Catching Up With Nicole Dollanganger, The Creepiest Singer-Songwriter On Earth

Plus: hear a full-band version of “Observatory Mansions,” a bonus track off her new Run For Cover reissue.

August 12, 2016
Catching Up With Nicole Dollanganger, The Creepiest Singer-Songwriter On Earth Susie Bell

Digging into Nicole Dollanganger's Bandcamp back catalog is like falling through a trapdoor in a cobweb-covered basement. It's a little scary but mostly thrilling, never knowing where you'll end up, what Joe Dante-like horrors you'll find when you get there, or what weirdo friends you'll make along the way.

Boston label Run For Cover get it, which is why they're putting out two of the Canadian songwriter's home-recorded full-lengths on vinyl for the first time: 2014's Observatory Mansions, which includes the moth-eaten demo version of my favorite Natural Born Losers song, and 2013's Ode To Dawn Wiener: Embarrassing Love Songs, an album-length tribute to a Todd Solondz misfit that features barely-in-tune schoolyard melodies, a track about watching I Love Lucy with a puppy, and the lyric your cum is like warm milk.

Nicole is in the middle of a month-long tour with Teen Suicide and Elvis Depressedly. A few hours before she climbed on stage in Brooklyn, we met inside a cluttered café underneath the JMZ subway line. You can read our catch-up chat — which touches on Stephen King, conspiracy theories, and her new album, Hillbilly Noir — down below. Plus, you can hear "Observatory Mansions II," a huge-sounding full-band take on the two-year-old title track. (The new version is a bonus cut on the reissue.)

What have you been up to since we last spoke — just before Natural Born Losers came out?

Mainly just writing and then preparing for these tours. I hooked up with Greg, my booking agent. Assembling the right people for the band was the hardest part and took the longest. You have to consider not just good musicians, but they gotta be good people too. I've been on my own writing and working on my newest record. I've never had to think about live performance up until the Grimes Tour. And that was like — we weren't ready. It was wonderful, it was something we had to do, but we got home and were like, Okay, now we got to make sure we perfect live.

Have you been enjoying the recent shows? I know in the past you have mentioned having bad stage fright.

Yeah, more than I used to. I find that being up there with friends makes it — I don't know. If you fuck up or you're scared, you can look to them. You're like a family. With the Grimes tour we would get there and be immediately whisked away, then we're whisked out, but this time, we get to actually talk to people. You get to interact, you meet people who you've seen message you on Twitter. A lot of people have been giving me amazing, gorgeous paintings. A girl brought like a huge painting of Natural Born Losers.


How does it feel that you inspire people to make all this wild art?

I find that it's predominantly girls. I was standing off to the side one show, because I get really nervous setting up in front of people, so my band kind of helps me. She came up to me and was just like, "I just wanted to tell you, Ode to Dawn Wiener is my shit." She told me all this stuff, and it kind of dawned on me right then that the music's for girls and about girls.

It's so funny when people give me a painting or whatever, because that's how I met Mat [Cothran, of Elvis Depressedly]. I was a diehard fan of his. I mailed him a painting, a letter, and all this shit. Then he hit me back, like, "I like your stuff and we should do something together."

How does it feel touring with him now?

I'm scared, only because I admire him so much. It was the same feeling with Grimes, and it was the same with Alex G actually. You know when you admire someone so much you're almost more scared to screw up?

Catching Up With Nicole Dollanganger, The Creepiest Singer-Songwriter On Earth Susie Bell

Have you had any remarkable recent adventures separate from music?

Well [collaborator and live guitarist] Matt Tomasi and I started dating on the Grimes tour. That's been kind of a fun, chaotic time. We're such good friends as well. It's been wild and fun. He was living in this disturbing white 1970s bungalow out in the middle of nowhere. He had four roommates and they were all wild truckers and bikers; they would ride dirt bikes through the house. We were living in the basement, kind of scared all the time but also kind of enjoying it. No TV, no internet. You're like miles from anything. It was very cut off and isolated, which created this weird atmosphere. We started working on the new demos there. The stuff we created in that house is weird and cool and it has, I think, a very particular vibe. "Beautiful and Bad" and "Have You Seen Me?" both went down there.

Those songs are pretty intense. Is the new stuff decidedly heavier?

No. It's funny, we finished those and I was like, "I'm just going to release them." I regretted doing that because I feel like those are going to be two of the heaviest tracks on the record. They're not a good example of what the record is. They're both going to be on it, though. "I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night" and "Lemonade" are also on it, but totally re-done versions. The record’s called Hillbilly Noir.

Can you share any of the bleak or twisted stuff that has been inspiring your newer work?

I was reading this book and it said something really interesting, especially because I've grown up in this very religious town. The religion that's in that town is metaphorical; angels and devils are more metaphors. In places in the South, the devil is physical — he's real and he's walking around. I like the idea of Satan not being a metaphor for something evil, but actually Satan himself, or like an angel as a literal being walking around.

I've also been into the idea of the femme fatale, minus the sexuality. It’s the Annie Wilkes in Misery — the femme fatale who does not attract lovers by beauty, but more so by pure psychotic obsession. Annie is the coolest villain ever. You root for her in some fucked up way. You don't want her to die. There's something about her that's relatable. Those moments when she's enjoying Paul’s company and then you see her eyes do a weird thing, and she realizes that he's held captive, that he’s not there on his own free will. She's humbled in those moments, and I relate to the feeling of inadequacy. He says "Oh, maybe you'll think of a name for the book," and she's like, Like I could do that." She has no self-esteem. There’s something about here that is likable. She's just also psychotic.

Are you psyched about the reissues? A lot more people will be hearing these songs.

[Labelhead Jeff Casazza and I] have been talking for a long time, bouncing ideas back and forth. Us finally working together was a dream come true. It's kind of weird to listen back to old work. It's not a good representation of what I'm about now. But at the same time, I can respect [the records] for what they are. They're time stamped. I'm not ashamed of them. But it’s weird — especially because now I know more about music in general. Now I finally know what people are talking about when they tell me my guitar is not tuned. I hear it now!

Did you ever see that batshit conspiracy theory that theorized that you weren’t a real person, and actually just an invented alter ego of Grimes’s?

I did see that. It's flattering, I suppose, for people to draw comparisons. I admire her work so much, so if someone wants to make that leap that's so cool. But at the same time that's kind of offensive. I think people are so quick to lump female artists together. People are like, "Oh you sound like Evanescence." I'm like, I really, really don't sound like Amy Lee. I guess people maybe find Claire so mysterious that I guess they say, "It's not a stretch to say she could do this wild thing."

I was like reading the [conspiracy theory] thread on Reddit and it got really intense. One dude was like, "She's playing a show in Toronto, I'm going to go and see if it's actually Claire or not." Later he responded: "Checked it out, it wasn't Claire."

Tour dates:

8/12/16 – San Antonio, TX – Paper Tiger &
8/13/16 – Austin, TX – Sidewinder &
8/14/16 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada &
8/16/16 – Phoenix, AZ – Rebel Lounge &
8/17/16 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo &
8/16/16 – San Diego, CA – Voodoo Room @ House of Blues &
8/20/16 – Anaheim, CA – Chain Reaction &
8/21/16 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Music Hall &
8/23/16 – Portland, OR – Analog Cafe &
8/24/16 – Seattle, WA – The Vera Project &
8/26/16 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Court &
8/27/16 – Denver, CO – Lost Lake &
8/28/16 – St. Louis, MO – The Firebird &
8/30/16 – Chicago, IL – Subterranean &
8/31/16 – Detroit, MI – El Club &
9/1/16 – Lakewood, OH – Mahall's 20 Lanes &
9/2/16 – Philadelphia, PA – First Unitarian Church &
9/3/16 – Somerville, MA – ONCE Ballroom &
10/18/16 – Saginaw, MI – Counter Culture ^
10/19/16 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme ^
10/20/16 – Chicago, IL – The Beat Kitchen ^
10/21/16 – Memphis, TN – Hi-Tone Cafe ^
10/22/16 – Grand Prairie, TX – South By So What - Club Dada ^
10/23/16 – Tulsa, OK – The Vanguard ^
10/24/16 – St. Louis, MO – The Firebird ^
10/25/16 – Indianapolis, IN – Deluxe @ Old National Centre ^
10/26/16 – Columbus, OH – Ace of Cups
10/27/16 – Washington, DC – Songbyrd Music House
10/25/16 – Brooklyn, NY – Shea Stadium

& w/ Elvis Depressedly and Teen Suicide
^ w/ Citizen


Catching Up With Nicole Dollanganger, The Creepiest Singer-Songwriter On Earth