It’s rare that the person I’m interviewing makes me cry, but I’m on the phone with Half Waif’s Nandi Rose Plunkett, and the two of us are having a tearful conversation about her late grandmother Asha Chand, the inspiration behind much of Half Waif’s third album, Lavender. Plunkett recalls her grandmother, a refugee from both India and Uganda who eventually ended up in England, burning the titular herb over her stove, allowing the fragrance to waft over the family home. While Plunkett was raised in the United States, she visited regularly, and when touring Europe, her grandmother’s house was a required pit stop.
“She knew I was calling the album Lavender,” says Plunkett. “Two weeks before she died, she sent a card to me because I was moving to a new house. She signed it: Love, Granny, with lavender in her heart. She got that I was associating this with her. Now it gets to be out in the world, and parts of her are going out into the world with it.” She tells me it’s a joy to talk and sing about the woman who brought so much love into her life, her way of carrying the torch on her grandmother’s behalf.
“Something I told myself is when we lose someone we love, it’s so sad,” Plunkett says. “But the positive spin is that they don’t inhabit their body anymore so we get to have more of them on us. We get to carry more of them now because they can’t carry themselves in a physical form. I feel like I have more of her in me. Which is a good feeling.”
It’s a typically emotive statement from Plunkett, whose music is peppered with stories from her personal life. When mining her memories for 2016 album Probable Depths, she created percussion from samples taken around her childhood home, all the better to draw the listener into her world. Offstage, she has also earned a reputation for honesty; last year, she wrote a scathing article for Esquire calling out the sexism she’s experienced as a female musician and writing about how that’s shaped her own insecurities.
“I keep coming back to that one little line of text in the comments section, dark and sharp as a spear: ‘The girl is beautiful and has a nice voice, but she doesn’t do anything for the band,’” she wrote. “What terrified me then, as it does now, was that this anonymous (male) voice on the internet somehow verbalized the exact fear that I carry around with me all the time: that I'm not enough. That no matter how many instruments I play — and how well I play them — I will never be seen as anything other than a silly girl: so cute for trying, but ultimately a useless prop beside the real musicians.”
Since then, Plunkett has stepped away from her former band Pinegrove to focus on Half Waif, initially a solo project that has grown to include bandmates Adan Carlo and her partner Zack Levine. The music is a complex web of beats and synths, tied together with Plunkett’s operatic soprano. It’s a mix the band dubbed mood-ring pop, a gobbled-together moniker that fits. On their past two albums, 2014’s Kotekan and 2016’s Probable Depths, heartache, identity, and even her parent’s divorce (“I was fourteen when I had to learn what it means / to be an adult / it wasn’t my fault”) are present in a way that often feels real to the point of pain, even as her command of musical language allows for swoony backdrop.