DC singer/songwriters Louisa Hall and Annie Nardolilli are each accomplished artists in their own right–for years, they’ve performed under their own names around town and released solo records full of heartfelt lyrics and humor. But now, on April 10, 2020, they’re releasing their self-titled duo debut as Griefcat.
It’s an album that showcases their individual voices as much as their combined strength. Some songs, like “Loving You Is Like Eating Chipotle,” predate the band, but find new life in Griefcat’s signature harmonies. Others, like “Marseilles”–an ode to the bidet, or a song about personal hygiene, as they often say on stage–thrive on their ingenuity and comedic timing as a duo, packing as many giggles as will fit in a three-and-a-half minute song.
They excel at all things silly, but they’re just as inclined to grapple with sadness and social commentary. Take, for example, the mournful, silver-lined “Bandana,” or “Dude Where’s My Car,” where the light and heavy sides of their writing live side-by-side. The album’s instrumental arrangements, which augment their usual guitar-and-ukulele setup with horns, strings, and percussion, give the songs a sound as deep and dynamic as the personalities behind them.
Ahead of the release, and the long-planned (now-postponed) celebratory show at Pearl Street Warehouse, Hall and Nardolilli spoke to The All Scene Eye about discovering their shared creative spark and inviting others to join in the fun.
You were each solo artists, and then about a year ago you decided to join forces. What was it like the first time you met up to play music together?
Hall: We didn’t know each other that well, so it was a little bit awkward, but once we started playing music, it just all melted away, and we’ve become really good friends and musical partners. It’s kind of funny, it’s almost like dating or a new relationship when you start making music with another person. You have to get to know each other, and it’s been a really fun journey.
Nardolilli: Our first rehearsal was at Louisa’s apartment in–Arlington? Alexandria? Where was it?
Hall: Alexandria. [laughs]
Nardolilli: And I mean, I guess it was kind of awkward, but it was mostly exciting.
Hall: One thing that was kind of funny about it too, it’s like you’re having somebody over for a home date, so I’d always make sure I had enough food, I had good beverages, we tried to make, like, a really weird smoothie–you know, I wanted to keep activities in there. [laughs] But it was fun, and we ended up writing one of our first songs together, which is an anthem about vaccines–or anti-vaxxers, to be more accurate.
That song is called “Eggroll.” What was the writing process like, having just started working together in earnest?
Nardolilli: I feel like we were wrapping up for the day. We had eaten egg rolls earlier, and Louisa had left one out on the coffee table, and she was like, “Oh, do you want the rest of this egg roll?” And I was like, “No, that egg roll is going to give me measles. It’s been sitting out for an hour or two.” The song kind of just exploded out of that.
Hall: They were really good. They were these Americanized egg rolls called Meggrolls, so we were actually–Annie was eating one that was full of chorizo, and my egg roll was full of mac and cheese. But yeah, we started laughing, Annie started playing guitar, and we literally started just singing. The lyrics fell out of us. I started recording it on my phone, so the last song we have on the album, “Eggroll Demo,” is the first time we sang it through all the way with the lyrics that we were making up. That was probably less than 15 minutes after Annie initially said “I don’t want your measles egg roll.” You can tell we’re just dying laughing and we’re trying to figure out harmonies–it was just the most fun. That was the end of our first rehearsal.
Now you have this album in hand–what is it like listening back to that a year after the fact?
Hall: I regularly listen to this album in my car and I just love it. It makes me smile so hard every time. One thing I really love about the album too is that there’s a mix of songs that we fully orchestrated and produced, and then there are other songs which are completely bare. We did them in one take, and they’re raw. We both actually cried during different songs, during the vocals, and you can kind of hear it. It’s such a wonderful experience. I just love these songs and cherish them. I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life.
Nardolilli: I think Griefcat at its core is still us two ladies singing, usually just one instrument at a time, kind of derping around and making music. It’s so much fun to have the full album experience and being able to–I don’t know, sound more complete, but since we’re still performing just as the two of us, I think Griefcat at its core really is just an iPhone demo–just two people, kindred spirits, having fun.
From that first song, how did the broader shape of the album come to be? How long did it take before you knew, “Okay, we’ve got enough songs here. This is an album that we’re making.”
Nardolilli: I think within a couple months. We had written the songs, we were starting to perform a lot, and people were liking the songs that they were already hearing, so we knew that we wanted to get an album out pretty much as soon as possible. Once we had enough and we were proud of the songs as they were, I think we just jumped into studio mode because we knew we wanted to start getting things on paper as opposed to just being a live experience that people couldn’t take home with them. We’re super excited that in April, people will finally be able to enjoy the music at home. Especially during this quarantine.
Hall: Yeah, right? One thing that’s pretty fun about it too is, since we did start recording pretty early–I think we first started having recording conversations back in August, and everything was finished by the end of 2019–at this point, we already have enough material that we could go back into the studio and start working on our next, you know, pretty long EP if we wanted to.
A lot of what you do on stage is feeding off each other’s energy and feeding off the audience energy in the moment. What was it like taking these songs into the studio?
Hall: It was different. We hadn’t really thought about how we would add these additional instrumental elements, so there was a lot of experimenting, and then also bringing in a producer. We worked with Ben Green at Ivakota, and the reason we were really excited to work with Ben is that, for one, we’d both previously worked with producers that we loved, but we wanted to have a new sound, so it wasn’t an Annie record or a Louisa record; we wanted it to be a Griefcat record. There was a lot of collaboration and a lot of brainstorming. We sang and performed a little bit differently, so some songs, we recorded vocals at the same time, and then other ones we would go through and fine-tune different pieces or track our vocals separately.
Again, the way we perform is making eye contact, and frankly, losing our shit all the time, so it was different, but it was really fun. One song I think that’s really wonderful on the record just because it is so raw and it is very Griefcat, even though it’s one of our saddies–we say 80% of our songs are funny, and then 20% we call saddies, but “Bandana” is one that we actually sang together, and we did it all, guitar, vocals, everything, in one take. Just us in a room, and that’s it, so it’s still very real and very Griefcat even though some of it is a little more slick.
Nardolilli: There were songs–like “Eggroll,” for example, we sang it at the same time, but Louisa was in a little room and I was in sort of the studio. There was a glass door, so we could see each other, and we were able to play off each other, have fun, and have a visual cue because we sound better when we’re working together. When it’s just one of us, I mean, not that it’s not good, but it’s isolating, and it loses that little spark that I think people appreciate about our music. So even a glass door couldn’t keep us apart, trying to sing for the record.
Hall: That was my favorite. I loved making eye-contact with you and doing sign-language and stuff through the window. And it keeps that spark alive–saying “the spark” is a really good way to put it.
You alluded to this breakdown in your music between things that are funny and things that are sad, or sometimes just serious. The song “Dude Where’s My Car” is this real balance of humor, but also something very real. Can you tell me how that song came to be?
Hall: How did we kick that one off? Because it does have kind of a serious undertone.
Nardolilli: Louisa was in her kitchen, and I started playing this little guitar riff while she was making pasta. I feel like the lyrics, originally, were like–I don’t know, can you remember?
Hall: I need to dig through my iPhone because I probably recorded it, but we were just singing about, like, “Do you want the red sauce?” [laughs] Stuff like that, and then–I don’t even know how “Where the hell is my car?” happened.
Nardolilli: Yeah, I have no idea how that happened either. [laughs]
Hall: We just kept riffing, and if I remember, I think we started with a lot of “oohs.” We call it the “Griefcat ooh” whenever we’re doing, like, [singing] “ooh-ooh.” It’s a mainstay in a lot of songs, so I think we started with the ooh, and it just turned into “Where the hell is my car?” We had a notebook out, a legal pad, where we would scratch down lyrics, try different couplets, and walk through the different ideas, but we were really having trouble coming up with a bridge, like, “Where can this song go?” Annie, I don’t know if you called me afterwards, or–I think you actually came up with it the first time we were playing it, but you were like, “I have an idea,” and you said, [singing] “If I were a man!” That’s kind of how it happened.
It stands out to me as this microcosm of Griefcat, in a way. It seems like all the elements are there–the silliness, but also the significance. How do you balance those things?
Nardolilli: I think we sing how we feel and how it comes out, you know? We’re not afraid to get serious, but not every song has to get bogged down with a deeper message. I don’t think “Marseilles” has anything particularly meaningful in it [laughs] except just having fun. Then again, one of our newer songs is called “Carbon Footprint,” and it is a fun, silly song, but at the core of it is, we want to be eco-conscious, and like, what is your carbon footprint? You should think about it. [laughs]
I don’t know if Louisa would agree with this, but I feel like I just let the muse take us where she wants to take us. Whatever happens, we kind of let it happen, and it’s nice to have a partner in music because when it’s just you, you can second-guess yourself and think, “Maybe this isn’t right.” I feel like, with Griefcat, we’ve both gotten this newfound freedom, and it is kind of easier to write songs. And there have been songs that we started that haven’t gone anywhere. We tabled them and we’ll see if we come back to them. One of the first songs we were excited about–essentially it was about periods, but it was sort of about–
Hall: Oh, god. [laughs] I love this song.
Nardolilli: It was about witches and the idea that there’s this secret ritual that women go through, and like, we have secret code words that we whisper, and nobody knows about it unless you’re menstruating. [laughs] That was actually something we really liked, and we had a cool little piano riff, but it just didn’t go anywhere. The spirit had been lost. Maybe it’ll strike us again or maybe it won’t. “Marseilles” started out very differently, as kind of like a Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue,” weird talking song about, “I don’t want to hang out right now, I just want to go home and use my bidet.” That was a start, but it wasn’t quite there. We came back to it later, fleshed it out, and now it’s awesome.
Hall: Flushed it out or fleshed it out?
Nardolilli: [laughs] We definitely flushed it and fleshed it out. But things are very fluid, and there are moments in our rehearsals when something really does start to click. Those are the moments that are just super charged, and we run with it. When we’re in the zone, it’s great, but if we lose the zone, it’s like, “Well, maybe we’ll get there next time.” The beauty of Griefcat is–hopefully, [laughs] unless we get quarantined–there will always be a next time. We will return and we’ll find a new song.
Hall: Beautifully stated. I feel the same way about the muse. We basically just start working together, we see what happens, and again, what’s nice about working with Annie is that we egg each other on and we don’t necessarily edit so much in the moment. We keep going and keep experimenting and keep trying things, and that’s why, I think, the music that we create is a lot bolder than what we would ever write on our own.
What’s one thing that you each admire about the other as a songwriter?
Hall: [laughs] I’ll kick this one off. One thing that I really admire about–I kind of want to say two things. Oh, crap. Three things. Four things! With Annie, not just as a songwriter, but as a person, I look up to her so much because she is so incredibly brave. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s honest. That really comes through in her songwriting, and it makes me a better person as well. Also, she’s just creative as hell and fun to work with.
Hall: Yeah, she’s also really attractive, so.
[laughs] Total package.
Hall: Yeah. [laughs]
Nardolilli: Griefcat is probably the hottest band. I mean–we’re just hot.
Nardolilli: The thing I most love with Louisa is that she is the most genuine person I know and genuinely cares about everybody around her. Almost to the point where–not that she ever forgets to care about herself, but Louisa is worthy of the most love and deserves the best love in the world. We went to Milwaukee a couple weeks ago for an event that we had been invited to perform a song at, and every person that Louisa passed in the airport, she had to make them feel like it was their day. She made them feel so loved, whether it was the pilot, whether it was the person at the counter, the person we were sitting next to on the plane–Louisa is genuinely interested and thoughtful and considerate.
She’s really really good at this, especially at shows. I can be kind of dense. People will come up and be like, “You did great!” and it’s like, “Thanks!” I kind of lose, like–“What do I say now?” [laughs] Not that I don’t care about you. Louisa is like, everyone’s on an equal playing field. She’s really good at expressing how much she cares. That comes through in her songwriting as well, and I think it’s a facet of her personality that I cling to because it’s something that I’m very bad at. I love appreciating other people for things that–you know, I’m working towards, but Louisa’s got it on lock.
Hall: I love you. Thank you, Annie. That was beautiful. You’re going to make me cry.
One place people really–
Nardolilli: But we don’t really like each other. Sorry. We don’t–
Hall: Not at all.
[laughs] No, of course not.
One place where people are going to get to see that connection the two of you have is the videos that you’re producing for this album. You’re doing one for each track, and the first one just came out–tell me about making the video for “Marseilles.”
Hall: “Marseilles” was really fun to pull together. That was actually the first one we shot. The director is a good friend of mine from high school named Tia Shuyler, so I had worked with her on some previous videos, and Matthew von Dayton–he’s the cinematographer, and he’s also just incredible. Making these videos, we didn’t really have any sort of budget, and it was very much a family affair. Family and friends were helping us come up with costumes and everything, so we relied on Tia really heavily around the vision for a lot of these pieces, and then we would get feedback and make adjustments. The really fun part was just dressing up, hanging out with people, and having a blast. I love that wig, and I never knew I would love white hair. [laughs] We really liked the snacks and we really liked the friendship, and it’s great to have some sort of visual medium to help people connect with the song because I know a lot of people aren’t necessarily going to go listen to Soundcloud or something like that. Having a visual element, I think, helps get the word out a little bit better.
Which track was the most fun to translate to visuals?
Hall: For me, it was “Eggroll,” and I think what was really fun about it is that’s a song that we sing together throughout the whole song, so in the actual video, it’s really silly, and even though we’re playing characters, you’re able to see the Griefcat connection a little more. That one’s my favorite.
Nardolilli: It’s my favorite too.
Were there any that were particularly difficult to translate?
Hall: Maybe the serious ones?
Nardolilli: We haven’t seen the final drafts of anything other than “Marseilles,” “Eggroll,” “Dude Where’s My Car,” and–what’s the other one?
Hall: “Loving You Is Like Eating Chipotle”
Nardolilli: “Loving You Is Like Eating Chipotle” is actually interesting.
Hall: It’s based on the famous Saved By the Bell Jessie Spano meltdown, where she’s taking caffeine pills, and she’s like, “I’m so excited, I’m so scared!”
Nardolilli: Tia came up with the concept, and it has, obviously, a very 80s, early 90s kind of vibe, and the song has kind of an 80s, 90s vibe. How did you describe the sound?
Hall: I feel like the guitar comes off very, like, John Hughes, 80s movie. [laughs]
Nardolilli: The video happened to also play off of this 80s theme, so I think those two actually do work pretty well together, but “Loving You Is Like Eating Chipotle” is a song that I had actually written a long time ago on my own. Griefcat has taken it and made it its own song, but when I had written that, I had no idea it could sound and look as cool as Louisa makes it sound and then Tia makes it look, so that–not that that was my favorite, but I had no idea its potential until other people took it and ran with it, so that’s kind of special to me.
There’s a really cool element of what you do, and it’s related to that sense of inviting other people in. I listened to a recording of you all playing at Creative Cauldron, and during the song “Ode To Ulysses,” you handed out kazoos to the audience. How did that moment of mass audience participation come about?
Hall: I am obsessed with kazoos. There’s old family lore that when I was born, during the final pushes, the doctor started playing “Happy Birthday” on the kazoo.
Oh my gosh.
Hall: So I’ve always had a really strong affinity for kazoos. A couple years ago, for a birthday of mine, I was surprised by a bunch of coworkers, and they brought out cookies, and like, candles, and everybody was playing “Happy Birthday” on kazoo. Having a kazoo orchestra is a fantasy of mine, so I basically started implementing it. I did one at a show that I had done a long time ago, pre-Annie, where I passed out kazoos for a sing-along at the end, and it’s something that we’ve really just taken and we’ve Griefcatted. Annie’s been totally open to it, and any time I can pass out–or we can pass out kazoos to an entire audience, we try to make it happen. So, if you have any song ideas for kazoos, let us know. [laughs] Kazoos are a big part of the Griefcat budget.
You’re doing an album release show at Pearl Street Warehouse. How are you planning to celebrate this record coming out?
Nardolilli: I feel like that’s a Louisa answer. When Louisa released her album, she had an album release show. When I did my album solo, I just kind of let it out. This is new territory for me, so Louisa probably knows more about what’s actually going to happen. [laughs]
Hall: So, our opener is William Hinson–I’m pretty sure he’s based in North Carolina. He’s amazing and hilarious. We met him playing at a Sofar show, and he’s just the best. The idea for the album release is it’s going to be a full band, and it’s basically just a giant party. We’ve been coming up with all sorts of crazy merch ideas, and a lot of them tie back to lyrics. Some of them are just fun, but we’re making Griefcat panties that say “cute panties” on them, as a reference to “Dude Where’s My Car,” and we’re also creating Griefcat coffee, so we’re working with a small, local roaster named Project Buna. Right now I’m actually tasting Griefcat coffees. We’ll also be raffling off a bidet, so if you buy coffee–and it’s really good coffee, by the way–you’ll automatically be entered into the bidet raffle. We’ve got costume changes, our friend Jason’s coming down, he’s going to play tuba with the band, we’ll have strings–it’s going to be amazing. We’ll see what happens with this pandemic situation because obviously health and safety is the most important thing.
Nardolilli: If our show gets cancelled, it gets cancelled, but we’ll think of something else.
[Editor’s note: Since this conversation, the release show has been rescheduled from April 11 to June 19 due to COVID-19]
What has it been like setting up to play these songs with a live band?
Hall: I will say that we haven’t done a lot there. Some of our artists that are going to be playing with us are coming in from out of town, including our violinist and our tuba player, so we were planning on having rehearsals starting the day before the show. Everything is a little bit up in the air right now. We’re going to be sharing the songs with everybody, but I think it’ll be similar to us playing together. It’s going to be a party and a celebration, and my feeling is that if we make any mistakes, or if somebody flubs a line, I think it’s hilarious, and it’s also an arrangement. Like, nobody knows. It’s fine. [laughs] So just lean in. Have fun.
Nardolilli: I’m very excited to actually work with a full band and put everything together. When I saw Louisa perform for her album release a couple years ago and have that sort of fullness, it was like, “Wow.” I mean, she’s great on her own, but there is something to be said about working with all sorts of other instrumentalists and adding so much color to music that is personal. Just to be able to take our songs, expand them, and work with other amazing artists, that’s super exciting.
What’s next for Griefcat after this album release?
Nardolilli: Mostly just performing more and releasing the catalog of videos. If we wanted to hop back in the studio, we might try and do that at some point, but really, I think the immediate future after the release is just continuing to put our music out there. I mean, it has only been a year. We’re still pretty fledgling, and it’s amazing how much we’ve done so far. I think that we have a lot of smoothing out that we have to do to continue to own our voice, own our message, our brand. [laughs] I think those are the things that we’re going to focus on. And, you know, if someone wants to record us and pay us to be recorded, that’s cool too.
Hall: I think we’d love to sell out immediately, so if anybody’s listening–just kidding. But not really. For me, the most important thing is just that we can keep creating. I want to keep having our musical children, I guess? That’s a weird way of saying it, but I want to keep growing with Annie and keep creating with her.