If some people are merely in touch with their emotions, Ciscandra Nostalghia is perhaps suffocated by hers. The polarization of incredible highs and cavernous lows that are felt on her passionate debut Chrysalis (released April 8) might be enough to scare some into submission, but not for this inquisitive artist who engorges on feelings and spits them out into a symphonic mix of dark core industrial and experimental electronic flourishes that are enough to sway an attentive listener to her way of thinking.
“There’s a lot of music that tries to make you forget—forget troubles and worries and just party and have a good time. And then there’s music that makes you remember, and it awakes you and tells you to shut the fuck up for a second and pay attention—and that’s the kind of music I want to create,” Nostalghia declares, sitting in her home in L.A. where just a few hours before she was rattled by an early morning earthquake. Her voice—an accent rug that carries the dust of her multi-cultural upbringing, raised by Germans and Persians and spending summers in Tehran—softly quivers and trembles, but not because she’s scared of anything in this world. Nostalghia’s seen enough of it to know better.
It’s quite fitting she named the album Chrysalis, a term for the hard case that protects a moth or butterfly while it is turning into an adult, since the evolution of her own maturity was a test of strength and endurance. If one feels the pain in her songs, from the panicked screams in “Cool for Chaos” to the haunting childlike chorus in “Stockholm Syndrome,” it’s because growing up, for her, was not some sanguine sitcom.
“The music has embedded feelings I’ve been living for a long time,” she says. “I had trouble growing up, I never felt like I had a home or fit in. I had a lot of trouble with kids in school and was never accepted. Parents don’t realize how much that affects a child, enough abuse like that and you become a very sensitive, emotional person.” At home, her parents offered little refuge with a sterile, conservative environment that sheltered the young girl from much of American culture. The most she was exposed to was routine dance classes, which she gave up when she was 18, but still lingers in her self-scripted, often contortionist music videos.
“My parents kept me away from what was happening in current pop culture, so I never really knew much music. I did hear some, but it was primarily oldies, the stuff my dad would listen to.”
So when she finally discovered music was something she was interested in—realizing one day in the shower she could sing and perfecting her craft by practicing in the mirror and buying a second-rate karaoke machine to hear her voice recorded—tensions with her family hit the boiling point. “My mother was restrictive and when you are restricted so much—if you’re a firecracker, you’re bound to break.”
Nostalghia was eventually kicked out of her house and ended up living on a school campus nearby, in one of the music rooms—just her and a piano.
“I wasn’t supposed to be living in there, of course, but I wanted to learn how to play [music],” she recalls, organically teaching herself how to play at night and taking showers at her friends’ houses during the day. “I started writing songs and it was immediate. In like a week, I was playing piano and writing music, and I became obsessed. There was no other way and no way anyone could convince me otherwise.”
At first she dabbled in random open mic nights, which had audiences either puzzled or incredibly moved. “I got really strong reactions in bizarre ways. Sometimes, people would be completely silent after I played and nobody would clap. Then, other times, I’d get extreme reactions that made people cry. It was one or the other always, but I thrived on it. I loved when people hated me just as much as when they loved me.”
By this point, Nostalghia knew she was on to something but saw a bigger version for the songs, something lush and cinematic and moody. While she started learning Pro Tools herself, she also opted to put out a call signal for a musician to join her.
“I put a really rude ad on Craigslist. No music, no picture, just what I was looking for and saying pretty much, ‘don’t waste my time.’” Roy Gnan, a jazz-trained drummer from Philadelphia who had dabbled in various, unsuccessful acts in L.A. serendipitously found it and responded. Although Nostalghia refused to meet him until they had worked on a song together over e-mail, they eventually convened at a local coffeeshop. “I was expecting for him to be hard and serious and a dick, but he was the nicest guy I’ve ever met, a total sweetheart and completely humble and the best male friend I’ve ever had.”
Calling him an “octopus” for all the arms he has in the musicality of the project, the two are a symbiotic match on Chrysalis, Nostalghia’s Bjork meets PJ Harvey vocals a playground for the opulent, metallic synths, gentle strings and pounding percussion that Gnan (and touring cellist Adele Stein) create into a mysterious, mythical world of sound. One so grand it makes it almost unfathomable to believe Nostalghia’s claims that she can create songs in 5 minutes and then hate them in 10.
“I’m lucky if I get a few days of liking the songs or being elated with them before I start hating the whole album.”
It’s an opinion all her own though as Chrysalis has been heralded in review after review while the band has been reverently praised on tour, something experienced on a recent trip to Australia’s Soundwave Festival alongside metal and punk bands like Rob Zombie, Avenged Sevenfold, AFI and Asking Alexandria.
“Going into it, we didn’t think people would be so receptive. I was sure we’d get booed, and I was actually looking forward to it,” Nostalghia says, laughing. The reaction was incredibly positive, though, both from critics and everyday fans—just take a look at the comments swarming the band’s social media accounts for proof.
In Australia, Nostalghia—who admits she’s pretty antisocial in L.A.— went uncharacteristically bowling with Green Day and Mastodon and became quick friends with William DuVall, the lead singer of Alice in Chains.
“I spoke with him the night we had our wrap-up party, and he’s a great guy, and we had a great conversation. You don’t normally expect that with dude bands, but he was really classy and intelligent.”
So with all the new in-roads fanfare, including early fans like Marilyn Manson, Skrillex and Serj Tankian (System of a Down), one might wonder if Nostalghia might take a clue from other likeminded artists like Chelsea Wolfe and Marissa Nadler and collaborate with one of the metal bands falling at her feet.
“Well there is a side project I’m working on with Dave Lombardo [Slayer],” she says, as if it’s no big deal. “We jam all the time at my rehearsal studio, and we started recording the sessions because they were interesting and cool. I figured we might as well put this out. I have some time to breathe for a little bit.”
But not for long we’re sure as the sheer admiration for the band picks up at warp speed, even coming around to Nostalghia’s parents. “We had tough times but we’re okay now. They are proud and excited for what is happening for me,” she says.
At the beginning of Chrysalis’ opening title track, the sound of wings breaking free of a dark, hopeless nightmare echoes as a beautiful reminder of how far Nostalghia has come and the flight she is still yet to take.
“Honestly, I think for me, my greatest asset is being lucky enough to have the freedom to explore and be a child again with wide eyes willing to try something new,” she says. “The fact that I’m a very sensitive, emotional person used to be a hindrance, but now I think I’ve found a way to make something of it and turn the dark into something beautiful.”