Sister Crayon got its start in Sacramento, California, in 2010 when Terra Lopez and Dani Fernandez met and bonded over '90s-era hip-hop. The pair teamed up with various bandmates in the past few years and produced music that sounded like the perfect fusion of soul and trip hop -- a darkly inflected, emotionally stirring soundscape.
Currently a three-piece and based in Oakland, Sister Crayon made its recorded debut in 2011 with Bellow, and the album reflected the band's early organic sound elements and its increasing obsession with electronic beats. With the release of this year's Cynic EP, the group has expanded its sound while retaining a certain rawness of honestly articulated emotions, revealing a real and personal strength in being vulnerable. We recently spoke with Terra Lopez, the band's singer, about Fiona Apple, Jeff Buckley and Lopez's embrace of writing music with a dark vibe.
Westword: What got you started playing classical guitar?
Terra Lopez: I started playing classical guitar just for fun maybe seven or eight years ago. That's kind of how Sister Crayon started -- me playing guitar. I always heard more to the songs, more electronic aspects to it, like beats and heavy bass, but at the time, it was just me. Then I met Dani Fernandez, and she and I kind of bonded over beats and bass and low end and all of that. But my grandfather gave me his classical guitar.
With nylon strings?
Yeah! That's the only kind of guitar I like to mess around with and play. I just love how it sounds.
It sounds like you had an MPC pretty early in life, too. How did you get a hold of one of those things? It's kind of a higher-end piece of gear for a young musician.
You know, one of the first pieces of gear that I purchased was the MPC 1000. It was actually the only item I've ever purchased in my life on my credit card. I completely maxed it out. I think I was maybe nineteen years old when I bought it. I actually sold it to Dani before she joined Sister Crayon. I sold it for rent money or something ridiculous. I'm just glad it stayed within the family because it was one of my favorite items I've purchased. It's kind of become our signature sound. Really it was the only percussive instrument that we had at the time, so we kind of wrote our entire first record based around that.
What is it about the sound of the MPC that you like?
For me it was really easy to write to. When it comes to electronic beats, I'm very particular about tones and Dani is, too. We've definitely grown over the years, and since we've grown as songwriters, and we have explored more into electronic tones, but at the time, I was drawn to the harshness and rawness of those early '90s snares and 808s. They're all soft tones, so anyone that gets that MPC has that same sound. But we were pretty selective about which ones we used.
You mentioned how when you met Dani you had bonded over certain music. What hip-hop did you bond over specifically?
I'm a huge fan of '90s hip-hop, '90s R&B and '90s music, in general. For me, it was De La Soul, Biggie, Tupac, Nas. A Tribe Called Quest is by far my favorite hip-hop group of all time. It wasn't necessarily that Dani and I bonded over specific acts but it was just the overall beats. She had never played the MPC before we had met each other.
She's a hand percussionist, and she plays congas. She's been playing since she was six because her father was heavy into that. It was remarkable to me how good she was with her hands, and to me, it was a no brainer to think she could easily play the MPC, and I wanted her to play it. I think we bonded more over that aspect, and it was fun to hear songs I had written with beats behind them with her influence.
On your Facebook bio, it says you're an on and off recluse. What is it about seclusion that you feel helps you personally and helps your creativity?
I think with being alone that's when I do the most writing. I tend to get into my head. It can be a negative thing, but at the same time, it's where I mainly come up with lyrics or at least ideas or just themes. So being alone, outside of tour, especially now that Dani and I moved to the Bay Area, I'm alone a lot of the time.
It's always been an important thing to me. Ever since I was kid, that's always how it's been. I have a younger brother who would always make fun of me because he always wanted to go outside and play basketball and play sports, and I would stay in my room reading or writing. It kind of hasn't changed too much. I prefer to be alone most of the time. Over the years, that's just how songs have come about.
Sometimes being alone and serenity allows what you want to express to come out.
On Bellow you have a song called "Ixchel, The Lady Rainbow." Is that a reference to the jaguar goddess?
It's really funny you mention that because we just listened to that song for the first time in years. It's really a reference to the sun goddess. It also references new relationships and being in love wholeheartedly. That was actually my favorite moment recording that entire record. It was our piano player at the time and I recorded it in one take. It was really moving, and I was totally crying during the recording. It was the most moving time in the studio for me so far.
Obviously earlier in the band you played guitar but now you use more electronic instruments to craft beats. What made that a more interesting approach to songwriting?
Dani and I still want to go way more into it. But we wanted to take a more electronic approach to Cynic, and for the live show, we wanted to strip down the elements. We're now three members live. We just wanted to dive more into electronic music because we're obsessed with it for the heaviness and rawness of it. From the start, that's what I've always wanted to make, and she was on the same page, and now we've invested a bit more into gear and learning about that side of things.
In what ways did your father inspire the songs for Cynic?
My father is a huge influence on Cynic. I have very turbulent relationship with him, and my entire life, it's been that way. To be honest, I feel like he's the reason why I am a cynic, and why I even felt the need to write Cynic, or any of the lyrics on any of those songs.
Having the person that should be closest to you and having him absent and feeling that absence every day -- he really has shown what true loneliness is. It makes me almost feel like at least no one can hurt me as much as that, like I've already dealt with that. In that way, it's really great. There are a lot of references about him on that EP.
Not that you were hiding in any way in your previous music, but what made it easier to be more emotionally exposed in the songs you wrote for Cynic?
I think just growing and getting older and getting more comfortable with our voices, with my voice, in particular, in writing the lyrics. As you get older, you care less about what other people think, so it left me with a nothing left to lose mentality, which goes deeper now with the material for the next record. It was feeling more comfortable with my own voice and to talk about things haven't really addressed before. I think when people hit that [level of emotional freedom] in an artistic realm, it's really beautiful, and that's definitely what we're striving for -- just to be as honest as possible.
In your Interview magazine interview you talked about meeting Fiona Apple. Why is she an important artist to you?
Oh, man. I'm obsessed with her, and I have been since I was a teenager, really before I sang. If I'm being honest with myself, she is the reason, or the catalyst, for me getting into singing. As a teenager, I was fascinated with rawness. Lyrically, I just think she's a genius overall.
She makes timeless records, and you can listen to her records that are almost twenty years old, and they're brand new to me. Not a lot of music does that for me. She's still an incredibly relevant artist. She's one of the few artists that can make me cry or jump up and down with excitement. I don't know, she's just been one of those artists that has inspired me tremendously.
Have you been able to see her live?
Yeah, I met her, and every time is just an incredible experience. She just kills it. She is the epitome of a woman in her element -- a true artist. She gets a bad rep because of her bad behavior, but I feel that the really important, legendary, living artists are all like that, and she's definitely one of them in my book.
Anyone that has truly been on the edge can see what some may consider bad behavior or crazy and relate to what drives a person to act out or react in a way that's considered out of bounds by standard social norms. Sometimes that's just what comes out of your head unbidden.
If anything, I respect it more. It's a scary to get up on stage, and I can't even imagine the crowds that she and other artists play to. So to be so vulnerable and be so giving is really remarkable.
How did you meet and come to correspond with Bianca Casady of Cocorosie?
That was a really long time ago. I was writing her a letter the night before I was going to go see Cocorosie play. So I wrote the letter, and I signed it "Sister Crayon." That was the first time I even put those two words together, and it was subconsciously written. I fell in love with that moniker and went with that [for the name of my project].
So, the next day, I went and met her and gave her the letter. She introduced me to Jean Genet, who is one of my favorite authors now. I've been listening to them a lot on this tour. I go through phases where I'm utterly obsessed with them.
There again, like Fiona Apple, they're doing really transcendental things with their music. They just keep reinventing themselves every single time, and that's just so inspiring. They're the type of people who have always done what they wanted to do, as crazy or as weird it might be. I really respect that they've been able to become successful doing that.
When you were teaching yourself how to sing and play music, what was it about Billie Holiday that drew you to them specifically?
I was living in Long Beach, and I was alone. I knew no one. I was there for school. So I couldn't go out at night because I was too scared. So I just sat down in my room and laid down and stared at the ceiling and studied Fiona Apple, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Every single night, it was that discipline of practice.
Their voices are so different and yet so similar. Billie's voice, her inflection is just so sad and so beautiful. Ella's is just fresh and really upbeat. I love the dynamic differences between them, as well, and I would try to emulate or at least learn the different ranges. It started off with jazz and Fiona because I feel like they have a similar range. Then it would go to Maria Callas and opera, or Jeff Buckley, or Tim Buckley. I just tried to broaden my range as much as possible.
What made Jeff Buckley a special songwriter to you?
I think Jeff Buckley is also someone that I've been obsessed with. I have a tattoo for him and everything. He affects me just like Fiona Apple. The first time I remember hearing his voice, the whole world stopped. I remember the exact time and day and what I was doing when I heard Jeff Buckley's voice for the first time.
The song was "Mojo Pin," and that's my favorite song to this day. I remember how it starts off, and it slides in, and his voice creeps up, and you hardly hear the guitar at first, and it's just this dream sequence. The whole song sounds like this really intense, romantic, violent dream.
His voice is obviously insane -- his range, his emotional expressiveness. There's a desperation in his voice that just comes out, and I've always been drawn to it. He was just perfect in every sense as a musician and as an artist. You could really tell when you listen to him that he lives his songs. There's a few artists that when you hear their singing that you can tell they need to sing, and that's the last song they'll ever sing.
Do you have a favorite Jeff Buckley album?
Grace is obviously my favorite one of his. I've said this for years, but if it were possible to get a sound tattooed onto my body it would be that scream he belts out in the middle of "Mojo Pin." When we went to Memphis a couple of months ago on tour, we went to his old house, which was a really amazing experience. We're going back to Memphis and visiting his local haunts.
How did you get connected with Fake Four and Ceschi Ramos?
It was pretty awesome. Alex Zavala is a producer in a project called Dark Time Sunshine. Well Zavala hit me up asking if I wanted to work with him on a project, which will be out next year. Anyway, it was actually through Zavala that helped to get the EP to Ceschi, and immediately Ceschi was supportive and said, "Of course we'll put it out." Fake Four has just been so supportive, and we're grateful to be working with fellow artists who get what we're doing and appreciate it and want to help us out as much as possible.
There have been some interesting comparisons made to your music like Rihanna, Bjork and Jeff Buckley, and probably Portishead will come up at some point because of your strong, emotive, expressive voice. Are there particular types of moods or feelings you gravitate more toward in your music?
Definitely. I think it's always been very natural to go into the darker moods or aspects and to write about heavier topics like childhood. I guess, for perspective, I never write when I'm happy. I don't foresee that changing, but we try to challenge ourselves.
But it's more natural for us to write darker stuff out of frustration or sadness or exhaustion. I guess I'm just really drawn to that. I always have been since I was really little, even in music. But then I'll listen to hip-hop and the general happiness that that provides, so it's a weird dichotomy of being in between.