The studio in upstate New York where Nandi Rose Plunkett wrote and recorded her latest album, The Caretaker, is a small, box-like room that’s not even big enough to fit a bed. “The house we’re renting was advertised as a three bedroom, but you absolutely could not fit a bed in here,” Plunkett laughed over the phone from inside the tiny home studio, when we spoke a couple weeks ago about the story behind her lush new record. “It’s like a little haven, which makes it a perfect nook and office for me,” she continued, noting that between her three keyboards, the wildlife views of a window facing outward, and a shelf filled with candles and talismans from friends, the primary decorations in the room are photos of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush — gifts from her father.
Invoking these two musical icons isn’t a stretch when it comes to Plunkett’s latest work, either. The Caretaker is a feat of exponential growth for the still-emerging songwriter, who has consistently toed the line between striking confessional narratives and shapeshifting synth production. Plunkett describes her relocation from Brooklyn to upstate New York a few years ago as the process of “removing myself from the world in order to create, and then re-entering it,” and those themes of presence and absence are meticulously deconstructed again and again across the scope of this new work.
“I approached this record as a whole wanting everything to be more deliberate and thought-through,” she explained. “I suddenly found myself with more time, moving up here. After working on Lavender with the band, Half Waif became my solo project again. I was working on this album alone and just really thinking more consciously about every element of it, wanting to write lyrics that were more direct and wanting to write chord progressions that were a little more direct and less dissonant.”
These changes feel like a natural progression for the project, which first began almost a decade ago. Plunkett created Half Waif back in 2012 as an outlet for her solo work when she was still a member of the collective Pinegrove. Self-releasing her Future Joys EP back in 2014, and the full-lengths Kotekan and Probable Depths in 2014 and 2016 respectively, Plunkett began to breakout with the 2017 EP form/a, releasing this time through the fantastic, independent alt-pop label, Cascine Records. They also re-released Probable Depths and her formal breakout, 2018’s Lavender, a slow-blossoming epic that shimmers and snakes through salty emotions and unraveling grief.
For The Caretaker, however, Plunkett is newly-signed with Anti- Records, and has taken the outlines of her songwriting impulses on Lavender and retraced them in technicolor. “I really took my time with this album,” she said. “It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a record in such a focused way. I generated a lot of material, which was cool for me — I gave myself permission to do that. Not just ‘oh here’s a song, it’s got to go on the album.’ I could really take my time with it.”
This extra precision is evident on tracks like the lead single, “Ordinary Talk,” a song that reflects on how the most mundane moments often become the backbone of a healthy relationship. “That song was about going through these really intense emotions, but then being like ‘no no, I’m okay, I got this,’” Plunkett remembered. “Realizing, like, I actually have to go through all this stuff, it’s part of my process, and it’s also really normal and human. If I didn’t go through all that, I wouldn’t write.”
One of the song’s most tender and revealing lines, “dreaming up a song / crying in my coffee” prompted a merch accompaniment that has been resonating — a mug with the phrase about tears and coffee emblazoned on it, and an accompanying bag of “The Caretaker” locally roasted beans by Six Depot. Though the recent spread of Coronavirus has overtaken the globe since Plunkett and I spoke, this sweet reminder of a simpler time showed up just before everything began to shut down completely.
Listening to The Caretaker in isolation gives even more meaning to the album’s themes, though, which center around tending to the self before getting entangled in meeting the needs of others. Perhaps this is more relevant than ever within a quarantine and a global health crisis, especially when my ability to write and publish this profile itself was deferred by my own presumed positive grapple with a case of the virus. Deciding to pause publication for a couple weeks, during the peak of my illness was a difficult one, but ultimately the correct decision for my own health — both mental and physical. The Caretaker came out last Friday, March 27, and our feature was slated to debut on Tuesday of that week; but, it almost feels more resonant that this profile be pushed in order for me to care for myself, as though the album itself is keen on reiterating the lesson.
Nandi says it better than me though, even if our conversation was before all this unfolded, the themes remain incredibly relevant. “I notice myself lapsing into the role of the caretaker really easily,” she said. “Until I finally began to look inward, and realized I actually have to make myself strong in order to be strong for other people. That’s where a lot of the themes of self-love on the album come in. If my internal landscape is totally ravaged, I’m not really going to be able to provide the kind of support that I want to the people in my life.”
Nowhere is this inherent tension displayed with more precision than on “Halogen 2,” the album’s standout track and a moody and dramatic reflection written during a period when Plunkett’s isolation in the country had become almost unbearable. The song builds into a towering peak with drums, synths and vocal harmonies that folds back down into itself, extinguishing the blaze it built almost as quickly as it flamed up. Plunkett named it after the elements in the Halogen family after reading about how reactive they are, running through another song simply named “Halogen” before opting for the second iteration, “Halogen 2.”
“I love my solitude, but I almost got too much of it,” she remembered. “I was feeling this hyperreactive sense of isolation, so I was synthesizing elements of life into this song. The beat was made from the sound of the train on the tracks, and having this other voice behind mine was a way of feeling like I wasn’t alone. The interplay between the verse being really anxious and agitated and the chorus bringing this confident declaration — those are two extremes that I oscillate between a lot.”
On The Caretaker, Nandi finds a way to reconcile both sides of the emotional spectrum, working through some of her more frenetic impulses to find a place of serenity within herself. There’s an eternal struggle to balance the external pull to care for others with the internal obligation to care for the self, but in writing this new album alone, in her tiny home studio, Plunkett has found a way to push past that binary into some kind of enlightenment.
“That’s something that writing this record helped me get better at,” she said, of pursuing self-love above caring for others. “It’s a really important realization for me, actually saying that out loud for the first time. And that’s what I hope to do with every album that I write — it’s almost expelling those ideas to move past them. This is my narrative of who I am right now, but that doesn’t define me forever.”
The Caretaker is out now via Anti- Records. Get it here.