By Gabriel Aikins
In the eight years the Los Angeles band Girlpool have been around, the project has taken friends Avery Tucker and Harmony Tividad from their teenage years into adulthood, and through the far corners of genre and sound. The spare, folk-inspired tracks on the duo’s 2015 debut album Before the World Was Big merged with dreamy pop melodies and indie-rock riffs as they continued to mature and experiment. Four years later, the introspective writing on the melancholy collection What Chaos Is Imaginary showcased the duo’s sensitive, insightful views of growing up and the world around them.
With the release of their expansive fourth LP, Forgiveness, Girlpool have become more in tune with themselves and each other, a synchronicity that allows them to push their music in any direction they choose. A collection of gritty tracks that color tight songwriting with a satisfying pastiche of grime, the album was announced in January, but its bones were in place long before. “A lot of these songs had been written for years,” Tucker explains, even when the overall concept had not yet been settled. In a grin-inducing sign of their deeply close friendship, he and Tividad appear on Zoom wearing the same vibrant yellow Girlpool T-shirt, without having intentionally coordinated their outfits.
In fact, work on the album kicked off shortly after the release of its 2019 predecessor, a process that began with assessing the material they had already mustered and organizing ideas into detailed lists; they moved into the demo phase later that year. The need for that organization stems from the duo’s unique collaborative practice. As they did on Chaos before it, Tucker and Tividad frequently wrote separately for Forgiveness. Instead of waiting until they can see each other to explore a concept, each member begins writing as soon as inspiration strikes, often while they are alone at home. “We both write music from a really emotional place and not like, let's write this bangin' track,” Tividad says. “So I feel like us separately writing usually just comes from the fact that we both are being viscerally moved to be wanting to write.”
Once a song’s basic framework has been composed, Tucker and Tividad convene in the studio, where they begin to refine and flesh out each track. It’s a part of the process makes Tucker feel especially cognizant of how he phrases his lyrics. “Oftentimes, I'll write a song and then listen to it a lot and then feel like this line could be way better or communicate something stronger,” he says. He leaves no room for filler, meticulously crafting every line and metaphor so that it furthers the emotional pull of the song. This can be gleaned from the sinister “Lie Love Lullaby,” which cuttingly explores the loss of innocence, and in the simple and effective longing described in “Dragging My Life Into a Dream.” “It’s like last year put a hand on my face / Over my eyes and I drifted away,” Tucker sings.
Forgiveness also marks the first time Girlpool brought a producer into their intimate way of working at its earliest stages. Yves Rothman, the prolific producer behind the anthemic sounds of Nasty Cherry and Overcoats, joined the band in the studio. “We immediately clicked with Yves in a way that I don't know if we really ever have with a producer, honestly. There was an element of trust and safety immediately,” Tividad says.
Rothman was able to clearly see the sweeping vision they had for their sound, and it can be heard everywhere from the mechanical undertones of “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” to the echoing, reverent harmonies and electronics of “Light Up Later.” While working with a producer that closely was new for the pair, knowing that Rothman was on their wavelength allowed the artists to adapt quickly and comfortably. “I think that that's what was so sacred about this experience for us,” Tucker notes. “We had the space with Yves and each other and timing-wise, being in the pandemic, to really take our time to be really intentional with what environment each song lived in.”
The duo cherished this extra time, even as it came during the hardship of the coronavirus pandemic. It taught Tividad, who has often felt a self-imposed pressure to create at all times, the importance of conserving her energy. She compares the precarity of the last several years and Girlpool’s own journey. “I felt a lot of uncertainty in my life. For many years, throughout growing up, I've had lots of questions and very few answers,” she says. “That's been a thread throughout our music, trying to figure out how to walk through rooms that don't necessarily have a floor.”
The slower pace also fostered changes in perspective that coincided with the duo’s growth into adults (Tucker began transitioning before Chaos was finished recording, as well). Tucker places a high value on the precision of his word choice, which allows him to address his thoughts and feelings more directly. On the album opener “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure,” lines like “bite my tongue until it bleeds” and “push my head down when I least explain,” sung by Tividad in the first minute of the song, even veer into violence. Both artists are in different headspaces now, but Tucker says his writing process includes many of the same familiar routines. He describes the steadfast feeling of excitement and anticipation, or the “quiet moment before taking the leap,” when a new idea for a song comes to him.
At times, Forgiveness taps the bracing chords of grunge and polished electro-pop, but those additions did not materialize out of thin air. Hours and hours of experimentation were integral to shaping the overall soundscape. “There are so many different versions of each song on the record that are just, like, on a hard drive,” Tucker explains. “We really tried on so many outfits.” He points to “See Me Now,” one of the album’s mellowest tracks about insecurity and the fear of not living up to someone else’s expectations. While the finished product almost exclusively contains acoustic guitar and soft vocals, there’s a version of the track that’s built like an ‘80s club banger with heavy synths and a dance-like production.
There are countless directions Girlpool could have taken Forgiveness, and the process of exploring many paths was key to its evolution. The only thing stopping them from delving deeper, Tividad says with a laugh, was the deadline to get the album finished. Even so, Tucker reveals they missed the cut-off several times before they finally decided the collection was finally complete. “We felt really good. Once we got there we were like, OK, this really feels good,” he recalls.
Through all of their experimentation, there was never a question that Forgiveness would still feel like Girlpool, with all their expressive lyricism and indie-pop charm. “I think that there's always a through-line because it's me and Harmony,” Tucker says. Working through all their collective ideas never changed the foundations of their initial writings; rather, it's simply how the band discovers the sounds that best convey their feelings. The artists hope to continue to grow more freely in their art-making while continuing to reestablish the firm bond they share. “It was a joy to have the space to creatively explore,” Tividad says. “I hope that that becomes more of a regular thing when I'm moving forward.”