Discovery: Nicole Dollanganger

Published November 23, 2015

ABOVE: NICOLE DOLLANGANGER. PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSIE BELL.

Nicole Dollanganger aligns herself with both the precious and the grotesque; her sweet voice floats over dark lyrics and stark arrangements. Yet, despite themes including bondage and intimate violence, her songwriting leans more towards a resigned love than anger or hate. Her work reverses the male gaze that runs through classic horror, a genre she loves. Accordingly, her video for “Angels of Porn II” dwells on images of leather-clad men, including one lengthy scene in which bandmates Kevin Jenkins and Matt Tomasi go in on an ice cream cone; it toes the line between sweetness and undeniable sexual energy. The video—the first for her new record Natural Born Losers (independently released October 9)—was a collaborative effort among the three, both in concept and execution.

Like label mate Grimes, who told Billboard that she began music collective Eerie in order to release Dollanganger’s studio debut, Dollanganger is the consummate artist, both visual and aural. She’s never in “off” mode, always prepared to transform concept into art—often assisted by Jenkins and Tomasi, and occasionally armed with a bottle of gin. “We just hang out and jam,” Tomasi explains, and Dollanganger echoes his sentiment: “Even when we’re drunk, it’s like, ‘Well, let’s write a song.'” Natural Born Losers is her fifth full-length release, though it’s the first recorded outside of her own bedroom and alongside other musicians. Music and video aside, she also created a zine entitled A Fine Day At the Fair, which she explains was about “perverted carnival girls who lure in pedophiles”—a “vile” idea, she says, and a project assisted by Jenkins, who is also a visual artist.

When we meet Dollanganger, Jenkins, and Tomasi, it is something of a cloak-and-dagger affair, fitting for a woman whose stage presence resembles a high priestess weaving an incantation. We wander around the back of Montreal’s Métropolis theater, where Dollanganger and company were slated to open for Grimes during the closing night of the M for Montreal music festival. Dollanganger went on to tell us about touring, Tumblr, and where they were headed next (Toronto, Chicago, and home to Stouffville, Ontario to continue composing in earnest), with Jenkins and Tomasi jumping in here and there. After we speak, the trio went on to captivate an audience that practically vibrated with energy (a wild cheer went up as soon as Jenkins’ bass began reverberating throughout the hall), as they performed a selection of their own songs and a cover of a Type O Negative track, one of Dollanganger’s favorites.

NAME: Nicole Dollanganger

AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Stouffville, Ontario

FOUR YEARS AGO: I was on bed rest. I’d always wanted to write songs, but because I’m not very good at guitar, I guess I got it in my head that I would never be able to write songs. One day, I was just kind of fucking around and I did write a song, and I posted it. When I was on bed rest, I just had all this time on my hands—I’d write a song, post it, write a song, post it. That was something I’ve always wanted to do [and] I finally got it in me that I can be a shitty guitar player and still do so. I was alone in my house, and no one could tell me that my guitar’s out of tune and that’s shit, whatever, so I had free reign to do what I wanted.

When I started posting on Tumblr, someone said to me, “By the way, you should probably put your stuff on Bandcamp because it’s copyrighted to some degree just to protect you.” Bandcamp ended up being this really cool platform that introduced me to a ton of music and a ton of people and vice versa. I started to release full records; it was strictly online for a long time. Then I started hand-making CDs, and I did a run of cassettes. It just kept going from there.

MOOD BOARD: I like visuals. The majority of inspiration [for] visual and lyrical content usually comes from visual stuff. I tend to vibe off personal experience—sometimes it’s people I know or myself, but I just feel like those stories are worth telling. I’d like to write less extremely personal songs because I feel like that almost limits you in some regards. Breaking off into a character and doing stuff like that give you this infinite possibility. When you’re stuck in this very personal realm you almost box yourself in, so I’m trying to kind of get away from that lyrically.

DARKNESS AND LIGHT: Since I was a kid I’ve been kind of a bit of a bloodthirsty little shit. I like horror movies and all that stuff, but I am also extremely sentimental. I think I get that side from my mom and the harder from my dad.

I kind of like fucking with the soft and hard. Not necessarily being one or the other, but exploring that relationship. The example that comes to mind is my dad would always joke, half your room is full of embalming fluid and gross shit, and the other half is all kewpie dolls and toys you’ve had since you were two. It’s kind of like a foot in each world and figuring out a relationship between the two: soft and hard, light and dark.

RECONCILING WOMEN AND HORROR: I definitely find in so many horror movies—Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original, comes to mind—it’s like, [the female lead] screaming through the entire movie and it’s so irritating and so grating. It’s also in The Shining, she’s constantly hysterical. I feel like they almost do that because by the end, they want the audience to want her to die. That feeling in and of itself is horrific, but it’s a very real concept. The horror genre as a whole is particularly terrible, the constant rape and mutilation of female bodies, even in shit like CSI. How many dead prostitutes do you have to see on the streets? It’s gross and it’s overkill; it’s like torture porn. But I think that goes into other topics that are also interesting to explore, like where gore and porn have this creepy, weird relationship. With Hostel, half the movie is like pure porn. It’s these dudes going to have sex with foreigners and do all this shit, and then the second half is pure gore. At what point is it bleeding into each other? It’s just really bizarre.

ODDS AND ENDS: I’m a bit of a hoarder: Dolls; I really like the traditions of funerals so I have a lot of funeral fans, a lot of embalming fluids, stuff like that; teeth and hair; Freddie Krueger memorabilia, I’m a sucker for that; Beetlejuice, as well. But predominantly dolls, because my parents are doll collectors so I kind of picked that up from them.

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE: Kevin’s been my best friend since I was six. We immediately connected and we were not to be separated. That was just the way that it was. Matt, I met drunkenly at a Halloween party like five years ago. We all live within five minutes of each other.

I actually recorded the majority of [Natural Born Losers] in Matt’s studio. This record was the first time I was collaborating with people. When Matt and I first got together it was almost like instant chemistry; I worked with people on this record prior, where I didn’t really feel that, so when we started up, I knew that it was going to be a lasting working relationship. That’s how the magic happened.

Working with these guys, I realize how much more can go into a song. Before, lyrics were what I liked most about songwriting. But now I understand how much difference a bass makes. I understand layering weird little eccentric things, like, Matt will do all these weird things with his guitar that are just random sounds, but when you put them in the right place at the right time they completely liven it and make it special.

UN-CLASSICAL TRAINING: I—because I’m not musically inclined, because I don’t know theory—had a lot of trouble at times expressing what kind of sound I was after. With Matt, I was able to communicate my ideas. I’d say something visually and then he would immediately know exactly what the vibe was. He can rip any instrument, he can pick up anything, so he would start doing all this crazy shit and we’d just record it. It was incredible.

“ANGELS OF PORN” REWORKED: At the beginning, it was just like, hit record and start free styling, get a riff, and go from there. Now, there have been times where Kevin and Matt are working together and creating something, and they’ll get something really cool and send it to me. For “Angels of Porn II,” that was something where I showed Kevin and Matt the original demo. We listened to it and then the three of us, in one day, for 17 hours, we all vibed off each other and re-recorded it.

[The video] was an idea that Matt had—he was like, “A bunch of dudes eating carnival food.” That was the first root of it. Because the song was so personal, I didn’t want the narrative of the video to fit the song. So I thought, “Why not try to get the same feeling from it by doing something different?” Matt and Kevin, they’re both natural born models, actors. I was like, “I have this idea for one shot where you guys are doing the ice cream bit.” We went to shoot it; it was one shot, absolutely perfect. We all had the camera at different points. We all did some directing. We all kind of created it together in one day. It was like two hours and we were finished and there it was.

AFTER THE TOUR: Natural Born Losers was the beginning. Now we are going to be able to finally do this thing together and go in hard. We’re just so excited to get home and write.

FOR MORE ON NICOLE DOLLANGANGER, VISIT HER BANDCAMP.