On New Album, Shy Girls Explores the Dark Side of R&B
Shy Girls maestro Dan Vidmar, Eugene, Oregon in 2015
Photo by Green Eyes Media
With two EPs, a mixtape, and endless touring under his belt, Dan Vidmar is well past the introduction stage. Still, the multi-instrumental textures heard across his catalog and the plurality of his stage name, Shy Girls, add confusion to the narrative surrounding the Pennsylvania native. "[Shy Girls] has always been a solo project at its heart, but I've always also had a full band live," says Vidmar. "The guys in the band are also on the recordings and play a little bit on the album."
The entire cohort, a quartet comprising Vidmar, Akila Fields, Ingmar Carlson, and Noah Bernstein, is wrapping up a tour behind Salt, Shy Girls' official full-length debut, out on Hit City U.S.A. since January. But the album is a product of Vidmar's singular vision. He deconstructed his own struggles with universal quandaries — like the feeling that we become both stronger and more vulnerable as time passes by — and reassembled the pieces into a grand, cohesive whole.
Vidmar spent most of his mid-twenties in Portland, watching his adoptive city undergo dramatic changes and waving goodbye to friends who decided that their futures lay elsewhere. Eventually, he too looked farther afield, spending most of the past year in Los Angeles. This repositioning of both physical and mental frames of reference coincided with an instinctive evolution in his approach to making music. "I'm moving on to the next stage of life in a lot of ways, and the things I contemplate and want to write about as an artist have naturally changed," he explains. Previous efforts zeroed in on specific people and relationships in his life, like the character from the Timeshare EP who doesn't know him like she should ("Still Not Falling") or the one whose face he doesn't want to see around anymore ("Second Heartbeat"). Salt finds Vidmar grappling with broader existential conundrums. "As I get older it feels like everything is moving quicker and then — even at different points of the [same] day — it moves slower," he says.
The interrogation of time — having too much or not enough or feeling otherwise powerless against its inexorable forward march — is present throughout the album. But that preoccupation runs alongside tales of growth, love, forgiveness, and acceptance, each delivered with the type of clarity that usually, hopefully, follows a period of upheaval. Salt is heavy with this reflection, delivered via deep synths, smooth guitar riffs, and an unexpected but perfectly executed woodwind arrangement on "What If I Can." Around the time of his breakthrough EP in 2013, Shy Girls was placed in the "pbr&b" category du jour, which swept up artists like the Weeknd and Miguel. Vidmar understands the impulse to pigeonhole but doesn't necessarily endorse it. "Nobody wants to get thrown into a 'hip' [subgenre], because once you get lumped into that sort of a thing, it's hard to escape when it inevitably dies," he says. "For me at least, the music I've made has always been inspired by many different things that aren't even r&b-related."
Classic rock, Sixties folk, and experimental music are just a few; what matters to Vidmar is how they come together. "Why I Love" boasts a dreamy guitar melody that nods to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," while "You Like the Pain Too" lands firmly in piano ballad territory. Vidmar was already working on Salt by the time he released the 4WZ mixtape in 2015. The self-released tape had four features, including one apiece from rappers Rome Fortune and Junglepussy. This time around, he wanted the album to spotlight a lone voice — aside from the backing support on standout "Trivial Motion," Vidmar's mellow timbre represents the only vocals on the album. Jon Castelli helped him achieve the sense of overall unity that characterizes Salt, overseeing recording sessions, co-producing several songs, and mixing the completed collection. "He usually comes to me with a fleshed-out idea: lyrics and melodies," Castelli says of their process. The two met through a mutual friend when Vidmar was working on 4WZ, and they have collaborated several times since, coming to trust each other's instincts. "We may tweak it from there, but most of the time I lean toward the artist['s vision] so they can get behind their lyrics and get audiences to connect with them. That's the most important part."
Vidmar agrees. That curious stage name notwithstanding, the whole reason to create and especially to tour, he says, "is to see your audience and experience something with them together in a room. Everything else is just getting you to that point."
Shy Girls plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 10.
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