For a band named Carmen Villain, Carmen Hillestad is remarkably un-scary. The musician--she's behind just about every sound you hear on her debut album, Sleeper, which came out this spring--wanders into the NYLON office lugging around a guitar and a head full of perfectly messy hair. She towers over me--but then, that's to be expected, as before turning her attention to making dreamy-with-and-edge indie rock the half-Norwegian, half-Mexican London-based Hillestad was a model. A pretty big one, at that; she was, in fact, a onetime NYLON cover girl (check your archives for the February 2003 issue), but has since turned her attention to making other types of beautiful things. "Some people say [my music] is really dark but it's also kind of pretty," she explains, adding, "Go in there and give it a listen--I think it's best to sit down and listen to the music properly and pick out little things."
For someone who's never listened to Carmen Villain, what do they need to know going in?
It's not your little singer-songwriter, quirky, girly thing.
Sleeper definitely has a spine to it, which I love. Was having a bit of an edge to the music intentional?
It's weird because I didn't really think of a theme before; the recording process was so fluid, it wasn't meant to be an album at first and it grew and evolved as I was working on it. So it was basically more in retrospect that I was seeing [it], because I wrote everything within the same period in my life and personal crap, so it became a kind of dark place. When I look back on what I was going to name the album, I was looking and seeing if there was an overall feel, and it was certainly spinning through my mind the whole thing--yeah, it's depressing, but it feels like it represents a period of time in my life.
So there's significance to the title Sleeper?
I think it captures a few things; it's a state of mind and a state of not dissipating properly. But also, my family and my friends used to laugh because I just loved to sleep! But mainly it just feels like the right name for the overall thing.
Is there also a story behind calling the band Carmen Villain?
I wanted something else apart from my own name. Just previous associations with my name--it's weird because this feels more like me, but it's definitely not something I made to hide behind. It's definitely 100-percent me.
When was the moment you realized that you wanted to be making music full-time?
I've been doing music for a while, so it was more of an organic transition. I started out with a few songs and recorded and all that and it developed into an album and then suddenly...
Were you musical as a kid?
I played piano and clarinet when I was a kid, and guitar just kind of like everyone else, when I was 12-years-old or something--I just taught myself on guitar. But everything's average, I'm not very good at any of them, it's just like it does what I want it to do, so that's good. It kind of created this naive writing basis, and nice things come out of that sometimes when you're limited, you have to be more creative. But I'm definitely a bit better now so it's good; now I can experiment a little bit more.
But it was only recently that you decided to write an album?
We first started recording the album a year and a half ago--Jesus Christ, time flies! It's really scary. I started recording [with producer Emil Nikolaisen] not with the intention of it being an album really but just testing it out and seeing what would come of it and maybe release an EP or something. But then that turned out really well, all the songs sounded great, so the people that came by and listened to it they were like, "OK, you have to do an album." Then I went on and produced the rest and made it an album.
What's the songwriting process like for you?
It's very intuitive, but it's [also] kind of random, because sometimes a song might pop into my head and I'll be like, "Oh, great!" And then I'll try and get that out in recording and sometimes it works but most of the time it doesn't sound as good as it sounds in your head. But most of the time I'll start with an idea and then I'll build on that and that's really intuitive. Accidents happen and that sparks a whole new direction, and that's really inspiring.
Well I couldn't have you here and not ask about your NYLON cover!
Do you know what, I actually remember that quite well! I can't remember the name of the photographer now--I've a feeling it was some guy who did a lot of music photography, like an older guy? And I feel like he shot some really fucking amazing old school stuff. So I'm going to look it up! I might be completely wrong but this is in my head that's what it was. I was so young! Fucking hell, 10 years ago!
What's more exciting--being on a cover or putting out an album?
I'm definitely more excited about this now because I feel like I properly created something, but I'm really proud of the great stuff that happened, I was really lucky. I made a decent living and I paid for my own album with some of it and had some amazing experiences and met so many people. It was really good for a while! This is different, there is only so much you can apply yourself with when you're just doing modeling--for me, anyway. But it wasn't enough after a while.