Hallie Bateman and Josephine Livingstone, the duo behind the experimental outfit Space Heaters, met first on purpose, and then by accident.
Bateman, an artist and illustrator currently based in Los Angeles, was living in Brooklyn when she was invited to present at the Washington Square Arts Club, a lecture series that writer and academic Livingstone ran from NYU’s English department. Bateman would be giving what was described as an “illustrated introduction to bicycles and bike riding.”
“I was late to my own performance, though,” she says over email, “because I got lost. I felt really bad, but Jo was very nice about it!” (Livingstone remembers the meeting with similar warmth, saying that Bateman’s presentation “knocked my socks off.”)
A few weeks later, the two ran into each other at a café and learned that they lived in the same neighborhood. They became friends and, upon recognizing they shared similar aesthetic sensibilities, creative collaborators. Bateman illustrated a piece that Livingstone wrote for the Awl called “The Sound of Rain,” which focused on the musical qualities found in that particular form of precipitation (“Rain sound is like opera…in that it is music, not noise…. Noise without dynamics is just silence with a different color”). It was a piece that bore thematic similarities to a blog post Bateman had written a year prior (but that Livingstone had not read) called “rain sounds.” Bateman took this coincidence as a clue that the pair were kindred spirits; it was only natural that a band should follow.
Both Bateman and Livingstone have moderate music training behind them. Bateman took a few years’ worth of piano lessons as a kid. “My idea of playing piano well was playing fast, so I’d just practice a song until I could play it as quickly as possible, even if it was a slow classical piece or something,” she says. She also grew up with lots of animals and adds, “Learning to whistle was a big deal. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional whistler. We’d whistle to call the dogs in or to talk to our pet birds.”
Bateman continued to play music as an adult, but in a very private way. She’d play her harmonica in an empty park, or her keyboard alone in her room with all her lights off. “Jo was the first person who made me feel like my way of making music, which felt like play, was valid and wonderful.”
Livingstone has a more traditional musical background, having played the cello and guitar since she was a kid and sung in choirs while in school in England. Right now, she owns an acoustic guitar from Craigslist, a recorder, and a harmonica. She calls herself a musician in an “outsider-y, bedroom way.”
Bedrooms are a big theme on Space Heaters’ seven-track EP, which features such song titles as “airconditioning,” “Day,” and “Night Rain Go to Sleep.” The two recorded the whole of the work in their bedrooms, often from their actual beds. It’s a quiet, atmospheric experiment, the sonic equivalent of light streaming through a gauzy curtain on a Sunday afternoon. There is very little in the way of vocals, unless you count Bateman’s whistling or the occasional break into muted giggles. There are some recognizable sounds coming from a guitar, a harmonica, a keyboard, but many of the noises are sourced elsewhere. Bateman collects sounds, recording moments from her life: birds singing in her backyard, kids playing around her neighborhood, the buzz of an air conditioner, cicadas, rain falling. Some of the noises are less organic, the result of the pair tapping or shaking things to simulate sounds of nature. At one point, Bateman scrunches a sanitary pad.
The songs are sometimes quite pretty, but in an unmeasured way, the way that patterns in nature can captivate before taking a sharp turn, here represented by an unexpected chord or recorded noise. Listening to the EP for the first time, I was reminded of the noise compilations from the no-wave scene of the late 1970s, in which artists, writers, and other creative types in downtown New York became guerrilla musicians, often picking up instruments but just as likely incorporating the sound of a power drill or freezer as an antithesis to conventional music. Yet while no-wave purported to have no overarching aesthetic, there was something self-serious about it. Space Heaters, by comparison, take a soft and playful approach to their experiments — think Lydia Lunch at a slumber party.
“I think the goal was to give voice to these small moments,” says Bateman of recording the EP. “ ‘Night Rain Wake Up’ was this moment we really connected with, the blissful feeling of waking up to rain outside your window, and you don’t have to go anywhere; you can just lie there listening to it. This beautiful moment of perfection. When I listen to that song, I can go back to it.”