Concert preview: Half Waif at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing

Nandi Rose Plunkett, who records and performs under the name Half Waif, was in Texas when Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, a setting that further heightened the impact of those events on the musician.

“It was the feeling of being far away from home and being in a conservative state, estranged from both my physical home [in New York] and also my idea of what our country is,” said the singer and keyboardist, who joins her band in concert at Ace of Cups on Monday, March 19. “Obviously those first few days were shocking and numbing and chilling.”

Amid this encroaching dark, Plunkett penned “Torches,” a smoldering synth-pop number that finds the musician attempting to make some sense of the chaos, pairing lines about violence-marred landscapes with the promise of an “undying coast” somewhere beyond the horizon.

The hell/hope duality is further reflected in the song's title. Plunkett said she was thinking of the KKK “and this idea of these monsters in the fields” when she first landed on the word — months before white nationalists adopted tiki torches as a symbol for their movement during an August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — but she also understood the flames could signal hope, a literal light in the dark.

“It's both this horrifying image but it's also this expelling of the darkness,” she said. “I don't think I was feeling optimistic at the time, but I think in order to survive we have to tell ourselves we're going to get through it. … We can't just lie down and let that darkness overtake us. There is some sort of hope that gets us through every day, whether we're conscious of it or not.”

This relentless, unavoidable forward momentum proved to be a foundational element of the songs that grew to make up the new Half Waif album,Lavender(out April 27 on Cascine). Take second single “Keep It Out,” which Plunkett wrote about her relationship with current partner and bandmate, drummer Zack Levine, torn between growing love/admiration and a general fear of commitment (as a child of divorce, Plunkett said she grew up understanding “the inevitability of relationships to expire”).

Perhaps, the songs seem to suggest, the same internal rhythms that spur us to enter into romance despite the low odds of success are the same ones that can carry us forward and give us hope even amid political and personal upheaval.

“I think it's about moving through things, or recognizing that things change and wherever you are now is not the end,” Plunkett said. “There is a shift and there is motion, even in those moments of feeling still. That's the natural progression of time and seasons and day and night. That's built in to the way we experience the world.”

Plunkett's more naturalistic way of viewing her surroundings could be informed in part by the musician's current home in Chatham, New York, an idyllic small-town setting where she joined with Levine and guitarist Adan Carlo for recording sessions.

“We were really isolated. It was summer and we had a pond, so there were a lot of frogs and animals, and, being in that space, it felt really safe. I think that feeling allowed us to take our time and explore sounds more deeply,” Plunkett said. “When I recorded in the past, it was often in Brooklyn or in the city, and that lends a different kind of energy. It's more frenetic and there are always a million things going on. Being up here, I mean, it's an old trope — the artist going to the woods and writing — but it is true that when you surround yourself with that space it comes out in the music.”

Plunkett also credited the influence of her late grandmother, whose longstanding home-purification ritual gave name to both the album and song “Lavender Burning.”

“She had lavender in her garden and she would boil it on the stove. ‘Granny, what is this weird herb?' It looked like a cauldron, and she was a conjurer putting these sticks and twigs in a pot,” said Plunkett, who was able to play an early demo of “Lavender Burning” for her grandmother prior to her death. “[My grandmother's] house was a very comforting and healing place for me when I would go visit. And even with her death she's still a healing presence in my life.”

In recent months, Plunkett has observed a different kind of healing, watching as her former Pinegrove bandmates have quietly worked to find a way forward following a November 2017 public letter that singer Evan Stephens Hall posted in response to accusations of sexual coercion, delaying the band's new record,Skylight, and leading to questions about when or even if Pinegrove would resume playing.

“There's stuff in the works. There's the album,Skylight, which is completely done and ready to be released. And they're working on a new record now. So the band is not done. They're just trying to find the best way to re-emerge in a way that feels respectful to everyone involved in the situation,” said Plunkett, who parted ways with the live rendition of Pinegrove in August 2017 to focus her energies on Half Waif (Levine, who also drums in Pinegrove, is not part of Half Waif's touring lineup). “But I absolutely see myself continuing to be a collaborator as far as recording. Singing with Evan was how I got brought into the band, and eventually … how this project got started. I will always jump at the opportunity to sing with him and play with musicians who have now become my family.”

Ace of Cups

7 p.m. Monday, March 19

2619 N. High St., Old North

ALSO PLAYING: Counterfeit Madison, Corbezzolo