Alanna McArdle (Joanna Gruesome) Talks Grouper’s Ruins

Joanna Gruesome’s singer on the “happy-sad” world of Grouper and the overwhelming power of quiet.

Everyone has an artist that they turn to when sadness sets in, when things get overwhelming, and Grouper is mine. As Grouper, Liz Harris has accompanied me through many moments and experiences, like a soundtrack to growing up and realising that things are harder than I ever thought they’d be. So I admit it: this piece will be biased. I don’t think I could fault Grouper if I tried; there’s too much emotional weight I carry with her albums for me ever to feel anything for them but total awe.

Most significantly, I found Grouper when I was diagnosed with depression aged 16, and her work has since carried me through what I suppose I have to call a “journey” of figuring out what the hell is happening to me and why. One of my particularly bad years was spent almost exclusively in the bath listening to Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008). It seemed necessary, it was music as therapy and it worked. But Grouper’s albums do not necessarily encourage indulging in or celebrating melancholy, as certain other highly emotive albums do: listening is almost always an experience of catharsis. Harris’ albums convey an inexplicable feeling I can only describe as “happy-sad.” Nostalgia, in both the joyful and painful senses of the word.

The first time I listened to Ruins, it left me in tears. It is sonically and lyrically devastating. “Clearing,” the second song on the album but the first with vocals, is full of urging. Her tone is one of quiet, fading desperation, and the song ends in both a revelation and a rhetorical question as she wearily professes, “Maybe you were right when you said/I’d never been in love/How can I explain why/it’s safer just to be alone?”

It feels as though the listener is intruding on a private moment, and yes, it feels voyeuristic at times, but it also seems as if Harris is talking to us directly through her music. The intimacy of Ruins offers us the opportunity to project in a way that many other deeply personal albums do not. She invites us into her world.

Ruins was written in 2011 but it offers a contrast to the somewhat disconcerting moods of that year’s double album A I A: Alien Observer/Dream Loss or, for that matter, 2012’s Violet Replacement/Pt. II: Sleep (an album made up of one 51-minute-long tape loop). Unlike most of her lushly produced albums, Ruins does not heavily feature Harris’ trademark layered guitars and washing tape loops. Instead, it was recorded on a four-track, and the piano-based, balladic songs on Ruins are some of her most minimal yet. The stark instrumentation and soft vocals require you to lean in and listen as hard as possible. Even the closing song “Made of Air,” which comprises a subtle, 10-minute ambient drone, is not something you can listen to passively. This starkness is a considered simplicity in the songs: not one of them is cluttered with unnecessary noise, and that helps make this one of Grouper’s most moving albums. The most successful parts of Ruins are the piano-based, almost balladic songs. There is a poignancy in the sense of sonic space you are given in the piano instrumental “Holofernes.” It’s layered with what sounds like a field recording of a forest, while Harris plays a melody that echoes the simplicity of a nursery rhyme; quiet and space seem to be Harris’ chosen themes for this record.

Grouper’s diversity from album to album can be subtle, but the impact is huge. What Harris does each time out is finely hone her powerful and unrelenting hold on the listener. It seems deliberate that she has created a world in which her albums as Grouper exist, each of them one facet of a single narrative structure.

Harris has talked in interviews about letting her emotions pour freely into her songwriting, and listening to her allows you to do the same right back. My emotions spilled into Ruins as I listened, and I was right at home, like I’d entered a space where I was allowed to feel as much as possible. In another interview, she described her sound as “blanket-y,” and that really is the most accurate way to describe what this album is. It’s a blanket, but it’s not just for comfort. Sometimes it offers you the kind of warmth you feel from allowing yourself to be consumed by your fears and your sadness. But ultimately you are confronting yourself, and allowing yourself to let these feelings go.

The next time I listened to the album, it was on a three-hour train ride. It had a sickly addictiveness; I ended up replaying it for the duration of the journey, and the shock of silence when I finally had to remove my headphones jolted me out of the blanket. I wanted back in.

This is the allure of Grouper. I cannot think of one of Harris’ albums that I have not been devoured by. Ruins, like the rest of her catalogue, demands full attention: this is no background music. Harris is innovative in her simplicity. This may seem like a paradox, but her ability to overwhelm and to convey complexities so effortlessly is admirable. The sheer quietness of this album is just one component of this.

The pervasive focus on mood is a defining aspect of Ruins; it’s a perfect example of the emotional and bodily experience of affect. The album achieves a sort of sonic onomatopoeia. It manages surreptitiously to embody and stir sentiment, and what you are left with after listening is an experience of the sublime. Standing on the edge of something far bigger than you, faced with a force that is beautiful in its emotional scale, you revel in the overwhelmingness of it all.

Alanna McArdle used to sing in Joanna Gruesome. You can follow her Twitter here, and follow her Tumblr here.