Feb 10, 2023
By Mark Moody
Photography by Tonje Thileson
It is apparent after an initial listen through Pearla’s debut album, Oh Glistening Onion, The Nighttime Is Coming (out today on Spacebomb), that the project’s alter ego, Nicole Rodriguez, is no stranger to the melding of words, melodies, and arrangements into intricately woven miniatures to be marveled at. Though her first album—the follow-up to the 2019 EP Quilting & Other Activities (released on EggHunt)—there is a depth of exploration of herself and the world around her that make it evident there is a much longer ramp to today than the typical “I started a band in college” crowd.
Raised comfortably outside the urban landscape of New York City in Freehold, New Jersey, Rodriguez realized the value of music at a very young age. “My family was always singing and playing music. Every family gathering was singing, dancing, putting on a show,” Rodriguez shares. Her grandfather, the late Jeff Pearl (from whom the Pearla moniker is derived), was a professional musician and lead vocalist for the Brooklyn based doo-wop group The Neons in the 1950’s.
“If something was hard for me or I didn’t understand how I was feeling, I would just sing and I felt like I was taken to another planet,” she explains, remembering how she felt as early as five years old. “I remember feeling like that and knowing that I had this secret power that I could just go and sing and fly away. I was writing little poems or songs and singing them to myself. It was like my private relationship with music and my own secret way I was getting through life.”
One of the album’s loveliest and most lilting songs, “With,” finds Rodriguez further exploring the wonder of time spent with oneself without ever crossing the line into loneliness. “I’m only beautiful when I’m alone,” she sings near the start of the song. “I think my solitude is a really important part of my creativity and my relationship with myself. When I’m alone, it’s just me and the world and there is so much possibility. I can be anything and stretch myself in a way that I want. It’s a precious time to just exist with nothing expected of you,” Rodriguez explains.
And as insular as that may feel to some, Rodriguez also openly ponders on the expanse of history and humanity as well. For those not in the know, the seemingly esoteric “Ming the Clam” jumps off from a reference to the real life subject of the song that lived for 507 years before dying in the name of science. “I was just curious what the oldest living creature had been so I looked it up. And in reading the story you find out how the clam was killed in research. It made me think about when we want to know something too closely we can also be tearing things apart and ruin it, or kill it,” Rodriguez says.
At the same time she discovered Ming’s story, Rodriguez was also in the early stages of a relationship. “I was overthinking everything and not letting myself be vulnerable because I was afraid. It felt like the same type of story. I just wanted to let the beauty exist in the relationship and life in general. Some things should be just left the way they are without digging too much into them,” Rodriguez says.
It should be apparent that Rodriguez thinks and feels deeply, even if she sees the value in not seeking to fully understand everything she encounters. The depth of Rodriguez’s reflections and folk-based song arrangements caught the attention of Richmond’s Spacebomb Records. The label has had a hand in string and horn laden releases by the likes of Bedouine, Nadia Reid, and Faye Webster, to name a few. So releasing a debut album, by a relative newcomer, may seem a risk until you hear the majesty of a song like “Effort” or the understated elegance of the empathetic “Balm.”
The album was fully recorded before it was given to Spacebomb’s Trey Pollard to see where the magic of the studio’s approach could best be put to use. “I had written all these notes about what I wanted for the arrangements. And on ‘Effort,’ I wrote in bold—NO STRINGS,” Rodriguez says. Pollard asked that Rodriguez give him a chance to see what he could do to elevate the song. “When I heard [what he did] for the first time, it was like, ‘Whoa!’ It just adds so much and it makes me think of the whole process of making the record and just trusting people to bring their own hearts to it. I watched the album transform from a little idea in my head to this thing I never could have imagined making,” she says.
Though not one of the album’s six released singles in a slow rollout campaign, in part delayed by vinyl availability, the track “Balm” stands out as a gentle mantra on how to live one’s life. Or at a minimum how Rodriguez chooses to live hers. Starting with the razor sharp imagery of a cottony line of sea foam on the beach, Rodriguez transforms that observation into an outlook on the world around us. “That song is about the fleetingness of everything and how I tend to try and hold on to things. It’s just me telling myself it’s not about holding on for dear life, it’s about moving with the waves,” she explains.
Rodriguez has shared that Oh Glistening Onion, The Nighttime Is Coming’s title refers to not needing to figure everything out in the time we are given. Or at least not before our next slumber. That Rodriguez can contend with the quirks and mysteries of life, as well as personal and universal truths, with equal and sometimes simultaneous aplomb speaks to her skill as a songwriter, poet, and wide eyed observer. Rodriguez’s concluding thought gives a glimpse into the album’s necessity, power, and the gift that it is. “I wouldn’t make a record if I could talk about [these things] in a way that makes sense. That’s why I write the songs,” she says.