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17 November 2017

INTERVIEW: Breannyn deLongis of highandfragile.

Photo by Paul Vargas
No release of the past year has struck a more powerful emotional chord with us than highandfragile’s debut outing, an EP called I Was Not Well. The four track digital version was put out by the artist, Oakland’s Breannyn deLongis, in the closing days of 2016. She followed up with a very limited cassette edition including a bonus track this past June. The EP features drums by Adam Jennings and production and backing vocals from Kristina Esfandiari of San Francisco’s King Woman.

Some might chatacterize I Was Not Well as dark or negative. There is plenty of angst here, and not every moment of the EP is easy to listen to. For us, however, the sound of Breannyn bravely making art out of a woundedness and vulnerability that we connect with is glorious and, in its own way, uplifting. There have been days when we’ve listened to I Was Not Well over and over, finding each passage through this set of songs thrilling and somehow different from the others.

Rare is music so whole and powerful that it doesn’t so much stimulate this or that feeling as it magnifies the underlying capacity to feel altogether. Hearing music of this kind, we feel anything and everything; we get the sense we are experiencing the full spectrum of emotion, joy and sadness and anger and more, all at once. While feeling so fully can be overwhelming, it is also healing and relieving.

For us, highandfragile is this rare kind of music. We therefore feel especially privileged to present the following depthful interview, one of the most emotionally candid ones we’ve ever presented. Our gratitude goes out to Breannyn for the care and dedication that putting this piece together has required. We eagerly anticipate the upcoming releases that Breannyn describes at the close of the interview.

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Photo by Mary Manning
From our perspective it’s as if you’ve suddenly materialized with a powerful, singular sound and artistic voice already developed—but we realize that’s probably not very accurate. Could you fill us in a bit on your musical past and development?
I have been fighting being a "musician" for so long. My dad did sound for a touring grunge band when I was a baby so I wound up growing up around a bunch of band dudes with ripped jeans, long hair and drinking problems. I grew up watching them all lose their families, minds and whatever semblance of a life they had. By the time I could make "life decisions" I knew I loved music and words but I also knew that I desired the stability that I hadn’t witnessed as a child and concluded that being a musician did not coincide with my stable real world aspirations.

I was endlessly frustrated because I couldn’t focus long enough to sit and type or write out a story.  I could tell you a great story, but I didn’t have the patience to write it down for you. Adding a rhythmic and droning aspect like guitar helped coax the words out of me in a more natural and soothing way. At some point I couldn’t deny how important making music and art had become in my everyday life. I had to get over my fear of the future not working out because without being able to make music there was no possibility for a healthy future for me. Music and art slowly took over every part of my life and without them it’s hard to function. It’s a very hard process to explain but it has been lifelong.

highandfragile is an excellent project name. How did it come about?
I remember this moment so vividly. I was at work counting money and a friend called my name while holding a box of sparkling water in her arms. The box read "high and fragile" and she was excitedly pointing to it and exclaiming, "This is you." I had already been recording demos for this specific project at that time and had been thinking of a name for myself and “highandfragile” was the almost perfect caption for where I was in life at that point, so the name stuck.

The emotional tone of I Was Not Well is both super charged and very distinctive, playing an important role in setting the project and the EP apart. Would you comment on what this material expresses on the emotional level?
A desperate attempt at finding peace in myself. I had started to lose a lot of friends to suicide and the effects of mental illness and was living in Oakland surrounded by a very large and mentally ill homeless population so the fear of falling to the wrong side of the extremely thin line that I had been walking for a long time became real. Our minds are so fragile and so many of us take our mental stability for granted. A series of unfortunate events could send many people over the edge and going over the edge is a really scary thing when you can’t conceive of anyone being there to catch you. I saw it every day when I looked out my bedroom window and saw people sleeping in the park. Here I was inside of my bedroom that I paid for with a job I could barely hold on to looking at my possible future if I couldn’t find a way to keep my shit together. This EP was my attempt at holding on to my sanity and being able to function better in society.

Can you tell us about the scream (or maybe it’s more of a howl) at 1:56 on the first track of the EP, “Happy Birthday”? It’s primal and wonderful, and it’s the perfect sound at the perfect moment in that track. Does that scream have a backstory you’d share with us?
That scream was everything I felt after seeing the person I loved with another person for the first time after holding on to the idea of us for what seemed like forever. I sat by the water and rocked myself until I calmed down enough to make my way home after the encounter. I wanted to scream then but my inhibitions were still too strong.

Kristina Esfandiari, front person of the wonderfully intense and lovely San Francisco doom project King Woman, played a production role on I Was Not Well. Can you tell us about your working process with her and what kind of contribution she made?
Kristina was the one who heard my demos and forced me to put them out in to the world. She likes to help people help themselves. She acted as a coach and sometimes came in the vocal booth with me and helped me get through recording parts I was having trouble with. She was a professional hand of guidance who showed me how to function in a studio and sometimes did backup vocals when she heard a part for a song that I didn’t. She helped me with the nuances.

The backing vocals are great, at times very haunting, very unique, and augment the lead vocals in a way that’s strange and perfect. How many tracks feature backing vocals from Kristina? Did you do some of the backing vocals yourself as well?
I remember hearing once that Elliott Smith didn’t like the sound of his own voice so he experimented a lot with harmonies to feel better. I hated my voice a lot when I first started singing so most of the demos I’ve recorded have harmony ideas floating throughout them. I went into the studio with those in mind and Kristina would hear things that I didn’t and add harmonies on to mine. Eventually our voices kind of melded and at this point I almost don’t know whose vocals are whose.

There’s an untitled bonus track at the end of the cassette, not included in the download, that’s in a different mode from the rest of the material. Would you like to tell us something about that piece?
I recorded that song at 3 AM in my soundproofed closet with buckets and pans for drums specifically for the tape release because I wanted to give away a piece of myself with the tape. I had been playing it differently for months live, but recording that specific demo definitely paved the way to my decision to record at home. My anxiety is pouring out of me in that song and having it produced by somebody else didn’t feel right.

Your Bandcamp page places you in Oakland, while your FB page puts you in Brooklyn. Are you presently living bicoastally, and if so, can you tell us about how your life is structured in that sense and how that in turn structures or relates to your creative process?
I had always wanted to lock myself away during the dead of winter in New York to write an album so after touring for a month and playing a show in Brooklyn I decided to stay there instead of going back to California. I gave away everything I left behind and wrote for months in a subletted bedroom full of instruments. I began experimenting more and very quickly had a full band to play with. I’ve played the exact same songs on both coasts with two bands that sound very different. The New York band was jerky and abstract, the Oakland band was fuzzy and aggressive. I wrote an album and moved back to California but playing with my old band didn’t feel right anymore. I needed to challenge myself more and I feel like that can only be accomplished by playing solo at present. I wouldn’t have figured anything out if it weren’t for bouncing around.

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?
Broadcast, Elliott Smith, Sharon Van Etten, Brand New, Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism specifically), Chopin, Jenny Hval and Atlas Sound. I feel like a sponge when it comes to music, so I often find myself weaving in and out of different sounds based on what I need to hear at the time to calm down.

Would you like to describe your song writing process?  
It usually just starts with a feeling or a nagging thought that I need to get out. I’ll find the tone I need to hear to calm down and I’ll work off that. The words pour out and the layers almost establish themselves. I definitely can’t sit down and be like, “I need to write a song now”, it’s just a stream of consciousness.

Can you tell us something about your major areas of interest and pursuit other than music? Are there other artistic media that you work in as well?
 I paint, make short films, draw, dance, make clothes, decorate houses for people. Whatever I can do with my hands to help deal with whatever it is I’m feeling, I do.

What are you working on and what’s coming up next for highandfragile?
I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the Bay Area since I’ve been back. While I had originally planned on recording an album with a full band, I decided to record everything at home and release something much more intimate. My album will be out mid-2018 but I plan to release a single end of December or early January.

I am living in a very happy and safe environment for the first time thanks to my two closest friends Adam and Lori who are very excited to help me complete the recording of my new album. Being around them has been beyond inspirational...Adam is next to me shredding on acoustic guitar right now.

For the new material, I’ve taken away the bass and the drums and have replaced them with soundscapes and loops. Every song is loosely based on a particular anxiety I fret over with the goal of helping both myself and other people calm down and appreciate existing for just a moment. The music is ethereal and pulsing and emulates the acts of the human body. Droning tones become the heartbeat, syrupy solos the excited breathing pattern and so on. By working alone, I have become more in tune with my feelings and how they can be represented via sound and I have never been more excited to share something I have created with the world.