Horsegirl: “We were these little freaks at our DIY shows”

Cantering to the top of SXSW’s buzz list, Chicago teen trio Horsegirl are harking back to the alt-’90s and offering up different ‘Versions of Modern Performance’.

Horsegirl rules!” shouts an excitable passer-by to the trio of gathered friends fitting in our quick photoshoot outside Austin’s Seven Grand: the venue of their fourth and final SXSW 2022 show. A few days later, the band - co-vocalists and guitarists Penelope Lowenstein and Nora Cheng, plus drummer Gigi Reece - will be announced as winners of the festival’s esteemed Grulke Prize, awarded annually to the most promising US act to play the event; fast forward another couple of weeks and the three teenagers are sat on Zoom assessing what’s just happened.

“That was insane; we did not at all think that would be the reaction from people there. Afterwards we were joking like, we didn’t even know we were competing?!” laughs Gigi, calling in from her college dorm room, the walls plastered floor to ceiling with friends’ names etched out in bright orange tape. “It’s such a bizarre place because you play these shows and you have no idea who’s in the audience, but apparently one of them is the person who decides who gets the prize,” Penelope picks up. “If I’d have known, I probably would have been way more nervous. I mean, Haim won before and huge acts have won - do they know we’re just some kids from Chicago?!”

Remove the self-effacing “just”, however, and the fact that Horsegirl are three bezzies who’ve spent their youths building a deeply intertwined world away from the hubbub of buzzy trends is their greatest asset. Having met aged 14 at a local DIY show, that ethos runs through everything they do. Indebted to the alternative scenes of the ‘90s, they effusively wax lyrical not just about the music (although the likes of Sonic Youth, Belle and Sebastian, Pavement and Yo La Tengo all stand as key influences) but the whole culture of that period, of hands-on creativity and nurturing a group of musical pals and peers.

“I think the reason us three ended up connecting really well was because we felt separate [to the rest of our age group] in that way. We were these little freaks at our DIY shows, separate from what was going on and idolising things from the past,” Gigi says. “We really liked the idea of ownership in the community and feeling like you belong to something,” nods Penelope. “But if you’re just idolising bands that are your parents’ age, there’s a bit of a disconnect, so we wanted to find that feeling with people our own age.”

“I think the reason us three ended up connecting really well was because we felt separate [to the rest of our age group] in that way.”

— Gigi Reece

Horsegirl, then, has been an exercise in finding that feeling, from their first practice when Penelope and Nora spent “probably nine hours” learning Sonic Youth’s ‘Incinerate’ on loop, to now as the band stand on the cusp of this month’s debut ‘Versions of Modern Performance’, set for release via Matador - the label home of many of their biggest musical inspirations. Their debut is an album that unashamedly contains echoes of the past, of shoegaze fuzz and antsy rhythms, but that also feels self-contained: the product of three minds working completely in unison.

Having written the tracks before getting signed, the band purposefully kept the rawer, rougher edges intended for their live show in. “We wrote those songs never thinking that we’d have the resources to record them properly, so we felt like it would be a mistake to go into the studio and then change everything we’d planned,” Penelope explains. “We were going for the driving energy of punk even though none of it is explicitly punk.”

“The vocals are kind of like another instrument because they don’t follow the path of traditional singer-songwriter stuff,” adds Nora. “At the start we were very inspired by Stereolab and the way the words are pronounced and mixed in; on certain songs I can’t even tell if they’re singing in French or English - it just sounds like sound.”

From the spiky interjections of recent single ‘Anti-Glory’ to the skeletal interplay of ‘Live and Ski’ or ‘World of Pots and Pans’’ swathes of fuzzy noise, ‘Versions of Modern Performance’ too sounds like its own entity. There’s little doubt that, were Horsegirl still just pitching up to local basement shows in their hometown, they’d be playing the same songs, loving the same bands, having the same great time. Now, however, there’s just a few more people wanting to hitch onto their wagon. “We’d always daydream about putting out an album and going on tour and being awesome, so now we’ve got the chance it feels insane,” Gigi smiles. “We’ve known what we wanted this to sound like for so long; now we’ve got the opportunity to make it happen.”

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