Caught in a swirl of electronic loops and bleeps, Annabel Alpers' breathy robotic voice sings the soundtrack to a Soma holiday. While many of her lyrics probe the role of technology in modern life--"You stay in your room / On the computer / Observing strangers / Ignoring those around you"--it's her druggy, layered pop melodies that leave the lasting impression. Alpers, the sole member of New Zealand band Bachelorette, describes her dreamy laptop-engineered pop on Myspace as "Bachelorette took too many mushrooms and fell in love with a computer." But for a girl so weary of technology, she's got quite a soft spot for it.
"I really love [technology] because the thing is, before computers came along and multi-track recording on computers became accessible, I wasn't in a position where I could actually get my ideas down musically," Alpers said. "I played in a band but I found it frustrating because I couldn't actually play the music that I wanted to make because I had these ideas, and in order to get them across, I had to try and get other people to play them."
To make sure Alpers' first full-length album, Isolation Loops, wasn't swayed by outside influence, she scurried off alone to an old family owned cottage near the ocean. There she dove head-first into her musical whimsy, spending weeks recording various sounds and arranging her multi-layered tracks. And while Isolation Loops, as the title suggests, benefitted greatly from an underlying sense of loneliness, her second release, My Electric Family, necessitated, well, a family.
"With My Electric Family, I tried to do the same thing as with Isolation Loops, and I ended up staying in a holiday house outside the city ... But this time around, it didn't really suit me to work on my own. I felt like I needed input from some other musicians in order to stay interested in working on the album," Alpers said.
Alpers gathered a number of musicians to contribute, including Tom Watson on guitar, Andrew Bain on bass, Lee Prebble on lap steel and Dino Karlis and Craig Terris on drums. For the gloriously exuberant "Dream Sequence," Alpers even mixed in samples she recorded of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Brass Band. The result is an 11-song electro-pop album that resonates with a grounded, organic quality--part Lali Puna and part Broadcast, combined with the sunniness of The Shins and the cool vocals of Nico. The New York Times likened her songs to "girl groups, the Beatles, electro, Abba and Minimalism; they often start simply and spiral outward like cotton candy in the making."
"Generally, my approach to recording and writing the songs is that I start off with an idea, whether that's a melody or a line on a keyboard or something, then I write the song as I record it and construct it as I record it. I never really have a finished song in my head before I record it," Alpers said. "Perhaps that makes it organic because I think that the production is an intrinsic part of the songwriting."
That openness to experimentation is likely a product of Alpers' academic background. While studying in the University of Auckland's post-graduate music studies program, Alpers was pushed to create music without utilizing traditional structures. She discovered that she couldn't force a song to sound a certain way, but instead had to follow the tune wherever it meandered.
"My approach to the sounds is just trying to do what I think the material wants rather than trying to insert a structure on the material," she explained. And while Alpers definitely employs pop structures, on songs like the sprouting-of-spring opener "Instructions for Insomniacs," she knows the right moments to stray from the well-worn path.
"In my music now, I totally use verses and choruses and a lot of traditional structures but it was good to have to pull that to one side at university and try to experiment as much as possible," she said.
Another traditional structure Bachelorette plays with is gender roles. Though she's hesitant to label herself a feminist, in the upbeat dance song "Her Rotating Head," Alpers indicts gender discrimination and negative female body image, singing, "She's programmed to say / objectify me / degrade and revile me." In the video for the song, a mannequin dressed in a vintage blouse pulls off her face to reveal the robot lurking beneath.
"With rock music or pop music, it's traditionally a male domain, and I think for a long time I've always wanted to prove that that's not the case ... I don't like it when society tells you what you can and can't do because of your gender," she explained. "I think that computers are even great for that--opening up expression from all areas and allowing people's opinions to be heard."
For Alpers, it seems, technology acts as both an isolating and unifying force. It leads her to seek solitude in a beach cottage to express her creativity, yet it also acts as a vehicle for her to expose those creations to the greater public. While songs like the robotic "Technology Boy" present a dystopian view of the modern world: "Technology boy attempts to live his life as a machine / But then his humanless experience is utilitarian resentment," other tracks, like the album's endpiece "Little Bird Tell Lies," lean in to whisper, "It's all OK," amid a shower of ethereal "ba ba ba's" and "bum bum bum's."
Ultimately, if you can set this lyrical ambiguity aside and let yourself trip out on Alpers' superior pop song-crafting, our Brave New World won't seem so scary, after all.