Remember when American news show Inside Edition got a New York-based Russian musician named Tessa Lena to explain Little Big’s “Skibidi” video? Well, it turns out Tessa is a pretty great weird artist in her own right. She releases music under the name Tessa Makes Love, including a 2013 song called “Spente Le Stelle,” subtitled “Sexual Objectification Is Very Boring.” The accompanying video has racked up over a million views on YouTube — I’d like to believe because it’s a great, groovy track and Tessa’s operatic vocals are amazing, but I suspect her equally amazing body paint had something to do with it, too. “The jury is still out on how many people realized that the video was a satire making fun of sexual objectification,” Tessa admits on her website. Unfortunately, satire is usually lost on the folks who are doing the objectifying.
More recently, Tessa has released a full-length album called Tessa Fights Robots, a bizarre and brilliant mix of glitchy synth-pop and Tiger Lillies-like punk cabaret that explores the dehumanizing effects of technology on our increasingly data-driven times. She also a blog, also called Tessa Fights Robots, in which she shares her thoughts on everything from rape culture to Americans’ peculiar love of cultural stereotypes to the way political ideologies have taken on the rigidity of religious dogma. It’s heady stuff and well worth checking out — especially if you actually picked up on the fact that “Spente Le Stelle” is satire.
Usually when we — or anyone, really — throw around the term “outsider music,” we use it to connote impenetrably idiosyncratic music made by adults so eccentric they have to work alone because they can’t find anyone else who shares their vision. That’s why we were so delighted when our favorite Down Under reader, Interweb Megalink (not his/her real name), led us to the Australian duo Stinky Picnic. The father/daughter team of A.D. Machine (guitars, loops and backing vocals) and Ponky Pie Pea (singer, songwriter, keyboardist and the brains of the whole operation) make music as idiosyncratic as any Daniel Johnston or Mission Man tune — but in doing so, they transform outsider music into “the most normal, unconditionally loving activity available in the home,” in the words of author Neil Nixon, who included them in his book 500 Albums You Won’t Believe Until You Hear Them.
Stinky Picnic started when Ponky Pie Pea was three years old. You won’t be surprised to hear that she named the band. She’s now all of 10 or 11 and her songwriting skills have grown exponentially in that time. If we’re being honest, A.D. Machine had to do much of the heavy lifting on Stinky Picnic’s early work, fleshing out his daughter’s adorable but fairly straightforward sung-chanted lyrics about hamsters and logs and whatever else struck her fancy at the moment he pressed the record button. But after a few years and a shit-ton of releases, the kid is a budding genius of melody, harmony, surrealism and comic timing. Behold the marvel of all the aforementioned elements that is “Hairy Bananas” — and bear in mind that this was part of a rehearsal for a gig at the Make It Up Club, where all songs are improvised, so Ponky Pie Pea is coming up with this shit straight off the dome. Eat your heart out, Imogen Heap! (Disclaimer: Imogen Heap is great. But she’s famous for that vocal looping stuff and you gotta admit, this kid’s got “Hide and Seek“-level skills.)
Like most kids of her generation, Ponky Pie Pea is super into Minecraft. (I don’t get it, either, but I’m old and the only game app on my phone is Sudoku.) So she and A.D. also made a trilogy of albums with songs inspired by Minecraft, and set some of them to Minecraft videos. Here’s the one for “Pigs” — made when Ponky was about eight — which is in absolutely no danger of being confused with the Pink Floyd song.
I’ll leave you with possibly my favorite Stinky Picnic song: “Maybe a Mongoose,” another epic jam recorded when Ponky was eight or so, from their 2016 album A Horrible Hodgepodge. At one point, she scat-sings like a tiny, Australian Ella Fitzgerald. It’s way funkier than it has any business being — and like all of Stinky Picnic’s oeuvre, it’s a nice reminder that before we were all taught to conform, we were all outsiders, running wild with our imaginations and spouting nonsensical ideas more entertaining and probably just as valid as whatever crap the so-called “adult world” is churning out these days, like This Is Us or a new Chainsmokers album or whatever.
Alexandra Drewchin is based in New York City, but she grew up on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania. It feels important to mention this up front in describing the music she makes under the name Eartheater, and not just because horses figure prominently in the project’s iconography, including the striking cover of her latest album, IRISIRI. Even though much of what she does is programmed and electronic, there’s something very equine and pastoral about it. The rhythms canter and gallop; the sounds flex and ripple with muscular grace; her vocals, though sometimes harsh and processed, more often float over the mix like they’re echoing from a great distance, panning and Dopplering as if sung by someone in constant motion.
There’s also an alien quality to Drewchin’s Eartheater work — ironically, it sounds more not-of-this-world than her other project, a psych/noise-rock band she does with drummer Greg Fox that’s actually called Guardian Alien. As Eartheater, she shares with artists like Matmos and Amon Tobin a gift for blurring the lines between organic and electronic. Synthesizers breathe and sigh like animals; acoustic instruments and field recordings contort into jagged, mechanical shapes. A track title from her first album, Metalepsis, is telling: “The Internet Is Handmade.” You might think it’s a piss-take on all the bespoke this and artisanal that infesting the hipster communities of Brooklyn and Queens, where she’s based. But actually, it’s her way of pointing out that technology, which we always think of as somehow removed from humanity, is actually just another expression of it. “I’m all about seeing the nature in the motherboard — honoring the metals that make [our] computers run,” she once told an interviewer.
Here’s her latest video, “Peripheral,” in which she takes a blowtorch to an ice sculpture and performs acupuncture on a massage chair.
Her live performances are already the stuff on New York art nerd legend. At one, described by a Vice writer, she wore angel wings and wielded a chainsaw. At another, she danced in a trenchcoat and performed contortionist backbends illuminated only by a pair of flashlights. “I find the ouroboric-like shape of a deep back bend to be uniquely altering,” she said in another interview. “I prescribe this shape to myself and find it’s really helpful to unlock deep emotions while performing.” (For someone who has just shy of 4,300 Facebook likes as I write this, Eartheater has done a lot of interviews — which I think says more about the ouroboric nature of the New York music press than it does about her.)
Speaking of contortions, here’s another Eartheater video that features lots of them, courtesy of Drewchin and fellow dancer Gina Chiappetta. Contortionism is another good visual metaphor for Eartheater’s music; she twists her vocals and instruments as dramatically as she twists her limbs. There’s something both powerful and vulnerable about it — she looks strong and fierce, but also at certain moments like her neck’s about to break.
We started with horses and that’s where we’ll finish, with the video for “Inclined,” another track off IRISIRI, Eartheater’s third album, which was just released in June on PAN Records. The video itself is, by Drewchin’s standards, pretty straightforward: She rides a horse around a bay at low tide, dressed like a steampunk bride in leather and a white veil, and — well, that’s it, really. (Oh, and all the lyrics are subtitled in Russian — a nod to her father, perhaps, who is Russian.) But the track itself is supremely weird in a way that I love. It’s like someone badly described hip-hop to a fan of The Slits and Philip Glass — “it’s aggro vocals that are kinda chanted over loops and shit” — who then attempted their version of a hip-hop track. “I like to customize my style/You can’t buy this — suck my bile,” is my favorite lyric of 2018 so far.
P.S. Thanks again to our anonymous friend at Interweb Megalink, who introduced us to Buttress O’Kneel and also succeeded where the New York press failed in turning us on to Eartheater. Thanks for helping us customize our style, Mr. and/or Ms. Megalink.