To listen to Midnight Sister's debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, is a bit like entering an alternate universe. Time stands still and the sounds move around you slowly, like you are stuck in molasses or figuring your way out of a hall of mirrors. The record has become an essential part of my morning routine, a welcome escape from whatever fresh hell awaits as soon as I step out my door or check social media. But in my house, in the mornings, it's just me, my cat, and the sweet deranged sounds of band members Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian.
It seems hard to believe that this is their first record. Their music sounds so whole and with purpose, not at all like two people who more or less stumbled into being a band. And then there are the visual components: the music videos are a total trip, full of retro vibes that are fully lacking in the usual clichés. I'm also particularly obsessed with the cover art for their record. I keep staring at it, trying to decipher it, kinda like the way I used to stare at my mom's copy of Donna Summer's Bad Girls. Who was she? What was she thinking?
Juliana and I spoke on the phone on a Monday morning about how the band came together, clowns, and which David Bowie is the best David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust. No, wait, Thin White Duke — no, wait, they're all great!). It was exactly right.
Laia Garcia: So how did you and Ari meet?
Juliana Giraffe: Technically, we went to high school together, but I actually was never friends with him then because he's older. But he was friends with my sister. Maybe five years ago, my sister and I had written a short film called El Camino Real, and Ari scored it. We collaborated on that, and we all just became really close friends.
LG: What was the first time you guys got together to make music?
JG: Ari and I always talked about covering a Judy Garland song called "Just a Memory." It was always kind of in the back of our heads, like, Aw, that would be so cool to do that. We tried it one time, but we never got around to finishing the recording.
Ari used to email me songs he'd been working on just for his own instrumentals. One night, he sent me an instrumental to this song that turned out to be "Their Eyes" — which is the last track on the album — and it just struck a chord with me. I was driving to work, listening to it in the car, and it just sounded like the soundtrack to my morning. At the time, I was working at a little tote store on Sunset Boulevard, and randomly decided to go on GarageBand and record myself over that instrumental.
I sent it back to him, just being like, Ha ha, I recorded something on it. And he ended up really liking it. And then he was like, "Let's record this at my apartment. Like, do the real deal." And then, from that point on, we were like, "Whoa, maybe we should just keep writing songs together."
LG: Had you ever experimented with music before?
JG: This is my first rodeo. This is the first time I've ever written music or recorded or sung. So I think that's influenced the way I approach music. Because it's a bit more like storytelling to me. I felt like a narrator when I recorded this album. I was kind of [trying to] just paint a picture of different characters and different moods. To make it feel a little bit more cinematic.
LG: I noticed that clowns and mimes are a sort of recurring theme in your videos and songs. Will you tell me a little bit about your relationship to that?
JG: Well, first of all, I'm in mime school. So it was just kind of like an obvious choice to make. I've always gravitated toward the aesthetic of clowns and circuses. I'm obsessed with this idea of things being really vibrant and vivid and beautiful and cheery, while still having this dark underbelly, and I feel like that comes across in the circus.
In doing this record, I wanted it to feel like I was becoming some sort of a character. "Are you hiding behind a mask, or are you being your true self because you're behind a mask?" I think about that a lot. It's a really interesting concept that I'm trying to explore as an artist. I also just love playing dress-up and being eccentric.
LG: So you wrote the first song sort of out of the blue. Did the rest of the songs evolve as more of a concept?
JG: We didn't have a story in mind, but we did talk about wanting it to feel like a film that you could just listen to all the way through, that there are remnants in each song that kind of connect to each other. Ari has a lot of experience scoring [music for films], so I think his music inherently tends to be a little bit cinematic, and that helped push that idea forward.
LG: I asked because "Canary," the first song on the album, sounds like descending into a weird circus world.
JG: Yeah, that song is actually about my grandfather. I used to play piano when I was younger. I actually wanted to be an opera singer — I never studied it, but when I was really young, I would always pretend like I was an opera singer. My grandfather would always say to me, "You're gonna make music. You're gonna sing. Never forget that."
In high school, I completely abandoned music. I stopped playing piano. I was completely focused on the visual arts. My sister and I, we studied theater, and I did set design and stuff. Then, when I started working with Ari, the music part of me just came out and unfolded, and I remembered what my grandpa said. And I was like, "Whoa, that's crazy. He called it!" And that's where that song came from, I'm referring to him as the canary.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia doesn't love clowns but she doesn't have a "thing" about them either.