She’s a Rainbow:
Sister Crayon Colors Your Life
Most encounters with Jehovah’s Witnesses happens in passing – interrupted weekend slumber, aggravating literature on your doorstep, metrosexual looking elders cycling around in pods of two or three. It’s profoundly troubling to grow up in such an oppressive denomination, especially one that frowns upon the celebration of holidays, indulgences in pre-marital sex, consumption of alcohol and pretty much everything else fun. For Terra Lopez, who was raised by a Catholic mother and Jehovah’s Witness father, that continuing crisis of faith and identity manifests in the songs of Sister Crayon.
“Religion is a huge thing for me,” Lopez confides. “A lot of it has to do with my father, who I’m not very close with. He’s a very religious man. There’s a lot of things I haven’t dealt with fully with him, and with that. That’s why I write, to get through some heavier times in my life.”
For Lopez, Sister Crayon is an ideal means of alleviating a lifetime of confusion and emotional turmoil. “My father and mother divorced when I was four,” she explains over a can of coconut water outside a downtown Sacramento coffeehouse. “The conflict that I have shows two completely separate worlds that I lived in as a little kid, not knowing what that meant. I grew up with my mom and birthdays were such a huge thing to celebrate, and the holidays and sports. In Jehovah’s Witnesses, you can’t do any of that. That’s a huge part of who I am, that whole confusing time.”
Harsh life experiences and internal strife have made an intensely mood-driven writer of Lopez. She waxes rhapsodic about Jeff Buckley (a tattoo of his name adorns her forearm in lovely script), Bjork, Fiona Apple and, of course, her favorite crayon color (green). Live, she’s just as fervent, thrashing about and banging her head, wailing missives of anguish and disillusionment against keyboards, loops and trip-hop beats. I’m a huge electronic music fan,” she says, “so I wanted to do something where I could create live vocal loops and make polyrhythmic beats with them. I started experimenting and it’s been five or six years, and now I have a whole rig that I create with. That’s my comfort, that board that I have. Guitarists have a ton of pedals to create their signature sound, and I want to be able to do that with my voice.”
Until recently Sister Crayon has been a simple, homegrown affair, it’s lineup compiled of members of various other Sacramento bands. Studio time was self-financed and scheduled around day jobs. A limited run CD-R in 2008 – recorded when Sister Crayon was Terra’s solo project – included early versions of material that would resurface later in full-fleshed form. The following year, Sister Crayon – by that time coalescing into a group – issued their EP Enter Into Holy (Or)ders and covered David Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers” for a split 7-inch with the Los Angeles-based art-rock group Warpaint. But before the band’s debut full-length, Bellow, was a blink in anyone’s eye, “We went into the studio to track five songs just for ourselves,” Lopez remembers. “After we did the five songs, I sent it to the label, Manimal, and then they asked us to go back and do a full record.”
Sister Crayon opted to stay close to home for the recording of Bellow and settled into Sacramento’s Hangar Studios, whose past tenants included Vetiver, up-and-coming singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, and Pocket for Corduroy, a late ‘90s Nevada City group whose drummer was none other than Joanna Newsom’s brother Peter. “The vibe is amazing,” Lopez enthuses. “We had candles lit and we just went through takes. Some of the songs were one take, like ‘Here We Never Die’ was one take for everyone. ‘Ixchel the Lady Rainbow’ was one take on the vocals. We all felt like we played our best performance and we just kept it. There was so much room to experiment and to add, and there were no timelines.”
For Lopez, programmer Dani Fernandez, keyboardist Jeffrey LaTour and drummer Nicholas Suhr, there couldn’t have been a more ideal arrangement. “There were no expectations,” she says, “and no one knew who we were outside of California. So it was a surprise when the BBC and MTV and these places were picking up on it and giving it rave reviews. We were just taken aback by the whole thing.”
Equally impressed was renowned celebrity photographer Robert Ashcroft, who was so moved by “(In) Reverse” that he offered to direct its video at no cost to the band. “His portfolio’s like, Brad Pitt and Mariah Carey. We were like, ‘You want to work with us?’” Lopez laughs. For the shoot, Sister Crayon ventured a little over an hour northeast from Sacramento to the historic Gold Rush settlement of Georgetown. “His whole crew came and we filmed it over the course of a day. It was crazy, though – I had to learn to sing backwards. The director wanted shots actually in reverse. I had to learn the entire song and sing it in reverse, so that when we played it back it looked like me singing normal. So that’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do so far, musically.”
Bellow encapsulates Lopez’ ongoing struggle to understand and express her strong and conflicted emotions. Startlingly, the album contains some of the very first songs Lopez ever wrote. “Being that it was the first record, I felt like diving into everything,” she says. “In each song there’s something about my way of feeling. I wish I could write in a storytelling kind of way or a roundabout way, but it’s very introspective. It’s definitely a struggle within myself, writing.
“I cannot write when I’m happy,” she continues. “It just doesn’t happen. People tend to analyze when they’re sad or depressed or stressed out about something. That’s the best time that I work, when I’m absolutely on my knees about something.”
The recording of Bellow yielded many such moments, particularly with the haunting “Ixchel, the Lady Rainbow,” which builds from a piano-and-vocal ballad into a flurry of catharsis.
“It was super late at night,” Lopez remembers. “It was out old keyboardist at the time in a separate room, playing the piano live while I sang live in another room next to him, and there was one small window where we could communicate to one another while we were recording. It was a really emotional experience because it was the last song we had to finish before we were done. At the I was tearing up, and you can hear it at the end of the song. I’ll probably never forget that moment, recording that track. Everyone was emotionally drained and tired, and we all had that moment together.”
It’s those moments that made Bellow so moving. “I really love the innocence of that record,” says Lopez. “When I think of Bellow, I think of the innocence of making music for myself. We didn’t know what we were doing, to be honest. We just wanted to create moments. I feel like those are the moments on that record that I love.”
Sister Crayon has since recorded a covers EP, Disquiet (including versions of Anthony & the Johnsons, Sufjan Stevens, Beatles and Bill Withers songs) that is available as a free download. And with Bellow having received such an encouraging reception, Lopez has already set her sights on its follow-up. “I think the next record we’re working on right now is going to be even more honest. Whereas Bellow I’m using metaphors and not quite ready to open up. The next record,” she says, “there’s no hiding.”
Photo by Raoul Ortega.