There is something about childhood, when a wicked imagination and feeling of social isolation can be both overwhelming and compelling. During these formative years, Charlotte Kemp Muhl and Eden Rice found a kindred spirit in one another. But these were no ordinary little girls. Sharing an eccentric taste for classical literature and a fanciful appreciation of the beauties found in nature, Charlotte and Eden developed esoteric communiqués, first through language and then through sound. Along their respective paths to actualization, the pair was separated and reunited, lost and found, and once again with each other seek truth through art – only this time, the outside world is allowed to peek in and see their own reflection.
In the haziness of late summer, the duo will release their debut album Black Hole Lace, a dreamy record that juxtaposes angelic melodies with feelings of dystopic dissonance. A sort-of baroque folk sound represents the meeting of their classical learnings in an Americana setting of suburban Georgia, and how it all came together in a gritty New York City. Following their shoot for The WILD, we were lost in a candid conversation that shed light on sides of Charlotte and Eden that were both humble and thoughtful.
Charlotte and Eden’s sisterhood began when they were four and six, respectively, in a suburban oasis surrounded by much rougher areas. “It was very Norman Rockwell,” Muhl recalls, “we were social outcasts.” The pair found solace in birds, fairies, and Shakespeare. As they grew, the two began writing songs with each other, most of which survived to score Black Hole Lace.
Charlotte describes herself as a “cynic,” but this may be ignis fatuus, incongruent with her sincerity. Perhaps “clever skeptic” would be more fitting. She grew up faster than most, pursuing modeling, and independent in New York City at fourteen. With a chip on her shoulder from a strict upbringing, Muhl became somewhat of a nomad. Eventually she was courted by Sean Ono Lennon. Their relationship grew through music and the pair released two albums together as The Ghost of Saber Tooth Tiger, or GHOSTT, whose name comes from a play that Charlotte wrote when she was a kid. Muhl has described their influences as “everything from the Victorian era, to science fiction films, to the macabre, psychedelia and realism.” While Kemp & Eden certainly have a distinct sound from GHOSTT, similar themes can be uncovered.
Eden, fair-skinned and soft-spoken, has a more romantic outlook than her leery counterpart. Fond memories of her youth color her perspective. As a classically-trained choral singer, her part in the duo makes more complex the musical dynamic. Eden too has other sources of artistic outlet. In her painting, which she describes as “realism, with a touch of the surreal,” she explores an individualism that satisfies different parts of her personality.
“One of my favorite contemporary painters is Dino Valls. His paintings are beautiful and hauntingly bizarre. My other favorites are Yuqi Wang, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and of course, da Vinci.” After finishing art school, “fate intervened,” and she made the trip north to be with her friend. Today, Muhl and Rice live together in the West Village along with Lennon, Yuka Honda and her spouse, Nels Cline of the band Wilco. One can only imagine the sonic musings coming from the brownstone. “Yuka is kind of our guru, and I’m always asking Nels to show me tricks on the guitar,” Muhl tells me. She and Lennon have a budding collection of “calliopes and other weird circus instruments.” She most recently picked up a glass harmonica, “I love the sound – so eerie and pure.”
It must be a perfect setting for Rice; her favorite part of the musical process is rehearsing again and again in an environment free from pressure – one that allows for experimentation. How do they know when a song is ready? Both agree that their compositions are never completely finished. The process is one of perpetual refinement, similar to Rice’s approach to painting.
Kemp & Eden appose whimsical fable with modern social commentary. The narratives are chock-full of references from western literature and art. Many characters come in pairs: Adam & Eve, Jack & Jill, Hansel & Gretel. Often, songs ring in the minor key of A, “I like the melancholiness of it.” Muhl explains. Augmented and diminished chords are used sparingly but consistently, giving subconscious color to the overall perspective of the album. The historical nods found in Black Hole Lace are both linguistically interesting, and allow for a timeless feel to each song’s message. The title track sets the scene:
Athena sprang from Zeus’ head
Lobotomy or cesarean?
My white lies blush infrared
Oh I’m the monster under my bed
God said Nietzsche’s dead
Which will be last, the chicken or
From spilt milk to the apple that
hit Newton’s head
Wish food for thought fed starving
An excerpt from “Hard Candy” sheds more light on Charlotte and Eden’s pursuit of art as a profession. In the age of digital downloads, the music industry is not exactly lucrative. It also takes a certain kind of spirit to go after it all in the always-on-the-run New York City. Both agree that the uncertainty can be stressful but spurring.
Blame Eve and the forbidden fruit
She bit off more than she could chew
The apple poisoned Snow White too
But I’d risk it for a taste of truth
The song “Audubon,” named for the famed ornithologist, naturalist, and painter John James Audubon, tells the story of a child caring for a bird in its last hours of life by reading the creature the words of Ovid, and playing for it the sounds of Syd Barrett and Brahms. Muhl says the account is biographical. Rice elaborates: “Birds not only represent song, they represent a bittersweet dichotomy of frailty and freedom.”
“Circle Song,” less coded than its counterparts, gives cutting perspective of postwar America:
Taffeta ladies in uptown cafés
Their wrinkles are dry-cleaned or
Waitresses waiting and waiting all day
For rich men to come and whisk them away
From cigarette trays and social morés
The TV is selling a new brand of war
Children scream for their supper
Let them eat cake ‘til they’re fat
Work to the bone to keep food on
Bend over backwards to keep their
posture (priorities, sexuality) straight
Today, Kemp & Eden set off on a new journey – bringing their music to life for audiences. When Muhl plays live, she says her fingers and vocal chords begin to shake. “Eden is more confident than me,” she says, to which Rice smiles humbly and shakes her heads in dissent. For inspiration in performance, the duo look to the “genius narcissism” from legends like Yoko Ono, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, David Byrne, Bjork and Radiohead, but Muhl notes, “Most of our idols are dead.”
Before parting ways, Charlotte described her WILD Wish in which shes grows old in a house upstate collecting instruments; where she can look out the window to see alpacas and emus, “I want to have my own little farm.” Holding back tears, Eden simply wishes, “to be as good of a mom as my mother was to me.” For a duo that is so intrigued by the past and weary of the present, they certainly retain a lovely outlook on the future.
Photographer : Elisabet Davidsdottir
Stylist : Guillaume Boulez
Hair stylist : Hikaru
Make Up artist : Andrea Helgadottir for Illamasqua
Stylist’s assistant : Suong Phan
Kemp & Eden wear all clothing by THREEASFOUR.