One of L.A.’s greatest gifts is its ability to subtly reconfigure its clichés. Absurdity is a birthright, built into the warring dialectic between dark and light in the civic DNA. It’s a city of many faces, frequently misinterpreted by outsiders, who oversimplify it as neon tragedy or narcotic utopia instead of dark comedy. It’s Cher Horowitz in Clueless, getting robbed beneath a circus clown, or frogs hailing on streets and swimming pools in Magnolia, a surrealist vision that makes more sense than most realities.
In this vein, Midnight Sister, a pair of San Fernando Valley natives, instantiate the bizarre charms and chameleonic identities of their hometown, starting with a triptych of videos from the group’s September debut, Saturn Over Sunset, released by vaunted indie label Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Moses Sumney).
The first, “Leave You,” finds lead singer Juliana Giraffe and chief composer Ari Balouzian, parked in a classic car, wearing outlandish costumes, eating sandwiches and calmly presiding over her corpse. “Blue Cigar” is what might happen if David Lynch directed Marcel Marceau in a Juliette Greco video. “Clown” has no actual clowns; instead, it channels Paul Thomas Anderson re-envisioning a plaintive Nico ballad.
“There’s a lightheartedness to it, but the dark side as well, which is what I connect it to about L.A.,” says Giraffe, who was raised in Burbank in the shadow of the film studios, by a costume designer and a former DJ turned lighting specialist.
“On the outside, it seems like a quirky circus with characters that seem happy, but there’s often that sad, dark underbelly beneath. And that’s what’s interesting to me. The music relates to that idea with definite grooves followed by sharp turns that go somewhere else.”
We’re speaking in mid-afternoon at Viva Cantina, a campy Mexican restaurant next to Forest Lawn and the Equestrian Center, a spot replete with characters halfway between Gunsmoke and Ghost World.
“I sometimes think of our music as an AM radio dial that you’re flipping through, and these are the songs filtering through,” says Balouzian, who studied linguistics at UCLA. He’s the son of Lebanese immigrants who fled civil war to start a small shoe company in the Valley.
“I love L.A. noir, especially the way that everything plays a role, from the score’s strings to lighting to the way the story is told,” Balouzian continues. “I’m trying to bring that into the modern era, where you’re freely making music on computers, smoking weed and mixing contemporary sounds in.”
The pair initially met at Campbell Hall School but weren’t close, as Balouzian was several grades ahead. Roughly six years ago, they reconnected for a short-film treatment related to one of his songs. During the ensuing half-decade, Giraffe dropped out of studying cinematography at ArtCenter College of Design and wound up working in a tote bag store in Echo Park.
One day, Balouzian randomly sent Giraffe an instrumental that inspired her to sing over it — something she’d rarely done in the past. More songs followed, which ultimately got placed on Bandcamp, where they were discovered by a Jagjaguwar A&R. Recorded almost two years ago, Saturn Over Sunset is a delicate and beautiful debut that positions Midnight Sister as one of L.A.’s most interesting new bands.
“All these songs are just mythologized moments in my life,” Giraffe says. “These are all real things that happened; I’m just trying to mask them so I’m not so vulnerable.”
“We like to dress up but at the core of it, we’re focused on conveying real human emotions as opposed to the way things are styled,” Balouzian adds. “This is more than just fashion.”
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