It doesn’t take much listening to the singular work of Teen Idle, Sara Barry, to understand that she has been sent to rescue pop music from it’s dotage. Oh maligned sad, sorry pop music, a once pure and beautiful soul what, with your arresting collection of musical traits and feints and phrases that in the wrong hands, and these days it is invariably the wrong hands, layering and compressing hands, autotuned electronically thickening hands in the mix, pop music with your lost lumpen guitars, with your joyless mechanics, you’ve lost your reason to be. And then, and then, then there is Teen Idle. There is Sara Barry, and her thrilling ability to surprise, to bemuse and charm all over again, using the tools anyone can use. Demanding we pay attention all over again.
It’s surprising, it is... breezy. Sara breezes in, her current single, In The Morning, with all happenstance insouciantly sounds like she reached out and captured the understated rhythmical stardust of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce and sprinkled their Reel Around the Fountain zeitgeist in her New Jersey studio, the drums and bass are that clean and uncomplicated and so just so.
Of course her melodies soar, of course her voice, intimate and detached all at once, of course, of course, of course.
Listening to her new EP, Insomniac Dreams, feels great like when you catch the support band blowing away the headliners, and you can’t wait to get home to hear more; Like when Future Islands got on your radio for the first time, like when you heard Craig Finn restore rock n roll, like when you heard Jamila Woods as a community poet and knew she was a community poet like Dylan’s a community poet, or when you heard Marianne Faithful or Nico or Alison Stratton… This is music once picked up, cannot be put back down.
We managed to catch up intercontinentally in the middle of the pandemic...
OUTSIDELEFT: I can't quite get a handle on where you are in the world right now, London, NYC, NJ…
TEEN-IDLE: Well, I went to college in New York City and lived there for four years, but after graduating I moved back to my parents’ house on the Jersey Shore and am currently living there just to save some money until I figure out where to go next.
OUTSIDELEFT: I love your spare and perhaps light touch in the studio. Do you have musical way points you can talk about...! How easy is it to find empathetic musicians, engineers and so on. Are you familiar with the admittedly rockier Australian band, Camp Cope and their travails with boys/men in music…
TEEN-IDLE: It’s never my goal to be intentionally minimalistic, but if the song feels like it doesn’t need that much production and would sound better with minimal instrumentation in the recording stage, I’ll keep that in mind. For every song or body of work I feel like I chase a different production style or aesthetic, and for my upcoming EP, I feel like I was referencing a lot of dream-pop and shoegaze, like Slowdive and Beach House. The songs bear an obvious shoegaze influence, but I think in trying to find those sounds in my own music I ended up with something totally different, just because my songs ended up having less tracks on them than a typically heavily layered dream-pop track.
For example, my song “Dreaming” has only about six instrumental tracks on it, besides vocals. When we recorded it in the studio, it didn’t feel like it needed anything else; we referenced my demo which was very minimal. The other songs I recorded in an actual studio, like “In the Morning,” I think are more sparse just because of the lack of time we had. I couldn’t really afford more studio time, so we tracked about four songs in a day, but maybe it worked out for the best because it prevented me from adding unnecessary things to the song.
I’m happy with the way both those songs turned out. Now I do all the recording and production myself, but for a bulk of the songs that will be on my upcoming EP (released June 18), I was able to record at Lakehouse Recording Studios in Asbury Park, NJ. The owner is an old friend of mine and once I showed him some demos, he introduced me to a couple of local musicians a few years younger than me, who instantly became friends. They seemed to understand the vision of the songs and they played bass, drums, and synth on them.
OUTSIDELEFT: New music emerges at a deliberate pace - what are you thinking about that, what is that convention, after all, even a couple of years ago you had sketches of 300 hundred songs on your phone? I have a friend, Sonny, and he has like hundred of guitar sketches on his phone and I say, let's put them all out that is the album!
TEEN-IDLE: Interesting question. I feel like deep down every musician just wants to release new stuff every month, but as I’ve learned more about music and seen how much effort the musicians I admire put into their releases, I don’t feel the need to constantly release things. There’s definitely something to be said about releasing three albums a year or something, and I think when Car Seat Headrest first started out, he released albums on his Bandcamp every few months, but that was mostly songs he would write and produce on his computer all in one day. I want to work on things until I’m 100% confident in the production and instrumentation, even if it takes me a year to finish that song. I also don’t want to overexpose myself, because I get tired of artists who are constantly releasing mediocre things. Most of the artists I admire take a while to put out their next body of work. I mean, look at a band like Vampire Weekend, whose albums have all been incredibly solid. They take a long time to release music. I think it was six years between their latest album and the one before that.
OUTSIDELEFT: Before we talk about the most recent stuff, can you talk about 2018s July, it's so phenomenal. You know Bob Dylan said, When I Paint My Masterpiece, what do you do next? That's a remarkable record of yours. Did you really write and record it in 7 days in between 4-10 July? And like a Girl Jesus, put it out and rest on the 8th or something, Actually 11th. July, is what it is so much and it is perfect right?
TEEN-IDLE: Thanks for saying that. It’s crazy that anyone is paying attention to July, because it was basically a songwriting exercise that I did. I was feeling overtaken by ennui one summer and decided to challenge myself to write a song every day for a week, because I saw that an artist I love had written a song every day for a month. Most of my songs were recorded on my phone, except the piano one, and they all sound different. I feel like July really was a springboard for my interest in songwriting and encouraged me to keep writing; it was also good to know some of my friends listened to it and enjoyed it. The song Day 4 was actually written in May, but I put the finishing touches on it during that week in July and included it on the EP, or whatever you want to call it.
OUTSIDELEFT: I can't see any pictures of you with guitars and things... can you talk about that, I have a bit of a sad guitar fetish…
TEEN-IDLE: Well, I think the main reason there aren’t any pictures of me with a guitar is that I haven’t played any shows yet. My sister helped me take some press photos, and I did bring my guitar to that session but we didn’t end up taking any pictures with it for some reason. When it comes to guitar, I’m not that much of a gearhead or anything, I’m pretty simple. Last year I bought a black Jazzmaster and that’s become my main guitar, but it’s so freaking heavy that I might have to switch to a Mustang for live shows because I’m a small person. I don’t go crazy with guitar stuff — I just have a small collection of pedals that help me achieve a certain sound and a basic Fender amp. I’m not really into fancy gear.
OUTSIDELEFT: The new single is just out, but you've had an amazing burst of activity too. The Pandemic compilation features you pulling people together, is that a natural thing for you…?
TEEN-IDLE: It definitely doesn’t come naturally for me to put myself out there in that way, but it’s something I’m always trying to get better at. I'm a very social person at heart but it takes me a while to show that to people. I’ve always been a person who looks at what needs to be done and takes charge in a situation, so about this quarantine compilation, I felt like it was something that'd be great to do and I wasn’t going to wait for someone else to do it. I do love collaborating and working with people who are passionate about the same things, so the compilation was fun to put together. Since quarantine was a time where everyone was being pulled apart, it felt like it was the very least I could do to unite musicians for a cause that affected everyone.
OUTSIDELEFT: In the Morning, has a momentum, and a continuity... It’s very elevated pop, I love how it lifts up into the chorus and way more besides... Is that a precursor to a new Full Length set of songs... Where are you with all of that…?
TEEN-IDLE: Well not a full-length, but it's one of six songs that will be on my upcoming EP, “Insomniac Dreams,” which comes out June 18. I haven’t been super vocal in terms of promoting the EP because I’ve been focusing on all the stuff happening in the US in terms of racial inequality, but I’m thrilled to finally be releasing it. I started writing the songs for the EP in the fall of 2018, not knowing they’d even become part of any body of work, so it’s been a long time coming. I’m working on new music that is kind of a departure sonically, so I’m excited to release a full-length at some point in the next few years.
OUTSIDELEFT: Would you be performing live, if that were still a thing, how does that work…
TEEN-IDLE: I definitely want to start playing some shows, but who knows when that will be viable again. The biggest issue I’ve had is getting a band together, so I definitely need to meet more musicians in the local scene before I can start playing shows with a full band. It’d be very difficult to play my songs solo.
Teen-Idle are on Bandcamp