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Rachel Hirsh Makes a Break for it With Bruxes

The co-leader of I Was Totally Destroying It celebrates the debut EP of her new project tonight in Carrboro.



Fronting Triangle power-pop prodigies I Was Totally Destroying It, Rachel Hirsh drove home huge hooks with her soaring vocals and moody keyboard textures. But in 2012, the quintet she had cofounded a decade earlier as a teenager dramatically cut back on touring, partly in response to the bleak survival rate among its touring-band peers. The group has since reduced its itinerary to just a few local gigs per year, but recently Hirsh once again felt the urge to create new songs.

Hirsh's writing in Bruxes, a sextet that evolved from her sparse solo beginnings, is far more transparent and revealing than her work in I Was Totally Destroying It, where she often wrote lyrics and melodies for fellow vocalist John Booker to sing, and vice versa. But though her new project, and the attendant EP, Boys Will Be Boys, is plenty poppy, Hirsh says her solo project is anything but a bid for mass appeal.

"Destroying It was very personable, where Bruxes is much more personal," she says. "It's me making the music that I want to make."

Two of Hirsh's biggest musical loves nineties indie rock and shiny, highly produced pop find their way into Bruxes, along with bits of eighties synth-pop and new wave, particularly on "Dark Matter," where a sultry saxophone solo flutters through the climactic final chorus and outro. With its skittering percussion, the song and its anxious arrangement deliberately suggest the intense panic attacks that frequently sent Hirsh spiraling in 2009, when she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. "It's about thinking that you're dying and then realizing that you're OK," she says.

Hirsh also cites Roman Polanksi's 1965 psychological horror, Repulsion, in which a young woman experiences a mental breakdown while shut in her apartment, as a major influence on the record's imagery and mood.

"That movie really resonated with me not that I think I'll ever lose my mind to that extent, hopefully, but seeing a woman struggle alone with herself was something that I really related to," she says.

Hirsh says that Boys Will Be Boys is her arriving into her own voice at last. Though she and Booker share vocals in I Was Totally Destroying It, Bruxes is something else entirely. As the one responsible for songwriting and the project's overall direction, Hirsh says Bruxes is her own "baby." The two projects diverge most dramatically when it comes to lyrical content, though the newfound intimacy may not be immediately apparent on first listen, hidden as it is beneath an accessible, often upbeat indie rock sheen.

"I want to make people stop and be like,'Whoa, what did she just say?'" she says.

Indeed, there is hardly a lighthearted moment to be found on the EP, and Hirsh frequently addresses her own mental health across the five tracks.

"Part of the reason why I'm putting this record out might be selfish, but to talk openly about bipolar," Hirsh says. "There have been a few times when I've played out live and someone's come up to me and been like, 'I really related to that,' and it does help me because [bipolar] can be a very isolating experience."

That's particularly evident on the opener, "The Room Spins," a song Hirsh wrote about being depressed and unable to leave her house. Backed by spectral guitars and keys, her words cast a vivid and palpable scene in the second verse: "Count the ridges in my nails/Pick the skin around them/Maybe I'll go get the mail/No, I better stay in."

Hirsh sees "The Room Spins" as a complement to "See You and I Know," which depicts the other pole of manic depression. The latter's busy arrangement echoes the sentiment behind it as Hirsh's vocal melody twists between icy shards of guitar that disrupt the rhythmic march.

"It's a pretty chaotic song," she says. "It's about being so anxious and manic that everything's confused and it's all jumbled. You're talking to yourself, you're projecting your problems onto the other people in your life, and you're talking to them like they are you."

"See You and I Know" is the most prominent showcase of the quintet that Hirsh recruited to help her flesh out these songs, all composed between 2012 and 2014 from demos she recorded on a laptop microphone and performed live in solo settings with a loop pedal.

"I have more fun, and I'm more comfortable playing and creating stuff with other people, plus I really depend on other people to help me build the coolest thing possible," says Hirsh, who says she hates performing alone.

She enlisted I Was Totally Destroying It bandmates John Booker and Curtis Armstead, who trades his guitar for keys, to join her in Bruxes, along with bassist Aslan Freeman and drummer Griffin Wade, who also perform with Hirsh, Booker, and Armstead in the nineties cover band 120 Minutes. Jack the Radio multi-instrumentalist Danny Johnson rounds out the sextet on steel guitar.

"I like alt-country, but not to the extent that I want to play it, so I never thought I'd have a steel player in any band I was in," Hirsh admits. "We were thinking of ways to flesh out this music and make it more interesting with some things you'd never heard before."

Hirsh calls Johnson's haunting, atmospheric playing "spooky steel," capturing a similar mood to Gotye's "Eyes Wide Open" and helping to transform her bare-bones tunes into complete tracks. To achieve the production aesthetic she had in mind, Hirsh sent producer Freeman a play list of glossy but tense songs by the likes of Dutch Uncles, Kate Bush, Nine Inch Nails, and Grimes as sonic cues.

"If you listen to me play these songs on guitar, they sound very Midwestern nineties, and the challenge was that we didn't want them to sound like that," she explains. "Bringing in five more people to complement that was a really interesting process of keeping things, taking them away, and adding new things."

The EP's title comes from the final track, which addresses gender bias and the recurring frustrations of "not being a man in a man's world."

"Women and other marginalized genders are told how to modify our behavior to avoid having men do bad things to us, and when horrible things happen to women, there's a big victim-blaming culture," she says.

This fact resonates with Hirsh as a woman in a male-dominated music scene. Though there are some upsides to that situation, she says, that world remains rife with condescension and microaggressions: things like being presumed to be the "merch girl" when on tour with I Was Totally Destroying It and receiving inappropriate comments about her physical appearance.

"Punknews.org premiered a music video of ours, and it just spiraled into a really long thread about my body shape," she recalls. "This wouldn't happen if I was just some dumpy looking dude in a rock band. Why do guys get this pass?"

In the fashion of many of her favorite songwriters and the deeply personal lyrics she's drawn to, Hirsh says that writing the songs that became Boys Will Be Boys was a cathartic process that nonetheless left her feeling vulnerable.

"It's a release and it's how I cope, but at the same time it's terrifying that they're on record, people can hear them whenever they want and maybe want to ask me about them," she says.

"I'm nervous about playing these songs [live]," Hirsh continues, acknowledging that while the EP is completely for herself, she recognizes that listeners with similar experiences may connect strongly with her music. That's particularly true given that bipolar disorder often isolates people from the rest of the world, a fact that Hirsh, who works from home, doesn't go out a lot, and mostly plays with the same bunch of people, knows well. Bruxes is her way of shining light on what she calls her "limited world."

"It's a very self-centered record and it's not meant for anyone," Hirsh says. "But maybe there's an off chance that someone will listen to it and be like, 'I relate to that.'"

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