Magdalena Bay on “Mercurial World” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, May 26th, 2024  

Magdalena Bay on “Mercurial World”

From Prog to Pop

Jul 06, 2022 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

To paraphrase a popular meme: find someone who looks at you the way ascending synth pop duo Magdalena Bay gaze, doe-eyed-ly, at each other.

While answering questions about their breakthrough debut album, Mercurial World (released last October by Luminelle), high school sweethearts Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin’s chemistry is as vividly colorful as their synth washed songs and dazzling DIY videos. A meme analogy is fitting given the pair’s TikTok music video savvy. While those visuals for their recent singles such as “Hysterical Us” and “Chaeri” find them travelling in a magical mini-van and floating down a rainbow river, or starring in grainy infomercials (respectively), producer Lewin cites an earlier clip for when things clicked for the Los Angeles-based duo. In 2019 their VHS-shot, heart and butterfly logo laden video for “Only If You Want It” captured the sensibility of a diamond in the rough that was a 1990s video store bargain bin.

“After some trial and error, we figured out where aesthetically we wanted to live. And the sense of humor that we were able to put across. So that was a big turning point,” says Lewin.

And while singer Tenenbaum patiently nods in agreement, all but batting her eyes at Lewin as he finishes his answer, she quickly retorts: “That’s true. But I like the TikTok where I make a mean rap about you.”

“That’s a good one,” Lewin grins. “Because it’s cruel!”

“Just because it helped us realize we could be funny,” Tenenbaum says. “We didn’t identify as visual artists nine years ago. But now it’s a big part of what we do.”

Their former selves wouldn’t only be surprised by their penchant for flashy video-making. Tenenbaum and Lewin started off as members of a prog-rock five-piece called Tabula Rosa in high school in their native North Miami, Florida. Their shift to pop started, says Lewin, as a lark because it was the “antithesis of what I enjoyed listening to at the time. Only when we started writing it did we realize it’s cool, and that there are subtle intricacies…”

“And challenges,” says Tenenbaum, seamlessly finishing his sentence.

“And I didn’t know those complexities existed in pop,” Lewin adds.

For Tenenbaum, the conciseness and precision required for pop songs proved deeply engaging. She equally enjoyed seeing Lewin eagerly learn how to produce, mix, and master, while he admired the strides she made as a singer. Their musical palates also evolved, from developing a taste for left of center pop acts like Charlie XCX that overlapped with some of their loftier early sensibilities, to unabashedly fanning over mainstream mainstays like Madonna, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani. As Tenenbaum puts it, those megastars’ radio smashes were “masterful, and we just didn’t have the ears for them back when we shunned them.”

She adds that, in their current pop-ified writing process, “there’s restraint, and not necessarily wanting to be appealing to a lot of people, but less self-indulgent. Less obscure…

“More direct,” Lewin finishes Tenenbaum’s sentence. He adds: “You can’t overlap too many ideas at once or it’ll get jumbled. So it’s about figuring out the core musical idea you want to get across and working at that.”

So yes, they’ve pared down their earlier elaborate instincts on a musical level. But their videos have proven a new haven for (winking) grandiosity. They knew videos would be a necessity for exposure in the current market but, as they began making them, Lewin says “we quickly realized we liked it and it was a good way to put our personalities across.” But despite the fever-dream, anything-goes motif of their clips, Magdalena Bay creates them within confines as inspiring as their restrained pop songs. As Lewin puts it: “We had no experience with film. So shooting on VHS was easy for us to make it look good. Bad-good. Because it’s hard to make a big production video without a budget. Or knowledge!”

Despite his modesty, many fans would argue Magdalena Bay’s videos are actually good-good. Prime reasons: their use of retro low-grade graphics and transitions (especially in their 2019 clip “Money Lover”), disposable costumes and props (best utilized in their more recent “Hysterical Us” video), and by turns earnest yet ironic tones.

Straddling such extremes might seem untenable, but they work for Magdalena Bay’s blossoming following and for music critics that increasingly heap on praise. Reaching this forefront as cheeky TikTok auteurs and heart-on-their-sleeve art-pop songsmiths certainly didn’t seem like a given when they formed the duo, but Tenenbaum and Lewin are happy to have arrived. “We just learned to make pop music as we were doing it,” Lewin says. “It wasn’t like we started and said, ‘Oh my God! We’re so good at this. It’s what we’re meant for.’ It was more like trying things out slowly, until we found what works for us.”

Says Tenenbaum: “It was doing a lot of ‘This is bad, this is bad. This is better’ until it worked.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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