MEMBERS: Juliana Giraffe (vocals) and Ari Balouzian (instrumentation)
FROM: Los Angeles, by way of the San Fernando Valley
YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: The creepy feeling you get pulling through a strip mall late at night
NOW: Celebrating the release of their debut, Saturn Over Sunset, via Jagjaguwar
If the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead somehow put out a full album, it would sound like San Fernando Valley duo Midnight Sister. Lead singer Juliana Giraffe’s breathy, Vaudevillian tenor combined with multi-instrumentalist Ari Balouzian’s spooky analog constructions affirm that the most ordinary of American landscapes are also the most surreal.
We meet at Donut Prince, a cult monument of Burbank known for its giant, insipid window slogan “Don’t get a divorce; get a donut” and Yelp-disparaged, twenty-three-hour-a-day service. Of the shop’s four cramped, hot-magenta booths, one is open, the rest occupied by seventy-somethings loudly comparing their cell phone bills. One of them, a woman with a beehive hairdo and a pair of cat-eye glasses, points out the fact that Giraffe’s dress matches the color of the bench exactly. The singer proudly announces that this was intentional.
Donut in hand, she sits and leans forward: “This…is the pure inspiration for our album,” she says, gesturing at the scene. A West Coast album, aesthetically driven not by the psych-rock pageantry of gentrified East Los Angeles, but by the DayGlo diners and retirees of the Valley? Yes.
Beside her, Balouzian enumerates Judy Garland, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon as cornerstones of Midnight Sister’s interpretation of LA as a whole. “It’s all about finding the darkness underneath the glamor,” he remarks of his city, before revealing that the title of their debut album, Saturn Over Sunset, is lifted from a chapter title in Anger’s book.
“It’s all about finding the darkness underneath the glamor.” — Ari Balouzian
Balouzian got his start scoring independent films and documentaries, and Giraffe has made music videos and short films for years with her sister under the auspices of their production company, Giraffe Studios. “[Midnight Sister] is my first music project, so most of my lyrics are made to feel like a film,” she says, having only picked up music at all some two years ago. Each line on Saturn Over Sunset is almost purely visual, and after seeing the vibrant yet isolating set design of Midnight Sister’s videos (made by Giraffe Studios, naturally), it’s apparent that, on this album, the pair are more interested in portraying the feeling of being on planet Saturn than Sunset Boulevard.
But still, Midnight Sister seem deliberately ensconced in the mundane. For example, Giraffe cites a niche tote bag boutique that she managed across from LA venue The Echo as her primary songwriting environment. “I watched the community and the characters from the huge storefront window and just imagined everyone’s stories,” she says, specifically naming a homeless man called “Dominic-slash-Brian” who would alternate between split personalities as her most inspiring acquaintance. “Through the stories I would imagine for these people, I wrote my part for each song.”
And finally, as for Saturn Over Sunset’s patently vintage sound palette, Balouzian is confident in how to make an album sound indiscernible from a ’60s acetate in 2017: “You use real instruments,” he says simply, detailing his use of live drummers, analog keys from pianos to Mellotrons, recording modules including tape machines and Akai MPC samplers, string arrangements he played mostly himself, and guitar work by fellow LA outsider Alex Izenberg.
In doing so, he laid the perfect foundation for Giraffe’s vocal homages to the songwriting of yesteryear: “I’m really not up to date on today’s music. I’m kind of stuck on the old records I like—Bowie, T. Rex, The Zombies, a lot of disco…” she says. This influence is clear in Giraffe’s sense of melody and wardrobe. Living in the suburban San Fernando Valley and being out of the loop on new music are two qualities most LA musicians avoid admitting at all costs, but on Midnight Sister’s plane of surrealism, time and space are the least of their concerns. FL