Dre Babinski ‘s 5 ft. 2 frame towers over me, standing at the top of the entry staircase in Rotterdam’s most perplexing venue, WORM. “Should we just interview from here, with me staring down on you like this?” she immediately jokes, before storing her suitcase backstage.
After playing as a supporting musician in various bands in and around the Los Angeles area, Babinski is achieving new creative highs as Steady Holiday. Her first two releases, 2016’s Under The Influence and 2017’s Terror EP, are sweeping experimental pop records that veer between personal reflections and impressionism. Moreover, Babinski is excellent at translating that reciprocity on a visual level: the video for ‘Open Water’ starts as a humdrum acoustic session, only to spiral into a sepia-toned surrealistic dream sequence.
On her latest LP Nobody’s Watching, however, Babinski found the optimal vantage point to brandish her prowess as a shrewd storyteller. A song like ‘Mothers’ immediately establishes a vivid, very particular scenery, all within the sheen of Steady Holiday’s sonorous, cinematic suspense. A cataclysmic disaster like a tropical storm: the kind of situation that drives humanity to utmost desperation, bringing out both the best and the worst to the surface. With the incisive precision of a scalpel, Babinski carves out the more morally bankrupt traits: duplicity, selfishness, opportunism, entitlement.
The songs act as dark character studies that force the listener to soul search into the crevices of their being. It’s not like Alex Cameron for instance, who portrays male archetypes like some sort of farcical exposé. Instead, Babinski conceals the narrator’s true face in suggestive, deliberate fashion, further magnifying this very uncomfortable notion that the more unsympathetic predilections fester inside each individual. Where the words remain somewhat matter-of-fact, the music’s lush, epigrammatic arrangements toss the listener into unnerving depths. To underpin that sense of discomfort further, Babinski opts for even greater pop immediacy, conjuring dulcet, ear-pleasing melodies with layers of guitars, synths, and the instrument she first honed, the violin.
DiS: The way you present Nobody’s Watching visually is quite fascinating. Your videos seem to be an extension of the songs, and they tell a distinct narrative together. You enlisted three choreographers, Dana Wilson, Jilly Meyers, and Megan Lawson, for each of them. What prompted you to take this approach?
Dre Babinski: My director, Isaac Ravishankara, loves working with choreography and is good friends with these three choreographers. They are individually incredible dancers, and they also have a group together called the Seaweed Sisters. I would have been happy to work with any of them, but I secretly wanted to work with each one for a different video. And it did work out that way amazingly, they are very busy women.
How much did the experiences of working with each choreographer differ?
Those three are best friends, so there is a synergy between them. There’s something very connected to how all of them approach art, and how they communicate it. Dana, who worked with me on 'Who’s Gonna Stop Us', paid very close attention to lyrics and wanted to approach the storytelling of the song visually. Because ‘Who’s Gonna Stop Us’ is a story in itself. We took it almost literally. That song exists in a room where people are manipulating other people, then a new person enters and evaluates what’s happening, and thinks: ‘Oh I can do that too, maybe even better’ And when she does, we join forces. Dana is so great applying these small movements to convey something much larger and more immediate. Which is an incredible ability of movement and dance.
Jilly Meyers did the choreography for 'Mothers'. For that one, we had a beautiful location, this Filipino restaurant in Chinatown called LASA. We had a five-hour window to shoot, as it was closed at night. So we wondered what we could do with this limited amount of time in a space we only had so much control over. It’s an operating restaurant, so we had to be very respectful of the space. Jilly created a scene that took place at a single table, and that video followed more the general feeling behind the song. Which entails: I see people who need help and I want to help them, but possibly in doing so, I’m sacrificing some of my own happiness. And contemplating whether this is a good idea. Should I open my door to strangers? Because if I do that, it may affect my quality of life. And ultimately, the character I play decides to lock the door. There’s a lot of examples of that happening. It’s hard not to see those things when you pay attention.
With 'Love And Pressure', it was another situation where we had a minimal amount of time, so we wanted to work with this limitation, and from this blank space that we had. That song was one of the more fun ones on the record. The song was written from the perspective of someone saying ‘Hey, loosen up man!’.
The last thing you want to hear when you’re depressed.
Right, and that’s something I get told a lot, something I experience a lot.
You’re such a perky, upbeat presence. Does that generally makes it harder for people to imagine the other side?
Well, yeah. It gets a little manic. There are the highs and the very lows. I’m trying to find my way towards the middle.
But the video is pretty cogent in its simplicity. And especially, the way it complements your lyrics. It evokes so many things at once: not just the feeling of depression, but also the sort of oppressed ways love is endorsed to us from a day to day basis. The crimson background, and when the camera zooms out, you are immediately taken out of the magic, back into a stark reality.
It’s so complicated, so much of love seems obligatory. I’m supposed to love this person because I’ve known them for years or they are my family or this or that. When I don’t feel that, there’s a disconnect. It’s the same with my career. So many things about it are complicated and challenging. Like touring, for example, there is so much to it that exhausts me. Sometimes I – and I don’t know if I should be saying this in an interview – I’m not sure if I would miss it. I love to travel, and I love people. But this pace of life, I’m not sure that’s peace for me.
I love writing songs and I love making records, but touring is very hard on me. It’s hard to find balance on the road, and that makes me more susceptible to feelings I don’t want to visit. And the reason I say this is because I should be very grateful for getting to do what I love. For the opportunity to even be sitting here with you. It’s such a privilege and opportunity to get to travel, for people to hear your music and enjoy what you do. To take time out of their day for that. I don't discount how wonderful that is, and how grateful I am. But it’s hard to be ‘on’ and engaged at all times. To immediately come off stage and immediately be like ‘Hey, hello, how are you, what’s your name?’
You feel obligated to do that?
That’s what I go back to on ‘Love and Pressure’. Because I feel that this is where I feel some kind of obligation. I want to show people my appreciation, but I feel like I’m not being my true self if I just go through all the motions.
The whole record projects that kind of blunt honesty, confessing the more noxious, uncomfortable things you don’t what to flat out admit. The uglier human impulses, you know, like jealousy, manipulation, deception, and opportunism. Does performing these songs help you retrace your steps, to try and be better?
Absolutely. And part of why I wanted to explore these ideas is because I feel those things as well. I’m not immune to the uglier traits, the traits which come naturally to humanity. It does make me uncomfortable to feel those things, and I admit that I do. As a person and as an artist, I only want to be honest about that. I feel things that just feel very wrong. Sometimes I get hung up on integrity and morality, which can also be a good thing. But it can get in the way of experiencing things to the fullest.
I think just the virtue signalling, the absolutes of good and evil are thrown at us, that only becomes more and more confusing. ‘Who’s Gonna Stop Us’ addresses charisma. And charisma is something that’s often regarded by society as this positive trait. But as we’ve seen now, within politics and the #MeToo backlash, there’s a considerable danger in people knowing how to abuse their charisma. It gets very dark.
Yeah, I feel that too. I know how to be charismatic. And sometimes I don’t realize it either, where that line is between using ‘tools’ like that to achieve what you want, or whether this is just a universally understood transaction; this is the way things work.
From my perspective, as the person interviewing you, I’m faced with that quandary every time. Right now even. I don’t consider myself charismatic, but I do feel I need to up my charms to get compelling answers. To be likeable enough. And sometimes, you feel you are manipulating the situation. So I always sort of retrace things, and more often than not, I end up feeling guilty about it.
Yeah, what is that? I don’t know. But I feel the same. There are so many ways for me to feel bad about myself! (laughs)
But maybe that’s a good thing? Because you overthink all the tiny steps of interacting, the things most people don’t stop to consider?
Having that awareness – on paper – might make for a better person. A more moral, gentle human being. But I’m not sure what the correlation is between that and happiness. Whether I’m spending so much time feeling guilty about a specific interaction. Or angry, because I see someone act in a way I disagree with, I wonder who is really winning or losing here?
That’s true, and that confusion gets magnified tenfold on social media. Because you can’t erase it, you can’t say: ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t say that.’ People can screencap one dumb tweet you sent out, and that can be reproduced an infinite amount of times, distorting everything you want to project. But I’m pretty impressed with your activity because you’re being playful with it. The tour promo videos with the Dog Boilen character are hilarious.
I try to have fun with it because I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes, I have no idea how to interact with it. I don’t love social media, the fact that it’s becoming such a prevalent form of communication. You feel like you know someone because of their social media presence, or sometimes you lose touch with people because that’s what your relationship is now reduced to: to see them on social media. And you don’t actually know what’s happening in their lives.
Some people keep them separate deliberately: they project this constructed persona on social media, and live a different life outside of that. And it’s become an accepted thing.
I certainly do. When I try to be too earnest, on social media, I usually feel that’s not the place for it. I’m a private person. The internet is not where I put my deepest feelings. But at the same time, I also want to put something out there that’s honest. And the best way I know how to do that is through humour.
I feel it’s healthy to pace yourself in that regard. A lot of artists feel like they need to be on this treadmill of feelings and impressions to stay visible online. And they end up sharing maybe a lot more than they intend. But choosing to not have a significant social media presence can be detrimental to your music reaching more ears.
Maybe, but that’s okay. Music and social media are not related to me. It doesn’t have to do with anything I’m trying to say through my art. It’s a means to an end. It’s part of how things are today. I’ll engage, but the second I start taking it too seriously, that’s when I need to go work on a farm!
But it must be a tricky balance: as an artist, to summon this clear, crystallized concept, without trying to come across as ‘preachy’. I don’t understand, why can’t people just be allowed to doubt themselves, even within the confines of their work?
Oh, I give myself plenty of permission to doubt. I mean, I made a whole record about it. On Nobody’s Watching, I’m not trying to declare anything. I’m just pointing things out, I’m not trying to make any big proclamations on how to behave or how to think. I have no idea. I think that’s a meaningful way to interact with the world, because how could we know anything? How do we know what’s around the corner? How do I know you don’t have a knife down there?
That’s the first time someone has asked me that. No, I have never coerced an interview subject with a knife. But I understand what you’re saying. Even the way articles are constructed these days, in these imperious statements like Steady Holiday Wants You To Doubt Yourself.
Interviews are usually like that, they have these declarations.
It’s like advertising, and you work as an actor in commercials, so you’re probably sly enough to circumvent that.
Yes, absolutely. It’s the only reason I’m sitting here today. Being an actor in commercials supports Steady Holiday.
To do that work well, I reckon you have to mediate conflicting feelings a lot.
Absolutely, it’s a very uncomfortable reality that I attach my likeness to corporations. At the same time, it’s a job, and it’s how I’m able to build the things that matter to me. So I’m happy to be there. What’s more difficult is touring. Day after day, show after show. That’s hard.
That’s interesting though, that you can’t find the balance on tour, yet just flip it on once someone says ‘Cameras, lights, action.’
I would argue that it’s more difficult to be yourself all the time than to just turn around and decide ‘now I’m this person’. I don’t necessarily identify as an actor, I don’t have any of my emotions tied up in it. Whereas music is extremely precious to me. And I take it very seriously. It’s difficult. There’s something very challenging about getting up on stage and singing my own words to people, subjecting myself to how I honestly feel about it. To do that night after night can be a struggle. Whereas with commercials, I’m inherently someone else and just going to work. So I find it quite a bit easier.
I used to wait tables and I loved it. Because that was kind of the same thing. Even if I was having a shit day, I could step into work and tell myself ‘I have to be nice now.’ It forces you to turn on this other part of your brain. I’m not Dre anymore, I’m just here to serve you. It’s easier to put on a smile, at least for me, though I shouldn’t speak for everyone.
Nobody’s Watching is out now via Barsuk Records. For more information on Steady Holiday, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Isaac Ravishankara