Nicole Dollanganger Sings For Freaks Like You
With a nudge from Grimes, a prolific songwriter brings her nightmare lullabies out of the bedroom.
To the most squeamish, Nicole Dollanganger’s music might seem a little disturbing. Her lyrics evoke imagery not meant for the faint of heart: cracked skulls and cum-stained sheets, school shootings and electric chairs, dog piss, alligator blood, the smell of rotten food. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter draws inspiration from horrors both true and fictional: an older song called “Nebraska” is about a real-life teenager who went on a crime spree with her murderous boyfriend in the ’50s, a different track samples dialogue from the made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown classic, It, and one of her recent Bandcamp releases, Greta Gibson Forever, is named after a doomed supporting character in Nightmare on Elm Street 5. “We're obsessed with death because we know we're going to die,” Dollanganger tells me over the phone from her family home in rural Ontario, her speaking voice basically as sweet-sounding as her singing one. “Plus everyone understands physical pain, so that's something that can reach a lot of people.”
Dollanganger grew up outside Toronto, in a sleepy everyone-knows-everyone suburb called Stouffville—the sort of unassuming small town in which the creepiest movies always seem to be set. “My dad says I've been bloodthirsty since I was a kid,” she says. “He would always tell me scary stories before bed, but they were never gory enough.” In high school, her innate shyness made her feel like a misfit. She got along better at local hardcore punk shows, where she befriended like-minded outcasts and was immediately grabbed by the cathartic, vocally raw performances. When she was in her late teens, a close friend was in a serious car accident. She sings about him over barely-there acoustic chords on 2012’s “Coma Baby,” the first real song she ever made: Coma baby, with your sick head/ the doctors saved you, but you’re still dead. With its bleak narrative, cloying vocals, and amateurish production, the track is like a prototype for the dozens of unnerving home-recorded songs that would follow it.
After she’d written just a few songs, Dollanganger had some scary health issues of her own. Stuck at home on bed rest, she wrote like crazy, knocking out three album-length releases from the confines of her bedroom. These were dark and personal songs, pairing delicate poetry about illness, infatuation, and toe-curling oral sex with simple, sedated guitar melodies. “In many cases, some of the things that have upset me or impacted me the most negatively in my life are the things I actually felt comfortable writing about,” she explains.“To get it down was therapeutic.” For all the darkness, though, there’s also a strangely comforting motif of unconditional friendship and hot-blooded loyalty coursing through Dollanganger’s words. On “Ugly,” a narcotized ballad from 2013, she reassures a self-loathing loved one: You said they make fun of your body/ well I'm going to find them don't you worry/ and I'll make sure they're really fucking sorry.
From pretty much the get-go, Dollanganger’s aesthetic was celebrated by macabre-loving corners of the internet. She also garnered some predictable, maybe unavoidable, comparisons to Lana Del Rey, the reigning Queen Bee of blue-collar melodrama. But Lana’s never been this prolific, and even her most thematically perverse ideas—getting high, violent love, her Pepsi-flavored you know what—would seem tame in Dollanganger’s twisted, self-made universe. The positive reception encouraged Dollanganger to keep working; the songs got better, and she did too.
Her fan base widened to include musician James Brooks and his girlfriend, Claire Boucher, the songwriter and producer who releases conceptual pop music as Grimes. “They are living angels,” Dollanganger says of the couple, who reached out over Twitter and invited her to come visit Los Angeles. This past August, Boucher broke the news that she was starting an “artist co-op” and record label called Eerie Organization, and the debut release would be Dollanganger’s newest full-length, Natural Born Losers. "Claire respects how hard it is being a solo female artist," Dollanganger says of her new mentor, who she'll also be opening for on an eagerly anticipated North American tour this fall. When Boucher heard an unfinished version of the album, she flipped: “It blew up my brain so hard that I literally started Eerie to fucking put it out,” she said in a press release.
The record in question, the first collection Dollanganger made outside of her bedroom, is worth losing it over. The alt-rock production, birthed from a series of fruitful sessions with collaborator Matt Tomasi, is intense and heartbreakingly huge. The upgrades are probably most blatant on "Angels of Porn (II)," a re-recorded version of a skeletal lullaby from 2014’s Observatory Mansions that sets her piercing pipes against a smeared palette of uneasy riffs and dread-inducing feedback. “I'll be like, 'Close your eyes, this is what I'm going for,'” she says of working with Tomasi. “He just gets it; we’re on the same wavelength.” It’s a fitting process for making music that feels so image-based, inextricably tied to lower-middle class sights and scenes: motels, swamps, trailer parks. But it’s not the places that Dollanganger wants you to care about, it’s the freaks inhabiting them. “Stephen King once said that he doesn't trust anyone who enjoyed high school,” she explains. “The kids who struggled there often end up becoming these wonderful and interesting people, even though they were rejects under the kids' scrutiny.” Each plodding, atmospheric track on Natural Born Losers serves as a hair-raising tribute to those deviants and outsiders and schoolyard loners. “I feel like their stories are worth telling,” Dollanganger says. “I felt like I had stories worth telling, too.”