It's a question that most musicians try to avoid answering directly whenever possible, and when asked to describe his group's sound succinctly, Child Actor's Max Heath is no exception. But his initial demurral to the contrary, he still manages to nail perfectly the appeal of the eclectic electronic-pop duo's recently released "Never Die" LP.
"I'm always the worst at it," he claims on the phone from Hartford, where he and the band's vocalist, Natalie Plaza, live. "It's funny, genre is really interesting to me. It's a shorthand, and you can get a lot of meaning through without doing so much work to establish what you're trying to say. If you say you're doing 'electronic music,' that has so many associations with it that aren't relevant to what I'm trying to do. People will say, 'Oh, I can dance to it, go to the club?' And yeah, you can dance to it, but it might not hit those pleasure centers you think of when it comes to EDM. If I say it's shoegaze, yes, that's all in there, but that has this isolated feeling that doesn't really capture it either. To me, it's the most pop-sounding stuff I've ever done, but if you showed it to people who like pop music they'd say, 'Oh, this is weird.' "
"Against the Night" is a good place to start if pop appeal is what you're looking for, with a melody that calls to mind Cyndi Lauper's "All Through the Night," albeit with a much more reserved delivery. "Hold me close whenever everything starts to burn," Plaza sings over clipping drum samples, a chiming synth riff, and fuzzy, slowed-down chords. So far, so pop-friendly — until you consider what sounds like a sample of someone screaming in pain, asserting itself in the background throughout the chorus.
It's a characteristically busy track, with multiple layers of production, and "Never Die" follows suit, with stacks of synths and percussion undergirding Plaza's vocals. But, as Heath explains, the new album actually represents a scaling back of his production from the group's earlier two EPs and debut LP, "Victory," released in 2012 on the New Haven-based label Fake Four Inc.
"It's funny, because the number of tracks probably hasn't changed too much, but the purpose of the tracks has changed a lot," he says. "Also the nature of the tracks. Before, I was working with a lot of dense samples on 'Victory,' full samples of a whole band laid on top of a sample of another whole band. There was a lot of information in the tracks already."
He'd taken to calling it maximalist at the time, a word he wouldn't use anymore, considering the state of beat-making lately. "Now, the drum tracks people make alone are so crazy and filled with all these details that that's not really what I'm interested in anymore," he says. "I think that kind of stuff is cool, but I'm more trying to find the right feeling for the song. It's really more about the song than production now."
The album overflows with feeling. Plaza's vocals are emotionally enveloping, even as they create a sense of distance lyrically. The Venezuelan-born musician replaced Heath's cousin Sedgie Ogilvy after the release of Child Actor's first album, when the project started to get a lot more attention than anticipated. Plaza had done some background vocals for the group and appeared in its videos, but taking over the lead wasn't necessarily a sure thing.
"To be honest, at the beginning I was really — I'm not sure 'nervous' is the right word," Heath says. "I didn't know how it would work; her voice is in a completely different range." (Ogilvy is a low alto, while Plaza is a soprano.) But, he says, having a new voice to work with gave him a new set of influences, and a new point of view in taking over all of the writing duties. That he and Plaza are also a romantic couple adds an extra layer of intimacy to the songs.
"We almost feed off of the personal stuff," he says. "It's actually really important to the music. I didn't expect it to be."
Political and personal complications going on back in Plaza's homeland provided plenty of lyrical material. "Suffice to say, it's been in the news a lot and things are very difficult there," Heath says. "We went through a lot of scary times involved with that, so the album is really autobiographical, but in the way that I kind of wrote the songs from her perspective. I wrote what I thought she would be thinking about various ideas or situations."
That sort of interpreting lends to the dreamlike feeling of the album. The way Heath thinks isn't exactly how Plaza thinks, of course, "but there she is singing it. So it has this surreal quality where there's a real honesty to it, but it's also inherently not honest."
"The result might not be what I would have said, only because I don't understand the English language very well, I can't express the same things," Plaza says. "But at the moment of interpretation, even though they are not my own words, it's like they could be."
"I don't know if I philosophically agree with the idea of escapism in difficult times," Heath adds. "But the album is called 'Never Die,' so it's all about denial in a very reckless way."
"Never Die" is available now. www.childactor.net
Luke O'Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.