Glass Mansions play Greensboro
*Cover photo courtesy of GlassMansions.com*
South Carolina electro-pop duo have plenty of hooks, gritty synth sounds
Glass Mansions are an electro-pop duo from Columbia, South Carolina. But they may not be calling South Carolina their home base for long. The pair, singer Jayna Doyle and multi-instrumentalist Blake Arambula spoke with me by phone last week about their music, about writing and recording as a duo, and about the mysteries of pop hooks. They play a show at Lucky’s in Greensboro on Jan. 10.
Doyle and Arambula have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years touring the country. In addition to bringing their music to new audiences, fine-tuning their live shows, and paying dues, those thousands of miles logged also served as a vague “scouting” trips, taking stock of other cities and their music communities, according to the two, who said they might be relocating in 2020.
“Being in the South, with the type of music we make, I can be a little provocative,” Doyle said.
It’s strange to think that in 2020, some energetic pop music might seem confrontational or too in-your-face, but it is a weird world out there now. The disconnect might be more extreme than ever between the lives we live online, in our streaming entertainment bubbles, and the routines we live going about our day-to-day worlds. Glass Mansions songs are about the joys of cutting loose, the importance of not holding back, the dangers of self-censorship, and the complications that arise with intimacy, the ways that being who we are can sometimes get us into trouble.
With pared-down beats, wiry guitar riffs and gnarly synth-bass sounds, the music of Glass Mansions serves as a sleek and shiny surface for Doyle to execute her strong vocal hooks about pushing the moment past the mundane.
“I wanna feel like I’m swimming in the night, not just floating in the here and now,” she sings on the catchy “Night Swimming.”
Doyle expresses a similar sentiment when she sings, “Letting go is so much fun,” on the equally hooky “If You Need Me, Don’t.”
Some music sounds very much like it’s of the place where it comes from — the Ramones sound like New York City. The Carter Family sound like the mountains of western Virginia. Al Green sounds like Memphis. Townes Van Zandt sounds like Texas. The Grateful Dead sound like San Francisco, etc. But some music doesn’t leave a lot of fingerprints as clues to where it comes from. I expect most people don’t say “they’re from South Carolina,” or even “they’re from the South,” when they first hear Glass Mansions. It could just be that synth-pop is inherently rootless, or maybe that it tends to suggest an urban origin: music made with machines, meant for night clubs. It’s a style that’s more about circuitry than soil.
The music of South Carolina has been on a lot of people’s minds recently. The Oxford American published its annual Southern Music issue at the end of 2019. Each year, for about a decade or so now, the issue focuses on the music of a different southern state. This year the issue was devoted to the music of South Carolina. There were essays on artists like Jump, Little Children (who have ties to Winston-Salem, and who played in the area recently), on the blues guitar giant Rev. Gary Davis, on eclectic singer and performer Eartha Kitt, on Shovels & Rope and on numerous others. Also, from Columbia, unclassifiable indie-music maker Toro Y Moi was featured in the issue. One of the subjects that came up was about the geography of South Carolina, and the peculiar ways that certain cities can get ignored when it comes to national acts and touring circuits. This can be a drag for people living in a city that gets bypassed by bands from out of town. But it can also foster a spirit of independence and a climate of music-making that’s uncomplicated by fickle trends.
Before Glass Mansions, Doyle and Arambula were in a more emo-ish outfit called the Death of Paris. And when they started Glass Mansions, the project was more along the lines of a traditional rock band — with guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. But as the two wanted to focus on touring, the logic of being a two-piece became more compelling.
“As we came from having a full band to a duo, that put a lot more responsibility on us to do more,” Arambula said. “It was kind of a welcome challenge at first. By now, we’ve figured out the best approach to making it all come together.”
The music sounds like it may have benefited from being boiled down to its compact two-person essence, without a lot of clutter to distract from the melodic appeal of Doyle’s singing.
Without being forced to come up with parts for four musicians, the writing became more about what made the material move with maximum energy.
“The songs can be more intentional,” Arambula said. “And in a way, they can be more focused.”
Doyle and Arambula are obviously students of pop chemistry. One can sometimes hear a connection to artists like Robyn, Annie, early Paula Abdul, or the more angsty side of Kelly Clarkson. One gets the feeling they’ve thought a fair bit about the architecture of hits by artists like Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.
“Jayna and I have always been super-obsessed with what makes a pop song,” Arambula said.
To which Doyle adds: “But we never go to the drawing board with any of that in mind.”
There’s a new Glass Mansions EP that’s basically finished and set for release. Doyle said it’s a new chapter to the duo, one that addresses the hyper-availability of music in people’s lives and the ways that pop pleasures have to compete with shrinking attention spans.
“There’s a certain A.D.D. kind of vibe that people have,” Doyle said. “We just finished a song that’s only like two minutes long.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.