Lyrics by August Billy
Popular Music – the new collaboration between Zac Pennington and Prudence Rees-Lee – tackles songs of nostalgia and despair from the Hollywood canon on its debut album In the dark.
After dropping Parenthetical Girls, Zac Pennington went through a period of writer’s block and creative dysphoria. The Portland-based Parenthetical Girls – of which Pennington was the only regular member – had released four albums of orchestral indie pop between 2004 and 2013.
He wasn’t interested in giving up music, but for a few years everything Pennington tried seemed inconsequential. It was a disorienting experience for someone whose entire adult life has been rooted in creating and performing music. He needed a way out of this impasse and it finally came to him while he was staying in a haunted apartment in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The fruits of this breakthrough appear on the album In the dark, the debut album from Pennington’s new project, Popular Music. Popular Music is a duo that sees Pennington working closely with Melbourne musician Prudence Rees-Lee (aka Prudence).
“I had spent most of my adult life writing lyrics to songs on my own and without the practice I became basically free,” says Pennington. “I don’t generally attribute the album narrative as art therapy, but the long, indulgent process of In the dark became an exercise in defining a voice without the benefit of my own words.
Indeed, while the creation of In the dark was effective in resurrecting Pennington’s musical practice, it’s a cover album. Specifically, it consists of 12 songs that originally appeared in 20th century Hollywood films.
Selections are drawn from a varied list of films, including Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times and the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Storyas well as 60s comedies, 70s horror movies and newer classics like Free from all ties and philadelphia cream.
“The only criteria was that they were songs written for a movie,” says Pennington. “I mean we were drawn to more esoteric songs, but that’s not really true – some of them are massive hits that have been performed many, many times before.”
One of the most recognizable inclusions is ‘Smile’ from Modern times, which has been recorded by artists like Sammy Davis Jr. and Michael Jackson. They also cover Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, which originally appeared in the 1936 musical, Follow the fleetand West Side Story‘Somewhere’, which has been reworked by everyone from the Supremes to the Pet Shop Boys.
“Once [the songs] started to co-exist on tape, we started to see thematic lines emerge, and it was satisfying to see how much they made sense together as a collection,” says Rees-Lee. “These are all songs of nostalgia and despair. They all have sadness.
The connection between Rees-Lee and Pennington goes back many years, but they had long put off a collaborative project. Given the conceptual framework of In the darkhowever, Rees-Lee’s involvement seemed almost imperative.
“My music has always had a cinematic bent and for some reason a lot of my favorite songs come from movies,” says Rees-Lee.
Rees-Lee joined Pennington at the Los Feliz apartment to begin work on what would become In the dark. They were equipped with a Tascam eight-track cassette recorder and a collection of analog synthesizers and drum machines. It’s not much to work with, but the space itself had its own influence on the music that was generated.
“The apartment had an energy,” Pennington says. “As I understand it, it was originally owned by session string musicians who had played in various Hollywood orchestras during the Golden Age.
“There was a huge Steinway in the living room, and every surface was paneled, designed to accommodate chamber music rehearsals. It was a perfectly preserved mid-century time capsule and the darkest apartment in LA. There was noise in one of the rooms at night. In the dark is basically just an audio recording of that location.
In the dark was actually completed on the other side of the country, in a converted barn in a remote corner of upstate New York. Pennington’s Parenthetical Girls ally, composer Jherek Bischoff, added some additional atmospheric detail, while Rees-Lee arranged parts for string quartet.
“Funny enough, the string parts were often inspired by arrangements from different movie soundtracks,” says Rees-Lee. “The violin of ‘Bedazzled’ is a biased version of the strings of ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ and the string parts of ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ were greatly inspired by the work of Michael Abels on We.”
The finished product retains the kind of intimacy you expect from early DIY recording sessions, but comes with wonderful shades of grandeur as befits the concept. Pennington and Rees-Lee are not only pleased with the result, but motivated to continue working together.
“We are currently working on an album of originals, but there is at least one EP of movie songs that we failed to record that are still burning holes in our respective pockets.”
In the dark is out now. To learn more about popular music, visit their website.
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