words by sammy maine
main photo by landon speers // photos by phillip j randall
When are we ever truly ourselves? Our own self, our own identity can shift and alter in different company, in different circumstance, in different time and space. We have moments when we are unable to recognise ourselves, as the fog of self-imposed expectation diminishes what’s already there; the pressure to harness a certain digestible identity in a postconventional world rendering an ongoing, internal battle.
Articulating the beauty and strife in these battles is Nandi Rose Plunkett and her project Half Waif. Plunkett writes songs about trying to love, to be our best selves and the wonderful, frightening, scintillating, never-ending and sometimes harrowing mess that comes with discovering who we are and ultimately, who we want to be. Half Waif’s latest release – the tantalizing form/a EP – is an avant-garde, pop-structured gift that feels both huge and hand-made. It speaks of the pain and joy in self-discovery through soaring, severed percussion; it indulges self-doubt through Plunkett’s authentic and authoritative voice that dips into a hushed admittance as quickly as it announces an undeniable truth – an axiom of owning everything we love and hate about ourselves.
Plunkett herself describes Half Waif as “mood ring pop” on the band’s Facebook page, so it’s not surprising that the first song on form/a, “Severed Logic”, opens with the line “I’m so aware of all my moods / all my moods / around you”. It’s about entering a new partnership and the fear of that crumbling to a stark nothingness. “I think the beauty of it is that in entering any kind of partnership or relationship, whether it’s romantic or a friendship, you’re kind of creating a mirror,” she says as we chat in the corner of a noisy Cardiff pub. “You’re seeing yourself reflected back to you from this other person by the way they react to what you’re doing and that’s an opportunity to be a better you. I think in that sense it can be a good thing, being so aware of these moods, but it can also be really painful.”
Plunkett reveals that she has become more aware of an intense “moodiness” with herself over the past year and the realisation that this no longer affects just her but the people around her too. “I’ve come to see moods as part of my identity. I’m that person who feels things really intensely and I don’t necessarily want to give that up but in seeing the way that ripples out and is no longer just a part of my own identity but is sort of a domino effect concerning other people, then it’s like ‘Okay, well do I have to change this? Do I have to better myself and be a better me?’ Or is it like, am I going to end up giving up this very important part of who I’ve become.” Plunkett is able to harness this “moodiness” within her work – that feeling things so severely or intensely can attribute to her writing in a positive way. She jokes that that’s maybe why she’s a songwriter in the first place, so she is able to mind these “ups-and-downs” to create art. “When it’s not just me, then it’s maybe more of a problem,” she says.
Being in Europe, Plunkett is reminded of her time studying abroad at Goldsmith’s in London. She reveals that she keeps a journal and has been thinking of her time there, writing down those memories as she passed through the capital city just the day before. “It was a really formative time in my life where I was living alone for the first time, in a city for the first time, within the first couple of weeks I cut all my hair off, I had really really short hair for the first time, I spent a lot of time alone which was really challenging but ultimately made me grow so much,” she continues. “So as I was driving through London, now six years later, I saw this self that came into selfhood in London – like, this part of me that took shape and took form. This part of me didn’t exist before I was in London and that’s still a part of me today.”
As we talk of presenting different selves to different people Plunkett rightly attributes this kind of thinking to sounding “inauthentic”; she instead offers up the “multifaceted” aspect of our beings, describing it as “the coolest thing”. “We’re just all on this constant quest of figuring out who we are. Who am I when I’m living alone in London for the first time? Well, I didn’t know that person because I couldn’t know her when I was in college in Ohio. So that’s really exciting to me – that we’re constantly taking shape in new ways.”
Taking shape is a central theme throughout Plunkett’s work and particularly on form/a. The idea of taking formless feelings and moods and ideas and trying to give shape to them, to project them outward to the world. “Having a lot of moods, it doesn’t matter to me, it’s not affecting me, it’s part of who I am but when it’s reflected back to other people, you want to bundle it up in a way that’s appropriate or you want to figure out the right shape of yourself to present to someone else,” she says.
Writing for form/a began in December 2015 when Plunkett embarked on a writing retreat in Western Massachusetts. Living with her partner in a one-bed apartment in New York City meant that she was unable to find the space to be creatively free – “physical space mirrors so much of your mental space” – so she set out to find a physical environment that inspired. However, it didn’t match the high productivity that Plunkett had envisioned it would accomplish. “At the end of that week I felt so broken down,” she says. “I felt like I hadn’t written anything; I felt like I was not as productive as I wanted to be, I felt like I didn’t remember who that lonely girl was anymore, I couldn’t tap into that.”
This “lonely girl” attributes to an identity that Plunkett had once enveloped; a girl who never felt she would find love when those around her had established stable partnerships years before. Now, 3 years into her own serious relationship, she admits that she felt this previous awareness of solitude allowed her to create better art. “I thought that if I go sequester myself in the country where I grew up, I’m going to meet that girl again and I’m going to write from that place again and that wasn’t what happened,” she continues. “I was fraught with self doubt all week. I was scared because it was dark and it was quiet and I felt dependent on my partner and suddenly I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“There’s just so much about humans and us setting high standards for ourselves but when I went back and looked through the material that I had, I wrote ‘Night Heat’ ‘Magic Trick’ and ‘Frost Burn’ up there and I feel like they sound like they’re part of a body of work and that was when I really started thinking that I wanted this to be an EP. I wanted this to be a smaller, format.”
Western Massachusetts is where Plunkett grew up and as she tells me about her childhood – “I spent so much time outside and we had the big back yard; I played alone a lot,” – it’s clear that her vivid imagination and her evident love of nature is something that inspires her throughout her work. Growing up with one sibling, a sister six years older, the pair’s age-gap meant that they never really found a common connection, so Plunkett would often play alone. “My mom said she would look out of the window and I would be talking to myself in the yard for hours!” she says. “We had a rope swing, we had a big trampoline. I had a really happy childhood and I had the craziest imagination and I would just play by myself all the time. So I loved being outside.”
Plunkett’s family home was also across the street from a cemetery – “I only felt scared on Halloween but most of the time, it was just really peaceful” – and her love of the spooky and the supernatural extended way beyond her adolescence. Crystals adorn Half Waif merch and Plunkett often posts images on Instagram of her latest crystal finds. “They’re just such beautiful, physical objects,” she says, beaming as the subject comes up. “The fact that they have a power to them is so incredible to me so I’ve started looking into that a little bit more. I have a few crystals – my partner got me this bag with seven different stones with each corresponding to the chakras in your body and have ailments that it works towards. I can’t say I’ve seen crystals specifically work but there’s something just correlating the mind with a physical object that really comforting to me. Even if it’s a placebo it doesn’t matter – if it works for you, then it works.”
The theme of the supernatural is clearly something Plunkett feels passionate about as the conversation moves on to the magic of dreams. She explains that she’s a vivid dreamer – something which is evident throughout her music – so it’s not surprising when she reveals the use of a ‘dream-cycle’ when writing new material. “Nest” from Probable Depths, for example, was written purely based on a dream. Plunkett had written a 10-minute dream cycle – “these little pop song nuggets where one went into the other all based on different dreams” – which caused the creation of the single, while last track “Tactilian” was also part of that specific dream cycle.
“I always wake up and tell my partner about them or I write them down. I love dreaming. I love it. I have been tweeting some of my more poignant dreams; the other night, I dreamt about this woman, this witch with long black hair, this plump, beautiful witch who came to me and said “Never underestimate your power.” Like, who is this woman?!” I offer that maybe Plunkett had created her in a time of pre-release anxiety. “Yes. Someone to give me something to hold on to,” she agrees.
“I want to do more with writing about dreams and interestingly, I’ve been having more nightmares lately where I call out in my sleep and my partner will wake me up and be like ‘Woah, you were yelling’ and I really remember those too so there’s this kind of darker, underpinning too to these more fantastical dreams,” she continues. “There’s that dark side that comes through too which is also really interesting to me. That you can live our such terror and horror while you’re safe and you’re sleeping.”
“I’ve also felt in terms of depending on someone, I’ve found that when I’m having those scary dreams, I think if I scream loud enough in my dream, my partner will wake up and wake me up; it’s like I need him to get me out of the nightmare. Whereas when I’m alone, I don’t have that other person to jolt me out of it. I think dreams really does factor into the music and I’m glad that you heard that.”
Another influence upon Plunkett’s music but perhaps more on her identity and sense of self is her 95-year-old grandmother. If you follow Half Waif on instagram, she’ll regularly pop up thanks to the band’s hectic touring schedule allowing Plunkett to see her more often (her grandmother lives in Kent, England) and there’s an evident surge of love and energy that surrounds Plunkett as she discusses the effect her grandmother has had on her. “She is just one of my absolute favourite people on the planet. I feel so close to her. I feel like I can learn so much from her,” Plunkett explains. “She’s pretty much deaf now and she lives alone which is incredible. She’s really scared of going into a care home. She’s been doing amazingly well; she climbs up the stairs and when I stay there in her house, she cooks this amazing Indian food.
“She has had such an interesting life. She grew up in Lahore and her family were Hindus so they were kind of forced to leave so she lost her home there, ended up in Uganda when my Grandfather saw her photo – he was looking for a wife for an arranged marriage and was given her photo – and decided to pick her. So when she was 18 she came over to Uganda, within a year she had her first kid and Uganda is where my mom grew up and then in the early 70s, Idi Amin took over the country, expelled all the Indians so granny lost her home again.
“My mom and her siblings, they all became refugees. Luckily, they had a house in Kent because my mom and her siblings all went to school in Ashford and so they moved to England. Within a year, my grandfather died of a heart attack leaving my granny who was in her 50s with the four kids, lost her home, all of a sudden she’s living in England and she’s been in that same house since then.” When I suggest it might be because it was the only home she didn’t lose, Plunkett nods. “Exactly.”
It turns out this feeling of home is something that Plunkett has been thinking about a lot. She explains that she had a stable, good childhood – aside from her parent’s divorce – and that it was her who was the refugee and it was her granny who lost her home twice. “Their story is so a part of me and it’s so strange, this story. I feel like they’ve become a part of me and now I feel like I’ve created my life around not having a home because I’m a touring musician. I hadn’t thought of it before I just said that but it’s really interesting that that’s now become my narrative too by my choosing.”
Having written and performed as Half Waif for the past few years, Plunkett is open about her doubts of ever ‘making it’ – that voice in the back of her head that says something’s not working. “To some people, the fact that I’ve self-released two full-lengths and an EP, doesn’t look good,” she says. “There is just so much self-doubt and I need to quiet that voice because now things are starting to happen and I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different necessarily – it just takes time. You just have to keep at it.”
Plunkett attributes this self-doubt to a “cruel vicious cycle”, one that renders us unable to celebrate our successes when they’re happened as we’re always wanting to be one step further. “I don’t ever want to get to that point where it’s the things that I wanted a year ago, I’ve gotten now and I’m like ‘yeah whatever, I don’t care about that now’. I forget to take the time to appreciate things that are going on – like, I say to myself ‘Nandi, look around. Look at the steps that you’ve taken. Celebrate yourself. Don’t just take it for granted as like ‘okay what’s the next bigger thing?’”
Plunkett and her intricate, exuberant exploration of identity and love and the self is a cause for celebration; form/a has resolutely ushered in an enthusiasm for a band that’s been a best-kept secret for far too long. “Even if I thought it was going to be this smaller, little drop in the darkness, I do hope that [form/a] is being perceived as a step forward,” Plunkett says.
When I ask about new material, Plunkett pauses, before offering a thoughtful, prudent response. “I’m constantly wanting to try new things and have the opportunity to expand and change the story as much as we change our identities and expand upon those,” she says. “Something that I come back to a lot is the contrast between the stark and the textural compared to the organic and the soft. The title form/a: very romantic, beautiful word, depicts form – the slash is very hard, it severs it, it’s a very concrete separation of an otherwise fluid and wilting phrase. I’m happy to say that it all comes back around.”
form/a is out now on Cascine – order a ltd edition coloured vinyl here
Half Waif are currently on tour. See the dates below.
Mar 29 – ArtsRiot, Burlington, VT
Apr 01 – Strange Matter, Richmond, VA
Apr 03 – DC9 Nightclub, Washington, DC
Apr 05 – The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, MA
Apr 06 – Silent Barn, Brooklyn, NY
Apr 07 – Everybody Hits, Philadelphia, PA