Photos by Sun Picture Music

Next Gen: Women In Rock

Horsegirl is Bringing '90s Alternative to Gen Z

The band bringing punk rock to Chicago — before graduating high school.

by Grant Rindner

Odds are that your high school basement hangouts were not as productive as Horsegirl’s: the Chicago three-piece, made up of Gigi Reece, Nora Cheng, and Penelope Lowenstein, wrote and recorded their first few tracks DIY-style in the latter’s parents’ house. After putting out their first track, “Forecast,” in October 2019, they followed up with the warm, dreamy “Sea Life Sandwich Boy,” which quickly made them a buzzy name in their hometown and beyond.

Synthesizing a wide range of inspirations from Sonic Youth to Swirlies to the influential ‘80s and ‘90s indie output of New Zealand label Flying Nun, Horsegirl’s music is aurally complex without being pretentious, thoughtfully produced sans excessive polish. There’s a drollness to not just the songs themselves — as well as the title of the group’s first release, Ballroom Dance Scene et cetera (best of Horsegirl) — but to the way the trio approaches all facets of their creative endeavor. “Our guiding voice, I would say, is that we want to be as punk-minded as possible,” Lowenstein says. “I’m not saying that this is just a punk thing, but everything we do has kind of a layer of bull**** to it. We just made merch, for the first time, as a joke. We got 20 shirts and we just painted on them.”

Freshly signed to the indie rock powerhouse Matador, Horsegirl’s novel take on lo-fi is likely to earn them devoted fans in droves. Here, the three musicians speak (on a school night!) about life in the Chicago music scene, drawing inspiration from the ironic side of high fashion, and keeping the band going once they graduate.

How did you first start making music together and when did the idea of Horsegirl form?

Penelope Lowenstein: Nora and I started playing together when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore. We just both became obsessed with Sonic Youth and similar music, and we were both guitarists. At that time, we were going to a lot of shows in Chicago together, and then Nora introduced me to Gigi. We were all in the same music program, but kinda floating in different spaces. Then, we started spending time together at local shows.

Gigi Reece: We started playing together and then formed this communal music taste once we got really intensely interested in music and our instruments, which we’ve all been for a long time. But it became this thing of, “Now we’re in a band.” We’d grown up seeing kids who were older than us in bands doing their thing, so it felt very tangible.

Nora Cheng: I think there was also something nice about finding each other, of having people you’re really close to and you’re able to really dive deep into these music things, and then also to play music together.

P.L.: It’s a unique high school friendship dynamic, because we really have stuff to do together. [laughs]

Beyond Sonic Youth, what else was part of that shared musical language that the three of you bonded over?

P.L.: It’s definitely gone through many phases where we end up getting super deep into certain scenes or artists around the same time, because we just show each other so much music. Some notable ones were also Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, and Stereolab.

N.C.: The label Flying Nun from New Zealand.

P.L.: ‘80s, ‘90s indie. That kind of thing.

The actual writing process itself, is it a relatively even three-way split of the duties? Obviously, you have your instruments that you each play, but in terms of going from a blank screen to a finished song, do you each do roughly a third of the writing?

G.R.: Yeah. We’re very equal about everything we’re doing. Sort of unintentionally, we just sit in a room and do it.

P.L.: When we decided we wanted to write a record, it was over the summer, and we just spent five days in my basement in a row. We wrote a song a day and we were in the basement together. A lot of it is improvisationally based. Someone starts with a riff. But really we write together. We’re a band band. We did the first two songs in my basement with a minimal mic setup, which was a fun thing. Pretty DIY. And they sounded adequate. [LAUGHS]

How did you realize that the music you had put out was taking off?

P.L.: What’s crazy is the first two songs that were out, “Forecast” and “Sea Life,” were out while we were physically in high school, before the pandemic. We would play shows, but because the crowd was teenagers, we were just in the teenage music scene. It was a bunch of youth-run art collectives. We would try and get kids to go to our shows in the hallways of our three different high schools. And then with “Ballroom Dance Scene,” we literally sent it to the Tribune and Post-Trash, thinking, “Might as well try.” Once we got this Tribune article, it started building on itself in this really crazy way. Our whole fanbase was teenagers, which it still is a little bit. We make music for young people.

G.R.: The only people who would tell me our music was good was like, someone in the hallway being like, “Loved the single!” Someone said to me in the hallway, “Your new song is actually really good.” There were a lot of people being like, “Oh, you’re making actually good music.” Now people take it seriously.

N.C.: When you meet a new person and they end up checking out your band, the way they talk about it is kind of very low expectations.

G.R.: You can read the Tribune article and see that we were, not hopeless, but like, “Well, me and Nora are going to college and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

P.L.: The last line of that article was Nora being like, “If someone 40 years from now finds our songs and is like, ‘This is great!’ that would be enough for me.” That was the final line.

N.C.: It still would be.

You three are in a unique position given your age, when Horsegirl started getting noticed, and, obviously, the pandemic. Has it felt good to be able to focus on writing and recording, or is it frustrating to not be able to play shows during this time where you’re all still in Chicago?

G.R.: It feels a little bit like we don’t know anything else. We were sending emails to any location in Chicago that might let us play music.

P.L.: We’re still in school, so even if there wasn’t a pandemic, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to [go on tour]. I’m taking the SAT in a few days. In a way, the pandemic has given us a chance to handle the business side of things, to talk to you on a school night.

G.R.: We had really busy schedules back in the pre-COVID days, so it would have been way too overwhelming, I think, to be finishing out senior year for us. And junior year [for Penelope] is hell. It would have been really overwhelming and difficult if we didn’t do it like this. But also, I don’t know, it probably would have worked out.

We’ve been asking all the artists for this piece which other artists that readers should be paying attention to, and I’m particularly curious within Chicago, who else do you think is worth people’s time?

G.R.: There are a lot of really cool kids in Chicago making music and they’re kids, which is really awesome. But they’re really, really technically good musicians and also have the same taste. Friko. Everyone in the world should like Friko.

N.C.: Dwaal Troupe. That one you’re gonna need us to spell for you.

G.R.: Their music is so emotional.

N.C.: It’s like Elephant 6–

P.L.: But they record it all on cassette. It’s insane. And Lifeguard is so good.

G.R.: And they met at a Horsegirl and Dwaal Troupe show and then formed. But we’re not saying this because of nepotism. They’re actually good.

You’re getting to a point where you’re putting out your first videos and starting to figure out the visual side of the band. What are you looking at to inspire that?

N.C.: In an unusual way, we’re kind of inspired by high fashion, [but] not directly. It’s always a little bit ironic, too. It’s like avant-garde and kind of ridiculous.

P.L.: There’s a part of it where you can see these designer shirts that are kind of disgusting, but it’s like, whatever. It’s sort of mocking that.

N.C.: We’re making disgusting cool.

G.R.: It’s making things that look ugly and bad look nice.

P.L.: Or still look bad.

Drawing on high fashion in that way makes a lot of sense. More interesting designers are aware that there is an inherent absurdity to all of this and you have to play into it because, if you don’t, you’ll just seem really stiff.

G.R.: Also everything we do, there’s a level of joke to it. The name of our Bandcamp EP is Ballroom Dance Scene et cetera (best of Horsegirl). We thought no one would care about that.

P.L.: It got on some lists and they put the full name in quotes. [laughs]

The music that’s out there currently was what you made back when there wasn’t really any sense of pressure or expectations. Now, you have this awareness that people are paying attention — has that changed your perspective?

P.L.: With “Forecast,” there are certain things about it — the hits don’t line up. It’s slightly off. And then I yell, “Maybe I’m a child!” in the middle. We didn’t think anyone was listening, but now we’re gonna play it live and I’m like, “Oh my god.” I’m kind of embarrassed, but I have to do it. I stand by that song completely, and the “Maybe I’m a child!” line is good.

G.R.: It makes me also happy that we weren’t able to record more songs, because there are some songs from our past that we probably would have recorded back then, that, if they were getting attention now, I would just not feel good.

N.C.: I think we’ve been able to curate ourselves much more as we’ve come together as a band. Even in the past six months or whatever, we’ve gotten so much tighter as musicians and tighter in the visual aspect.

P.L.: We have this tunnel vision where we know what we want, we know exactly what we’re going for.

N.C.: Like a horse with blinders.

If you had to pinpoint one song that should be the first listen for someone who had never listened to Horsegirl, which would you pick?

N.C.: This is kind of unusual, considering it was the first one we wrote, but “Sea Life” kind of feels like it hits all those points. It has this whole noisiness aspect. It has these nice melodies with dual vocals that we have in a lot of our songs. And it also has that feeling of being in high school, you could say. “Ballroom” is the one that got the most popular and we all love that song, but I think it’s a direction that we didn’t intend to go fully.

In terms of the songs that you’ve written for this first album, how does what you’re making now differ from what you already have out?

G.R.: I think it’s very much following in the same line of what we’ve made. It’s a little different. For example, “Ballroom Dance Scene,” is not as much of a rock song as the rest of what we do. The funny thing is we quote all this punk stuff, we talk about how much we love the punk aesthetic and I think people who don’t know what we’re making right now are like, “‘Ballroom’ isn’t really a punk song.” I wouldn’t call the rest of our music punk necessarily, but it’s a little bit more dissonant and weird.

P.L.: It’s not as dreamy.

G.R.: It would be more like shoegaze than dream pop. We’re not making punk music, we’re just making music as punk-minded people, as Penelope said earlier. We love the punk mindset and we love throwing in the goth mindset, I think.

Some people have a very narrow conception of punk as a genre that can only sound one way.

G.R.: Punk is ever-changing. Punk is always reacting to stuff. I think that makes sense for us.

N.C.: It’s also kinda got a level of bull****

G.R.: We all read Kim Gordon’s book and in the book she’s always like, “That was so punk.” That was the coolest thing ever to us. We’re just trying to be so punk.

N.C.: We’d love for somebody to listen to our album and say, “That’s so punk rock.” It’s not punk rock, but it’s so punk rock.