The Two Islands of Blue Hawaii

Published March 5, 2013

ABOVE: BLUE HAWAII. IMAGE COURTESY OF MARILIS CARDINAL

To the casual observer, it might seem that Blue Hawaii was spawned from some sort of alt-utopia. The ethereal electronic duo from Montreal is comprised of Raphaelle Standell-Preston, who is also the frontwoman of the much-lauded dream-pop group BRAIDS, and Alex “Agor” Cowan, a former philosophy student-cum-producer-cum-multi-instrumentalist. Their (unofficial) first album, Blooming Summer, was recorded after the couple returned from traveling together in Central America, and each of its eight songs about love and yearning radiates tropical warmth.

The dynamics of Blue Hawaii become apparent within the first few minutes of our conversation, during which Cowan is insouciant and amused and Standell-Preston is charmingly unfiltered. When discussing her tendency to dwell in melancholy while writing songs, for instance, she says, “I’m a sensitive person,” and laughs immediately afterwards, because she realizes the truth of the statement doesn’t stop it from sounding trite.

Untogether, the duo’s somber follow-up LP, is the result of one such dark, introspective period. Written after Raphaelle and Agor had spent a year apart, Untogether involved a unique arrangement: although they lived together while creating the album, they both worked solitarily; they would alternate nights, during which they’d write from 10 pm to 5 am alone. The very process of collaboration became something done apart, resulting in a strangely intimate sense of alienation that shapes and structures each song.

CALLIE BEUSMAN: I’d like to speak generally about the process of recording the album and how it differed from your first album, Blooming Summer.

AGOR COWAN: The main difference, really, is the last album we recorded together in a shorter amount of time, and the songs were composed as whole units. There were a lot of lovey-dovey kind of songs, and they were pretty and dreamy and stuff like that, and they really stayed that way. But, with this recording process, the songs transformed a lot. As we were going through different things in our life, they felt a lot more broken. What originally started out as a whole song, maybe we only used a little bit of a chorus bit from, and terms of a vocal melody from another song, with some chords from a different song, all pieced together. It resulted in this eerie, through-composed, very delicate sounding album. There were a lot of differences, but the main one was that we did this one a lot more broken and separately, and [Blooming Summer] was more concise and done at once.

BEUSMAN: How did the “recording separately” work?

COWAN: We met up in Vancouver for, like, a month, and we recorded a couple of songs. After that ensued this long process of sending stuff back and forth and also spending long periods at night working separately. I’d work on something and arrange things and make synth parts and stuff, and then Raph would come in a couple of nights later and do something, and we would exchange ideas that way, through the songs. Then, fast-forward a couple of months and we have this album that we just put together. It’s interesting, it almost feels like all of it was never really supposed to be part of the same thing, but for all the reasons that we’ve described—and because a lot of the content on the album—is kind of why we called it Untogether.

BEUSMAN: Something your albums and your songs are so good at doing is creating a very specific, enclosed emotional world. The most poignant feeling I get from this album is a sense of longing—not necessarily a specific longing targeted at one person, but rather for all sorts of different things.

RAPHAELLE STANDELL-PRESTON: The whole time that we were writing the record, I felt like there was this feeling in the air of wanting to do something different: of wanting to be busier, of wanting to be on tour, of wanting to play shows, of maybe wanting to travel on our own or something like that, wanting to have more experiences—

COWAN: Feeling limited by different things. So that’s why, when you listen to it, there’s a lot of restraint, and a lot of things that really could have had a beat dropped or something like that. We had certain things that were preventing us from doing exactly whatever it is that we were dreaming about. We knew that patience and timing would allow for things to happen in a good way. We have a lot of really good people in our lives, and we want to do everything in a really good way, so that we can fully support everyone around us and ourselves as much as possible.

BEUSMAN: That group of artists based in Montreal has suddenly become so prominent. Do you think it’s just because you guys are all so supportive of each other?

STANDELL-PRESTON: I think so. There’s definitely been different pockets in time where there’s been one country that’s really pumping out something that’s really, really important for the world. I feel like Montreal definitely has something like that going on right now. Maybe it is because we are supportive of each other—of course, there’s some internal competition that goes on between friends. That’s something that the record touches upon, too. After the big Grimes explosion, you kind of felt this air of people being jealous of that. I, personally, even experienced that and had to work through it and try and reevaluate, like, “Why am I making music? Is this going to be popular?” And then it’s like, “No, not at all, so I kind of need to get off my high horse a bit.” But, yeah, all that being said, I think that sometimes—okay, this is going to be really hippie…

COWAN: [laughs] You say that so much.

STANDELL-PRESTON: I know. It’s because I am kind of a hippie. [laughs] I don’t know if I want—whatever. I’m gonna be a hippie for a sec and say that sometimes I feel like the universe [laughs]… the universe chooses where to give a little bit of extra energy to, and I feel like now Montreal is that hotspot, and maybe—[addressing Cowan] I really hate saying “hotspot,” what’s a better word, Moomoo? You know what I mean? I just mean an energetic, artistic area.

COWAN: Nexus?

STANDELL-PRESTON: Nexus! And maybe next time it’ll be…

COWAN: “Hotspot” is better than “nexus.”

STANDELL-PRESTON: Maybe next time it’ll be Edmonton or Taiwan or something.

BEUSMAN: I was reading your Twitter, and I saw you had written about your frustrations regarding mean-spirited music reviewers. It must be difficult, because music is such a personal experience, especially if you’re writing so in depth about your own personal emotions. At the same time, though, it’s meant to be consumed by a mass audience.

STANDELL-PRESTON: I think that it’s really important, at least for me, to abandon realizing that I do have an audience, because then I begin censoring myself too much, and then it becomes music for other people, and I think that really honest music is when you’re making it for yourself. Like, “The Other Day,” which is the last song on the record: I was just feeling so bad about the record and about myself, and it was kind of like a calling to ask myself to not give up. I remember I worked on it two nights in a row, and at the end of it, I was bawling, ’cause it was so much for me to keep going.

BEUSMAN: Do you find that it helps when you work out your emotions through a song, or does it make you feel worse when you start crying?

STANDELL-PRESTON: I don’t know, crying is such an important thing. I don’t really cry very much right now, but I go through periods. Crying is a beautiful thing, and songwriting is, too, in that sense. Sometimes it can be really, really good for me, and other times, I get a little bit too deep into those emotions. You have to learn where and when to pull back—when you’re feeding into that negative emotion too much, then it can get really, really dark. I think that’s why there’s such a high—I don’t know, I was going to say something really generalizing—but I think that’s why artists sometimes do suffer from mental illness and things like that. Firstly, it does take a pretty sensitive person to really tap into those emotions, but, secondly, at least for me, sometimes when I’m making music, I can really feed into those emotions, and then I get into a really, really dark period. It’s really hard to break out of. So, it’s all a balance. I’m still figuring out when to pull back and when to give.

BEUSMAN: Blue Hawaii’s more sonically experimental than BRAIDS, but that’s also the case in the way that you present yourselves. I know you’ve said that you endeavor to do projections, etc. during your shows. Does that aspect get complicated when you’re touring?

STANDELL-PRESTON: Well, we never actually try to do that. [laughs] It just happens, and we allow for it to happen. The difference with BRAIDS is that we would not allow for that to happen: “No! We can only have very minimal stage lighting!” Etc. etc., whereas Agor and I kind of roll with the punches a little bit more readily.

COWAN: I wanted to do these video projections for a while, but then my friend stole my computer…

STANDELL-PRESTON: [yelling over Cowan] No! He’s not your friend! I don’t—ahhhh! [laughs] He took Agor’s computer, and we really wanted to do projections!

BEUSMAN: He took your computer and hasn’t given it back?

STANDELL-PRESTON: No! He just gave Agor, like, $100, and then kind of like—

COWAN: It was worth a lot more than that.

STANDELL-PRESTON: It was worth $400.

COWAN: It was my old computer. Anyways, it’s not that important. I love those stories—my favorite Animal Collective record is Sung Tongs, and I heard that they made it because all their gear was stolen. It’s so cool to do something with limitations, and, even though I don’t know how I would make music without a computer, if my computer were stolen and I couldn’t replace it, I would definitely try to. And I’d be pretty interested to see what I do.

STANDELL-PRESTON: Maybe I’m going to steal your computer and hide it in my closet.

UNTOGETHER IS OUT NOW. BLUE HAWAII WILL TOUR THIS SPRING SUPPORTING DOLDRUMS AND PURITY RING, BEGINNING WITH A SHOW AT 285 KENT IN WILLIAMSBURG TOMORROW, MARCH 6. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT ITS BANDCAMP.