words by tom johnson
photograph by morganne boulden
Highnoon’s debut album, semi sweet, begins where it means to, it’s ‘intro’ acting as a somewhat sullen introduction, the laid-back strum of guitar conjuring an atmosphere that holds throughout the following, more full-bodied tracks.
Firstly, to rewind somewhat, Highnoon is the bedroom-pop project of Philadelphia’s Kennedy Freeman, and semi sweet is her first collection of songs, a snapshot of Freeman’s development over the past year, recorded and built with the help of Justin Roth of Soft Idiot.
Released digitally tomorrow via Cicada Choir, the whole album is streaming here today, prickling with intensity throughout but presented languidly, like weighty desires lost to the summer heat. There are ripples of Freeman’s influences at the record’s edges – cited as Vagabon, Soccer Mommy, Alex G – but perhaps what’s most impressive is how quickly Highnoon’s own personality takes a hold, how soon you realise it’s her world we’re gently becoming a part of.
‘lens‘, the record’s first full song, is a sprightly composition anchored by a palpable sense of yearning, tenderly showcasing Freeman’s evocative voice. Elsewhere ‘middle distance runner’, showcases the other shade of her work, a withdrawn four-minutes, etched with late-night sadness, that lingers for long-after.
Both quietly endearing and mightily impressive, semi sweet makes for a fascinating first glimpse into Highnoon’s work, and you can stream the whole thing below right now, alongside a full interview with Kennedy that shines a little extra light on her work. Check it all out right here:
GFP: You say that these songs were “written in that incredibly frustrating period where I was first learning how to write songs.” How much did the songs change between them being written and what we hear today? Are these still the same warts-and-all demos that you wrote on that time.
KF: I started writing with no real idea I was making an album. At that point I had been playing the guitar for about two years and felt like I had just gotten over the first big learning curve so I wanted to put together all the new chords I learned in ways that were new for me. This was really fun because it was the first time I could really conceptualize song structures on a guitar, but it was also extremely frustrating because there was still so much I wasn’t able to do.
Being a bedroom-pop artist (actually being in my bedroom) I didn’t have the resources of a full studio so everything began in the voice memos on my phone like all my songs do. By the time they became real songs, it was nearing the end of spring semester of 2018 and I decided I wanted to make something out of them. My friend Justin, agreed to help me out with recording and mixing and all that stuff since he’s made countless records before for his project Soft Idiot. He had been renting out a practice space in this creepy warehouse across the city, but I was spending the summer at my parents house in NJ so I felt stuck. I got really restless and manic one week and decided to record the whole thing on my computer using Reaper and a Yeti mic he let me borrow. I didn’t feel satisfied and my sound skills were definitely not up to par so we ended up scrapping all but “Middle Distance Runner” and recorded the rest of them for real in September. Aside from that the only song that’s an actual demo is the closing track “Bloom” which I tacked on a few months later. That one’s just a voice memo.
GFP: Had you wanted to write songs for a while, and what instigated that becoming a reality for you?
KF: My best friend in high school, Emma, gave me this notebook in high school as a graduation present. It read “Anything Can Happen” in bold sparkly letters. It was kind of a joke, kind of not. For us it was in reference to that song by Ellie Goulding that we performatively hated because indie high school kids love to hate what’s on the radio (I will say in 2019 that song is a banger). Anyway, that notebook was the impetus for me starting to write. I had never even written in a diary before, let alone poems or songs. So my freshman year I toyed with the idea of being a poet. Everything I wrote was fake deep and it flopped pretty bad. But when I was away at school at Temple University I was exposed to the music scene and went to house shows every weekend and became deeply fixated with the idea of being a performer.
I had already played piano for almost 8 years on-and-off, so I started brushing up on my skills using the piano they had in the basement of my dorm. By the end of my freshman year, I asked my dad for an acoustic guitar and that kinda solidified it. At the time I was a huge fan of Alex G (another philly local and ex Temple student) so I learned to play a lot of his songs and other more accessible ones on Ultimate Guitar and random Youtube videos. It wasn’t until the next year that I was writing songs on the guitar for real and making lyrics out of scrambled ideas in my notes.
GFP: What were the biggest influences on those early recordings?
KF: Philly is so rich with talent so I drew a lot from artists that would play in North and West Philly basements. Since I learned guitar by learning Alex G songs, he admittedly has a big influence on the sound and the chord progressions. They are always so simple yet super inventive. I really love DSU and Race, I always come back to those albums. Last summer when the early recordings started to materialize, a few people I was idolizing at the moment were Sasami Ashworth, Molly Rankin of Alvvays, Christine Leschper of Mothers, and King Krule. Archy Marshall is a beast and once The Ooz came out I was hooked. The songwriting of each of these artists is impeccable and they’re making stuff that still really interests me.
I also really used to like this band called Swings from DC. They don’t play anymore but I saw them play at this batting cage that doubles as a show venue called “Everybody Hits.” The energy was so palpable. It changed the way I viewed performance. I used to watch their live videos on Youtube and be like ‘wow I wanna do that’. RIP Swings. But yeah it wasn’t just a sound but more the feeling I got listening to these artists that made me pick up the guitar and start writing.
GFP: How did you approach the lyrics and how do you approach that side of things? Does transferring your own issues/vexations into song lyrics help lighten that load somewhat?
KF: When I write songs it usually comes from a melody that pops into my head at random and I try to find the right words that fit into it. A lot of these songs though were emotional dump-sites even though it may not sound too emo at face value. I would have a few things I was messing around with on the guitar and I would just keep playing until whatever was bothering me kinda spilled out. I’ve started working on another synth pop project pretty recently and I realized that all my songs are about being too shy or anxious to express what I’m really feeling, and just kind of watching things play out from the outside. I gotta get out of doing that! I wanna try out different approaches and genres and personas at some point.
But this LP feels very stripped down and personal and that’s what most of the album is about, this sort of passive participation, I guess. It was also a coming-of-age record for me. I was experiencing so many good things for the first time and then I got really disillusioned about it all at once. My mental health was tanking as were a lot of my interpersonal relationships and my desire to be in school so I took a semester off to go to therapy and process what was going on. Once I could see things with better clarity I started writing again and I returned to some older stuff with much more precision and maturity. It definitely lightens the load to get the stuff out there, especially in a way that’s almost hidden behind the melodies. I tried to encapsulate that sort of closure and loss of naivety in the album. My favorite songs are ones that make me unsure if I’m happy or sad so I like experimenting with that ratio. That’s kind of how I ended up with the album title, Semi Sweet. I wrote it when I was really struggling but it still kinda bops.
GFP: Which records and artists have left the biggest impression on your own work? Do you look to other songwriters for inspiration?
KF: I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music during my childhood so for a while I was playing this big game of Catch Up. When I was a sophomore I got big into Radiohead, Nick Drake, Built to Spill, and Elliott Smith. Though I couldn’t identify what it is that made their stuff technically good, I was just absorbing feeling from their songs as much as possible. It’s also been super cool to see up and coming black guitarists get some attention! I love Kelton Young of Dream Wave, Steve Lacy, Willow Smith and Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. It’s really validating to know I’m not some sort of anomaly in the indie rock world.
I also really love Christelle Bofale, she just got signed to Father/Daughter Records. Seeing other black artists express themselves in ways that have for so long understood to be not “authentically black” keeps me going. Because the full scope of the black experience and all of its variations and complexities are so rarely portrayed in mainstream media. People try so hard to put you in a box. They’re like ‘wait, what do you do?’ I tell some folks about my music and they always bring up Jimi Hendrix or Lauryn Hill or Corinne Bailey Rae or something. It’s like I’m expected to be the next whoever and there’s not a lot of room to grow and experiment from that.
It’s nice to see other black folks out there who are just like “I’ll be the first me”. Besides that, a few works that have stayed with me over the years are definitely Parachutes by Coldplay, Depression Cherry by Beach House, Negro Swan by Blood Orange, Sleepwalker by Long Beard, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, Souvlaki by Slowdive, Shawcross by Good Morning, and of course Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Other than that I get inspiration from literally anything I hear. I’m late with most things I listen to though! I’m just now leaving a shoegaze phase, and now I listen to like 80s bubblegum pop or like Title Fight, it’s pretty embarrassing.
GFP: How is the Philadelphia scene right now? Do you feel a part of something there?
KF: Philadelphia is such a cool place to be an artist. I feel like a lot of people who end up here come from the surrounding area like me (I’m from just outside the city in Westampton, NJ), but don’t have the ability to drop everything and move to New York or LA. There’s a self-awareness about the people I’ve met here, too. I’ve gravitated toward folks who don’t try too hard to be something they’re not, which is an ideal space to be creative for me. I’ve only been playing shows for a year now but there has been more intention behind the bands people book. Though I’ve definitely fallen victim to tokenization and being the only black person on the bill, I’ve come out of it with experience and knowledge on how to play the game.
It is definitely hard for black artists to get their voices heard. If you’re not friends with the person who books shows then you’re kinda screwed and many times that person tends to be white. If white people aren’t looking to cultivate relationships with artists of color then they tend to be left out of the loop. That’s why my black friends and I created this radical black art collective called the Bad Apple Commune. The word commune there is a little cheeky because it’s not a real commune but we wanted to create a space where we uplift one another while also giving other black people cool house shows to go to where they won’t have to worry about being the only black person there or deal with micro-aggressions. I met Savan DePaul through the collective and he ended up mastering the album for me! So talented. But so far we’ve had two shows, our first one was a benefit and we raised $400 for the Community Bail Fund. They work to fight cash bail policies which are a huge problem for black people in Philadelphia who end up sitting in jail for minor offences just because they can’t make bail. Before Bad Apple, I really didn’t feel like I was a part of something. But now I can say I have a community here and it’s only growing.
semi sweet is released tomorrow – You can order now via Bandcamp
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