You can’t sing along to Grouper’s music, but you can float away to it. It’s all guitar swells and piano breaks and eerie vocals that sound like someone crooning in another room, all tenderly composed by Liz Harris, the sole member of the project. Listening to the new Grouper album, Ruins (out on Halloween from Kranky), feels like a journey through an old, beloved home that’s been emptied of objects—a blank, cavernous space awaiting your own interpretations.
Just watch “Made of Air,” the first video from the album, which we’re premiering here right now, and tell me you don’t feel transported into a dream!
Video by Paul Clipson.
I recently got a chance to speak with Liz about art, music, nature, and learning how to say no. Enjoy!
MEAGAN: I read that you recorded Ruins during a weeklong musical residency in Portugal. Did the setting influence the songwriting, or did you have everything composed before you went there?
LIZ HARRIS: I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just asked for a piano to be there. The songs just emotionally showed up, and I recorded them. Initially I was only going to do a seven-inch [record], but I could feel something [bigger] building up. I ended up working out a whole album. It was completely unplanned.
If you had to picture the aesthetic world of Ruins, what would it look like?
Pretty similar to the actual world I was [recording it] in. Solitary, right next to the ocean. It was a poetic landscape, which is probably why I was so productive there—the literal landscape was able to overlap with my interior one. But I love hearing about other people’s interpretations of my music. Sometimes I don’t want to give anything away, so people can draw their own conclusions.
Most of the songs on the album are piano-based, whereas a lot of your previous work utilized a heavily processed guitar and…I’m guessing a synthesizer?
It’s an organ! An electric piano from the ’60s. You can hear a motor humming from the organ. It’s a very soothing sound, a slow hum. They’re really beautiful instruments. But that’s why I started playing guitar, because I couldn’t really bring my Wurlitzer [keyboard] out. I taught myself how to do some things on guitar so I could perform live.
You’ve collaborated with a lot with other musicians. I think of a lot of people get uncomfortable at the idea of giving up creative control. How do you balance that?
I am definitely controlling! I could not collaborate with just anyone who asked. And there was definitely an awkward growth period where I had a hard time saying no to other people’s projects. I had to find out the hard way that it’s better to just be honest from the get-go about whether or not you want to do something. Luckily, the people I’ve collaborated with live far away, so I still get to be alone when I’m working. I did this really fun collaboration this year with a dub producer—
Yes! The Bug!
That was so different from my normal work. It was like going to a costume party! I just gave him the vocals to play with, and he gave me a lot of creative control.
I was surprised to see your name in those credits. You come from totally different worlds, but it came together exceptionally well.
Thanks! He gave me those [digital] tracks almost a year before I did anything with them. One of the things that was keeping me from doing it is that I’d never recorded digitally before—I’d only ever recorded to cassette tape. But you can’t sync a tape to a digital track, so I had to learn how to use Ableton. Once I had the skills to do what I wanted to do, it only took one day per song. And I’d put it off for a year!
Do you normally record everything analog?
Yeah. Ruins is all analog. I used a four-track cassette tape and an old single-track program called Sound Forge. I also had a really simple digital four-track made of plastic.
So each song only consists of four tracks?
Yes! It’s nice to have limits sometimes! [Analog recording] is like film—a dying technology.
The photograph on the cover of your last album, The Man Who Died in His Boat—I believe that is you?
That’s my mother. It’s funny—I thought it was obvious that it was an old photo, but I’ve talked to so many people who didn’t know. When I was [the] age [she was in that picture], and when I had longer hair, I was told by many of her friends that we looked alike. My dad took that photo when she was pregnant with her first child—my older brother. So it was right before she embarked on this new part of her life. I think about her lost expression and what she was wondering about.
It’s a haunting photograph.
There is an album with me on the cover: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. My mother took the picture. I was a child, dressed up as a witch.
That’s an amazing cover. It’s so surreal.
It is surreal! I loved dressing up in costumes a kid. I was always dressed like a vampire.
Do you have any advice for our readers who might want to go into music?
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you do something a certain way. Do things your own way even if people tell you it’s wrong. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me not to mix things a certain why, or to use a certain chord. Stand up for yourself. Don’t say yes when you want to say no. I didn’t know how to play guitar when I started, and I still don’t know how to play all the chords, but you learn by doing. Just fucking go for it, and don’t be afraid to mess up. ♦