This Woman’s Work:
Twin Sister Finds Its Own Slice of Heaven
If you were fortunate enough to live in a cable-ready neighborhood when MTV hit the airwaves, you were very likely one among a nation of obsessives. If you grew up in the ’80s or at least remember them remotely, there was no missing its rocket-force impact.
You huddled anxiously, rotary-dial telephone in hand, when it was time for “Dial MTV,” or crept out of bed on Sunday nights for “120 Minutes.” A career as a VJ was an optimal if far-fetched ambition. Everything seemed ripe with possibility then, before Challenger broke our hearts and Black Monday emptied our bank accounts. It was the genesis of something profoundly exciting, even though its initial audience consisted only of a few thousand people in New Jersey, not far from Andrea Estella’s Long Island stomping grounds. She was young then, long before she became the face and voice of Twin Sister, but she sensed that something new and special was happening.
“Music videos seemed to be really important back then,” she muses. “I always used to think that the artist made the music video. So now I like to be hands-on with the videos ’cause they’re important to me.”
Case in point: the clip for “All Around and Away We Go,” the best track from Twin Sister’s 2010 Color Your Life EP. It’s ’80s to the core, evoking not just what the decade sounded like, but what it looked and felt like – the “Lucky Star” dancing, vibrant post-production effects, loads of heavy eye makeup and hair spray, and the imagination of Estella, arguably Twin Sister’s most appealing visual effect. “My parents grew up in the ’80s, so they listened to a lot of that stuff, especially my mom,” Estella remembers. “I was obsessed with Michael Jackson and Madonna when I was little. I would know all the songs and try to do the dance moves.”
Estella is a woman of many obsessions, musical and otherwise. Irreverent, funny and charming, she leads the life of the quintessential indie princess. (Move over, Zooey!) She adores Kate Bush, who ignites her penchant for theatrical onstage costumes accessories, like the mermaid-green wig she scored from a Far East eBay shop and sported at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. (“They’re Japanese fiber and they’re super nice and pretty cheap, but they take forever to get shipped over here.”) When she isn’t scouring for cassettes at thrift shops (Grace Jones and Julee Cruise are current favorites), or adding to her already-extensive library of Japanese anime videos, she’s devising stories and dabbling in handicrafts. Miniatures are particularly fascinating to her, like the enchanting little interiors she designed for the liner notes of Color Your Life; it was only when you saw Estella’s life-sized cat, Sakura, peering through a bedroom window that the scale of the place hit home. Lately, she’s been “going out like a weirdo” to pilfer newspaper for her newest fascination, papier-mache. “I have a big work table and the jars filled with stuff, a dresser full of everything,” she says.
Twin Sister’s arsenal of gear is similarly eclectic. Between Estella, singer/guitarist Eric Cardona, bassist/guitarist Gabel D’Amico, drummer and guitarist Bryan Ujueta, and sampler/engineer Udbhav (Dev) Gupta, the group has amassed a vast array of vintage Casio and Yamaha synthesizers, drum machines, effects pedals and guitars that date back to the ’80s and beyond. “A lot of reverb sounds pretty ’80s,” says Estella. “It’s pretty popular right now, especially when you put it with all the vocals.”
The group’s first full-length, In Heaven, resurrects the promise of the era with a playful verve and an irresistible sense of fun. “Tell me a story, something I can picture,” Estella entices on the insatiably-danceable “Bad Street.” The album was an adventurous plan, especially for a fairly green band with a modest trail of EPs and split-singles to its name. “With the EP it actually took us a really long time, ’cause we had jobs and all that stuff,” Estella explains. “We were like, ‘It’s taking too long. Let’s just end it here.’ It was really good to finally get the whole album done.”
Estella’s relentless imagination is front and center on In Heaven, out now on Domino. “Space Babe,” with its New Order guitars and programmed beats, deals with an extraterrestrial giantess fallen to Earth, Barbarella meets Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. (“Everyone’s afraid of her ’cause she’s really big and scary.”) The electric guitar riffs and keyboard lines of the summer stunner “Saturday Sunday” would have blended perfectly into mid- to late-’80s episodes of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. The voice lessons Estella took post-Color Your Life narrowed the gap between her registers and expanded her range. “There are some notes I’ve never been able to hit, ever,” she marvels. “At the end of ‘Luna’s Theme,’ I thought I was going to break. I was singing super-high. And I finally learned how to breathe! I would always be running out of breath and not be able to hit certain notes.”
Prior to In Heaven, Twin Sister never set foot in a professional studio, and they found Philadelphia’s Miner Street Studios an ideal place to start. Kurt Vile, the Bigger Lovers and Bardo Pond all count as past tenants, and Twin Sister found its homelike environs perfect for the stimulation and focus they needed. “I was a little scared at first to be recording in the booth,” admits Estella. “Our other EPs are recorded in the basement in the dark. But eventually it got super-comfortable. It was awesome looking out big, giant windows. That makes a big difference ’cause a lot of studios are soundproofed and you can’t see outside. And you’re in there all day for hours. So it really felt nice.”
And of course, more videos were in order once In Heaven was finished. The terrifying South Korean horror movie Wishing Stairs spawned the visuals for “Kimmi in a Rice Field,” a perfectly romantic prom ballad were it not for its eerie thematic elements. A meld of Le Voyage Dans la Lune, Kabuki theatre and gwishin tragedy, it’s a work of ghostly apparition and heart-stopping suspense. “I turned it into two sisters being mad at each other,” Estella explains. “One’s dead and haunting the other.” On a far less-haunting note, the clip for “Bad Street” finds Estella and her bandmates in the midst of birthday festivities for a little girl named Esmeralda. It’s a piñata-bashing, balloon-festooned, confetti-flurried homage to Estella’s Puerto Rican and El Salvadoran heritage. “They have the most fun, man,” she says. “They throw these really big parties and sometimes they have volleyball tournaments in their yards. They paint the fences and they’ll build their own big volleyball net. The ladies will all be outside selling tortillas and pupusas and stuff like that. It’s pretty cool.”
During the last spasms of the Me Decade, not many people were sorry to see it go. We were over-stimulated, overdrawn and overtired, shamed by political scandal and fearful of the approaching menace of recession. Until now, it was a decade no one in their right mind considered repeating, but thanks to Twin Sister, that mindset needs reconsideration. They may not have been making music in the ’80s, but they evoke it with such delightful sincerity that they may as well have. Even more importantly, they’ve embraced the virtues of keeping it in the family. “We’d been playing for years since high school and we would make songs for friends or each other,” Estella recalls. “When we did Color Your Life, it just felt like it was one of those things that we were doing: playing to each other, and only our friends would ever see it. I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ And then music came along.” Now, as Kate Bush so famously suggested, let’s exchange the experience.
Photo by Shawn Brackbill.