Speaking with two people deeply locked in a state of creative symbiosis provides a music all its own. To spend an hour talking songwriting craft and inspiration with Leah Gibson and Duncan Webster, who make up the Durham-based dreampop outfit Beauty World, is to hear two close-knit interlocutors seamlessly start and end each other's sentences, write and revise their shared stories, and engage in an artful running dialogue that implicitly explains the success of their collaboration.
The pair first encountered each other because of their status as scene regulars—Webster is in Hammer No More the Fingers and the classically trained Duncan has lent her cello to Bowerbirds and Lost in the Trees—and the creative partnership grew from there. They currently cohabitate and record their bedroom pop in their actual bedroom. On the occasion of the release of their second EP, the sublime Joypop Turbo, the INDY sat down with Gibson and Webster to jam some tunes, talk influences, and determine once and for all which tropical fruit Beauty World's sound most exemplifies.
STEREOLAB, CYBELE'S REVERIE (1996)
Stereolab's cerebral, forward-looking indie pop boasts a visionary alchemy of sixties aesthetics and state-of-the-art production.
DUNCAN WEBSTER: The reason that I know these guys is because there's this song that they used to play on the Duke radio station, WXDU, called "Rock the Parti" by this rapper Gold Chains. It samples a song by Stereolab, and I went and bought Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements after I heard that song. Every time I hear Stereolab, I imagine France—just people walking down the street in France listening to music like this. And also, like, Serge Gainsbourg.
LEAH GIBSON: It does have a Serge vibe. We've been listening recently to Histoire de Melody Nelson and it has a similar vibe to this.
DW: One of my favorite types of music is mambo music, and real swingin' stuff, like fifties- and sixties-inspired stuff. Stereolab's like a modern take on that. Even though a lot of it is from the nineties, it still sounds fresh as hell. We record all our own music in our bedroom using one or two mics, so I've been reading a lot about different producers. I found out about the guy who produces a lot of Lætitia Sadier's solo albums [Emmanuel Mario] and learning about all of his ways, like minimal miking techniques, and recording on four tracks and old tape machines, and I just love that vibe.
"THE FAIREST OF THE SEASONS"
NICO, CHELSEA GIRL (1967)
This heartrending post-Velvet Underground collaboration between John Cale and Nico suggests both the orchestral grandeur and poignant isolation that characterizes much of Beauty World's catalog.
DW: It's so minimal. Just strings and acoustic guitar. And her voice—that slight out-of-tuneness—it just tugs at the heart. The Velvet Underground is another band from that era of music that melded classical or baroque music into the rock/experimental genre. It's so interesting. Even stuff people think is sort of cheesy, like Left Banke—I don't think they're cheesy. I love that song "Walk Away Renee."
LG: That was one of the first songs I remember you playing for me, because my middle name is Renee.
DW: The sixties might just be the best era of music.
"THE CHALET LINES"
BELLE & SEBASTIAN, FOLD YOUR HANDS CHILD, YOU WALK LIKE A PEASANT (2000)
A typically wry and crushingly sad Belle & Sebastian song, "The Chalet Lines" is rich in melody but brutally spartan in execution—raw nerve music for the bold of heart.
DW: I've been to Scotland before and it's really dreary—just old brick buildings and factories—but also it has very beautiful landscapes. And that juxtaposition is something that Belle And Sebastian uses in their music—their lyrics are so dark, but their music is so happy. But they're sort of funny, too.
LG: I feel like Duncan's idea of the best song is the one that sits between being very dark and very humorous.
"HANKY PANKY NOHOW"
JOHN CALE, PARIS 1919 (1973)
The mournful ballad reflects much of Beauty World's austere melancholy. The song's dislocated psychic pain mixes the prosaic with the spiritual.
LG: We saw a little bit of him at Hopscotch a few years ago. He played at Memorial Auditorium.
DW: I more remember the guy who opened for him, Richard Youngs. It was probably the most memorable Hopscotch show I've seen to date. He just had a microphone and it was kind of half spoken-word and half a gently singing kind of thing. But it was in this ginormous hall.
LG: He would make the audience be silent, and he would be silent. It got so uncomfortable for people, so they'd just start giggling.
DW: And he'd just sing the same sentence over and over again and he'd get quieter and quieter until there was silence and you just started hearing these sounds of the audience shuffling around uncomfortably, and then he'd just start shouting, and it totally woke you up. But there was something about that silence. I think we'd like to make ourselves uncomfortable more.
NANCY SINATRA AND LEE HAZLEWOOD, NANCY & LEE (1968)
A collaboration between two singers unafraid to reveal themselves at their must vulnerable. The timeless production, indelible hooks, and minor key feel complementary to Beauty World's gestalt.
DW: The string arrangements here are awesome.
INDY: You guys have really cool and ornate arrangements—do you chart them out?
DW: For these particular songs, I wrote a lot of early versions of them on ukulele—I got obsessed with ukulele and we just came up with these tiny little arrangements. We'd record the ukulele and add some percussion, and a lot of the percussion was just, like, banging on tables and stuff. And then Leah would just start laying down, like, thirty cello tracks.
LG: I think for all of the songs on Joypop, we tried to record each of the songs three different times. The first version we had of this EP was the worst sounding one, and it was kind of a dud, so we started over two different times. By the end, we figured out what it needed.
DW: We just kept working on a particular version of a song and be like, "This sucks." But we had spent so much time on it, and so we'd spend like a day listening to it and still be like, "This sucks." So then we'd just do it again and it'd be like, "Maybe this sucks a little less." And then finally something just clicked on "Joypop Turbo," like, overnight. The song came together and it sounded awesome. It was totally different than what we had been doing before. Initially, I was trying to make it really computer-y and dance-y and then I realized natural instruments sounded so much better.
ASTRUD GILBERTO, BEACH SAMBA (1967)
A weird come-on disguised as a chill groove, Gilberto's 1967 easy-listening hit evokes both Beauty World's fascination with the baroque sounds of yore and the angry ambivalence that lurks beneath their seemingly placid melodies.
LG: We went on a radio show on WHUP in Hillsborough this summer and had a play-list, and one of the things we had on that list was Martin Denny exotica.
DW: He's a vibraphone and marimba player from the fifties.
LG: Very lounge-y. I'll play it on our record player at home, even just when we're cleaning. We listen to it a lot. And I just learned today about Yma Sumac, she's a big exotica singer. I think her range spans over four octaves.
DW: She wears a pineapple on her head. This sounds really weird, but we were at Bowbarr one time and they had this little art installation there—it was like a plastic pineapple and all this plastic exotic fruit around it, but it had this strobe light in it. It was just set up on this table in the corner, but I couldn't stop looking at it.
LG: It was like this little mini fruit dance party. It also made this cool pattern on the ceiling, and you could just imagine the inner world of these tiny fruits.
DW: That little piece of art changed my life. And I just remember thinking, "This is what I want to do musically. This glowing fruit."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Turbo Time"