Interview: Sister Crayon’s Terra Lopez Discusses Headbanging, Opera, Maya Angelou, Nostalgia, and more!

Sean Palmer / September 13, 2011
Photo by Raoul Ortega

“Music was my refuge,” writes Maya Angelou in Gather Together in My Name. “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Angelou’s life and work has served as a great source of inspiration for Sister Crayon‘s founder and lead singer Terra Lopez, who has recently immersed herself in the living legend’s autobiographical work. Beyond the ubiquitous truth captured by Angelou’s words regarding the power of music, they seem to resonate especially well with the lush atmosphere and yearning emotion manifest in Sister Crayon’s debut album, Bellow. On September 18th, the band will be playing with The Album Leaf at The Crocodile; read on to learn more about one of the most promising up-and-coming bands around!

Prior to the creation of Sister Crayon, Sacramento native Terra Lopez had spent a few years as a member of the experimental trip-hop act Kyoto Beat Orchestra. Listening to KBO, one can trace the roots of what would eventually become Sister Crayon—with Lopez’s sublime, haunting vocals leading the charge. In 2007, the duo disbanded and Lopez went on to join electronic rock group The Evening Episode, while also working on a solo project called Silent and Clementine. A year later, The Evening Episode’s members decided to move on to other projects and Lopez focused entirely on Silent and Clementine—later renamed after writing a letter to a friend, which she signed in an inebriated daze as “Sister Crayon”.

2008 saw the release of ‘proto’ Sister Crayon’s first album, Loneliness Is My Mother’s Gun, on Jeune Été Records. The very limited CD-R contains an early version of “I’m Still The Same Person“, which later reappeared as one of Bellow‘s singles. Having remained a solo act for about two years, Sister Crayon became a duo with the addition of beatsmith Dani Fernandez—who emboldened the trip-hop aspect of the project. A shifting lineup of additional members has since established Sister Crayon as a fully fledged band. In 2009 the group self-released Enter Into Holy (Or)ders, an EP which laid the groundwork for Bellow. That same year, they also signed with L.A.’s Manimal Vinyl Records—home to Warpaint, Bat For Lashes, and many others—where they released a split 7″ with Warpaint for A Tribute To David Bowie, in which they covered “The Bewlay Brothers”.

Photo by Raoul Ortega

Earlier this year, Sister Crayon released their first fully developed LP, Bellow. The Album-of-the-Year contender showcases the culmination of their growth over the past few years, with Lopez and Fernandez remaining a foundational driving force. Meanwhile, the group has also shared stages with El Ten Eleven, Baths, Tearist, and Little Dragon (in a museum, no less!), to name a few. Now Sister Crayon are embarking on their very first full US tour with The Album Leaf, and they’re stopping in Seattle along the way!

I recently caught up with Terra Lopez on the phone to discuss the project’s past, present, and future. Here’s what I learned:

_How has your touring experience been thus far?

It’s been awesome! We were just out for about a week and it was really cool—a very different crowd, so it was nice to see which people are responding to us. It’s crazy to hear that people in places like Phoenix or Vegas know who we are! We’re really excited.

_How do you feel about embarking upon your first full US tour?

Well, anytime that we go out on tour, the only real goal that we have is just to expose our music to as many people who will listen. We’ve played two shows with The Album Leaf—the band we’re touring with—so far, and their audience has just been so open and engaging, so we’re really excited and hoping that that is a consistent element. We’re also just stoked to perform in these cities we’ve never played before. I mean, I’ve never even been to the east coast.

_I noticed that you’re calling this the “Headbanging Tour”; how did that title come about?

I had a couple of people over the years watch our shows and just kind of mention like “Oh yeah! I love the headbanging” or “You guys are raw! I love that element” and I had never even noticed until I was like “What are they talking about?”. Then I watched the live video and was like “Oh s**t! We do that.” Especially me — I had never realized, but after shows my neck will be really sore and I’m thinking “What the hell?”—like I was in some kind of accident. So yeah, I just went with it and I love having our live shows be really intense. If anything, it’s just that.

_How did you end up connecting with The Album Leaf?

It was really cool! I’ve been a fan of theirs for years and I never once imagined that we would even know each other, let alone tour together, but it was really cool how it happened. The owner of our label Manimal grew up with Jimmy [LaValle] from The Album Leaf, so he just passed along our album to Jimmy and he responded right away, and really dug the record. We just kept in touch through email, and out of nowhere we were asked to play a couple of one-off shows with them and then the tour came up and he was gracious enough to want us to come along. It’s really exciting! I think we’re going to work together in some aspect. I’m not quite sure yet what, but yeah.

_Is it true that you’re working on a new music video? And is it for another song from Bellow?

Yeah, we actually just shot it on the last day of our previous tour and it was kind of an impromptu thing, but we’re working with an amazing director named Ariana Nitale. She wrote this really cool treatment idea for “Souls of Gold” and that’s a song we really want to push out there, so everyone thought it would be good to make a video for that.

_On that note, I noticed that “Souls of Gold” was featured in The Real L Word; how did that happen?

The Real L Word has been really supportive of us. They used “In Reverse” and “Souls of Gold” on this last season and I’m hoping that we can work together again for the next season. And I don’t know, they just wanted to use those songs.

_I read that you’ve described your music as “manic trip-hop”, but it also seems very orchestral to me. A lot of bands are working with orchestras these days; have you considered maybe doing that at some point?

Yeah, definitely. That’s always been a dream of ours. I think one day we’ll be able to; maybe on the next record we’ll really sit down and work with a full piece. We worked with a couple of players for Bellow but working with a full orchestra and composing entire elements would just be amazing. Hopefully soon!

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

_I love the album cover for Bellow. Did the photographer come up with the idea for that?

It was really cool; we got to work with this brilliant photographer named Eliot Lee Hazel. He’s based out in L.A. and works with a lot of really big artists, so we were just so grateful that he heard our music and wanted to work with us. So we went to the ocean one day. There was a tidal warning, but we had no idea. And he’s a great guy, but he’s super intense when he’s behind the camera and so literally with some of those photos, if you look through them, we were in the water for maybe an hour straight, like freezing cold; tidal waves were just knocking us over, and the actual photo which became the album cover is a photo of me in the water literally milliseconds before the wave knocked me over and I cut my leg really bad. It was just an intense shoot, but it was so worth it because I feel like the intensity of the album is matched by that. It’s such a stoic photo that he captured, which we’re all so in love with.

_I really like the “Obsessions” section of your website because it gives a miniature window into each band member’s perspectives. Based upon your segment, it seems like you read a lot; does that influence your songwriting?

Yeah! I would say that literature influences my lyricism and songwriting even more than music. Definitely with Bellow. At that time I was reading pretty much non-stop and there were a couple of things that were going on in my life that I shut out by reading; and that was the only way. I guess that’s how a lot of people deal with things, but yeah, that’s how I’ve always dealt with things in my life. It’s like “I’m not going to think about that, I’m going to dive into this book”, and so when I was writing all of the lyrics for Bellow, it kind of went hand in hand with creating this alternate world for like 3 minutes, you know?

_Did you finish the Maya Angelou and Kurt Vonnegut books you were reading?

Yeah! I had read all of Maya Angelou’s books before – I think she’s a fascinating woman. I’m not too crazy about her poetry, but I love her autobiographies because that woman’s done everything a human being can do. So I wanted to re-read her autobiographies just to get a different perspective. Anytime you’re feeling down, at least, with me, If I look through her books I’m like “Oh okay, she’s gone through way more! Life’s okay!”

_I also noticed you’ve been listening to a lot of opera lately, or at least Maria Callas. Is that a newer thing or have you always been listening to opera?

Well, I have an older cousin who I grew up with and he really introduced me to the opera world and to appreciating that. So as a little kid I’d always heard it, and it was always around me, but I never really picked up on it until maybe about two years ago, when I really started trying to study the different singers. Maria Callas is someone who I’ve recently fallen in love with. I mean, just everything about her: her life story…her pain was brought into the music. I’m just attracted to everything that she kind of embodies – and I mean, her voice is just captivating. I’ve recently been watching some operas and went to a few with my cousin, so it’s been really cool. I just want to study their range and see where I can go with that.

_You also list “nostalgia” as an obsession. Would that be specifically musical nostalgia or nostalgia in general?

Really in general; I’ve always been this way, and I never knew if it was a bad thing or a good thing because sometimes I feel that it can hinder a lot and definitely creates a lot of sadness … but I live in the past. I don’t mean to, but … I know people do this to an extent, but I’m pretty extreme when it comes to this. All of my friends say so. It’s just … there are pockets of time that I have forever in my head that I always revert back to, whether it’s a specific memory or just a year in general. And I’m deeply fascinated by that. I don’t know how to not think about the memories I’ve selected. It’s just a constant run-through every day and so it’s definitely something I’m obsessed with, and just something which is a huge element of the next record for me lyrically.

_How did you end up choosing “The Bewlay Brothers” as your David Bowie cover?

That was actually a really last minute decision. We had heard about the David Bowie cover project and at the last minute, the owner of Manimal called us up and asked if we’d like to contribute and … it was so last minute … we literally had four or five days to not only learn the song but to record it and send it off. So our keyboardist at the time chose that song, and it was really, really tough. I mean, David Bowie’s a legend and so off-the-wall and bizarre that covering him is already going to be crazy, but I had never heard that song before … so learning the lyrics and finding the groove in it was very, very tough. Looking back at it, I definitely would’ve chosen a different track, but it was fun … it was an experience for sure.

_ Have you been working on any other covers?

Yeah, we’re trying to piece it all together and go into the studio as much as we can while we’re in town, but we want to try to do a cover EP possibly. We’re still debating which songs to do, but I think it’d be really cool to cover different songs from different decades. But I definitely love covers; it’s kind of silly, but every time we’re driving in the van while we’re on tour and we hear some specific song, I probably say at least 10 times “Oh, let’s cover this!”

_Are you thinking of maybe doing a Jeff Buckley cover? I know you’re a big fan of his work.

It’s so funny; before Jeffrey—who’s our keyboardist now—joined the band, I wanted to break the ice with him and so I said “Hey, let’s cover a Jeff Buckley song” and I chose “Corpus Christi Carol.” Which is probably one of the hardest songs, I don’t know why I do that to myself, but Jeff learned it to a “T”, note-to-note he got it. So we have the music recorded but I just need to buckle down and get those vocals. Hopefully one day that’ll see some light.

_Are there any other musicians you’d especially like to collaborate with?

For myself, locally I’d love to work with this artist in L.A. called Voice On Tape. His voice is just incredible, and there’s something about his music that is just so … anyone who listens to it is cast under this weird spell, so I’d love to work with him. As for bigger artists …  Björk would be amazing, She’s a beast!

_Finally, what’s your outlook for Sister Crayon after this tour?

Really we’re just hoping that it goes well. We’re looking forward to playing CMJ for the first time in October and hoping to get to the UK soon, and just play as much as we can over there. We’ve been received pretty well, so we’re hoping that continues to happen … and really we just want to tour as much as we can and if we’re not touring we want to record new material and keep on writing. There are so many ideas that we just want to finally sit down and piece it all together.


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