Ciscandra Nostalghia is California-born and -based, but she has a background that’s considerably more exotic than most North Americans toiling away in the trenches of popular music. During her formative years, the singer for Los Angeles’s self-described “postapocalyptic Gypsy-punk” trio Nostalghia bounced between various worlds, raised by a Persian mother, a Jamaican stepfather, an Irish-Russian father, and a Persian-German grandmother.
From September to June she was like any other kid, attending school and soaking up pop culture in the Land of the Free, where the only restrictions artists have to worry about are the ones they place on themselves. Summer months, however, were largely spent in Tehran, where she had relatives. During that early time of her life she was heavily into dance, and it wasn’t lost on her that Iran and America have radically different ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable if you happen to be born female.
“I danced in both places, but it [Iran] is not necessarily a culture for an artist—a female artist,” the thoughtful, refreshingly unguarded singer says, on the line from L.A. “But when you have restrictions, it kind of creates a bit of rebellion inside of you. There are things that maybe want to come out even more so than in people that are able to release it a bit easier.”
This made her decision to start playing music four years ago both easier and more difficult. Nostalghia’s parents—her father is a lawyer, her mom an accountant—had a traditional career in mind for their daughter. Namely, they would have been thrilled to see her become a lawyer or an accountant. Enamoured with musicians famous for using art as a form of catharsis—Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and Elliott Smith—Nostalghia had other ideas.
“I had an uncle who was very musical—he lived in Iran but came out here as well,” she notes. “He could pick up any instrument and play it—he was just phenomenal. I was heavily influenced by him. He was the person I was closest to in my family, to where he really raised me. He passed away, and when he passed away, I became even more fascinated with music.
“I found out that I could sing—I’d sing in front of a mirror in my room, and use the reverb in my shower,” Nostalghia continues. “I’ve always written poetry, so I started putting my words to music. I didn’t have instruments at the time, which made things a bit difficult. But then I luckily got kicked out of my house. I started basically living in the piano room that was on campus of a place that I was going to school at the time. No one knew that I was living there, obviously, but I taught myself how to play piano, and then bought myself a really cheap guitar.”
It was then that her rebellious streak truly surfaced. “My family is very conservative,” the singer notes. “You can imagine—I have a Persian mother. They were understandably confused by me, and we never quite could see eye to eye on things when I started dancing, and when I decided I was going to focus on music and was truly coming into myself. It scared and frightened them to where there were more arguments than there should have been, I suppose. But it was something that I had to do, so there was no leverage for them to say otherwise.”
Based on both Nostalghia’s 2010 debut, I Am Robot Hear Me Glitch, and an as-yet-untitled full-length that’s been recorded but not released, it’s understandable that Nostalghia’s parents had concerns. Working primarily with group cofounder and multi-instrumentalist Roy Gnan, the singer has positioned herself as an art-pop adventurist with a flair for the dark and dramatic, the songs transcending the postapocalyptic Gypsy-punk tag. Loaded with fried-circuit synths, metal-clatter percussion, and funereal cellos, new tracks such as “Homeostasis” and “Stockholm Syndrome” draw heavily from nightmarish-side-of-the-’80s new wave and ’90s-issue industrial, with Nostalghia’s theatrical vocals never less than captivating.
She might cite Nirvana and Hole as big inspirations, but musically the band that takes her last name fits better on a mix tape with the groundbreaking likes of Björk, Rasputina, Mirah, Kate Bush, and PJ Harvey. Not that Nostalghia takes direct inspiration from any of those artists.
“I can’t say that I’m really studied on art—I’m probably the worst person to talk to when it comes to other artists,” she says. “I get inspired by music and paintings and movies, but they have to be put right in front of me. I think I’m more inspired by nature and by being outside and observing people. People are super-fascinating to me because I’ve always sort of felt like an alien, which I am sure that many people can relate to.”
Nostalghia is on to something out-there enough that her group has already found some high-profile left-field boosters, among them celebrities such as System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, Marilyn Manson, Skrillex, and Evanescence’s Amy Lee. A large part of the appeal, suggests the singer, is a live show that on a good night is as much of a cathartic experience as it is a concert.
“I always try to put myself in uncomfortable situations—that ignites something inside of me that makes me feel kind of hellacious,” says Nostalghia, who makes all of the art-star-issue clothes that she wears on-stage. “That’s a good thing—it triggers something inside of me. When I’m performing I’m totally gone, not really aware of my emotions or my voice. I’m an amoeba, slurping up energy from the audience and then spitting it back out.”
That, it almost goes without saying, doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that plays well in conservative households. Never mind the folk in Tehran—Nostalghia admits that her parents are still trying to wrap their heads around what she does, that serving as proof she’s done a fine job of tapping her inner rebel.
“I don’t think all this would be scary for them if I was doing something more mainstream,” she says. “To see their daughter under a spotlight with her guts pouring out is probably very uncomfortable for them, because it says something about my history and my past, my family, and anyone who’s ever come into contact with me. It’s all just weird for them because, when you see us live, it’s definitely not understated.”