Vancouver's Mu explores the dark side of dream-pop
Beneath the gauzy, pastel-hued surface runs a deep well of turmoil
There’s one word that you will invariably encounter when reading about the music of Mu. Journalists and bloggers can’t resist describing the Vancouver duo’s songs as “dreamy”, and it’s easy to understand why. As heard on Mu’s brand-new EP, II (released on February 12 by Boompa), Francesca Belcourt and Brittney Rand create songs of cotton-candy-cloud ethereality, with heaven-sent vocal harmonies and pillowy synths, sometimes enlivened by a thumping electronic beat.
Beneath the gauzy surface, however, lies a deep well of emotional turmoil. Though tongue-in-cheek, the description on Mu’s SoundCloud page is a fair summation: “Adventures in the tragedies of youth, as narrated by Francesca Belcourt and Brittney Rand.”
The most visceral example of this is “Vampire”, the lyrics of which were surely inspired in equal measure by living in one of the world’s least affordable cities and by the challenge of making music at a time when that particular activity is seriously undervalued: “Twenty dollars left to me/But you’ll have me sing for free.”
Interviewed alongside her bandmate at a busy Mount Pleasant café, Rand says “Vampire” started out as little more than a drum pattern and a crushing sense of disenfranchisement. “It was kind of an overbearing feeling at that time of just being, like, ‘I hate this. I’m poor. I want to make music. I’m tired of having to work all the time—work my ass off to survive,’ ” she recalls. “That was kind of a cloud over my life at that time. But did I sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song that says fuck you to The Man?’ No. I wrote a beat, and I was like, ‘I really like this beat. I want it to be a little more aggressive, and explore that.’ And that’s how that happened.”
In other words, Rand channelled her existential crisis into that rarest of things—a piece of art that is as beautiful as it is righteously angry.
“That’s something that we always do with our music,” Belcourt adds. “It can come from a place of being belittled, being taken advantage of, or being hurt by someone. And then by creating music from that, it helps us in all these other ways, and empowers us as people, and in our career.”
One of the most powerful songs on II, though, comes not from personal experience, but from a subtle subversion of that grimmest of folk-music forms, the murder ballad. “My Hunter, My Forest” is a reiteration of the familiar story line that informed “Pretty Polly”, “Delia’s Gone”, and countless others. It’s a tale of the ultimate betrayal, of a woman killed by the man in whom she has placed her trust.
While the murder ballad is traditionally sung from the killer’s point of view, or from a more detached third-person perspective, “My Hunter, My Forest” recounts the crime through the dead woman’s eyes: “I was the apple of his eye before he took my life.”
“I feel really strongly about women’s issues,” Rand explains. “And at that time I was just really sad in general. I was writing from the saddest place I could imagine, and that was that song. To me, that’s the saddest story. It was an exercise in storytelling, but it still comes from a place of importance and meaning for me.
“Writing from the perspective of the victim, it kind of lends itself a little bit more to the feminine voice, rather than the person who takes away. You give power back to the victim. It’s a different spin on it, rather than ‘Took her to the woods, killed her.’ There’s so much more to that story that can be told, that isn’t told when it’s done that way.”
Apart from a shared interest in folk—and in opera, another form of expression awash in bloody crimes of passion—Rand and Belcourt say they can’t easily point to specific musical influences that they have in common. Their music sounds the way it does not because they set out to create darkwave’s pastel-clad sibling, but because, well, that’s just how it comes out.
According to Belcourt, she and Rand began making music together without any in-depth discussion of what sort of band they wanted to be. “It was nice to have it be really instant, and not premeditate a lot of things,” she says. “We just started coming up with ideas, and then making up a plan after.”
Before forming Mu, each had been on her own individual path. Belcourt was writing and performing solo, and Rand was studying music production at Langara College, with an eye to composing film scores. In fact, one of Mu’s earliest SoundCloud uploads was a gorgeous rendition of “Mysteries of Love”, a song from the movie Blue Velvet.
“When it comes to making music—and doing this project, specifically—there’s so many other influences, or references, that kind of fall into place for me, and they aren’t necessarily always musical,” Rand notes. “When we made that ‘Mysteries of Love’ cover,
I was inspired by David Lynch a lot at that point.”
The Blue Velvet director and Twin Peaks creator is less of a direct influence these days, but Mu is still moved by the visual and the theatrical, elements that are becoming increasingly important to the duo’s live sets. Toward that end, Rand and Belcourt are reinventing their approach to performing, with less emphasis on re-creating their recordings on-stage and more on making each show an experience for the audience.
Exactly how this is going to manifest as Mu continues to evolve is anyone’s guess, but you can be sure that, in one way or another, it’ll be dreamy.
Mu plays the Fox Cabaret next Thursday (February 18).