Window to the Soul:
The Casket Girls Take It Day to Day
Elsa Greene just thought her voice was tired.
After all, The Casket Girls, the band she fronts with her sister, Phaedra, had been touring an awful lot. And now they were in the process of recording their second album, and she was singing near constantly, trying to get her parts right. Of course it would make sense that she’d simply worn out her throat.
“It wasn’t until (last) fall that…my voice started to go out not from singing – just from going out to dinner or (something) like that,” she told me recently. “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I think something’s wrong…’”
Turns out she had developed vocal cord nodules – a relatively common occurrence among untrained singers, and not an especially serious condition, except that it requires rest, voice training and, in some cases, surgery.
“I was super freaked out,” she says now. “I’ve doing lots of therapy, but I’m trying to avoid the surgery, because it’s scary. I’m totally untrained, and so…it happened from misuse and overuse. I actually learned that the way that I sing was super strainful on my voice and throat. All of the power should come from your diaphragm. Not only did I have to relearn how to sing, but also how to speak!. A lot of it is muscle memory. You have to unlearn your prior way and learn the new way, so that it becomes second nature.”
Like Elsa, Phaedra is also untrained, although she hasn’t encountered any problems of her own… yet.
“I think in general she sings a little more quiet and controlled than I do. I kind of, more like, scream or something,” Elsa explains. “Maybe it’ll happen to her, but I try to get her to do the exercises with me, so maybe she’s kind of learning. I mean, she hears me do my exercises every day,” she laughs.
If there were any vocal difficulties Elsa encountered while recording True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, out Feb. 11th on Graveface Records (the independent label operated by Casket Girls organist and musical composer, Ryan Graveface), they aren’t perceptible to my decidedly untrained ears. In fact, this album strikes me as a spectral wonder, with its bewitching confluence of sound, voice, imagination and era. As with Sleepwalking, their 2012 debut, as well as the EP and cassingle that have come since, it’s a distinctively arresting recording that maintains a rare aura of mystery throughout.
While typical postmodern efforts to mine the faraway magic and power of the best ‘60s girl groups tend to grime it up amid a (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) garage rock rumble or slut it up in order to infiltrate the cultural red light district that is the pop mainstream, the Casket Girls take a different and eerily effective approach. They tap into the ways so many of those old recordings sound so beautiful yet distant and haunting now, primarily in how the Greene’s voices combine harmonically into this disembodied entity that’s both playful and soothing, while at the same time a little distant and unsettling, halfway between dreamland and waking life. The mood is driven deeper by Ryan’s dense, multilayered swirl of spooked psychedelic organ along with drums that generally wallop and throb with more might than you were expecting. Spirits spin and foundations tremble, all the while the sisters are imparting little wisdoms and contrasts and observations, such as this fitting couplet from the opening song, “Same Side”: “I call my dreams dirty tricks/ When I wake I feel sick/ It’s unrequited reality.”
It’s somehow perfect that they’re based out of Savannah, which like so many old Southeastern port cities feels like its humid air is thick with ghosts. The Casket Girls sound as if they might have emerged from the damp soil along the Wilmington River, under trees draped in Spanish moss at Bonaventure Cemetery. Instead, Elsa and Phaedra hail from tiny Montgomery (approximately 15 minutes south of downtown Savannah), where they still reside. Though one would justifiably suspect it to be an utter fabrication in light of the band’s name and image, Elsa swears it’s true that she and her sister lived for a spell in a funeral home when they were very young.
First encountered by Ryan while they were singing and playing autoharp one day in one of Savannah’s many squares, Elsa and Phaedra had not been in a band before. “We never pursued it, but we’ve always have enjoyed writing, and we kind of, I guess, imagined ourselves as…aspiring writers,” Elsa illuminates. “So we’re used to writing, every day, just whatever. We do freeform writing, and also we were both working on books when we met Ryan – which are on hold for now – and poetry, and also we’ve always made up songs together, more in a kind of stream of consciousness way, like a game. It’s weird, because that’s how we write for this project, basically. Ryan sends us the music, which we then plug in our ProTools, and we record our very first words into it, just stream of consciousness, whatever, everything. And we do that a couple more times, and usually it takes shape. And that is kind of what we’ve been doing since we were kids. We used to listen to classical records, and make up songs on top of them, for fun.”
Deadpanning that “I kind of feel like an outsider everywhere,” Ryan’s a relative newcomer to Savannah, having moved there from Chicago several years ago. He is a seemingly tireless workaholic, playing in at least three other musical outfits (Dreamend and Marshmallow Ghosts, both of which he helms, and Black Moth Super Rainbow, with whom he regularly tours), operating his label (recent releases aside from Casket Girls include the debut LPs from tourmates the Stargazer Lilies and Irish group Dott, as well as Xiu Xiu’s album of Nina Simone covers) and store (Graveface Records & Curiosities) and overseeing a burgeoning music PR operation, Noisy Ghost (notice a thematic pattern?)
A cocktail enthusiast, more recently Ryan experimented with operating a legitimately illicit speakeasy, which he shut down late last year due to the trickiness of getting away with it. “It was more just a test to be sure it’s something I wanted to get into,” he offers. “I do have an investor now, so I probably will open a legitimate bar. I only like strong drinks. I wanna distill and do the whole thing. I want to source everything myself. That’s a long-term goal.” He plans to give it the same name as his speakeasy – Slowdive – which is perfect not only because that’s one of his favorite bands (“Early shoegaze stuff…that stuff really hit me hard around 16, 17. It actually felt like something I could get into, musically, as a movement, so to speak,”) but because of his intended ambience of the joint (“I want people not to think that it will be quick, and it will be the perfect mixture of a dive bar and classy stuff.”)
And you can be sure Slowdive will serve house-made absinthe, an elixir he experimented with making during the writing for True Love Kills the Fairy Tale, which coupled with the dissolution of a long-term relationship deeply influenced the mood of the music, or so he says.
“It tasted good, felt good, (and) I wrote some really depressing songs that the girls turned into depressing hits,” he laughs.
Though Ryan stays out of the lyric writing process, leaving that solely to the Greene sisters, somehow on True Love they convey that sense of loss, romantic and otherwise, with their words. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded heart,” they warn during “Chemical Dizzy.” “It’s a holy terror/ When you realize you don’t give a damn,” in “Day to Day.” And my favorite, from “Stone and Rock”:
You can look back but the fire’s smoke and ashes
And the thing that was before
Changes lock and key and door
In the face of what you’ve lost and what has lasted
Live, all of this is presented in weird theatrical fashion, Elsa and Phaedra choreographing their measured, coupled movements as if possessed. It’s a delightfully spooky sister act. Naturally, neither of them had done any performing or theater work before.
“It’s still kind of crazy, how it’s come to be, but we basically were terrified of performing,” Elsa recalls. “I mean, when we started the project, it was gonna be recording-only. That’s kind of how we were eased into it. And then we ended up, all of us, really liking it, and thought maybe we should give it a shot and a real chance by actually performing and stuff. But we were very nervous, so we basically just decided to totally go for it and have fun with it and just kind of go crazy up there,” she laughs. “It just seemed like there was no in-between option. But that somehow helped us to release ourselves from the era of physically shaking, like I was before. It’s really fun to do.“
And their eyes, of course – the so-called window to the soul – are always covered or obscured, whether onstage or in photographs and videos, as if their souls have left them, or they’re hiding them, or they never had any to begin with. At least, that sounds cool. Actually, says Elsa, “it was all part of the security blanket plan that seems to be working out, ha ha ha! This whole project has kind of been like that, where we kind of invented that idea in order to give ourselves that freedom to go nuts.”