Nov 11, 2015
Photography by Giovanni Duca Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES
St. Catherine, Matt Mondanile's fifth and most ambitious album as Ducktails, grapples with romantic entanglement and adult apprehensions in a manner that feels startlingly direct, especially when juxtaposed with the naivety and nostalgia that colored his past releases. However, when it comes to explicating his development as a songwriter, the Ducktails mastermind and Real Estate guitarist is rather nonchalant. "I guess I tried to write actual songs," he offers, adding, after a little prodding, "I wanted to present my life more clearly and concisely with my lyrics, and talk about relationships, love, and loss."
If Mondanile's progression as a lyricist is more pronounced than he lets on, his maturation as a composer is equally striking. Aiming to cloak his songs in a sonic tapestry with a "medieval, baroque, classical feel," he adorned St. Catherine with elegant synths, strings, and nimble guest vocals courtesy of Julia Holter. The album is also something of a response to Ducktails' winsome but scatterbrained 2013 full-length, The Flower Lane.
"After listening to The Flower Lane a lot, and sitting and living with that record, I wanted to make something that really had its own sound running through it," Mondanile says. Though more uniform in mood and quality than its predecessor, St. Catherine also covers a greater stylistic breadth. Ornate guitar pop dominates the album, yet the tracklist includes everything from the woozy, Lennon-esque character study "The Laughing Woman" to the unexpectedly gritty "Into the Sky," which Mondanile describes as "kind of trying to be like Neil Young; Crazyhorse-style, very heavy, like burning down the highway."
But thanks to a scrupulous writing and recording process, St. Catherine sounds remarkably cohesive. The album began life as a series of home demos, which Mondanile then spent over a year reworking and sculpting at studios in Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin. Finally, producer Rob Schapf, who previously aided Elliott Smith and Beck in shaping their visions, stepped in to help finalize the mix.
Mondanile sought to recapture the "dreamy and lush" magic of his early, largely vocal-less recordings, while maintaining his newfound lucidity as a songwriter. This comes across clearest on St. Catherine's instrumentals, which rank amongst the album's most emotionally nuanced moments. "A lot of times, with instrumental music, I can evoke a feeling that lyrics can't. I don't know how to explain that, but it's easier for me," he says. And it's in speaking about the gorgeously full, album-opening instrumental "The Disney Afternoon" that he gets closest to articulating the thematic subtleties of this breezy yet meditative album.
"When I was writing the songs and recording in my room, I'd just moved to Los Angeles," he recalls. "I was interested in making something that explored the feeling of being in a new place. The ups and downs and ebbs and flows, and having it be this expansive thing; experiencing the vast horizon of a place, and wondering how you're going to make your life there—but also feeling smaller and more isolated in this huge world."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September 2015 Issue, which is still on newsstands now. This is its debut online.]
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