By December, the temperature in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has usually dropped below freezing, and Williams College undergrads have left for warmer climes. But in December of 2014, Nandi Rose Plunkett, the main force behind the Brooklyn trio Half Waif, brought producer Zubin Hensler in the other direction; the two visited her childhood home to sample sounds for the band’s new album.
“It was cold and blizzard-y,” Plunkett remembers. “There was a lot of ice cracking and the woodstove clanking. That was what became the drums.” They re-recorded synthesizer tracks in order to capture the reverberations of the old walls and, upon returning to New York, assembled the pieces to create, as she puts it, an “homage to where I grew up.”
That was the goal, at least. As much as the finished product, released in May as Probable Depths, captures the sound of a house, it also does the opposite, creating an eerie sort of placelessness in which every element seems slightly out of joint. Described in terms of Tori Amos, whom Plunkett calls “the first musician I ever idolized,” the sound is two parts “Professional Widow,” one part “Professional Widow (Armand’s Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix),” a combination of glitchy percussion and rueful piano that never sits completely still. To Brianne Sperber, who helped book Half Waif for the August 25 edition of Le Poisson Rouge’s “On the Rise” concert series, it’s “Björk meets Tori Amos with an ambient edge.”
Plunkett, now 27, grew up on the Celtic folk music her father loved and the showtunes she aspired to perform on Broadway. She started her first band, Pharaoh, in third grade (“We were probably studying ancient Egypt in school”), and the kids became Williamstown-famous despite the fact that their songs contained only drums and vocals. Later, Plunkett went solo. “It’s such a sad image,” she says, “but I was that girl in high school who would, during lunch period, go in the auditorium when it was dark and turn on the lights and just play piano.”
Then as now, the singer-songwriter-producer loved songs that take a turn with strange or unexpected chords. “I really admire people who are able to use two chords in a song and make [it] great,” she says, citing the guitar-rock band Pinegrove, which she and her bandmates also contribute to. But “I find that writing more intricate chord progressions catapults my songwriting forward.” This concept shows up all over Probable Depths, most clearly on “Overthrown”: Just after Plunkett sings about losing her sense of self, the chord progression drops down a half-step, mirroring her disorientation.
This restlessness gives Half Waif its name. “A waif is someone who doesn’t have a home, who’s destitute,” Plunkett says, “so it’s about me feeling like a half-waif, which for me means someone with many homes but no specific one.” (It’s in her blood: Plunkett’s 66-year-old mother fled Uganda in 1972, after then-president Idi Amin expelled the country’s Indian population, and recently debuted her own one-woman play about the journey.)
Plunkett’s search continued in college, where she jumped from Broadway to classical, but it wasn’t until she began experimenting with synthesizers that she found the sound of Half Waif. “I realized I was still writing in this showtune-y kind of way, so that freaked me out,” she says. “Music technology really opened up a whole world.” Plunkett now composes on Ableton, software that offers a near-infinite degree of musical possibility. “Being a woman, I think [composing] is an important thing for me to do,” she says. “[At] almost every show that I play, either with Half Waif or Pinegrove, people treat me like a groupie until they see me play.”
Onstage, Plunkett flexes her technique, remaking recorded tracks piece by piece and layering acoustic and electronic effects until the distinction blurs. “She really tends to have this complete vision,” says bassist Adan Carlo. “As a band we try to take those ideas and bridge what she can do on the computer to what we can do live.” It’s this fusion that attracted the staff at Le Poisson Rouge. “It struck us as different from what we’d been hearing,” says Sperber. “I felt their energy would really fit the space.”
For Plunkett, this sound — and the technical mastery it requires — is both aesthetic and political. “I constantly feel like I need to prove myself,” she says. “Like, ‘I’m a professional musician, this is what I do.’ And I want people to see that. I want the very, very deep-seated foundation of our culture to shift, even slightly. It means the absolute world to me when I finish playing and younger women come up to me and say, ‘That was really badass.’ ”