At Boobie Trap in Bushwick, surrounded by neon lights and busts of all sorts, Emma Barash and Amanda Brooklyn are doing something they usually avoid at all costs: They’re explaining a lyric.
So it goes: “If I am the meat and you are the doorway / I bleed for the babies / You stand only for my pain / Are you humbled by it?” It’s about Passover, and they’re quickly walking me through why, what with the doorways and the blood of children. A few months ago they ended up playing a gig at the Fire Island synagogue (long story), and someone pointed out the significance of a lyric that usually makes both of them giggle. Emma laughs: “If you were to hear the lyric, and then see our band name, you’d be like, yes, that’s a metal band for sure.”
The heart of Stabwounds, the duo of Brooklyn and Barash, is indeed a little bit metal, wrapped up into softer edges. You’ll often find them at Rockwood Music Hall—their favorite venue in the city—dressed in carefully paired matching getups (cherries, polka dots, or fur coats, depending on the season) and sweetly but fiercely pouring often-aggressive lyrics into swoony melodies, with Emma on guitar. They liken themselves to a “sexually charged reincarnation of Simon and Garfunkel,” a pair of voices writing in melodies, not harmonies. But these two are far more fun.
That conceit—the smiling while delivering something sinister or mean—is such a great pleasure you could call it guilty, at least as a listener. It’s seeing your own ugliness wrapped up in a bow and displayed in a fancy store window. It’s the feeling of walking down the street screaming The Mountain Goats’ “I hope you die/I hope we both die” with a sick, cathartic smile on your face, only it’s less unhinged, more kind, more subtle. It’s long eyelashes blinking at you knowing exactly what they’ve done, knowing they don’t need to be loud to pack a sharp punch. It’s a song that begins with two lulling melodies singing “I’m a bad person/ I’m taking off again,” haunting and singular and true for most of us, at some point.
Barash calls it a byproduct of their music, this balance between meanness and sweetness. “We understand that it’s a part of the package,” she explains, both of their band and of the experience of personhood. “Just because you’re angry or hateful or have even fantasies of revenge, that doesn’t mean you’re unkind,” she said. “I think that that’s really important to both of us to enter into the notion of a well-rounded person. It’s not about squashing or releasing all of your negativity.”
Often, when one talks over the other, they’ll place a hand over the other’s hand, a silent acknowledgement of the transgression, a request for a second of time. They’re the sort of pair who turn a conversation into a collaboration, volleying back and forth to get to the same idea. So, too, with their singing voices: Emma writes all their songs but they arrange them together, a near painstaking process that they can easily discuss at great length.
The pair met when Brooklyn costumed a show that Barash was performing in a few years back. Barash remembers, “I was basically like, be my friend.” Brooklyn describes their early friendship as being “obsessed with someone you don’t really know.” A few years later, when Barash and another friend formed a band and sent a mass invite to an upcoming show they were playing, Brooklyn immediately texted her, “How dare you be in a band without me.” A creative linking-up was inevitable.
They performed as a trio for a year or so—starting with the name Westchester Stabwounds—but ultimately evolved into a two-woman band. The outfits were an early development, a result of many years working in theater and a desire to be taken seriously, particularly when so many bookers completely disregarded a pair of two women walking in the door. “We were like, if we wore plain clothes, and didn’t look like we were in dialogue with each other at all, people wouldn’t take us seriously,” Barash explains. “We wouldn’t feel professional.”
Early on they met with tour manager David Burton, who has worked with Andrew Bird and The Head And The Heart, and his thoughts on costuming struck a cord. “He’s really sick of going to indie shows and seeing these bands full of men and women who look like they’ve just come from their job at the coffee shop, in flannels, in jeans,” remembers Brooklyn. Plus, Barash says, “it kind of feels like a token of respect to the audience. You’ve taken the time out to come see us…” Now, they email and text about clothes constantly, and have even begun shopping for each other, always with an eye out for matching or related garments.
But even when dressed in matching furs, Brooklyn and Barash never risk getting lost in a singular identity. Their insistence on countermelodies—rather than opting for perfect-sounding harmonies, which Brooklyn says felt like “Madrigal shit” after singing in choruses and choirs growing up—allow them to bump up against each other vocally and then swerve away, all the while producing a sound that’s aggressively gorgeous. Their lyrics are thick with emotions but not at the mercy of them, singing out that elusive combination of vulnerability and vengeful strength we all like to think we could achieve someday. There’s no fear of appearing weak here, thanks to the gobsmacking groundedness with which they deliver the tenderest of lines and the occasional appearance of sly mockery. A tra-la-la-ing can quickly turn on its suede heel into a mocking blah blah blah.
Today we’re premiering “Fragile Boy,” their first official single, which bumps Barash and Brooklyn one step closer to the release of their initial EP Goody Goody, which will be out this summer. They’ve been working on the release for over a year, turning over money from shows for studio time, and shifting and adapting their sound as they go. They worked with Barash’s former classmate, producer Oliver Hill in his Ditmas Park studio. With him, explains Barash, “We dreamed up a sound that’s not at all what we sound like live. We went in and showed him songs and he was like, ‘These are rock songs. Let’s record them like they’re rock songs.'” The pair loved the bigger sound, and thus found a drummer that they began performing with. The EP, then, balances this newer iteration of Stabwounds and the more acoustic, bare place they began. If you can, be sure to catch a performance this spring to appreciate their current range, and catch some feelings. They’re hosting a single release show at The Lively next week, on 5/11. Get more details on the show here.