Half Waif on “Mythopoetics” and Mining Your Inner Landscapes

Jul 07, 2021

By Jasper Willems

Photography by Lissyelle Laricchia and Ali Cherkis
Web Exclusive


Nandi Rose, better known as Half Waif, shows up on Zoom a little late: one could be entertained by the notion she was fighting off a bear or dealing with an invasion of huntsman spiders at her rural home in Upstate New York. Indeed: sometimes the imagination brings more nourishment than something as banal as a schedule mixup. Rose knows that power all too well. Half Waif’s new album Mythopoetics brings Rose’s most innate talent further than ever to the fore: bringing surrealistic and kitchen sink imagery together in profound, soul-stirring fashion.

Half Waif’s music cascades and flows the strongest when she seeks out the big rifts in her existence. Living in an isolated place during the pandemic has compelled Rose to imbue her spirit into her surroundings: the machinery of nature and the things that tend to dissolve or wither within our overtly matured memory banks. “Just that sense of the ego melting into the background,” she reflects in her typically upbeat, exulted lilt. “And being able to exist in the present moment more. That has been huge for me living here. I don’t feel like I’ll live in the city again and I’ll feel perfectly happy with that.”

Jasper Willems (Under the Radar): Mythopoetics is definitely an intrusive listen. One lyric is particularly crushing: “The more you love/The more you lie.”

Nandi Rose: When I’m writing I’m always trying to look for the duality of things. I didn’t mean to sound like a downer with that lyric. There are two sides to it, right? When you love someone, inherently, there is a lie in saying stuff like “I’m going to love you forever,” or “I’m going to be there forever,” “I’m going to protect you.” The truth is, we can’t do that for each other. There’s no guarantee of how things will turn out. As much as we want to protect and save the people we love the most, that’s not always possible. So it’s kind of a beautiful lie. These are lies we say all the time. It’s a beautiful thing to engage in an act of loving; it’s sort of a necessary delusion. There’s something very interesting about that.

“Swimmer” was written about your aunt and her having Alzheimer’s. Not just a horrifying disease to have, but to witness as well. You see someone deteriorate at a very slow pace. Then you have to lie to that person to some extent, reassure them whilst suppressing your own pain.

Yeah, it’s saying “I am here and everything’s okay” even as things are eroding. I was also exploring memory on this album; the way we remember things and how memory can often be a lie too. Especially as we age or go through these deteriorating neurological conditions. What do we get to hold onto? What do we remember? What is taken away from us? Storytelling and making myths are ways to hold onto those memories. And hold onto those stories. They become firm and written in stone and passed down. So even when the memory erodes and changes and we are separated through the distance and time, the stories are what remain.

Us humans tend to overtly romanticize the past. Things that were going on during our salad days. Those embellishments of myth and story are a way to safeguard those memories. It’s this soft tissue wrapped around this cast iron thing, to keep it from rotting away.

Absolutely, I like that description of a soft cocoon of a story being spun around the center of an experience. Again, about the duality-thing: I find it so fascinating how stories and myths can be this protective act, what we just talked about. It can be something to form a memory, but also a way to maintain distance from the source of a painful memory. By spinning that soft cocoon you round the sharp edges of something that feels painful. So you create a story or a song around it. It’s the same with “Swimmer”: music is a vehicle we have for communication, a golden thread that can be spun around what is a deeply painful experience of being together in this new way.

The video [directed by Kenna Hynes] is like a compressed blockbuster film. It strikes as very allegorical to the subject of the song, the act of trying to reach someone. How did the concept for the video develop?

The visual part was very immediate. I usually don’t think about visuals until after I finish recording. But when I was writing “Swimmer” I had the vision of the motorcycle chase, retrieving a flower in the woods and delivering it to this old woman who bursts into light. I pulled inspiration from Midsummer Night’s Dream, a podcast around the world about finding this magic flower for Oberon. But I’m also a big Lord of the Rings fan: the scene in The Two Towers when King Theodén has been taken over by this evil spirit and saved by Gandalf. I love the image of someone who was really defeated and beaten down getting reanimated and released. The video pulled from different fantastical stories that I love and bringing it into a gritty, modern world setting felt like a cool new retelling.

Is that your natural creative state? I mean, there are records that follow a very autobiographical thread. Your love for storytelling and abstraction is obviously a big strength, so I wonder if you often feel like challenging yourself to circumvent those instincts a bit?

On past records there’s always been an impulse there to create a sense of fantasy in terms of visuals. And I think that’s because the songs are so autobiographical. Again, it’s a way to create a bit of distance from it. When you create these other characters—on my last record that was The Caretaker—I’m framing myself as being a character to help create a sense of separation. When it came time to share Mythopoetics, even the title sounded very grand. Some of the names I was toying with were much more personal to my life and to my family’s story and history. Naming places I grew up in, stuff like that.

Whenever it’s time to share a record, there is always an impulse to distance myself a little bit. Because these songs are so much about my life. The one video where I tried to fight against that a little bit was “Party’s Over,” which is just me walking down the street and singing. I was really nervous about that video: even the week before I called Kenna I was like, “We gotta have something else going on! This is too simple.” We’ve seen this type of video before, it doesn’t feel new. It’s vulnerable and obvious. And Kenna said that was exactly why we have to do it. It shows a different angle to the story.

It totally works: it looks like an outtake, but also a continuation of the story. It’s cool to see the grounded human elements and high-octane action based elements juxtapose like this. I think if magical elves showed up here as well, maybe the point of the song gets lost in the shuffle. Maybe the song demanded that grounded energy.

The song is all about feeling like an outsider and having to conform to what other people are doing. Why don’t I fit in? Why don’t I belong? When actually, I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. I’m on my path. The fact that I was apprehensive about the video because people might deem it too simple, that was exactly the point. Stick to your guns and your gut and don’t worry about how it’s going to fit in. It runs with the instinctual feeling. That’s a lesson I’m trying to learn as I evolve as an artist: sinking deeper into my own instincts.

Was there a specific trigger where you had that cerebral moment of second guessing yourself?

I think that’s just part of growing up and growing older, shedding those insecurities of wanting to fit in. That’s been a lifelong thread for me: one of belonging. And so many people as well. We’re human so we want to belong somewhere and be accepted for who we are. I’m in my 30s now! It’s a different feeling. In my 20s, I felt like I had to reach a certain place by the time I was in my 30s.

And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what would happen. I thought that that would be the end. Then you crest over that hill you’re like: “Oh! There is this whole vast world waiting down below that’s exciting to explore.” I’m just deepening and getting better with age, and with each project. Again, it goes back to trusting my own instincts more. I don’t think I would have come to that place a couple of years ago. It’s a matter of lived experience.

On “The Apartment,” you at one point sing “I’ve been caught in the middle since I was a child.” Can you contextualize a bit where that lyric originated?

Most literally it’s about being a child of divorce. They split up when I was 14, and that’s a story that I carry around. It has shaped me to who I am today, being in the middle of a family that was ripped apart in a deeply painful way. I have gained the distance now. I used to not be able to write about it.

Now I can sing about it and not feel like I’m at the center of the pain. But to go back to the beginning of our conversation, I’m really interested in duality. Calling my band Half Waif, being half-Indian: the way I move through the world always feels like I’m caught in the middle, one foot in two different worlds. The very autobiographical writing, and the fantastical visuals: moving through this space and how I can bring together two halves and seek out the middle ground.

Fourteen years old is quite an age to have your parents split up: those teenage years are always volatile from an emotional standpoint. What kind of teenager were you?

It’s never a good time for parents to divorce but that felt like a particularly bad one. But I was a very good kid. My sister’s six years older and she was the rebel, and I saw her going through a lot of rebellious teen years and I was, [puts up a mock-haughty voice] “I’m not going to do that, I’m going to follow the rules.” Looking back, I could have had a little more fun maybe. I have been writing songs since I was a little kid. And it was really at that moment when that became a more serious outlet for me. I loved my alone time. Even at school, I would go to the auditorium and play the piano at lunch time when no one was there. I was always seeking out these pockets of space where I was alone behind a piano to write.

Things seem to be kickstarting back again: people are giddy. Have you grown accustomed enough to your current rural surroundings to settle down? Or are you yearning for a more metropolitan scenery again?

Not really. And that’s a good feeling. Right now I’m living near to where I grew up. It feels like I’m returning to a part of myself. Just being called more to work and nature and to understand the language of nature and the earth through birds and herbalism. I’ve been doing a lot of birding, learning about plant medicine. It’s about shifting the attention to the outside world. Right now I’m thinking about what my next record is going to be. I’ve been mining the inner landscape for so long: Mythopoetics feels like the end of that journey to me. Maybe that’s what this year gave me. I much more want to bring the outside world in.

So one of your current fascinations is plant medicine. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

Some of the things growing on the property here are stinging nettles, motherwort, and mugwort, those are all amazing plants that you can use for types of medicine, and they grow all around here. Going for a walk and suddenly seeing mugwort growing is such a good feeling. A year ago I would have had an idea. I would walk down a street and I would have no idea what was growing here. That’s been a really amazing new way for me to interact with the environment. Just like knowing the names of things. It’s the same with the birds: it unlocks a whole new level of understanding. I can name that now! I can hear that bird in the distance and I know who it is!

Well, my house plant over there is rather tragic.

I bet you have some wonderful things growing in the city, though, once you start looking for them. This is a thing I really learned recently tending to my garden: plants want to grow! It’s such a simple idea but it was really comforting to me. They need the nutrients but even in not totally desirable circumstances, they will still grow. You can mirror that to how we have been over this past year. It was a really really awful year and a half. We grow through that: we don’t just stop. You have to keep living and finding the nutrients, ways to still live your life. Plants are really good teachers.

During the pandemic I did realize how much comfort you can find in the small things you encounter on a daily basis. The big universal plan for us humans often feels too much for a single mind to carry. Now I take these long walks through the park, and I take comfort seeing the roots of the trees burrow through the asphalt. I find it weirdly comforting to know we’re just a small part of this huge happening. And if we can tend to that small part we can control, we might not reverse our predicament, but we’re not actively making it worse either. Not sure if I’m making any sense.

I feel exactly what you’re saying. I felt like those things I thought about a lot last year when my touring was taken away. I was like: “What am I doing?” I put out a record at the beginning of the pandemic. And having so much of my identity taken away. First of all, my identity is not tied to my productivity. That was an important reminder: I am still me and I found a lot of joy in learning the names of the plants and birds! That change in scale: we are here just with a blink of an eye. As Annie Dillard said: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

How do you store your ideas, make them tangible?

I have a note on my phone where I put down a lot of phrases: little things that catch my eye and my ear. I’m in a phase right now—I like the term “woolgathering”: every part of your life can be fodder for inspiration. The other night I was driving home and I encountered what was just the most beautiful image. I drove into the twilights and the sky was purple. It was on this major highway, and this green firework just exploded right next to the highway. There’s all these cars and trucks and that went into my note.

I have to remember that image. When I was in the car I actually started singing to remember the feeling that was moving through me at that moment. Because that’s where so much of my inspiration strikes: the unexpected combination of things. I would not expect to see a firework on the side of a highway on a random Sunday evening.

Is there a song on Mythopoetics that sprung from a similarly dynamic set of circumstances?

On “Midnight Asks” the chorus goes “How many times have I wandered?/How many drives have I made through the dark?/Eyes on the side of the road/I don’t want to die tonight.” That’s the same drive I just talked about, from Albany to home. I wrote that song on that same drive because the deer were running out, and you could see their eyes light up from the side of the road. It’s very menacing to see that and wonder: when is it going to jump out and could that end up killing me?

From a personal standpoint, I had this whole different interpretation of the song: I thought it alluded to driving under the influence and I thought the deers were just a metaphor. Especially because there are allusions to substance abuse and addiction in the album’s lyrics.

First of all, I always think it’s cool when people interpret the song in their own way. I love that and I’m fascinated by that and I absolutely encourage it. It doesn’t have to mean what it means to me to other people. But yes, the idea of addiction is something a lot of people in my family have struggled with. Particularly alcohol. You know it’s genetic so I’m very conscious of how it might appear to me: both alcoholism and depression. I haven’t had any of those experiences clinically. But because it’s genetic and I’m watching people close to me go through these things, I was looking at these tendencies in myself on Mythopoetics. And wanting to break that pattern.

That’s not easy to do. Especially when you lean on your creative side a lot. Altering your state of mind can trigger a lot of creativity. For artists, this is eternally a very slippery slope to tread.

I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about this record because I don’t want to share the stories of people that I was writing about. So I’m choosing my words very carefully right now. But “Sourdough” for instance was a song where I had this intense experience with this person I was watching trying to get sober. I left their house, came home and started drinking. That was my outlet: “Fuck that was hard, I need a drink.” I was confronted by that mirror of how ironic it was to leave someone who I’m helping to get sober—and I come home to have myself a drink.

That’s actually a very cool thing to capture in a song. I’ve recently gone sober myself, and it feels good to clear another hurdle and resist the impulse.

Are there other things that you found that helped you when you have that impulse? That helped you unwind?

I tend to surround myself with books, music, films: things as a support system that aren’t necessarily rooted in friendship. Maybe it’s similar with you as well, you can transpose your more toxic impulses into garden activities, crafting, meditation, birding, or reading a book. There is always an escape hatch by virtue of having a lot of things within reach.

What a powerful tool it is to know those things about yourself. To understand you’re experiencing this. I know when I do yoga I feel so much better afterwards. I know that when I sit in the garden, then that’s what I need. I think the hardest part is when you don’t know what you need. When you recognize you have those tools at your disposal, it’s just so transformative. Songwriting has always been one of those tools for me. Not the only one, but a very strong one.

If you consider those tools as extensions of those feelings stirring inside, it makes a ton of sense why the music sounds the way it does. That dark space below the iceberg becomes the music, and it has to exist in order for you to function in the outside world.

That was a perfect description of my writing process. I’m so glad you understand that: I don’t walk around and bring that type of heaviness into every conversation I’m having. I keep thinking about it as a book of stories. I want to be able to write it down and close the book, put it on a shelf and maybe revisit it sometimes. But in the end it becomes just one more book on the shelf. It’s not like I have to carry all of that around me everywhere I go.

www.half-waif.com

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