Set to return to Minneapolis at Rock the Garden this summer, the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius will no doubt bring a fresh twist to their debut album Wildewoman. Released in 2013, the record was met with widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone called the quintet “the best band you may not have heard yet.” Featuring layered harmonies and catchy pop aesthetics, Lucius creates a free-spirited ride through waves of carefully crafted instrumentation and substantive lyrics.
Usually seen adorned in matching retro outfits, lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig met while attending the Berklee School of Music and have been writing and singing together ever since. In their early days in New York, they moved to a Victorian house in Brooklyn that has served as both a music school and a recording studio over the years. There the duo met bandmates Peter Lalish (guitar), Danny Molad (drums), and Andrew Burri (guitar).
I had the pleasure of seeing Lucius last year during a blizzard one bitter February evening at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. The concert took place shortly after the release of Wildewoman, and I had spent the better part of the month listening to the album on repeat. I felt prepared to dance and sing along with my favorite songs (“Hey, Doreen” and “Turn it Around”), but I could never have anticipated what I experienced that evening. Their stunning visual presence and percussive surround-sound floored me. Wolfe and Laessig’s dynamic stage presence, alluring vocals, and deep lyricism were captivating. The joint percussive effort between all band members (both lead vocalists also play the drums while standing at the microphone) and the multi-instrumental score put an infectious spin on indie-pop music.
“Lucius is fueled by taut percussion—the quadruple drum assault…raised hairs,” Billboard wrote about the band’s performance at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival. At the Cedar, they encapsulated pop, indie, folk, and rock, with snapshots of a distinct ‘60s influence in every song. The album recording doesn’t do justice to the attack of live sonic elements and their symmetrical visual aesthetics. While they sent out invitations to shout back in a call and response throughout “How Loud Your Heart Gets,” I remember thinking, why isn’t the entire room dancing? It was as if the Minnesotan crowd on that cold winter night couldn’t match the spirited stamina and energy found on stage. Lucius was on fire.
It was not until over a year later, when I heard the announcement of the International Pop exhibition coming to the Walker, that I encountered the source of Lucius’ album cover and began to dig deeper into their music. I now believe that Lucius defies the categorization of just another millennial girl-pop band by leading an ambitious project to take pop in a new direction through the careful orchestration of aesthetic and sound. The strong female duo takes the visual representation of their music seriously; their lyrics, imagery, and public presence combine to present a fearless yet inviting feminism for all to enjoy.
You can currently view the original painting that inspired the cover of Lucius’ Wildewoman in International Pop. Based on Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s 1964 painting Ice Cream, the pop/feminist connection is not coincidental.
Axell’s painting of this provocative and intrepid female figure was first unveiled a half-century before the album’s release. Lucius asked permission from the artist’s son for the rights to the image. He responded positively to the request, pleased to see the painting taking on another life after the tragic death of its creator, who died in a car accident at 37. As Lucius guitarist Peter Lalish recalled:
When we reached out to [Philippe Axell] to ask if he would be open to us using his mother’s artwork for the album cover, he immediately responded and seemed grateful that her artwork would be associated with pop culture 50 years after it was created… Finding the right artwork that would fit this album was a long process and it was the last step in finishing the record. To hear that from him felt like it had come full circle.
The painting seen on Lucius’ album cover is definitely worth a stop at the International Pop exhibition. Ice Cream occupies the gallery called “Love & Despair,” which curator Darsie Alexander notes features a collection of artworks that suggest “an emerging understanding of the body as a battlefield, and of culture as something to be shaped and made anew.” When asked whether or not the Lucius album cover was intended to be “suggestive,” Holly Laessig responded:
It’s not meant to say, ‘We’re sexual.’ It’s meant to say, ‘This is a painting that was done in the’60’s by a Belgian pop artist named Evelyne Axell.’ At the time, she was making a statement that was incredibly bold, and we think our show is bold, we’re strong women. There’s nothing shy about the way that we sound and the way we put ourselves out there. It’s a strong image. And if you’re looking at fifteen record covers on iTunes, what’s going to stick out to you? You’re not gonna see a dick—sorry, for lack of a better word. When I first saw that image, I didn’t even think about that. I literally thought, ‘Here’s this overly joyful expression. There’s this ecstasy in it.’
The bright, blissful painting certainly exudes a delicious ecstasy with its dizzying monochrome blocks of green, yellow, and blue shapes spiraling throughout the background. The fire red hair of the figure contrasts with the black and white brushstrokes that comprise the face. Through both a figurative and abstract approach, the face acts like a photograph collaged on top of the competing background shapes. The psychedelic shapes swirl around the face, privileging the emotive and individualistic quality of the woman featured in the painting. Her tongue shamelessly sticks out to lick up the drips of what looks like mint and strawberry ice cream. In Ice Cream, the figure’s eyes look down, sealed shut to reject a male gaze. Entirely focused on the task at hand, the woman remains unconcerned with the viewer. Axell presents a subject that refuses to pleasure the viewer and occupies a space outside the mediation of the male gaze. Unadorned and unapologetic, the woman takes pleasure in her own actions.
As her paintings gained credence in the male-centered Pop Art movement, her choice to focus on a self-sufficient woman in sheer pleasure was a deliberate, liberating gesture on the artist’s part. Axell strove to deviate from the representations of women generated by her male counterparts. The artist rejected portrayals of women that rendered them passive, sexualized, or objectified. She adopted Pop motifs, tropes, and aesthetics, while also undertaking a rigorous assessment of the representation of gender and sexuality in art. Lucius’ Jess Wolfe explains the significance of appropriating the painting for the album: “[Axell] was really at the forefront of the Pop Art scene in Belgium…She was obviously a feminist, and it was really important that that aesthetic and that feeling was sort of projected in the artwork. It might be bold for some people, but that was the point.”
Lucius’ music also adopts the feminist themes that the album cover conveys. Their performances serve as a positive example of audacious women holding ground in a male-dominated music arena. When asked why they were inspired to choose the name Wildewoman for their album, Wolfe mused how they wrote the song before they selected a record title: “We’re like ‘wildewomen’…A lot of the women we surround ourselves with also share those same qualities: very free-spirited, very much feminists, strong-minded, strong-willed and strong-charactered people.” She continues, “Holly’s mom used to call her a wilde-child, wilde-girl, and we were like, ‘Well, we’re like that. But a little older.’ So, it became Wildewoman.” The lyrics of the title track also deliver this message:
Her smile is sneaky like a fiery fox
It’s that look that tells you she’s up to no good at all
And she’ll say whatever’s on her mind
They’re unspeakable things and she’ll speak them in vain
And you can’t help but wish you had bolder things to say
She’s a Wildewoman.
Wolfe describes how some of their lyrical content originated from their childhood experiences: “Holly and I grew up sort of feeling outcasted and feeling like we were different than other people and didn’t really know how to vocalize that, how to feel comfortable.” She continues, “When we met, it was the first time we actually felt that we were in a place that we felt comfortable with ourselves, that we could really figure it out. And we just wanted to honor that sort of free-spirited, awkward, uncomfortable aspect of youth and growing up and being a woman.”
While offering resounding beats frosted with enduring lyricism and soft guitar chords, their initial music video for “Turn It Around” addresses feminist concerns about absurd standards of beauty. The music video lays bare the incredible pressure and stress of beauty standards idealized through popular culture and mainstream media by following a young girl’s coming of age story.
When asked outright whether or not their band is feminist, Laessig answers: “I think feminist in saying that we’re pro-women and on the side of women our band absolutely is feminist but not in the sense of the word that it’s like anti-man. Some people use that word in different ways.” Wolfe follows up, stating:
We want to be open to everybody. At least half of our audience is male, and I think they get it too, and we have such a diverse crowd at our shows, older men and women and young girls and middle-aged guys, and it’s not just in the U.S., and so we don’t ever want to abandon those people. Not to say that if we had strong feminist values or view-points that that would happen, but we just want to make it clear that any woman—I hope—should feel empowered and strong as a woman. And there [are] two of us, and a lot of the things that we’ve written about involve femininity and in that respect we’re feminists.
With public figures adopting and disavowing the “feminist label” left and right, I listen to Wolfe and Laessig’s response and recognize the weight that the branding of “feminist” entails for their band’s reputation. By providing the caveat that they don’t want to exclude anyone, I sense a desire not upset any potential fans. I wish that they could unapologetically take the stance of being feminists publicly without fear of excluding audience members. This comment is less a statement on their careful stance taken in an interview and more about the public arena that stigmatizes those that call themselves feminists. As Roxane Gay, author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, aptly puts it, “…celebrities are generally vigorous in their disavowal of feminism. They recognize the scarlet F that comes with publicly embracing it, the taint to professing a desire for gender equality.” I want Lucius’ statement about feminism to match the fierce feminist convictions they uphold on stage and in their lyrics. Ultimately, I appreciate Lucius’ welcoming presentation of feminist values, because their intoxicating indie-pop music speaks to broad audiences. Roxane Gay also reminds us that there are many ways to be feminist: “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”
The feminism that Lucius puts forth on stage is bold and empowering, but not in your face. Just as Axell brought politicized concerns of sexual freedom into her works through the bold visual reinterpretation of women as subject in Pop Art, Lucius contributes to the movement of de-stigmatizing feminism. By embedding strong personal narratives into their lyrics and delivering them with ambitious performances that enrapture many, their music presents a feminism for all to enjoy.
Lucius will perform on Saturday, June 20 at Rock the Garden 2015. Ticket information available at walkerart.org