July 25, 2017

Featuring: Tica Douglas

Reconciling imperfection and religion with Tica Douglas.

The very first seconds of Tica Douglas’ LP, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us, aren’t music. You can hear chirping birds in the distance, and a low, low rumbling resembling a train passing by or perhaps an amp switching on. These slight, unintended imperfections pop up throughout the next hour or so. There’s the wailing horn in the background of “It Moves Me” and the traces of a forgotten guitar solo in “Death Comes in Three.” There’s the scratchy tape hiss at the beginning of “The Same Thing” and the harmonies on “Weightless” that blur between human and instrument. But this lack in conventional production was what Douglas was subconsciously striving for when recording Our Lady, their third full-length album and first on the iconic-early-aughts indie label Team Love. “The recording process for Lady Star was different than my other records — we did over the course of many months, and tried to emulate a little more the demoing process,” they noted. “I learned that what I had been guarding about my demos wasn’t some idea of ‘sparseness’ (which I’d previously thought) but had to do with allowing imperfection into performance — mostly by playing the parts myself, by taking time and reflecting on what should be there, and not adhering to rules about what a song should or shouldn’t do — if a part is introduced for a second, never to return again, that’s fine, it can achieve something special, if it works.” The result is a contained record drenched in warmth, an intimate experience that gives way to a limitless, existential conversation of Douglas’ place on the Earth.

Douglas, who grew up in Maine, dots the first mark in their artistic timeline with the song “Seventeen,” a song that came together from the most inspiring of emotions - heartbreak. They had always tinkered with songwriting but began to work on it more seriously in their later teens and early twenties, most notably while they were living in Scotland during college. Douglas reflects on this time as swelling their urge to write and perform music, especially in juxtaposition to New York’s difficult environment to survive as an artist. “That just purely, based on audience attentiveness, and readiness and willingness to be able to spend your time consuming and making music - it was so much more alive there than anywhere I’ve been in the states,” they reminisce. Douglas’ career eventually led to their breakout sophomore album, 2015’s Joey, which deviated from relationship struggles and instead was heavily filled with Douglas’ coming to terms with their gender and identity. Douglas has identified as non-binary for many years, and Joey acted as a concrete manifestation of this journey . The music that accompanied the message matched the more definitive narrative - there are few, if any, accidents, and it’s beautifully tidy. Douglas ended up recording the album within a single week at a barn in their home state of Maine with a group of guest musicians and a producer. But after its release and press cycle, Douglas still found themselves searching for a way to recreate the magic that stemmed from the early, lo-fi demos of the songs.

Backing up a bit to before Douglas even released their debut album, they attended Dartmouth College and ended up majoring in Religion after enjoying a few classes in the subject during freshman year. Douglas made the move from Maine to New York City after graduation — a decision that wasn’t grounded in any actual reason, a reocurring theme in their life, which they jokingly point out. Right before the release of Joey, Douglas enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary for a degree in divinity studies. The knee-jerk reaction to this decision could be puzzlement in a world where religion is associated with unsavory political beliefs. But Union is as progressive as religion schools get, and Douglas was able to fill in the gaps in their education that went beyond rigid religious history and politics. Instead, they were able to explore the ideas that had been plaguing them about identity, and the desire to feel tethered to something to believe in beyond the traditional ideas of a deity or god. “In undergraduate, the fundamentals questions I was grappling with — they why and how of things — were not relevant to religion courses, as my teachers often reminded me.” They pointed out. “In graduate school for theology though, that’s all people were asking. Theology, to me, is kind of like ‘why do you get up in the morning?’ whether or not is has to do with God, even though the word technically means God. Thinking about my own theology — why I get up in the morning, what meaning or connections or reasons can be found in life in general (and in mine) — is interwoven throughout this record.”

The writing of Our Lady, named after the statue of a protective saint in Louisiana featured on the cover, paralleled Douglas’ time in divinity school. Throughout the duration of the album, Douglas picks up the listener and places them in specific environments. There’s the introductory ex-filled reading in “My Friend’s Exes” followed by the funeral attendance in “Death Comes in Threes.” There’s the packing up of a home to the playing of “surf guitars at Christmas” on “Familiar.” But many of Douglas’ lyrics are tinged with mysticism and shrouded in a subtle spirituality, like on the slow-burning, acoustic “I Won’t Lie” when they ask, “I never learned / How do you pray? / Wherever you are / I will stay.” Writing this album, which Douglas initially struggled with after Joey, acted as both a break from the academia of divinity school but a direct influence from the experience. “In the midst of academic, social, political, spiritual deconstruction at Union, songwriting was definitely a release. I obviously wasn’t going to try to put the heady intellectual thought processes I was writing into papers into my songs — but that was what was going on in the back of my mind while I wrote Lady Star,” they said. “The simple storytelling of the songs is all trying to arrive at the bigger stuff driving it, if you want. After so many years songwriting, I kind of think in lyrics. A lot of the time, a simple line will just emerge from a complete mess in my mind, and somehow help clear up the mess by articulating it — this is a huge weight off my shoulders. So expressing myself through lyrics is a big relief to the mind. Expressing myself through melody is a huge relief to my body. I can feel something give way and let go inside of me when I find a melody that I love and that does what I need it to do.” 

We end up discussing The Life of Pablo, Kanye West’s imaginative and messy ever-evolving album from last year. You wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be an important influence on Douglas, but if you look closely, you can see the impressions of Pablo, which was once titled So Help Me God, on Our Lady. Both deal with the big, overwrought question of “What are we even doing here?” and trying to explore that in a prayer-like manner, creating their own innovative hymnals in the process. You could consider both as a direct conversation to the otherworldly — there are many times on both albums where Douglas and West addresses someone, but it goes beyond the audience. What’s the difference between West asking on the transcendent “Ultralight Beam,” “I’m trying to keep my faith / But I’m looking for more” and Douglas wondering “I used to be certain but now I don’t know…You’re always miss something as soon as you’re sure” on “Habits + Rituals”? “I love The Life of Pablo for the internal mess it reflects,” they said. “It’s spiritual and profane at the same time. It’s full of contradiction and incoherence and irreverence, but there’s also earnest effort in there to be better too, an acknowledgment of being fucked up and a desperation to find something to hold to that will help. I find the tension that creates moving. I don’t even really care if that was Kanye’s intention, that’s how it affects me. But it probably was his intention.” Both might not have found an answer, but there’s a sense of enlightenment when West includes the line “This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up...you can never go too far where you can’t go home again” at the end of “Ultralight Beam” and when Douglas delicately sings, “Let the river water bathe you / It is brand new / You are brand new too and you will be able / You will be able to,” on album bookend “I Will Be Able To.”

A common topic that arises during our conversation is astrology, a funny juxtaposition to the NBA finals game playing out behind us at a bar in Ridgewood (someone literally shouted “SPORTS!” at one point). Douglas initially apologizes for bringing it up — even though they allude to their interest on “It Moves Me” with the line “It’s the new moon that’s breaking you apart” — until I enthusiastically encourage it. After we realize that only ten minutes of our much, much longer conversation was recorded, I start strategizing our plan for putting together this piece with corresponding outlines, a move that Douglas teases me for being extremely Virgo-y. Right before we go our separate ways, I bring up the concept of Saturn returns, which is when the planet circles back to where it was when you were born and for lack of a better explanation, your shit gets turned upside down. Douglas is nearing thirty, the age when you’re finally in the clear from any life tumult. “I guess I’m almost done with my Saturn returns — I finished divinity school, got engaged, and put out this record. I have no idea what I’m gonna do next but… I’ll figure it out.”

Listen to Tica Douglas on bandcamp.

Written by Emily Thompson