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Lightheaded: "I Don't Know What We Are Supposed to Sound Like. I Only Know What We Aren't Supposed to Sound Like"

Along with the announcement of Lightheaded's first proper album Combustible Gems, out May 17th on Slumberland Records (The Reds, Pinks, & Purples, The Umbrellas, Jeanines), today we have the pleasure of premiering the video to the album's lead cut "Dawn Hush Lullaby," a devotion to wide-eyed '60s pop conventions with its tangle of heavenly strings and jingle-jangle guitars that find their footing in the works of The Pastels, The Softies, Magic Roundabout, and fellow New Jerseyans The Feelies.

I also had the pleasure to catch up with guitarist Stephen Stec and bassist-vocalist Cynthia Rittenbach all about their discovery of becoming musical soulmates, recording the new album, and their plans when they travel out west in June.

First tell me what you've been up to lately? What have you been listening to, reading, or spending a lot of time doing?

Stephen Stec: Hi Joe! We just got done recording some music around the turn of the new year, first time in the studio for a while. We've been prepping for summer a lot, too. This is when I'm not trying to teach eleven-year-olds how to read and write. I do what I can. Saturday Looks Good To Me is probably my favorite new to me discovery of the last five years. I only found out about them at the beginning of last year and I haven't been able to stop listening. It's a real treasure chest of riches in that discography. Aside from trying to manage that addiction, this newer band Touch Girl Apple Blossom has really really knocked me out, and the new old Comet Gain album has also been illuminating.

Cynthia Rittenbach: Hola Jose. Lately, I've been going to NJIT for computer science and listening to Terry Stafford in the car. Gary Olson from the Ladybug Transistor showed me Terry's stuff and I can't get over it. School is great, I like it. I am constantly overwhelmed! I made friends though, sort of [laughs].

For our readers who aren't familiar, take us through the origins of Lightheaded. How did you all meet and decide to start a band together?

Stephen: Cynthia and I were in pretty cool bands around NJ during the early to mid 2010s, Lunch Ladies & Paper Streets. Lunch ladies was more gazey, Paper Streets more emo. But we were playing shows together and it turns out that when we met, both of our bands were ending. Simultaneously, we were figuring out that we are literally musical soulmates and things started to make a lot of sense from there. We wrote so many songs together on the Tascam and just dreamed of all the things we wanted to do together. 

How has Lightheaded grown 2019's debut tape Cowboys and Constellations? Also what are your thoughts looking back on that collection of songs five years later?

Cynthia: They feel like a collection of happy memories. It feels pure. A perfect foundation for what came next. A really unique experience for me, because I mixed and mastered everything, and recorded almost all the instruments myself, too. We haven't done anything like that since, but… I'm open to it. 

Stephen: God, I fucking hate recording! [laughs]. I love writing music, that's my favorite part of the process, but yeah, I like to leave all the sound stuff to Cynthia. I don't know what we are supposed to sound like. I only know what we aren't supposed to sound like. 

Besides making music, what's something you love to do when you all get together? I know Stephen is big into playing basketball, does he ever try to get you to play Cynthia?

Cynthia: We've shooted the hoops before. Our main activity is usually bike riding. Sometimes, I'll make Stephen watch me rock climb. I wish Sara would watch too :-(.

Stephen: We used to meet up at midnight when we first met, to go ride our bikes on the boardwalk for 5-10 miles before getting really shitty diner food (rip the Inkwell) and demoing. Also, Cynthia is pretty good at ping pong, Sara is good, and I'm really good. I try to whoop them whenever possible.

Photo by Kate Stomber

You know from the style of music you play, you'd think you were based in San Francisco's timeless jangle pop circuit with bands like The Umbrellas and Cindy. Is there a good community out in New Jersey who understand this style of music or do you feel a bit isolated from where you might belong? 

Stephen: We wish! There's not!! There's bands playing really cool guitar pop, people like Beauty, Joy Cleaner, Nylon, Pillowinde, Teen Idle, Starcleaner Reunion, and it's really cool how unique they all are. But that's all we have, is likeminded spirits. No one is really shooting on the same dart board as us, aesthetically, in New Jersey. 

What's exactly your relationship to New Jersey then? Have you ever had any run-ins with The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, or Glenn Morrow's old group The Individuals? 

Stephen: I've cried at my fair share of Feelies shows and gotten too nervous to talk to Georgia Hubley just like any other red blooded New Jersey-an! We really love it here, we feel a connection and real pride with the state and a lot of the artists who paved a lane for us. We are not a New York band! Many do think we are…. I think Glenn follows us and we like what he's been doing with Bar None for a long time. I loved the Individuals song "Hooks & Ladders" when we started the band. He puts out our friend Little Hag, too. We wish Coyote Records was still around, we'd be perfect.

Following up last fall's wonderfully crafted debut EP tape Good Good Great!, you're returning to Slumberland Records for the release of your debut LP Combustible Gems! Talk to me about how this album all came together?

Stephen: All of these songs were written in our initial burst of creativity during 2017, except for the new single "Dawn Hush Lullaby," "Still Sitting Sunday," and "Hugging Horizons." We had a set of songs we thought was extremely diverse and strong, from stuff that was downtrodden and baroque like "Because Of You" or like straight line keyboard proto-shoegaze of a song like "Always Sideways." We felt like we were checking a lot of boxes. For the new songs, I had chords and words for "Dawn Hush," but Cynthia took it to another level with how she created the harmony and filled out the song with melody. It's like, maybe the definitive Lightheaded track. "Still Sitting Sunday" was a song I wrote almost in its entirety when Lightheaded took a hiatus in 2018-2019. I am very proud of the words. That song spilled out complete in ten minutes. "Hugging Horizons" was classic Cynthia music, Stephen words creation with slick Jarvis Taveniere production and a sweet Kramer master job. 

Did you draw from any specific inspirations when writing the record during the pandemic?

Stephen: Cynthia and I were both in long distance relationships for the first half of the pandemic, which I think really had an impact on our outlook in songs. "Dawn Hush" and "Hugging Horizons," the two pandemic tunes, are definitely about missing someone and feeling far away from them. 

How did the songs progress from their initial demos? Were there any that turned out entirely different than you had expected while experimenting with ideas? 

Cynthia: Well, by the time we got into the studio, Stephen and I were living together with our drummer and my girlfriend. Our old drummer, Anthony, aka the best person, had a lovely 8 track. We recorded the songs many times, from the Tascam to the upgraded lovely 8 track, but we never felt like we nailed it. We tried again in a studio in Red Bank (Retromedia) and we don't know if we nailed it there, either. But it is what it is at this point! 

Today we have the pleasure of premiering its lead cut "Dawn Hush Lullaby." What else can you tell me about how this song came about?

Stephen: I didn't think of the title "Dawn Hush Lullaby," I found it. I wrote the lyrics in, maybe 2016? I had fallen for someone with a really lovely voice who lived far away, so we would be texting for hours and I would read her messages in her voice and replay our conversations in my head. I was alone one night, scrolling on Tumblr, when I saw a post from 1934, where Wilfred J. Funk listed the ten most beautiful words in the English language. The first three? Dawn. Hush. Lullaby. And that's just how her voice sounded.

Photo by Kate Stomber

How did the accompanying music video come together with director Luke Ivanovich? 

Stephen: Luke is the best at what he's doing. He is actually the best photographer shooting bands in the city right now. That is my opinion, but there is a great grain of truth to my opinion here. We are so extremely and insanely lucky to count him as a good and genuine friend. I think we are mutually just, real fans of what we are doing artistically and as people. I really fuck with Luke as a person and what they stand for. Most importantly, we had this legend Alex Kucy come in and actually shoot + edit the video, on the craziest time constraint and most non-existent budget That dude's nickname is "Lifesaver." The direction of the video was actually Cynthia's though. She wanted to recreate The Byrds video playing "Mr Tambourine Man" on Ed Sullivan. Thankfully, our great pal Reed Chojnacki, opened his amazing art studio (PXTS Gallery) for the day and let us shoot in an environment that was sort it close. So for the first half of the video, it's a loose homage to that, and for the second half, it was just us being us. And what we mean by that is Lightheaded is Stephen and Cynthia and whatever friends are around. It's really been a rotating cast and crew for years. Thank god for Sara Abdelbarry. Sara is the most core third member we've ever had and is completely irreplaceable BUT she has her own successful project, Teen Idle, that keeps her busy sometimes. So we always need pals to fill in, which means… If it's me, Cynthia, and your granny on the bongos, it's Lightheaded. 

What was it like revisiting "Moments Notice" which was originally recorded for the Cowboys and Constellations tape?

Cynthia: Along with "Because of You," I think this is one of the first songs I've played drums on. This is one of our best songs, to be honest. The tape version is just… perfect. Everything about the take, the sound, the fidelity, is great. Highly recommend checking that one out. This new version is way more tame, but hopefully brings out a lot of the melody and catchiness of the tune.   

Which song from the record means the most to you (and why)?

Cynthia: I had an obsession with "Dawn Hush Lullaby" because I was trying to make a song that sounded like all my favorite French Ye Ye singers. After the addition of the violin by the best violinist in all of Tulsa, Oklahoma, our godly string arranger Erin Turner, it sort of morphed into something different. Something bigger and better.

Stephen: Wow, Cynthia, same. I thought you would say "Because Of You. Again," put over the top thanks to Erin Big Strings Turner. But, same for me. I can't believe where Cynthia and ET brought that song and what it became. 

What is it like being part of the legendary Slumberland Records family? 

Stephen: I am a huge Slumberhead. Have been for years. My biggest guide for doing this stuff is Kip Berman. I met him when I was about 22-years-old and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had just put out Belong and were on top of the fucking world. I'd listen to the first side of that record and just want to run through a fucking wall. "Belong" followed by "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" into "Heart In Your Heartbreak"? Are you fucking kidding me? Is that legal? Anyway, Pains played at Brooklyn Night Bazaar and I had just moved to the city, I literally knew no one. Weekend and Habibi played, stacked bill. But, I was reading all these interviews and features from Kip where he was just opening my eyes to the Slumberworld in a real way. We talked for what must have been a half hour or longer, all about how the video for Veronica Falls' "Teenage" is perfect, how impenetrable Weekend sounded live, that Crystal Stilts was the best band on the planet and… all of those bands were Slumber bands. I think that sounded bells in my head, but going back and discoveringThe Aislers Set, Black Tambourine, Rocketship… I mean, to this day, these are some of my favorite bands of all time. It couldn’t mean more to us. 

How excited are you to be playing the Oakland Weekender later this year? Also what other big shows do you have planned this year? 

Stephen: We have been waiting to get back West since the day we left on December 1st of 2023 [laughs]. But who's counting? No, again, we love these bands and these PEOPLE. The Umbrellas literally named their band wrong, they shoulda called themselves The Angels, cause that's what they are. Ryann Gonsalves came to our gig in SF and said they liked our set. We talked for a little bit and I had no idea who they were, so I said do you play music too? What bands are you in? And it turns out, their projects Torrey and Aluminum are two of my genuine favorite projects I've listened to in the last year. Andy from Chime School is one of my favorite internet pals, we kicked it recently at the Aislers Set reunion. I hung out with Galine from Seablite in NYC recently and had such a fun night. It will also be great to see our East Coast brethren The Smashing Times. 

Aside from the new album, what else is on the horizon for Lightheaded?

Stephen: Okay Joe, I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but now feels like a good time. So, Heavenly is coming over to the US to play their first gigs in over 30 years. They're playing two nights, the second night is with jangle heartthrobs Trinket. But the first night… their first show back here is going to be with us opening. We are going to go to the UK this summer to support the record, play some gigs with other legends besides Heavenly like The Softies, Tony Molina, Love Burns, and the Would Be Goods. I've never been overseas. 

Cynthia: Another bean to spill… we are going to record a song or two during our time at Oakland Weekender. It shouldn't take long division to figure out who we are doing the record with. 

Combustible Gems is out May 17th on Slumberland Reccords.


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