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Girls in the Grass

The band Lovers parlays their passion for vintage sequencers into a sound that pays tribute to the late 1980s and early 1990s, but resists nostalgia—or worse, faux-nostalgic hipster irony. Musicians Kerby Harris and Emily Kingan create compressed electronic soundscapes that form a backdrop to the subtle variations in lead singer and lyricist Carolyn Berk’s girlish alto. A little breathy, a little tremulous, it is the imperfections in Berk’s voice that give Lovers’ songs their urgency, creating a counterpoint to the drone of the synthesizers and Berk’s own understated vocal delivery.

The Portland, Oregon-based trio is slated to perform at Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar on Saturday, October 19, headlining Ambush, Buffalo’s monthly party for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. As the choice of venue implies, the members of the band are openly queer-identified, and the politics of desire make a prominent appearance in their music. Indeed, Lovers’ song “Figure 8,” from their 2010 album Darklight, is the best gay rights anthem in a decade, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” notwithstanding. Avoiding the just-be-yourself clichés and awkward racial metaphors that plague Gaga’s famous single, Lovers present their homage to queer existence in calmly unapologetic terms, dismissing homophobic detractors with the declaration: “They don’t pray as hard as I ache.”

Lovers’ most recent album, A Friend in the World, released last month, foregoes declarative political anthems to explore more emotionally complex territory. Sporting song titles like “The Modern Art Museum of the Modern Kiss Goodbye” and “James Baldwin and the Diagonal Trance,” Berk’s lyrics resist easy interpretation. Ferris and Kingan match the obliqueness of the album’s lyrics with off-kilter rhythms that complement, but no longer march in lockstep with, Berk’s singing. In a recent interview with Artvoice, Emily Kingan explained that this new sound stems from Lovers’ desire for greater artistic autonomy: “When we were writing Darklight, we used a vintage sequencer to produce almost all of the melodic and much of the rhythmic components of the song. Using this sequencer was rather limiting as far as the complexity of the arrangements. For A Friend in the World, we wanted to move past that limitation and we progressed by starting to use software instead. We wanted to have more control over the songs this time.” The result is an album to which listeners can dance, or brood, with equal pleasure.

The band considers touring and performing to be political acts, regardless of the lyrical content of their songs. Kingan explains that the function of a Lovers show is to reinforce community-building in the cities they visit, and to temporarily embed themselves within local communities: “I think it feels political to exchange ideas with members of a community that is different than our own. It is important to see how different communities live and what they experience, the difficulties they face, the joys they feel…You take that information with you, it becomes part of you, and you may act differently or treat people differently because of it. It keeps your mind engaged and it reminds you that there are many ways to live. It reminds you to be compassionate and respectful, to be humble, to trust and not to judge.”

Kingan, the daughter of a longtime Buffalo area resident, spent “many a summer just outside of Buffalo visiting my grandparents.” She looks forward to revisiting Buffalo’s communities, observing that both the city and its artistic and queer subcultures seem to have found new life in recent years. Noting the enthusiasm with which the organizers of Ambush have welcomed Lovers, Kingan writes, “Buffalo always seemed like a bit of a mystery to me. As a child, we hardly ever went to Buffalo proper. It felt super desolate. Later, as an adult, it was hard for me to book shows there, and hard for me to find access to a community there. It is only in the last five years that I have been able to gain access to a community of people there, and actually get to know the city as an adult, as an artist, as a queer person. It has been really interesting and I am excited to explore it more!”

The emotionally raw, metaphor-laden synth pop of Lovers may seem like a strange musical departure for the band’s members: although Berk has performed under the name Lovers for over a decade, Harris’s musical background is in experimental metal, while readers may know Kingan as one half of feminist hardcore band The Haggard. Such a shift does have precedents: a number of queer and feminist artists—most notably, Kathleen Hanna, Gossip, and Tami Hart—have transitioned from guitar-driven rock to electro-pop. Kingan, however, demurs when asked how Lovers fits into this larger trend, declaring that she and others “are just making the music we want to make.” Kingan goes on to point out that electronic music has long influenced her, even though that influence may not always have been obvious: “On the Haggard CD, A Bike City Called Greasy…about 10 minutes after the last song ends, you will hear a hidden track come on, which is an electronic song I made on my computer. I played hardcore in the band the Haggard because it was cathartic for me. It felt powerful to play guitar really hard and scream about all the things I felt angry about. But when the Haggard was back in the tour van, we were listening to Björk.”

Ultimately, Kingan argues, accessibility and danceability are what matters in Lovers’ music. “I think the trend to make electronic music is spreading because it is more and more accessible to people, and it is more and more what people want to listen to. You can dance to it!” Although a moving beat may pique some listeners’ interest in the broader political and emotional terrain of Lovers’ music, what matters most is the emotional connection and community Lovers plan on creating on Saturday, when a group of Buffalonians come together to hear their music and, hopefully, dance together.

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