Yes In My Backyard is a semiweekly column showcasing MP3s from new and emerging local talent.
A mix of desert strum, hypnotic pulse, spirited-away synths, Lynchian weirdness, and Fleetwood Maximalism, it’s not entirely certain if Brooklyn’s Religious to Damn want to take you higher or drag you under. Clad in sequins and a somber stare, lead singer Zohra Atash is a welcome addition to the new generation of soaring, dream-drowning, punk-weaned Kate Bush acolytes (think Zola Jesus, Tamaryn, or Bat for Lashes). But Atash floats on darker smoke and swims in murkier water, allowing moody cymbal washes, harmonium drone, and twangy dobros to guide her way — they call it “gypsy rock” but just know it’s awesome, Goth-y, drifter-loner music. “Glass Prayer,” the title track from their new album (out now, via M’Lady) is a mix of Julee Cruise, 4AD, and old-fashioned rock muscle, all adrift in their usual tangle of mystical imagery and magical slush. “I guess I’ve never thought about it until now, but the elemental, ritualistic, and religious-sounding imagery is probably my way of working through and expressing certain difficult and strange personal experiences,” says Atash. “It’s a way of situating those experiences in a universe where feelings like loss or alienation aren’t quite as dull and harsh as we experience them in real life.”
What is “Glass Prayer” about?
The album is pretty personal, actually. I grew up in the South with somewhat conservative parents, so I came into the city with different sensibilities than most of the people I found myself hanging around. I was approaching all of my relationships with people in a very naïve sort of way and getting burned. The process of writing the music and words was amazing and unbelievably cathartic, but also emotionally draining . . . there’s a lot of glittery words in the lyrics, which was probably my unconsciously literal way of giving a sparkling, mythological quality to things that, on their own, are sort of vicious and unforgiving.
What inspired it musically?
My dad is a musician. A really amazing multi-instrumentalist and singer. He plays the harmonium, mandolin, rhubab, zither . . . I like to think if he didn’t have the pressures of being one of the first exchange students in the States from Afghanistan, he would have quit school for awhile and been in a really awesome psychedelic band. I grew up around him playing every day. I got to sing with him, play percussion with him . . . and he’d take a lot of Western songs and play them on harmonium, and I’d sing along with him. Having grown up with those sounds, I knew I wanted to incorporate them into my music somehow, as a color, using Western song structures as the canvas. I love artists like Peter Gabriel, Dead Can Dance, and Kate Bush, who have unabashedly used “world music” elements in their work. I think it’s super. I was also inspired by films like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, The Night of the Hunter . . . so many! In fact, the front cover of the record is an homage to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I’m Lady Death!
You guys have been getting a lot of Fleetwood Mac comparisons. Do you remember when you first fell in love with the Mac?
There actually wasn’t very much for us to do growing up besides sit at home, bang platters, and play records after my mom’s daily sermons. My dad had Fleetwood Mac records. He trusted me with the record player when I was about three or four. I could pop in whatever I wanted and dance in the living room for hours. Stevie Nicks looked like a Barbie with amazing sparkly outfits. I spent hours twirling along to those records.
You talk a lot about your conservative upbringing. Have your parents weighed in on your new record?
I haven’t given them a copy yet. I think they’ve heard a couple of songs and thought it was nice enough, but probably think the rest of it sounds like a Diamanda Galas-fronted Babes in Toyland — which is what I wanted when I was 13 and learning to play electric guitar. To my parents’ credit, they’d always let me play them music, and I played them all kinds of stuff over the years. My dad saw some documentary on Björk on PBS or something and said to me, “Now that’s a real musician.” My mother was always harder to please. She’d say to me of stuff like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Lou Reed, “It just sounds like talking to me.” I think of the thousands of songs I’ve played for her over the years, she only really liked Radiohead’s “Street Spirit.” Which is fair. It’s a great song.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve played in New York?
I think the last show we played at Glasslands topped them all. Not only was it our record release, it was my birthday, and all of my friends and artists who have supported me from the beginning were involved. It made it this multidimensional, magical experience . . . I couldn’t have been more pleased.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Brooklyn?
There’s a new Indian restaurant on Grand Street called Taj Kabab and Curry that has fantastic vegetarian options, and it’s so scrumptious. And I love the Double Rose’s Restaurant ’cause the ambiance is just like a small restaurant in the South — sweet people making great food.
Religious to Damn play Glasslands on February 6 and Union Pool on February 23.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2011