Damn the Witch Siren peels back the layers on 'White Magic'

Joel Oliphint
Cover art for Damn the Witch Siren's new album, "White Magic."

Last year, Columbus electro-pop duo Damn the Witch Siren hit the road, booking tours on both coasts in support of 2018 album Red Magic. During one stretch, the pair played 28 shows in 30 days.

And while the actual performances went well, all the other stuff — sexist sound guys, dishonest promoters, lazy bands — began to pile up on Bobbi Kitten and bandmate/partner Z Wolf. The duo returned home feeling worn out and jaded.

“We started getting exhausted, because you're putting on this high-energy show, and we're only two people doing this. It’s the definition of DIY — doing our own light show, press, booking, recording, mixing, mastering, video, photography, promotion…,” Kitten said recently by phone.

“I constantly am thinking, ‘You'd have to be insane to want to be a musician,’ because the amount of work that you put into it, and the amount of payback you get back when you're at this level, is just not justifiable from an adult standpoint,” Wolf said. “A lot of bands don't talk about it, and we didn’t for a long time. We tried to pretend like everything is awesome and we're so excited all the time. … [But] we're giving this our absolute all, all the time, and it gets mentally and emotionally taxing. Don't get me wrong — we love what we do, obviously. But it's hard. It's a lot of work.”

In that weary daze, though, the duo began to process the past year and realized Damn the Witch Siren was actually doing pretty well. The band released five singles. Kitten and Wolf were tapped to star as themselves in “Poser,” a forthcoming movie from Loose Films. In February, YouTuber Andrew Huang featured a previously unreleased single, “Claire Danes,” in a video. And last month, Red Magic track “Wild Child” found its way onto the Netflix series “Elite,” leading to streams in the six digits.

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The positive momentum began to re-energize Kitten and Wolf, who hunkered down in their Marion home studio and began working on finishing an album they had set aside — White Magic. The musicians didn’t know if they’d even release it; the newfound inspiration from the creative process was an end in itself.

Then the pandemic hit, which messed up some of Damn the Witch Siren’s 2020 plans, but also made the material on White Magic feel even more fitting for the times. “One of the themes of the album is isolation,” Kitten said. “I grew up without a very good support system; my parents have always hated our music. So it's kind of about forgetting that your biggest support system is someone who's always there. Sometimes you take it for granted.”

Damn the Witch Siren will release White Magic into the world on Friday, May 1, followed by a livestream performance on Saturday at 8 p.m. It’s a softer, more melancholy offering than the fiery, clubby material on Red Magic.

“I’ve been a little scared to be as completely honest as I was on this record. You're already a woman in music, putting yourself out there so much. On the last album, it was easy for me to talk about sexual liberation and sexual politics, but it's harder for me to talk about ... things that make me feel vulnerable,” said Kitten, who got briefly choked up. “I'm an emotional sack of human, and that's what a lot of people don't see. They're like, 'You're such a boss-ass bitch!' And actually I'm a very emotional person.”

To match the intimacy of the songs, Kitten moved away from her full-throated singing voice to strike a more airy, ethereal tone. “I love folk music and Joni Mitchell and Cocteau Twins and the Cure. I've always loved that style music, and I've always wanted to do more of it in our band,” she said.

“We do a lot of takes [in the studio],” Wolf said, “and she'd be saying, ‘I need to find this character. I need to find this voice.’ She really dug hard to conjure up the right mood for all these songs and what the particular character in those songs was trying to say. It was pretty cool to witness.”

The instrumentation, similarly, had to fit the new direction, which pushed the duo toward more organic sounds. Piano provides the backbone for “Pretty Rocket,” a song that arose from a six-year-old demo, while “Paradise” begins with ambient sounds and strummy acoustic guitar. In fact, in the band’s submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, the couple stripped the song down to just piano and acoustic guitar.

“We both feel a little naked doing that. I've been doing electronic music production since before I ever even picked up a guitar, so that's sort of my home. But it's important to keep trying to get yourself out of your comfort zone,” Wolf said.

“For a while we were just writing to drums and bass. … It's refreshing to sit down with a guitar or piano and focus on writing a song that moves you,” Kitten said. “I feel like sometimes I hide behind our big wall of sound. It’s nice to come out of that.”