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Distortion and space: An interview with Horsegirl

Hailing from the vibrant rock scene of Chicago, Horsegirl bring infectious shoegaze-esque guitar riffs, complex layered vocals and driving drums to SPACE on Tuesday, June 25.

Nora Cheng (guitar, vocals), Penelope Lowenstein (guitar, vocals) and Gigi Reece (drums) have been creating music together under the name Horsegirl since 2019. Their debut album, Versions of Modern Performance, earned critical acclaim with its 2022 release on famed indie rock label Matador Records, propelled by listener-favorite tracks “Billy” and “Anti-glory.” 

SPACE marks the 10th stop on their summer tour with fellow Chicagoans TV Buddha. Horsegirl vocalist and guitarist Nora Cheng spoke with SPACE intern Ben Israel over the phone before the performance. 

The interview has been edited for clarity.
Lead photo of Nora Cheng and Gigi Reece of Horsegirl by Braeden Long.

(L to R) Penelope Lowenstein, Nora Cheng, and Gigi Reece of Horsegirl

SPACE: The pandemic was really difficult for young people across the world — I’d love to have you speak about what it meant to you all to be together in that moment and to create music.

Nora Cheng: Yeah, it was very strange. It was a bummer because we couldn’t play shows, and before we had any released music, that was our outlet for the band. But then it was kind of an opportunity for us to just spend a lot of time writing, because our band was our Covid pod. We spent so much time in Penelope’s basement, which is our practice space, and it’s also where we recorded the first two songs, “Forecast” and “Sea Life Sandwich Boy.” I think it was a period where we were able to kind of concentrate on our vision and our songwriting. So I think it turned out okay, even though it was a blow.

How have you seen your band and its sound evolve in recent years?

We released Versions of Modern Performance two years ago already. That stuff feels kind of representative of a time we don’t really identify with anymore, but we’re all still very proud of the stuff we did there. Those were songs that we wrote in high school. We recorded that album the summer right before Gigi and I went to college and Penelope was going into her last year of high school, and then there’s another period of waiting before the album actually drops. You sit with these songs for so long, and it’s kind of strange when the whole world finally comes to know them, because it’s been a long time since you actually wrote them.

We kind of started the band because we had common interests and it just felt natural to start playing together. We didn’t have these very clear cut intentions. We had points of reference — bands we liked [from] ’80s and ’90s indie rock. We were super into distorted guitars and stuff — which we still are, that’s a very strong part of our musical leanings. But over time and now, I feel like we identify with more minimalist stuff and honoring space in music rather than filling it up with distortion. We’ve been interested in pop melodies. These are things that you can’t see in our released music, but I feel like it’s reflected in the new stuff we’re playing on tour. It’s been fun to see how our band has grown, and it feels very natural to us, because we’re there [throughout] the whole process. I feel like to outsiders it seems like how did they get from here to here? but to us it feels very natural.

Where is the band’s sonic direction going next? And what do you envision for your next project?

We’ve been into figuring out how to do the most with the least. We’ve been very into the band Young Marble Giants, who don’t even really have percussion — it’s very minimal. They build these interesting songs off of very few elements, and it all just works together. Being a three-piece, I think we really try to emphasize that each person has to contribute. Each part has to be strong, and the way that they intermingle is very important. None of our songs is really just one person.

Of all your recorded songs, which are your favorite to perform in a live set?

We usually end on the song “Billy” which is the last song on our album, and that one’s really fun to play live. By the end of the show, people are warmed up and ready to give it their all for the last song. At the end of that song, we put on our distortion, we ride on these two notes and drone for longer than we probably should. It’s a little bit indulgent but it’s very fun. I also like playing “Live and Ski,” which is also on our album. Since Penelope and I have to change guitars a lot, we try to build in a transition so there’s not awkward silence. Gigi does this crazy drum solo thing and the crowd always likes it, and then the drum solo leads into the song. It’s always this satisfying click that I think is really fun.  

Penelope Lowenstein of Horsegirl (Photo by Braeden Long)

How does improvisation play into your songwriting process and live performance? 

I think that [improvisation] happens naturally for us. A lot of the writing literally takes place in the room together. In “Anti-glory” there’s this part in the middle where it kind of gets low, and then we’re saying “dance, dance.” It’s very percussive, and that part came almost as a joke when we were just sitting in the practice room. We didn’t know what to write next and we just kind of started jamming on it and that kind of came out naturally.

There’s a balance too. You do the improvisation with each other and see what feels natural and what clicks, and then you have to hone it. Our songs are pretty short. We try to cut the excess when we can, and then sometimes it’s fun to embrace all the noise. I think that there’s a balance between the improvisation and the thoughtfulness of a cohesive song.

Is this going to be your first time in Maine?

I have not been, but Gigi has been because Gigi has a lot of family here. I’ve always wanted to go because it seems beautiful. 

We’re excited to have you in Portland! As you continue the tour, what energy do you hope to bring to a show in a new city?

With our friends’ [bands] in Chicago, we love to get up close to the front and dance, just keep it energetic. I always think it’s really sweet when kids or teenagers are dancing at our shows. Like last night, there were these kids in the front row who were doing the most bizarre synchronized dance moves, but they were just moving in a way that seemed natural to them. I think it’s really sweet, because it’s not typical moshing or pushing each other around.  

We were playing with this band Cindy from San Francisco, and their songs are sweet and quiet. If you’re not listening and being thoughtful, you could miss it. But we’ve had some very respectful audiences that are very tapped into what they’re doing. We’ve been to shows in other cities where there’s an acoustic, stripped-down opener and people are talking over it the whole time. Everybody should be listening to each other and being respectful. It’s generally rewarding when you actually listen. So we try to bring that [energy] and when it’s right to dance, I think you should dance.

What’s a song or album that you’ve been gravitating toward recently? 

We’ve been on a Beck kick. Beck has this early album called One Foot in the Grave that he worked on with Calvin Johnson, who’s the guy from Beat Happening. We’ve been really into that. Beck’s super big, but I didn’t know about that album until more recently. I think it’s really awesome, and it’s not what I thought Beck sounded like before I knew the album. Then there’s this band Japanther that has this record Beets, Limes and Rice that we’ve all been listening to. They’re from Brooklyn, so I guess it’s kind of like, “this is what was going on in Brooklyn in the early 2000s.” It’s kind of emo, but it’s also very classic indie rock. I don’t know, I feel like that gets us hyped up.

Horsegirl play with TV Buddha and Greasy Grass at SPACE on Tuesday, June 25, at 8 pm. Tickets are $16 in advance and $18 day of and available here.

SPACE Reader

💐 Feastland 2024 is fast approaching! Join us August 10th as we return to beautiful Broadturn Farm for a wild evening of food, site-specific art, drinks, music and county fair vibes — with dinner from Goodfire Brewing Co. included! 🍲