As part of her day job sourcing background music for television shows, Laurel Halo had the odd task of commissioning tribute songs to Whitney Houston a day or two after her death. An initial YouTube search of Houston’s music made Halo cry. “That voice! It’s so honest,” she says. “Composers just sent in ‘I Want To Dance With Somebody’ knockoffs, with no vocals, no voice, all to be placed in the background for this cheap commercializing of somebody’s life, and I thought, This sucks, how manipulative.”
Halo uses the term “manipulative” to categorize music she doesn’t like (Katy Perry is manipulative, Julia Holter is not). It’s a pointed word choice, since fastidious manipulation is the backbone of house and techno, genres that have long been her realm. But Halo’s newest album, Quarantine, is a clear pivot away from dance music. Though still electronic, the focus is on her voice. Even if she resents her day job, Quarantine unwittingly has her performing a similar task, using synths as background to push the lyrical story—and her strong and serious warble—front and center. “The vocals are turned all the way up so that you can’t escape them,” she says. “It’s about communicating in ways you can’t with synths and samples and percussion. I was looking for clarity so it made sense to leave the vocals raw. I’ve heard people say it’s a mess, that I’m a mess. I don’t care, I love it, fuck ’em.”
Halo, a Michigan native, is keeping up her Detroit techno bona fides by simultaneously releasing Spring, an EP under the pseudonym King Felix. Spring is an evolved and expertly produced dance record more in line with Halo’s past work (including an early EP entitled King Felix). But Quarantine is the true breakthrough, soaking up all the messy emotion that would bog down a technically adept record like Spring. “I was thinking about going to a therapist,” she says. “But instead, I just made Quarantine.”
Before recording the album, Halo was reading and re-reading Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a book about the complex vulnerabilities of being a sick woman, which Sontag wrote while undergoing treatment for cancer. Halo is not sick, but in some ways Quarantine is a musical response to the book. Both Sontag and Halo attempt to show strength, but in that effort unveil inherent weakness. One foot in front of the other, Halo sings on “Thaw,” Don’t get addicted to anything/ Just keep on walking. The album is filled with similar allusions to communicating, eye contact and disconnected signals. On “Tumor,” one of Quarantine’s best and most brutal songs, she sings about seeing clearly even while crying through a wall of tears. “I think you become a stronger person if you let yourself be vulnerable,” Halo says.
Quarantine’s closing song is “Light and Space,” which repeats the lyric words are just words that you soon forget, as if she’s realized how much the previous 41 minutes have exposed. It’s like she wrote a memoir telling all her secrets and realized too late that everyone was going to read it. Maybe it’s easier to have Katy Perry’s manufactured perfection, but it’s a lot tougher and braver to embrace imperfection. “My voice has flaws, but it’s direct,” she says. “So I love it. I just have to let it go.”