Wading in the middle of a sea of early ’00s pop twinkles and silky ’80s synths is Magdalena Bay, comprised of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin.
While synth-pop is the label they’ve embraced, their music dares to color outside the lines of such constrictions. What started as a high school prog rock band turned into what Lewin called the “antithesis” of the genre, which is a love letter to the pair’s late introduction to pop music through a constantly shifting sound that explores their new influences. Magdalena Bay is part of a larger portrait of musicians reexamining and transforming pop music into something complex, daring, and meaningful — or perhaps embracing what the genre’s been all along.
Feeling the pressures of independent promotion, Tenenbaum and Lewin wanted to break from the anxiety-inducing single release cycle. Hence, mini mix vol. 1 was born. The pair challenged themselves to write, record, and sometimes revisit old song scraps to be released on the same day as homemade visuals as a way to satisfy fans. This was also a way to challenge the two, forcing themselves to focus less on perfection and more on the process. As a result, mini mix vol. 1 is a disjointed, yet intensely stylized collage of pure, joyful pop goodness.
In a way, Magdalena Bay’s late introduction to the expansive genre has served them well. Their music is wide-eyed, perfected, and fresh. The two are open about being sponges for this current pop environment, taking sonic inspiration from the groundbreaking PC Music scene, sleazy and sensual lyricism from Kylie Minogue and Fiona Apple, and danceable rhythms taken right out of cheesy ’80s jazzercise tapes. The duo has packaged this into a distinct and charming sound that has garnered them a spot in the ever-evolving, yet intensely nostalgic, world of pop.
Over the phone, Lewin and Tenenbaum speak about breaking from the routine of independence as newly signed artists, the pressure of living up to virality, and allowing their preconceptions of pop music to be broken down.
Vinyl Me, Please: How did you approach mini mix compared to your other releases?
Matt Lewin: The mini mix started because we got a little stressed out with the idea of traditional single releases where we would write a song and it would take forever for it to get out into the world. There was all this pressure behind getting on playlists as well. We'd always end up with a weird feeling after releasing a song.
Mica Tenenbaum: We still haven't released some stuff from two years ago so with all this strategizing and planning, you end up putting a lot of the stuff you write on hold-
ML: And you end up hating the song by the time it's out because it's been so long. The mini mix was a way of accomplishing many things like writing something and releasing it the same day. We would make a stupid little video for it and put it on Youtube, and let's not even think twice about it. For us, that gave us that instant gratification for releasing a song, still liking it when it's out there, and it gave our fanbase some steady content that they could connect with in between our "official" releases.
You recently signed with Luminelle Recordings, but even before being signed, you were very calculated in how you released things. How was that process?
MT: I think what happened was our first couple of releases were doing very well online, like "Neon." I don't want to say we were scared, but we wanted to build on this but we don't have the infrastructure to do that. We tried very hard to be signed onto a label or have a team, and in a span of eight months we didn't release anything because we were trying to build on what we had done.
ML: Once we started having some success on Spotify, each song after that was a pressure to live up to our previous releases. It's a crapshoot when you just put it out there. In terms of strategy, our strategy was releasing songs until we know what gets attention around us, and eventually people start reaching out to us. What's interesting about Luminelle, I guess kind of ironic because we put so much stock into trying to get attention, but they found us through the mini mix which is a way for us to go against that strategy!
I'm really drawn to what you said about having to live up to your previous releases. In this age of social media, there is this environment of instant gratification and sometimes entitlement that is created through this direct line to artists. Would you agree?
ML: I think we are lucky in that we always have a back catalog that is ready to go, so we don't necessarily mind "greedy" fans. We love it when people want more.
MT: We released our third single in five weeks, so I do think at some point we would need a break. We make all of our graphics and visuals, and Matt does all the mixing and mastering, so with each release it takes a lot of labor for the weeks leading up to it. At some point, we would definitely need a break.
ML: I guess in terms of our plans, our deal with Luminelle includes a full length album so that is on the horizon, but isn't immediate.
Now that you're signed onto a label, I'm assuming you have more resources at your disposal. Do you plan on continuing to do everything yourselves, or would you not mind relinquishing some of that control?
ML: We will continue on having input and influence on everything that is released under our name. The control is nice.
MT: We are also thrifty at the end of the day, and I think a lot of money can be spent on things we already do like promo. However, when it comes to an amazing music video, we can't really make that ourselves, so there's a balance between thriftiness and making sure the creative vision is accomplished.
ML: Exactly, and that requires collaboration with other great directors. Like when we worked with Pete Ohs for "Venice," it was the first time we worked with a real director and it turned out awesome!
I noticed the song length for the mini mix was rather short, was that because of the process or was it conscious?
ML: It was definitely conscious. We had to edit ourselves in a sense where we really wanted to keep things short. We would write something and be like, "Oh, that's too long," and we would get rid of a part. The idea was to keep everything like somewhere between an Adult Swim bump and a real music video.
MT: As writers, it was really fun and challenging on a composition level to keep things short but still have something for people to hold onto, like a hook.
ML: They're still songs at the end of the day. They still have choruses, so there is a song structure there. It's just condensed. One benefit of having the mini songs is that it's a great outlet for all these demos that never fully got developed into full-length songs, so we can go back into our unfinished projects.
MT: Not only are they short, but each one ended up being stylized in a specific way. We found ourselves making a weird chill indie wave tropical one.
ML: It's important for us to keep things interesting. I definitely don't like making the same song twice.
I definitely noticed with the Mini Mix is that it felt like a chronological timeline throughout pop, going from ’80s synth, heavy vaporwave influenced tracks into late 90s, early 00s pop, and PC music influenced instrumentation.
ML: I guess the styles really do go in chronological order! It wasn't intentional, but I like it.
MT: The stuff we end up making, we end up having a lot of references. Our songs end up being really different and we try to find that balance between "indie" and "pop", but I guess with the mini mix we can really dig into each vibe.
ML: It was almost exaggerated. When we release an official single, it isn't as stylized. In a way, we try to keep the balance between retro and indie influences than we would do with this project where we went more extreme.
How did this paradoxical nature of your music come to be? Do you want to eventually move away from this label?
ML: Our most successful song has been "Neon", but we've never wanted to make a second "Neon," or whatever that means. We really tried not to get labelled as a vaporwave or retrowave band because that's not really the music we are trying to make. We're trying to make pop music that has those influences, but it's still contemporary at the end of the day.
MT: We never listened to pop in high school. We hated pop. We discovered it through Magdalena Bay, so as we created this project, we discovered eighties pop, nineties pop, and 2000s pop so as we write, we see how our new influences play into it. Nothing was planned.
ML: I think we have the freedom to branch out. We don't feel pressure with this label. With our fanbase, they seem to like our eighties stuff and our more PC Music stuff.
MT: One thing I don't worry about but I think about it for when the time for the album comes is how we will be able to make it cohesive that describes our style that has been so different!
Tell me about what it was like working on music long-distance at the start of your careers.
ML: The short story is that we were in a rock band in high school which broke up when we all graduated and went to colleges out of state. Mica and I still wanted to make music and write together, so long distance electronic music works a lot better. We were able to just send ideas back and forth with each other and record over them, send them back, and lay down ideas. It was a natural way to still make music, even though we weren't in the same state.
Has that influenced your process at all now that you two closed that distance?
MT: It did help us develop independently as writers. We had to learn how to write a melody on the most basic level, and now that we've come together, it's a lot easier when we're in the same place.
ML: We still have two distinct enough writing styles where one song will be a Matt song, another will be a Mica song.
Speaking of your high school prog rock band, who was your first introduction to pop music?
**MT: ** Grimes' Art Angels was amazing coming from a prog background.
ML: That album really changed my perception of what pop music could be because the production on the album is so crazy and it opened my world into pop music.
MT: And from there, we fell in love with it, and we explored much simpler stuff after.
With the current state of pop, lots of people are honing into a lot of 80s and 90s aesthetics. Why do you think these things are finding their place in the current pop scene?
ML: It's funny because four, five years ago, you cannot escape ’80s influence in pop music. It was everywhere like in that M83 song, and then after that, it was in everything. We were talking about what's coming up next, and I thought of the obvious which is going to be ’90s pop. We haven't quite gotten to that level of saturation with it, but I think it's starting to happen.
MT: When we started Magdalena Bay, along the way we discovered PC Music when it wasn't as much of a huge thing as it is now. We loved pop since like 2016. There's been less pop than we think of it on the radio, it's been more trap since, like, the past millennium, it feels. I feel like people remembered or never forgot that they like pop, even if it's not on the radio. There's this whole left-of-center underground world of pop like Carly Rae, Charli XCX, and this cool world bubbling up of what used to be this hyper-commercialized top-down production thing is now coming from these pockets of styles into the mainstream.
Which is interesting, especially because it's now easier than ever to make it yourself as there isn't that top-down manufactured pop star anymore. It seems more accessible and plays on that irony.
MT: It's all a big joke which is so fun! A lot of it is also not accessible at all, which is so funny because some of the PC music stuff is so strange. It's a fun time to be making pop, and it's only gotten more popular.
I guess I share your trajectory as a young woman who actively condemned pop music as a teenager and instead indulged in classic rock and metal, eventually finding love for pop because of these people doing experimental things with the genre. How did your perceptions of the genre change through this project?
ML: I grew up listening to my dad's music which was Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, and the antithesis of that music was pop. There was a battle where prog music is very much against pop, so that was my perception.
MT: And we were super pretentious. I only listened to Radiohead. When I was little I loved Britney and Shakira, and along the way I got into My Chemical Romance and even though it's still labeled as pop, it's not shoved down your throat so I thought "This is cool! This is against all that bad girly stuff!" People around our age look back now and are like "Wait, that music was good!" Nostalgia is important too.
To close out, I want to talk to you Mica. It's a common thing to grow up as a girl and being told that femininity is bad and we begin to have a disgust for these pop stars and the color pink. How has your relationship with femininity changed and how this exploration of pop through this project has aided in that?
MT: It's interesting because what you said is true for a lot of girls and women from our time. I looked at the girls who liked pop music when I was 12 and said "Those idiots are so girly and lame, and I'm just one of the guys." like that makes me better? Then I went into writing music in an all-boy band where I sang, but I was the only prog female singer I've ever heard of! It was weird, and during that time I discovered Fiona Apple. For all the prog I listened to, she was my guiding star with melody and learning about myself. Even in this all-boy band, I was writing super personal lyrics about my relationships and being a girl but it wasn't until Magdalena Bay that I got into this outwardly feminized aesthetic which is so fun. I looked at pictures of myself when I was 13 in gross black hoodies, and I never thought that I'd be 23 wearing butterfly clips, but here we are!
I recently watched Gossip Girl for the first time, and I remember it being a thing when I was younger and I told myself I'd never watch it, but it's a fun thing! Sometimes when you're a teen, you take things way too seriously beyond these aesthetics. You just think you're so deep and smart, and as I've gotten older, I've tried not to be pretentious. It's okay to have fun with things.
Jade Gomez is an independent writer from New Jersey with a soft spot for southern hip-hop and her dog, Tyra. Her work has appeared in the FADER, Rolling Stone, and DJBooth. She enjoys compound sentences and commas, so if you want to call her out on it, you can find her at www.jadegomez.com.