Eartheater practices her own strain of poetic alchemy, melting her subjects into objects: the waves turn the shells into sand; the flames melt the sand into glass; the glass holds the wine; the wine makes you drunk. Shapeshifting between electronic experimentation and acoustic texture, the Queens-based composer / producer / multi-instrumentalist / vocalist’s art has long delved into themes of erosion and lithification, along with the infinite possibilities of metamorphosis both emotional and physical. On Powders, the first of her two upcoming albums, alchemical forces connect ideas from every stage of her career just as they dissolve her practice into atomized particles ripe for reconstitution. “Powders is a series of vignettes about the process of breaking things down,” she explains. “Once a substance is ground down to powder, it’s in its tiniest molecular state, enabling it to then be integrated into something new.”
More than a decade since she first came up on the gritty New York noise circuit, Eartheater has refused to settle into a staid routine over five albums and an array of commissions and residencies. Her first two self-produced LPs Metalepsis and RIP Chrysalis (Hausu Mountain, 2015) introduced us to her spellbinding vocal performances and the fractal spirals of her songwriting, bringing together fragments of folk, noise, chamber music, and electronic collage into a kaleidoscopic vision of self-excavation and evolution. IRISIRI (PAN, 2018) found Eartheater embracing technoid production and beat-driven structures while still presenting us with the product of one mind tunneling into itself – an approach that blossomed outward into the collaborative networks that birthed the widescreen electronic pop fantasias of her mixtape Trinity (Chemical X, 2019). On Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin (PAN, 2020), the artist returned to the immediacy of writing for acoustic guitar and string ensembles while exploring the outer reaches of textural sound sculpting. Concurrent projects ranged from melted ambient reworkings of her own records, to releasing collaborations with New York-based post-classical experimental duo LEYA, to composing an album for the repertoire of contemporary classical orchestra Alarm Will Sound which debuted at Merkin Hall in 2019.
Powders positions Eartheater at a fertile crossroads, embracing collaboration in production and professional studio recording practices while honing her pop songwriting and her lyrics to their sharpest and most vivid state to date – all without losing the thread of future-facing experimentation that has enlivened her work from her earliest recordings. “I’m drawn to the way a pop song can sound like sugar until you realize it’s laced with poetic bitters and remedy,” she explains. “[Phoenix] was my first proper studio album, yet the process felt as intimate as how I created my previous bedroom albums, as I was working alone 90% of the time. Powders – with the exception of ‘Crushing’ which I wrote, played and produced alone during a residency – is my first experience of working in very kitted-out studios with a bunch of really talented people to quickly bang out my overflowing ideas.” With a smirk she quips, “It’s my LA record.”
Powders and its forthcoming sister album Aftermath took their initial shape and vision within the hallowed walls of Sunset Sound in Hollywood. Eartheater recalls feeling so inspired by the studio’s illustrious history that music simply “flowed out of me as soon as [producer] Yves Rothman placed this incredible vintage guitar in my hands. The channel to magic was lubricated.” Between December 2022 and March 2023, she studio-hopped in LA wherever she could, fleshing out Powders in spaces like Spotify’s studios, Flume’s studio, Mad Decent, Godmode, and Lex Stacy’s hideout in Pasadena. She kept working when she was home in Brooklyn in between travel, and finished off the album in Paris. Rising to the prospect of working for the first time in a series of more traditional studio environments, she assembled a network of trusted co-producers and players, including Yves Rothman, Sega Bodega, Lecx Stacy, Casey MQ, Elliott Kozel, Tony Seltzer, Luis Aponte, Isaiah Barr, Sammy, and her long-time friend and right hand girl Kiri.
In Eartheater’s hands, the archetype of “Los Angeles popular music” in all its contrasting visions of glamor and turbulence morphs into yet another tool to add to her wide arsenal – a new shade that sits on the palette alongside every other pigment she’s gathered. Powders feels like the most unabashed pop of her career, radio friendly in its concise song structures and its exploration of atmospheres that might appear more pleasant and broadly cinematic on the surface. Yet Eartheater can’t help but subvert that idiom, drawing our attention towards the granular details of each cascading vocal performance, the surrealism of each lyrical turn of phrase, and the sublime eccentricities in production that steer any given track down avenues far from where it began.
Powders draws varied energies from Eartheater’s own omnivorous tastes as a songwriter and from her stable of collaborators, showcasing production that shifts on a dime between mutated dance music, unadorned folk balladry, trip-hop, and torch song pop songcraft. If her compositions seem to inhabit a shell of one style for the span of a verse or so, tendrils of another style slide into view. Her signature filtered blastbeats well up alongside bursts of sub-bass to wash over bright acoustic guitar riffs ready for the autumn beach. Swirls of flute and orchestral strings rise up throughout, offering a throughline of chamber music now six albums deep. As the distinction between the genres that she dips into begins to fade away in the mosaic view of Powders, we follow her words and her transfixing multi-octave melodic runs wherever they may take us. While previous albums found Eartheater’s vocals typically warped by effects or piled thick with multi-tracked layering, Powders presents them resolutely up front in the mix, highlighting her performances with new purity and detail.
First single “Pure Smile Snake Venom” draws inspiration from the origin of the smile, channeling the evolution of the act of baring teeth from a threat in the animal kingdom to an invitation in the human world. Eartheater assures her quarry, “I bare my fangs just to let you know / That I like you” […] ”I choose not to bite you.” When the hook kicks in with a dopamine rush of burbling synth bass and twinkling arpeggios, her voice winds through gorgeous curlicue melodies even as she acknowledges the “venom welling up” inside of her. The teeth shift from an instrument to break matter down towards a more alchemical process that resists an obsolete reptilian urge.
Eartheater balances the subdermal darkness with moments of sincere bliss. “Crushing” captures desire in granular imagery: her own lush orchestral production floats over a thumping breakbeat as her “priceless kind of guy” becomes “the wave crushing the shells into sand” and “the flame melting sand into glass.” She casts herself as the grains and him as the elemental force transforming them within her beaker of obsession and imagination, reflecting him in all things like a face in the moon. On sweeping album opener “Sugarcane Switch,” the object of her affection becomes another type of grain, “a spoonful of sugar” [...] “to help the medicine go down on me,” sexually subverting the whimsy and comfort of Mary Poppins as the pair grind down the whip of the titular switch “into something sweet.” The particles portrayed throughout Powders come into being through destruction but alchemize into its opposite: new love, fresh perspective, clarity.
In the dead center of Powders we find a cover song perfectly suited for Eartheater’s “LA record”: System of a Down’s iconic hit “Chop Suey!” She crushes it into talcum and recasts it as a ghostly lullaby folk piece, a version that she has toyed with on her acoustic guitar since high school. Just as the band sought to expose the political unrest and socioeconomic trauma roiling under the surface of Los Angeles in 2001 through their manic masterpiece Toxicity, Eartheater presents a calm exterior with dissonant overdubbed harmonies creeping through the corners of the mix. When her version bursts into a double kick-drum breakdown in its denouement, she chooses to recreate the piano arpeggios present in the original. Any sense of tranquility is merely a front for a deeper unrest, but at least she can deliver it all to us in the trappings of beauty, laced up neatly, ready to be consumed.
For all the energy it gathers from recording and composing in locations outside of Eartheater’s homebases of New York where she resides and rural Pennsylvania where she grew up, Powders brings it all back to her origin point with album closer “Salt of the Earth (H20me).” She explains, “That song is an iPhone recording of me playing mandolin, my brother playing guitar, and my mother playing violin. It was a little improvisation that we did maybe 10 years ago which I forgot about. I thankfully found it during a very stressful period in the past two years and would listen to it to calm my surging cortisol.” Presented in its final incarnation here augmented with whispers of effects in post-production, the piece reorients Eartheater and her listeners on familiar ground. We’ve watched the LA skyline fade into the distance. We gather around the table with her family. We feel their alchemical bonds at work, running deeper even than forces of nature. The dust settles.