Braids Unwound

Braids Unwound
There'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.

Signing to Arbutus Records (long before Grimes' Visions detonated the label's popularity), Braids became forerunners in Montreal's warehouse-pop scene, a set of amateur musicians whose self-made lifestyle is in itself an art. "In Calgary," Standell-Preston recalls, "it's really looked down upon if you don't have a normal job, a nice house and a normal car. But here you're considered a nobody if you give in to that. I think that's what makes Montreal more artistic. It's kind of magical."

Braids' Native Speaker, a well-liked debut that flattered Animal Collective's Feels, revelled in its humanity. By turns goofy and iridescent, it conveyed a childlike fascination, Standell-Preston and Lee's gawky vocals shimmering elegantly over sonic vistas, a splendour that way exceeds its $500 budget. Though Standell-Preston dismisses its lyrics as "bitchy," the record generated a Polaris Music Prize nomination — the year that Arcade Fire's The Suburbs won — and enough income to sustain the band during downtime.

This March, Standell-Preston released Untogether, the second album by her electronic, Blue Hawaii project (featuring partner Alex Cowan, alias AGOR), cueing an exhaustive tour that indulged Standell-Preston's yen to, in Tufts' words, "wear makeup, make techno beats, scream and jump up and down." Then — much to retro-fanatic Braids followers' chagrin — June's In Kind/Amends EP drew the electronic tide to Braids' shoreline. Why the turnaround?

In addition to their tastes' maturing — hear Aphex Twin, Pantha Du Prince and Portishead creeping into Flourish//Perish — and aside from the record's fairly direct ancestry in the arpeggiated, glow-pulsing riffs of Native Speaker, it's true that there wasn't much actual choice involved; rather, Standell-Preston became a receptor for her environment, semi-consciously assimilating modern surroundings into her music. "Sometimes it feels like people are okay with being less emotional," she submits, citing cell phones, social media and invasive advertising. "If there's a lull in conversation, people immediately go to their phones. They feel awkward without something to entertain them. It's like they're embarrassed by silence."

"I'm severely disenchanted by the digital era," adds Tufts, nodding. "I find the convenience really impersonal and demoralizing." "But as an artist," Standell-Preston clarifies, "I feel really good with where technology is. It allows a direct link from your heart and mind to the recording."

Despite assembling Flourish//Perish entirely on Ableton, the band pre-recorded all the instrument samples on analog equipment. To realize a modernized vision, all Native Speaker profits drove sonic expansion. The band's studio occupies a $100-a-month garage that straddles Montreal's Mile End and L'Outremont districts, characterized by unlocked doors and dressy Hasidic Jewish families. Tufts, who built the studio with Smith's dad, elaborates with an estate agent's romance and professionalism; at one point he actually says, "So, we've got a couple of lighting options," before espousing virtuous installations of gallery lights, desk lanterns, corner lamps, and "moody" rope lights twined around a glowing acoustic piano.

Yet for all the studio comforts, Flourish//Perish has an uneasy undercurrent. Standell-Preston recalls breaking down while recording the eerily pluvial "Hossak," a requiem for a friend who succumbed to LSD. Meanwhile "Amends," all head-squeezing synth-warps and fractured vocals, details Lee and Standell-Preston's frequent in-studio "ego-wars." It's unclear whether Standell-Preston, yelping the song's darkly euphoric climax, is addressing herself or her soon-to-depart friend; either way, the lyric poignantly immortalizes the friendship's unravelling: "We have come so far/Don't throw this."

Standell-Preston and Lee met in Calgary during high school drama class. "I remember thinking, 'She's so weird! She could probably be my friend!'" says Standell-Preston, laughing. "We were kneeling next to each other — the teacher had made us form bowling pins — and we clicked right away. She had a strange mind, a creative mind."

Over time the friendship never wavered, but it didn't flourish, either. "Katie was always the friend I could have the most fun with, who I'd laugh with the most. We'd record stupid songs at my house and just pee ourselves laughing. It was a really fun relationship. But when the band started putting pressures on our relationship, we'd never had that super-strong foundation of support." Though Standell-Preston regrets not working harder to stay tight, you sense her residual distress. "It just imploded," she admits. "We couldn't handle each other. I'm still angry, but I miss Katie a lot from time to time."

Inferred from Standell-Preston and Tufts' testimony, here's the lowdown on Lee's departure: Lee and Tufts initially struggled with the synth-led direction. As Tufts learned to "get [his] hands inside the computer," Lee lagged behind, ultimately chasing more vocal and lyrical input, which Standell-Preston considered her own domain. "If there'd been a strong leader figure in the band, we would've never lasted this long," Tufts posits. "I think equality... I mean, fuck equality, but equality in musical ideas is still 100 percent important. And when we started recording Flourish//Perish, ideas of where we'd go were no longer shared by all four members. It was pretty heavily shared by three of us, and one of us was trying to catch up. As much as we tried to get on the same page, [Lee]didn't really know what she wanted."

"I don't know if this is conceited," Standell-Preston adds carefully, "but I feel my voice is a very important element in Braids. It seemed so jarring to think I wasn't gonna sing as much — 'cause it's all I really wanna do. That was really hard for our friendship. I definitely realised I can be a hard person to work with. It took losing my best friend to learn that: to be a lot more open and supportive and forgiving.

"The lyric in 'Victoria' is, 'My father always said to get out of my head / Maybe he meant to see what's next to me,'" Standell-Preston ponders. "I've always thought a lot about how to improve myself. I've had pretty crazy bouts of depression since I was 11 or 12." That young? "Yeah, have been on and off medication, stuff like that. I was in hospital. I definitely had it. And I guess it can be considered a self-obsession. But it's an illness. I guess depression kind of is an obsession with the self, because you're thinking of how fucked up you feel. But, you know, it's also a form of poetry and expression." She pauses. "I think the lyrics will, for a long time, be about me and my struggle. This form helps me understand where I'm at in my life, and some of the problems I'm having. But it also helps me reflect on what is beautiful.

"With Native Speaker, everything besides the title track is so angry. I was so upset, and felt like the world was really unfair. I'm trying to be more aware of beauty, in my life and my lyrics." It's vividly apparent on Flourish//Perish, a resplendent, biorhythmic record that's already taking root in year-end lists, securing Braids as vanguard populists, impulsive contrarians and reluctant conductors of the modern condition. They are, above all, the embodiment of insularity; Raphaelle Standell-Preston governs her own kingdom, tuning into the playfulness of her heart.