a lot. Sometimes about the wrong things; I think about really negative things. I'm hard on myself, I go over situations in my head, conversations I've had that perhaps aren't the greatest."
If her trains of thought occasionally tumble off-track, Standell-Preston's creative carriage is unstoppable. Flourish//Perish, the electrifying follow-up to 2011's Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted Native Speaker, extends Standell-Preston's personal eschewal of pigeon-holing Braids' music. As much a rejection of their immediate surroundings as their old guitar-led sound, the record harnesses Braids' perfectionism to create a blissful electronic haven, a forcefield of entranced escapism.
Yet, despite comprising the finest songs in their arsenal, Flourish//Perish is a record of conflict — musical, cerebral and interpersonal. (Recording led to the estrangement of keyboardist Katie Lee, more on that later.) Somewhere between the lines thrives Braids' ultimate abnegation; with themes of insecurity and aspiration fatigue, the album's oppressive synths and electronic beats join together to resist the modern condition using its own tools.
Like Native Speaker, however, Flourish//Perish is at heart a personal record. Standell-Preston — a prolific reader of classics — paints a psychological landscape that captures in high-definition the cobwebs of her mind, a darkly tranquil place where self-obsession stems from pathological introversion and, at times, depression. "It's something I've really had to battle with," she later admits. "My lyrics definitely allow me to put that in its place." There are, however, signs of growing confidence.
Two weeks before our interview with Standell-Preston and drummer Austin Tufts, the singer paid a visit to New York Times Style. The occasion? A naturalistic, musicians' photo shoot. Curiously attractive but compulsively shy and self-deprecating — "I have, like, really funny eyebrows" — it's fair to say Standell-Preston's demeanour hardly screams "Calgary's Next Top Model." Nonetheless, she approached the shoot with sceptical enthusiasm: "It was very intense, I was very scared," she says, laughing with embarrassment, and also laughing at her embarrassment. "I found it very liberating. I wanted to do fashion more, because I wanna become a walking piece of art..." She furrows her brow, suddenly back-pedalling. "Although I don't think so literally as that. I wouldn't want to feel like a painting — I still value being human, a lot."
What's increasingly apparent is that Standell-Preston's proclivity for self-transformation is boundless, occurring within a sentence, between records or across art forms. "Sometimes I need to go home and unwind — not do music or art, just be myself," she muses, evidently due such an unwinding any day now. "And I start to feel antsy, I feel guilty. I'm not sure it's healthy to throw yourself into your art all the time. But perhaps this whole fashion thing is another step toward that."
Standell-Preston's minor identity crisis is revealing, if not surprising. Like Björk and Animal Collective, Braids temper deeply personal lyrics with fragmented and alien-sounding sonics to construct a prism of introspection; you feel the work illuminates everything and nothing about its creators.
Of course, that wasn't always so. After meeting in high school in Calgary, the quartet — singer-guitarist Standell-Preston, drummer Tufts, bassist Taylor Smith and Katie Lee on keyboard — formed the Neighborhood Council, who released a decidedly folksy EP called Set Pieces. Four months in, they sidelined their McGill University placements to pursue music, starting by relocating to Montreal.