The melodrama and romance of the melancholy have always appealed to me. Whether depicted by the gloom of the Brontës or in songs by the Shangri-Las, narratives that explore broken hearts and dashed hopes have captivated me in a way that happy endings never will. Gloomy endings — grim, macabre, or maudlin — have taught me so much about the resilience of the human heart and the many ways in which vulnerability can often lead to strength. They've also served as an endless source of inspiration for Tele Novella's Natalie Gordon, whose lyrics explore loss, the plight of unrequited lovers, and the lore of sunken ships in psych-pop ballads like "Dead Canary," "Waiting on an Answer," and "Carpathia."
Set to release their debut LP, House of Souls, later this month, Tele Novella have a bittersweet sound, satisfyingly reminiscent of 1960s girl groups and crestfallen twee. Awash in tambourine and harmonies, their songs reveal the drama of figuring out what it means to be alive. I spoke with Natalie, the band's lead vocalist and primary wordsmith, one evening over the phone about the imaginative lure of the macabre, why she feels her best when being creative, and how Carl Sagan and sci-fi led to their latest music video, "Heavy Balloon," which we are premiering today.
Dianca Potts: What role did music play in your life when you were younger?
Natalie Gordon: When I was about five, my parents forced me into piano lessons because there's a lot of professional musicians in my family and they wanted me to be a classical concert pianist, so I took piano lessons for about eleven years. I never really liked it, and the only music that I was really exposed to until I was a preteen was jazz and classical music. It was probably a good foundation to start with — even though I didn't particularly care for it when I was a kid — but I think that a lot of it seeped into my consciousness, and now I listen to it all of the time. When I was a teenager I got more into pop music and started learning Fiona Apple and Tori Amos songs on piano, and then I started going through my parents' CD collection and singing along in the mirror to '40s jazz vocalists. It informed my musical taste, and later in life I grew to love it very much, even though at the time I didn't really have much of an appreciation for it.
DP: Tele Novella revives the lyricism and sound of '60s girl groups in such a refreshing way. What attracted you most to the genre and those types of songs?
NG: Honestly, I didn't get into that stuff until I was a lot older. Between 19 and 21 my entire world exploded when I got into girl groups, not only '60s girl groups but also the groups featured in the Girls in the Garage series. They really influenced me a lot and informed my old band Agent Ribbons greatly. When we started Tele Novella a few years ago, it was in a way a continuation of that inspiration. I wouldn't necessarily say that we were thinking about that when we were putting together the band's aesthetic, but it's definitely a natural reference point when you're writing harmonies for songs.
DP: Your songs have often been described as "dark" and "macabre" by reviewers. How has exploring the gloomy side of things shaped your writing process?
NG: It's strange, because I started out with music at such a young age, but I had more of a natural talent with writing that revealed itself before I understood how to creatively combine those elements and have them fit together well. I think that when you write a story it can be sort of boring for the writer to not have it get dark at some point. It just seems more interesting and engaging to twist the story in some way. At the same time, I wouldn't say that we always do that. I'm a genuinely optimistic person, and we have some happy songs, but just making it 100 percent sunshine is just really dull.
DP: Speaking of dark things, you've mentioned Halloween as a source of inspiration for you and your band. Does that still ring true on House of Souls?
NG: Oh, definitely! Next year when we start working on our next recordings, we're going to focus on incorporating Halloween more into our live shows. We used to do it, but it got put on to the back burner because we became so busy and the album took so much time. It's been such an intense hustle, but after this year we're going to have lots more spooky stuff onstage and start wearing costumes again, because that's the funnest part of performing, being able to incorporate your aesthetic world.
DP: "Waiting on an Answer" is a great meditation on the importance of vulnerability when it comes to relationships. Did writing that song teach you anything new about intimacy?
NG: A friend of mine who lives in San Antonio and is in his 70s commissioned this song. It was so weird, because I've never done something like that before — and I haven't since. I met him years ago because he was a fan of my old band Agent Ribbons. He was trying to reconnect with this woman whom he had dated years ago — they were supposed to get married, but he ended up marrying someone else. They started seeing each other long distance, and he asked her to marry him, but she wouldn't give him an answer, so he commissioned me to write a song as a way of proposing to her in the hopes that it would convince her to marry him, because he realized that he had always loved her. In the end she didn't say yes, but she really loved it and wrote me a thank-you letter after I sent the first version to her. The whole experience was strange and very beautiful.
DP: Was the idea that led to "Heavy Balloon" instantaneous or gradual?
NG: It's the most intentional song on the record. We specifically wanted a pop song because we'd gone through this phase of writing either dark or melancholy songs, and there had been a long string of them, and we were like, Enough of this! We need something fun! The whole video got put together because we all wanted to see Jason [Chronis, the band's bassist] dress up as Carl Sagan, because he talks and moves like him. [Laughs.] That's when all the other sci-fi references entered the scene, and then Lorelei Linklater signed on to be our main alien. We were so stoked to have her involved.
DP: How do you balance your creative life with other parts of your life and make time to nurture your imagination and ideas?
NG: We're totally a band of extreme side-hustlers. With the way that rich people completely run the country right now, creatives have no money, pretty much always, and we're no exception. I sell vintage clothes, I work at a coffee shop, I bartend, and every once in a while I'll pick up extra shifts at a shop in town. Honestly, there hasn't been any time lately, which is hard, because I'm in my best mood when I'm getting creative work done, but when you put out an album, between the cycle of touring and promoting and supporting myself, it makes it impossible. I probably won't have time to write new songs until next year. That's the difficult thing about putting albums out and touring, even though I love it. When we get back from tour we'll take a break, and I'll be able to get back to writing new material. It takes a lot of time for me to get into that headspace. I've never been able to go into a room and write a song. Hopefully in January I'll get to write a bunch of new songs.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.