Ava Luna Dream of a Better World on Their Weirdo Pop Album 'Moon 2'

The Brooklyn pop group channel several years of solo work into a wonderful statement on the power of fantasy and community, demonstrated in the video for their new single "Childish," premiering here.

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Aug 30 2018, 6:01pm

Still from the video for "Childish"

Trapped in a hell more or less of our own making, it’s tempting to dream of another world. There’s a long history of sci-fi dreamers, armchair anthropologists, and confused philosophers turning to the idea of utopia when times get tough, but those stories seem insufficient when stuff gets really bad. Even the idea that we could organize society enough to mount an attempt at such a harmonious existence seems unreasonably optimistic in this particular moment of disjunct, confusion, and overload.

At first glance, it might seem that the Brooklyn ensemble Ava Luna, makers of a cosmic strain of indie pop for essentially a full decade now, are engaging with such foolish fantasias as they prep for the release of their fourth album, called Moon 2 (due September 7 on Western Vinyl). As the title suggests, inspired in part by the fact that they decamped to more remote locales (Wilmington, Vermont, and Hull, Massachusetts) to make this record, they too allowed themselves to dream of another world, where things work a little more cleanly.

The music responds in kind, dizzying guitars and radiant electronics and mellifluously intersecting vocal runs shimmering in orderly harmony. It’s a collection of sounds that just...works, plinking and tinkering along with the charming efficacy of a rube goldberg machine. If you’re willing to take it on just that level, it can offer a more pleasant environment than our daily existence, a place where stuff makes sense again. But, as they tell me over email, it’s a little more complicated than that.

“There’s no escape,” says the band’s Becca Kauffman. “But there’s valuable utility in the imaginary.”

Just in the creation of another space to think, there’s the possibility of rewiring the hearts and minds of those who enter it. What will Moon 2 give them? Perhaps community. A big emphasis for the band on this record was in the collectivity of their voices. They spent the years since 2015’s Infinite House involved in a constellation of solo projects and other bands, including—deep breath here—Carlos Hernandez’s production work for the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Speedy Ortiz, among others; the band Nadine (which counts both Hernandez and drummer Julian Fader as members); Felicia Douglass’s silken pop project Gemma; Kauffman’s endearingly baffling dance-pop performance art as Jennifer Vanilla; Fader’s other band Coffee; as well as other efforts I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

After that time apart, they made a really concerted effort to come back together as a unified force—focusing intensely on the power of singing in unison, inspired apparently by a collection of “neo-pagan goddess chants” that Kauffman came upon. There is this sense of symbiosis that runs through songs like “Childish” which suggests the idea of movement in unison, each part synced up to the other in service of the performance that Douglass gives at the center, magnifying her message of triumphing in the face of self-doubt. Its video, premiering here, shows an ensemble of dancers moving in concert with Douglass through unfamiliar spaces, echoing and underscoring her own movements. All of this hints the only way I can see us manifesting our own utopia for real, working together with those close to us, turning many voices into one, drawing deep on the alchemical power of communitarian existence.

Noisey: Since the last Ava Luna record, you’ve all delved really intensely into solo work and other bands. Is there anything you learned from all this other work that illuminated what you do together as Ava Luna?
Felicia Douglass: I’ve improved as a musician and performer and I can say the same for everyone else. Fronting Gemma has been so valuable to me as a vocalist. With this particular group, it’s nice that we can come together and hone in on a less strict approach to collective experimentation. I feel like we always end up with more than enough good draft material that we stumble upon from time to time.

Carlos Hernandez: For me, the magic has taken the form of a kind of ego death—the moment when you stand in the presence of this “alchemy,” and decide to let it happen. I used to write all the songs for Ava Luna, and am naturally kind of a control freak. Lately I decided to pursue some solo music on the side, to feed that tendency—but the magical alchemy of Ava Luna became really self-evident with this project, with all of us writing, talking, contributing together. I’ve come to think of Ava Luna as more of a “place” than anything else, with us, individuals, but also inhabitants. What a freedom, to just exist, rather than try to control…

B: My performance work as Jennifer Vanilla has been a major outlet for me over the past three years. It’s a highly amplified, comical facet of my stage persona, which developed over the course of my time in Ava Luna—I was aching to be bigger, louder, things that didn’t feel right within a group context. Because Ava Luna is a group, in some ways it’s necessary to maintain an element of self-restraint, or reserve, to make sure there’s enough room for everybody to exist comfortably. I think Jennifer was born as a reaction to that limitation; it basically flips the scenario on its head so that I can flaunt freely without reservation. In turn, it’s enabled me to be more collectively-minded. For years, Ava Luna was all-in—we had zero other endeavors. Once we all expanded our focus beyond this one thing, the meaning of the group and the purpose it served shifted for us all.

The press release notes that this record was informed by an appreciation for old tapes of goddess chants. Harmonies and communal singing have always seemed important to the band from the get-go. How specifically did your thinking around these things change for Moon 2?
Ethan Bassford: One thing we started doing around the time we were writing these songs was referring to ourselves as a “group,” rather than a “band.” I think this was Becca’s idea. We didn’t go into a lot of detail about why it felt right but all agreed that it worked and meant something. I think of a band as being a set of defined roles and a group as more ambiguous, having more potential for experimentation.

Hernandez: One of the first things we did when we started working on this project was to sit around in a circle (it was, what, 2 AM?) and just sing together, directionless, just seeing what happens. Yes it felt uncomfortable at first, especially since I used to literally write out vocal parts on sheet music. Becca can speak more to the significance of the womens’ tapes -- but for me it was about tangibly deconstructing our inherent hierarchies.

Kauffman: That night of communal singing turned out to be more of a private group exercise than anything you hear on the album. In fact, one thing that stands out on this new set of songs is that there are far less vocal harmonies than any past Ava Luna record, which is interesting considering our inspirations and process. But I think that points to the ways we all stretched in terms of our compositional contributions. Once our roles in the band expanded, there was more to do; maybe we let the women’s tapes sing for us. And singing isn’t always performative, you know? Especially in a choral or spiritual context. Group singing is simply the act of bringing voices together, and the dynamic extends itself mostly as a metaphor or schema for collective music making, which I think is what happened here. We always make sure all voices are heard in this group.

Photo by Richard Perez

So Moon 2 as a title is obviously suggests the existence of another world. What inspired that line of thinking?
Hernandez: Like I said, I’ve started thinking of Ava Luna as a kind of “place.” It makes sense, given that we did actually geographically sequester ourselves to make this album. Quite literally making a little imaginary world for ourselves that our day to day lives doesn’t permit. Is Moon 2 about escapism? Is there actually any escape?

Kauffman: Fantasy and imagined scenarios carve out new mental and emotional pathways. I think just the mere suggestion of the Moon, and a second Moon at that, has the potential to invert and refresh our often myopic perspective for a moment. And yeah, bringing it back down to earth, if you will, it’s also an apt metaphor for our own evolution as a group—launching into unfamiliar territory, trudging forward into the unknown.

Tell me about “Childish,” both the track and the video. How did they come together and what were you trying to explore?
Douglass: “Childish” also features multiple facets of self. It takes you through self-doubt counteracted by buoyant confidence and back down again. I wanted the chorus melody to sound like a cheerful tune you could hear kids singing during recess. Inviting, whisking you away from what ails you. There’s no monster under the bed but that doesn’t mean it won’t cross your mind.

Hernandez: I agree, it does seem pretty communitarian doesn’t it? My sister did the choreography which I think is just fantastic. For me, the movement, the people, and the spaces, are all important. What’s revealed about this group of movement artists in the way they interact with each other? Do the choreography and the synchronization beget the community? Does this community then serve to support Felicia?

Kauffman: Moon 2 is comprised of many Felicia songs, as we call them, and “Childish” is the first music video we’ve ever made for one of her compositions. Directing this, I wanted to highlight that with a very direct, one-on-one performance, in a variety of settings that either suggest fictional scenarios (the House, the Court) that place the song’s narrative in context, or lift the cinematic veil entirely by acknowledging the act of production (the Set). It’s an homage to the Jody Watley, Whitney Houston soundstage music videos of the 80s, with inflections of the tableau and ensemble work that Solange made iconic.

Ava Luna tour dates:
9/5 - Cafe Nine - New Haven, CT
9/6 - Apohadian Theater - Portland, ME
9/7 - Great Scott - Boston, MA
9/8 - Music Hall of Williamsburg - Brooklyn, NY
9/9 - Comet Ping Pong - Washington, D.C.
9/10 - Gallery 5 - Richmond, VA
9/11 - King's Barcade - Raleigh, NC
9/12 - 529 - Atlanta, GA
9/13 - Pilot Light - Knoxville, TN
9/14 - MOTR Pub - Cincinatti, OH
9/15 - Pioneer - Indianapolis, IN
9/16 - The Hideout - Chicago, IL
9/18 - Spacebar - Columbus, OH
9/19 - Mahall's 20 Lanes - Lakewood, OH
9/20 - Metro Gallery - Baltimore, MD
9/21 - PhilaMOCA - Philadelphia, PA
9/22 - BSP Lounge - Kingston, NY w/ JEFF the Brotherhood