Say Lou Lou Talk Sisterhood, Cinema, and the Sounds of ‘Immortelle’
Fitting artists into genres is largely an exercise in futility, especially with the selection of available descriptors growing more and more with every passing year. One label often thrown about is that of “dream pop,” and reductive as it may be, it seems rather appropriate for the music of Say Lou Lou. The Swedish-Australian duo of twin sisters Miranda Anna and Elektra June Kilbey-Jannson has a cinematic bent that makes for exceptionally vivid soundscapes.
The duo’s latest album, “Immortelle,” is their first independent release, and it fittingly showcases the band taking their craft to new levels, with the type of thorough realization that full creative control facilitates. It’s an eclectic album, incorporating disparate influences from various musical eras, but blending them with the sisters’ signature aesthetic, and resulting in a singular, cohesive work. The record has been released alongside a haunting, surreal accompanying short film, titled “The Immortelle Manifesto,” which expands on the central message at hand.
The Kilbey-Jannson sisters met with Entertainment Voice for an in-depth conversation, spanning everything from their upbringing in a musical family, the dynamic between two sisters, the influence of cinema, and of course, the sounds and stories behind their brilliant new album.
From hearing you speak, you both sound neither completely Australian not completely Swedish. Moreover, your new, spectacular record is titled “Immortelle,” which although an English word, still has the ring of its French origin. It seems like you have a Cosmopolitan outlook. How would you say this makes its way into your art?
Miranda: I think we are eclectic in all art that we consume and make. I think we put everything into what we do and what we like. We love European sophistication and, sort of, essence, but at the same time we love the organic natural Australian or Californian feeling, so it’s split down the middle in all of our inspirations. I also don’t like feeling confined in anything I do. I think that being able to include anything that inspires should have to happen. Otherwise, there’s no point.
You come from a musical family, with your father Steve Kilbey, singer of The Church, and your mother Karin Jannson, member of Pink Champagne. You’ve recorded a captivating reimagining of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way Tonight.” How have your parents’ respective influences made their way into your music or your approach, and could you cite some specific examples?
Miranda: I think it’s on a very general, human level — their creativity. Everything you choose to do, whether it’s how you eat or interior decorate, or go on holidays. All of those choices are informed by fluidity, and it’s also a bit erratic, but also very purposeful and loving.
With our dad, I think it’s how we listen to music. Since we could talk, we were always talking about music — discussing, analyzing, researching the musician and influences, the choice of instruments — from a critical, analytical point of view. At the same time, it also comes from just having an intuitive feeling about music. It just puts me in a certain place, and it’s a way for me to express myself, and express a feeling, like a taste or smell or something. It’s such a deep part of my core. For our mom, it was almost more political. For her, I think it was a way of expressing her opinions. I think we have both of those sides, going into music.
You’ve left the corporate music industry, and taken creative control for your latest album, “Immortelle.” What are the most major ways that that has made a difference, and the ways that this record stands out from your debut, “Lucid Dreaming?”
Miranda: I think the biggest difference is the process, and I think that the process, at the end of the day, is the art. A lot of the time, we were flung all over the world, doing promotions, forced writing sessions with random people, with that whole corporate way of looking at music, which is speed dating basically. From that, a few good things came out, I guess. But I think mostly, it was just stress, inconsistency, not feeling heard, not feeling like you were in your element. And I think what ended up happening with “Lucid Dreaming” was that it was really scattered. It wasn’t one creative process, just us running around, doing ten things at once. I think looking back, it was the best thing we could do at that point, but I think we came out feeling that there was no follow-through, no condensed process. I think what we wanted was to feel safe, like we could really dive into something. We wanted to put everything into the same place at the same time, where Elektra and I were in control of the whole process.
This time, it was a really small group of people. It was us making exactly what we wanted until it was done. We were in complete control of the process, in terms of who we brought in and how we did it, and it we had a really clear idea, and it came naturally, and it was really loving and really consistent. I don’t think that a corporate music world really allows that process to take place very often because everything is a rush job. Everything is instant gratification. It’s completely eliminating the human connection factor from collaborative processes. And I’m not shitting on that way of working. I think it works for some people, but it didn’t make me feel like I was being true to myself. [This time] every musician we brought in got to do their part, and there was love in every single choice, and we were part of every single thing that’s in there.
Your voices mesh together in a way that gives your sound a lot of its distinctive character. While they sometimes blend together in a bit of a haze, there are also plenty of clear harmonies, and also a lot of times when you can hear one voice in a more breathy tone and another in a deeper one. Being twin sisters, have you each, at this point, developed your own usual tendencies when it comes to singing? Do you each tend to take up different singing roles when putting a song together? If so, who typically takes on which role(s)?
Miranda: Definitely. Elektra has a way huskier voice, and I don’t know if that is because she smoked more cigarettes than me growing up, but I also did singing for ten years in an a capella choir, so I think I have grown my range more. So I think our tendency is for me to always do more chorus, and more higher range, and more adlibs, and falsetto. And Elektra can do both lead and huskier, low octave, low harmony type things.
And we also find that our voices work different on different mics. That’s also another process that’s been so fun. It’s such a discovery just trying everything. It’s really fun to actually see how much theses small choices help you with your vocal performance. We would set up two mics in the room, and Elektra would be on her mic, and I’d be on mine, and we’d be singing to each other on different mics, and our voices would be blending together. We would start off doing that for the choruses, together in the room. And then we would go in and do our harmonies, sometimes live together, but always on different mics. We want to create two characters — a low, husky, sort of serious, mysterious character, countered by something more airy and sweet. The songs are jumping between those two characters.
On a related note, how has your being twins influenced your creative process? On one hand, writing with someone who’s naturally so much like you might make writing and performing seamless. On the other hand, it might, in a way, bring less variety to the table than two creative partners would normally have, as you both presumably share more instincts. What do you think?
Miranda: I think yes and no to both things. There is a seamlessness and intuitive connection which, in one way, makes it easier. But with that comes being our own worst critics. It’s sort of like censoring in that way, where we’re not always allowing each other to be flawed versions of ourselves. Because there’s so much history and care, we also really know how to make the other person feel safe, and good about themselves too, so there are two sides to that.
But we always collaborate with other people. We always invite one or more other influences into the project. I think it was only us doing everything, maybe that would be too self-indulgent and one sided, but I think because we always collaborate with other people, we don’t end up in that place really. It’s an interesting question because sometimes I do feel that when we work apart, you are challenged more to step outside of your comfort zone because you don’t have the other person to back you up
Your love of the ‘70s is something that clearly makes its way into your fashion, and you’ve spoken before of how one thing that appeals to you about that decade is the decadence. The new album indeed seems very decadent, especially in the over-the-top production — elaborate string arrangements and all. Do you agree? Expand on the instrumental and production choices you made on this record, and what inspired these choices.
Miranda: I think the ‘70s, as much as the ‘60s and the ‘80s. We picked stuff a little bit from all these eras. There are a lot of film score references in this, which are extremely elaborate, quite over the top, that we’ve always been drawn to. I think there’s an air of decadence, definitely, in what we like, and sort of this weird luxury that’s also hollow — the thing about Hollywood that’s also exciting — like the feeling of noir, or of just excess. It’s so hollow, but there’s something in that space that’s exciting — just the surface and the depth.
From the production, originally we were like, “So what would happen if we do our take on trip-hop?” Most of it is sample-based, very limited amount of tracks. If you look at the most famous Portishead songs, it’s usually based on a string sample, for example on “Sour Times.” I thought what if we’re inspired by that way of approaching things, but we make our own samples and create the string samples ourselves — like Bernard Herman, George Martin, Ennio Morricone — look at all those string arrangements, and take it from there. We still like the idea of the lo fi drums — the sampled feeling. And then, moving on, we wanted this decadent, sxy noir string world, so we wanted to counter that with something warmer. I think there was a lot of French — like Air, and how they use their synths, and how warm and organic they feel, and really musical, but still really sexy. We also wanted something that felt acoustic guitar-ey and Californian because we were in California. “Golden Child,” “Immortelle,” and “Phantom” have acoustic guitars. We wanted to be mysterious, sexy, and also have a playful, warm electronic element, but definitely decadent. We went over the top, recorded a whole string section, and played a lot with echo chambers, and running it through tape, and trying to find that perfect sound, feeling sort of spooky and noir-ey. Melodically, we wanted it to be really suave and sensual and sexy, and we wanted the harmonies to sound like we were playing off the strings with the vocal harmonies as well.
How much of an influence is Portishead?
Miranda: I’ve always liked Portishead, like a lot of people from our generation. For me, as a singer, I really like Beth Gibbons’ voice because it’s so frail, but also so incredibly sensual and powerful at the same time. I always identify with, and love, non singer-ey singers, and how expressive and sexy it becomes. Portishead is so dirty, but also so elegant. “Ana” was the first song that we wrote. The first half was obviously influenced by Portishead, in terms of the drums and vocal effects. It just feels more in that world. By the second chorus, we open it up, and the drums completely open up, and we take that loose-ey feeling out of it, and let the whole arrangement explode. It’s almost as if we do the trip-hop, and then we completely take the lids off, and let it explode into some sort of orchestral arrangement. So start in trip-hop, and then completely jump out of there.
Please expand on the inspiration behind the lead single “Ana,” particularly the eponymous character. Also, was Portishead an influence sonically?
Miranda: I always feel really pretentious when I discuss this. When we started off, we were playing around with an idea of the seven deadly sins, and we started looking into “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie,” and the opera follows the destiny of Anna I and Anna II. They travel through seven different big cities of America, and in every city, they see a different sin, and they have to deal with it somehow, and they both have very different approaches. One ends up in trouble, and the other’s the more thoughtful, pensive, critical one. And what you find out at the end of the journey is that Anna I and Anna II are, in fact, one person. They’re sisters, but they’re actually one person. So we like playing with the idea of the two sides in yourself. That’s what “Ana” is — wanting the other one to love you, but also completely showing that one off — like the evil and good inside of you, but less black and white. But it could be anything you want it to be. That’s just the backstory. Also, on a slightly superstitious note, “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie,” was published on the same day as we were born, on the seventh of June.
It seems a recurrent lyrical theme in the new album concerns the idea of love being all good in spite of any hurt involved. In “All Love to Me,” you sing, “Oh, all the pain that we breed / It’s all, it’s all love to me,” and in “Limbo,” you sing, “’Cause all is fair in love and war.” Expand on this idea.
Miranda: “All Love to Me” is about our relationship. It basically chronicles how the bad in ourselves is the bad in the other person. So we’re seeing all the pain, havoc, and ruin, but it’s still all love. There’s so much pain, but also so much love, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Our sisterhood is dynamic, and you couldn’t have one without the other. We wouldn’t want to live a day without the other person, but at the same time, I want to kill her. You love the other person more than anyone else in the world. “Limbo” is more about how romance and seduction and dating and all that stuff is always like a game, and it becomes like a dance of us watching ourselves. It’s like theater almost.
In “Phantoms,” you declare, “I believe in phantoms baby.” Do you really?
Miranda: I think in the particular case of “Phantoms,” it’s about wanting to believe in something, that someone is still here, like when someone passes away, that their spirit or essence is in the air. You want to believe that. It gets into the much broader sense, like do you believe in reincarnation? Do you believe in life after death? What is being alive? What is consciousness? I think in this song, it’s all about the desperation of losing someone, and wanting to believe something you so you feel you haven’t lost the person completely.
Elektra, you’ve described how you had mood boards and visuals, and constantly referenced films and watched clips while creating the new album. The record sounds strikingly cinematic from start to finish, so this certainly seems to have worked brilliantly, and new album’s accompanying short film, “The ‘Immortelle’ Manifesto,” seems a highly informed piece of work. What are some particular films that inspired both the album and the film?
Elektra: I think how we work with film is that when we write music, we like painting a whole picture that’s visual, audio, simulating different senses. So when we’re setting a scene for writing a song, we watch different clips that have the mood of the song we want to write. We were looking at spy dramas and old Bond movies, and certain scenes in which anticipation would rise. We were watching Eyes Wide Shut. And we were handpicking scenes we felt were embodying the moment, rather than certain types of movies. We were looking at ‘60s and ‘70s movies, classic ones like Swedish Bergman movies, kind of your run-of-the-mill art movies (laughs,) but it was more particular scenes that we were referencing.
Miranda, you’ve described the spoken word segment that concludes “The ‘Immortelle’ Manifesto,” as “our ode to eradicating the double standards and limiting definitions around the female self.” The concluding lines are “You are multidimensional / You are undefined / You don’t have to make sense.” Please expand on what the last line means to you.
Miranda: You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to put yourself into a bracket for someone to understand you. You can keep evolving. You can have double meanings. You can say one thing, but then change your mind the next day. We’re dealt a role, and then we’re supposed to play that, and if we change outside that, people get confused, or dislike you, or hold you accountable for what you once were. There are limited roles given out to women. You can see that in films, about ten different roles that women have. Each and every movie always has that. You’re given this one character, and you’re not really supposed to move outside that because it gets confusing, or you’re not likeable, or you don’t make sense. The point of the manifesto is that you are undefined. You are multidimensional You don’t make sense. We’re all these different things at once. Women are — as much as men — creatures who are constantly expanding and dividing and changing. That’s the glory of us. I think women, for so long, have been confined, and put into small, little pockets of what we’re allowed to be, and I think that needs to change, and it is changing. And that’s what the manifesto is about.
“Immortelle” is available on Oct. 26 Apple Music.