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Another Side of Pop: Fingernail, Interviewed

by Dave Heaton

A Childhood in Æden, the newest album from the somewhat enigmatic group Fingernail, has a style all its own. It is electronic music which manages to be many things--melodic and atmospheric, gorgeous and mysterious. Split into three sections, the album includes instrumentals and more conventional pop songs (meaning, essentially, that they have lyrics and vocals)--all infused with pretty melodies, interesting beats and sounds, and a general glow, an air of beauty. They represent some sort of invisible meeting point between experimental electronic musicians, new-wave electro-pop, and a whole assortment of great pop songwriters and performers from throughout history. It's a fantastic album with many sides to it, one that deserves more attention than it's getting. It was released by Doubtful, a label run in part by Adam DiAngelo, the founder of Fingernail. The group was started in Philadelphia as pretty much a one-man project, as shown on their debut album So, Backwards. Now with three members--Adam, Lauren, Sabrina--Fingernail is more of a group, with each member contributing his or her own talents, perspectives and experiences. The songs they're working on now rely more on vocals (as they should--both Lauren and Sabrina have great voices), and are bright, catchy and memorable pop tunes. All three members of Fingernail kindly engaged in an e-mail conversation recently about their music and other related matters; here it is.

I'd like to start by going back to Fingernail's beginnings, for a moment. When did Fingernail start, and under what circumstances? Was it the first musical project that you had undertaken, or were you involved in others?

Adam: I was in a group called Magnet F. It was strange, heavy music. While programming drums for that project I also wrote music on my own. This was much more melodic, more contrapuntal. This was to become Fingernail.

How have your ambitions for Fingernail changed from that time until now? In what ways is what you want to accomplish with music different now?

Adam: Everything is still about the same. Perhaps different means to the same end: there are many failings in the present musical environment that we endeavor to remedy.

How did the current lineup, with Lauren and Sabrina, come to be? How long have you all known each other, and how did each of you end up joining?

Adam: I had always loved working on collaborative projects. I would often research my favorite artists and drop them a line asking to develop a song together. A few years ago while living in New Jersey I got hold of a Needles EP. It was dazzling! Then I found out some of the members were living very near me. I set out on foot, tracked down Sabrina, and charmed her into singing for me. Since then we have worked on more and more music until she was just assimilated into Fingernail.

Lauren: I've known Adam forever, and I'm a huge Needles fan. So when Adam offered me the opportunity to collaborate with Sabrina and him, I eagerly accepted.

Lauren and Sabrina, what were your musical backgrounds before Fingernail like? What other musical projects were you involved in, and how is being in Fingernail different from those?

Lauren: In the past I only had brief affairs with several charming, but trite musical projects. Fingernail, although serving as my first experience outside of the rock realm, has also proven to be the best outlet yet for some sassy, groundbreaking music.

Sabrina: My musical project prior to fingernail was the short-lived synth-pop band called The Needles. Fingernail's music is more polished, more complex and more professional than that of The Needles, but we were catchy and some Needles' tracks may be covered by Fingernail.

The Fingernail songs with Sabrina and/or Lauren singing seem to be closer to what people traditionally think of as pop music. Is that a purposeful goal of the group now, to be "more pop," or is it just what happens when you add more vocalists to your music?

Sabrina: Our goal isn't to be "more" of anything, so I suppose the latter is more accurate.

What are you working on currently, recording-wise? When will you release your first recording to feature the current lineup, and what will it be?

Adam: We have been working on a new series of songs. These are really unlike anything on A Childhood…. We want to pace ourselves, make sure the material is perfect, so an album could be a while off. However, we have a song that is screaming to be released as a single. We may oblige.

What is your songwriting process like, and how has that changed with Sabrina and Lauren joining the group?

Adam: Sabrina's voice integrates seamlessly into the music. It can be used as another instrument. It is quite pure, quite haunting. Lauren has such a strength in her singing that her harmony parts often come right to the foreground. They both have such awareness of their voices that it can direct the process of composing altogether. Also Sabrina plays the keyboards much better than I, and Lauren is a great percussionist so it is becoming increasingly more common to find songs being written while I'm out of the room.

I have a few questions about the most recent album, A Childhood in Æden. The album is split into three groupings of songs, each with its own heading ("Æden," "Academy Days," "Being Childlike"). Does that represent a concept of some kind? If so, could you explain it and what each grouping represents?

Adam: The album is chronological--both compositionally and conceptually. The "Æden" suite is pure, raw, electronic music. "Academy Days" is just that; those are songs about growth. That is really some of the most experimental material I have done. Filled with riddles and subtlety there is quite a bit to occupy the listener in each three-minute song. Then finally there is "Being Childlike." It recalls many elements of my favorite music and re-contextualizes it. The best music has already been written. But I think I can make it better still.

The "concept, titles and lyrics" on the album are co-credited to John Bergmayer--what can you tell me about him and his role in Fingernail?

Adam: He is as much a part of Fingernail as Sabrina, Lauren or me. In fact, we share the rights to A Childhood…. John Bergmayer is a man of worldliness and erudition the likes of which I never have encountered. There is much mystery about him. He lives in Colorado and composes long and short verse in the tradition of the vulgar Italian poets. And he is of the last, great American patriots.

The artwork for the album is fantastic--who was the artist and how did that artwork end up getting used?

Adam: The fifth member of Fingernail is Michael Nigro. He holds a hand as steady as bedrock and carries his pen as a valkyrie to battle. I think his contribution to this project is not limited to the artwork, but extends to the raison d'etre. He developed a system of iconography which we employed in the artwork of the first Fingernail album, So Backwards. From that point forward the music had a clear direction. The elegance and refinement of Fingernail is due, to a great extent, to his work.

The last track--"Kiss Me in October"--is probably my favorite on the album. It has such a great melody and this sweeping, romantic feel to it. What can you tell me about that song and how it came to be?

Adam: "Kiss Me in October" reprises the theme from the first "Æden." A Childhood in Æden is book-ended with these two tracks which really are polar opposites. "Æden" is entirely mathematical. "Kiss Me in October" feels entirely organic, but the music remains the same. We can form a connection with the human voice that we simply cannot with machines.

The album is the first release on Doubtful. Is that your own label? What other artists are on the label? What are they like?

Adam: Doubtful is a label run by myself and Eric Sherman. We have some releases planned about which we are very excited. Very soon we will debut Printed Circuit, a beautiful young Englishwoman with an extraordinary kind of post-futurist pop music. She will be followed shortly by Octorock, who makes lush, atmospheric electro tracks. These two both appear on A Childhood in Æden as guests. Fantastic!

Has Fingernail been playing live, and do you plan to do more of it in the future? What was a live Fingernail show like in the past? How is that different with the current lineup?

Adam: Last summer I did a brief European tour. It was primarily a series of solo performances, but we had a special last show in which Sabrina performed. It was very nice. There is a real difference performing as an ensemble versus performing solo. Lauren and Sabrina will add a powerful live dynamic--one I'm excited to see myself.

Lauren: Now when you see Fingernail, you think "french manicure."

One more question, one I ask everyone. If there's an album, movie or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me what it was.

Lauren: The World/Inferno Friendship Society is absolutely my favorite band to see live. I see them every chance I get and am blown away each time.

Adam: A friend of mine gave me a bootleg of the Beach Boys' unreleased album, Smile…Wow.

Sabrina: And, of course, we're always listening to our new songs.

{Note: Go here to hear a new Fingernail song for free.}

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