This Philadelphia-based duo is creating music that “prances about.” After releasing the music video for their track “Waterlogged,” the two met with Aislin to share the origins of Joann Fabrix, how they balance their collaborative and solo work, and how Kate Bush has inspired them.
Joann Fabrix creates music reminiscent of your favorite fables and fairy tales—colorful, entrancing, sentimental, and brief. Their debut album FABLE features songs that feel like short stories set in new worlds, and lyrics filled with lines that could stand as poems on their own. The duo consists of Helly Manson and Nico Lepeska-True, who turn found-sounds and small-scale samples into “glitchy jigs and slanted lullabies.”
Raised in London, Manson sang in a traditional school choir and started drumming in high school. Lepeska-True sang in a chorus as well, taking part in a youth group called Boston City Singers during their upbringing in Boston, MA. The two crossed paths in Connecticut during their first year at Wesleyan University when a mutual friend asked if they wanted to be in a band. Despite playing in two bands together, they didn’t become friends until two years later when other band members moved abroad. After remixing one of Lepeska-True’s songs, Manson shared it with them as a birthday gift, and Joann Fabrix was born.
From the first time I learned about you and heard your music, I’ve always been drawn to your name and the way it’s spelled. How did the name Joann Fabrix come about?
Lepeska-True: (Laughs) Yeah, it really just popped up! I was making a lot of trips to craft stores at the beginning of my senior year at school, getting materials for my art thesis… And also I think Helly was trying to name a pop star in her English thesis around then? (Laughs) So maybe that was in my mind subconsciously. At some point, I thought, “Joann Fabrics would be an amazing name for a pop star!” We ended up throwing the x in later just for fun.
Your music features a lot of glitchy ambient sounds with haunting vocals layered throughout. It’s described as being reminiscent of your favorite fairy tale—colorful, entrancing, sentimental, and brief. Do fairy tales play a large part in the inspiration for your music?
Manson: I think in a sort of unintentional way. When we were finishing FABLE and trying to come up with a name for the album, I was thinking a lot about how all the songs feel like their own succinct worlds/short stories. So that was sort of the reasoning for the title. Aside from that we are both extremely influenced by Kate Bush. Her songs evoke childhood in a really strong way for me, even though I only started listening to her in my teens. I think that’s sort of her magic. So yeah, a heavy dose of her really rubbed off on us, probably!
Lepeska-True: Yeah I agree with all that, lots and lots of Kate Bush. The songs just ended up feeling like little fairy tales, and then we really leaned into that with all the visuals that came after the music.
What are some of your favorite fairy tales?
Lepeska-True: I love Frog & Toad! Which ended up being a source of inspiration for the “I Heard You Leaving” video. I also think about an animated short called The Snowman, based on the book by Raymond Briggs. It has a really beautiful score. Neither of those are traditional fairy tales, I suppose...
Manson: Also not a traditional fairy tale, but there’s a soviet animated short by Yuri Norstein that I really, really love called Hedgehog in the Fog about a hedgehog [that] gets lost in the woods on his way to find his friend the bear!
“There’s the person in the car who feels small and alone and also the famous celebrity who is incredibly isolated even though she’s on all the billboards and whatnot. These lonely bubbles bump up and merge with each other in the video because everyone is moving around so much.”
The recently dropped music video for your track “Waterlogged” features beautifully layered art and is set in a world that looks very futuristic. Could you give us a little more insight into the video and it’s meaning?
Manson: We actually didn’t do anything for this video conceptually. It was fully the brainchild of our dear friend Rafe Forman! From talking to him I can tell you that the video explores these different isolated characters within a sprawling cityscape. There’s the person in the car who feels small and alone and also the famous celebrity who is incredibly isolated even though she’s on all the billboards and whatnot. These lonely bubbles bump up and merge with each other in the video because everyone is moving around so much.
The animation, which looks like an artist’s sketchbook come to life, is very different from your previous music video. Was the decision to create an animated music video a result of restrictions caused by COVID?
Manson: Nope! I think we started talking about it with Rafe the fall before our album release.
2020 was a hard year for everyone trying to navigate the changes that came with COVID, but I can only imagine how difficult it has been for musicians who may have relied on live gigs and touring as the bulk of their income. How have you two been handling the changes? Has it affected your lives as musicians in any way?
Manson: It was definitely a bummer not to be able to tour after FABLE was released, mostly because we just really wanted people to hear us! But our earnings from shows have only ever really covered gas and food on tour and not much else. And we both have jobs right now. So in that regard, we are lucky and not much has changed. As far as making music for Joann Fabrix goes, it hasn’t really changed the way that Nico and I collaborate, because we both typically send songs back and forth over email until they’re done.
Lepeska-True: Yeah, it’s mostly just been a lot of sadness about not being able to take part in/experience live music—I miss it a lot.
“I find that working alone and working collaboratively use and feed different energies for me. It can feel so good to really indulge in my own little world for a bit, and I do so much learning in that space, but it’s also exhausting and can start to feel very limited.”
Outside of your work together as Joann Fabrix, you’re both pursuing your own solo projects. Helly, you’ve just released a five-track album, Catch The Bouquet, under the name foil. What was that process like in comparison to working on music for Joann Fabrix?
Manson: Definitely different. The biggest hurdle creatively was figuring out vocal production. Although I sang a lot as a kid, I am now technically not a very good singer and am a bit squeamish about it, which is why Nico did most of the singing on FABLE. But for foil I used this free autotune plugin, and it totally changed the way I think about making vocals. I’ve always loved the way autotune and pitch shifting sounds; I think it’s one of the most delicious music tricks out there. So putting it on my not so great voice felt like the right starting point for getting over my preciousness about singing.
It was also weird to do things alone! When doing stuff with another person you very much feed off of one another and they can assure you that what you did sounds good (or sometimes not). At certain moments it was so agonizing, especially when I started mixing and mastering the songs. It’s very easy to fixate on and fret about some little frequency that’s bugging you when there’s no one else in the room! It was definitely a super rewarding learning experience, even though I very much missed having another person there with me.
Nico, can you tell us a little more about your solo work? Are there any new projects coming out that we can look forward to?
Lepeska-True: Yeah! I made my first full-length record as Blue toed this year, which will come out hopefully before too long. It’s a weighty one for me, because it brought another massive burst of learning about songwriting, and because I channeled a lot of grief into it over the course of this year.
Similar to what Helly was saying, I think in working on FABLE I leaned on Helly a lot to figure out song structures - she has really great instincts for making things flow dynamically, whereas I often get stuck in a single loop. For me, making this solo record was a lot of toiling over how the songs flow and trying to develop some instincts there. I’m really proud of where they each landed.
You’ve also contributed to the album art for Flung’s new record Shaky But My Hair Is Grown, as well as working with Flung on FABLE. Do you both get a chance to do this often, working and collaborating with other musicians and bands in various ways?
Manson: This year we both co-produced a track for our friend Mike Hanson, who has a project called Father Hotep. And we also scored our friends Toby Meyer and James Gibbel’s short film colorrubbish, which has yet to be released. I’m definitely a bit obsessed with collaborating with people, because for me it’s the easiest and most efficient way to make friends (Laughs). I’m pretty shy around most people I don’t know very well, so having a project lets me get over my own awkwardness faster than I might otherwise.
Lepeska-True: Yes, same here. And I’m really in awe of the stuff that my friends are making. I feel so lucky to have all these creative dialogues flowing.
That makes sense, I’ve met a lot of the people I know now through collaborations so it’s a great way to make friends who you can also create with. Do you think your work as solo artists contributes to and influences your work together as Joann Fabrix?
Lepeska-True: They are really different processes for me. I think the thing I’m trying to get at with Blue toed is something really personal and intangible, and it feels right for it to be something I do on my own. I find that working alone and working collaboratively use and feed different energies for me. It can feel so good to really indulge in my own little world for a bit, and I do so much learning in that space, but it’s also exhausting and can start to feel very limited. Working with Helly brings this dynamism that is super inspiring and challenging, it refreshes my ears or snaps me into something else. The songs take turns I’d never imagine, so it can feel a lot more expansive. So yeah! To answer the question, the two modes definitely influence each other in that they both really distinctly influence me and my ways of listening and writing.
Manson: For me, the starting place for me doesn’t feel super different in that both feel concerned with just finding and tinkering with sounds really worthy of obsessing over, whether they be samples or something engineered from scratch. However, they definitely end up in very different places and I think that is because Nico and I both have complementary but also different instincts. I get very tired of some of the routes I take, so it is so incredible to work with someone who goes to a place that is the inverse of mine and one that I am always incredibly inspired by!
Are there any new releases we can expect to see from Joann Fabrix over the next few months?
Our song with Father Hotep came out in January. We also just started making the 2nd album…