Heavily anticipated new music comes to light October 7th in the form of a stunning split release record by Laura Hickli and 36?
Have you ever flipped a coin to make a decision? Maybe it was something you were grappling with and couldn’t choose, or maybe it was something whimsical that you wanted an element of spontaneous adventure in. Either way, what journey did heads or tails send you on? When it comes to the new split album by Laura Hickli and 36? you have a similar option. Flip the vinyl one way or another and you can launch yourself into two different musical worlds, both alluring in their own right.
Two halves of a musical, as well as personal, partnership, Laura Hickli and Taylor Cochrane (lead musician and composer for 36?), have intertwined their musical lives. Hickli plays in 36? as a keyboardist and guitarist, and Cochrane drums in Laura Hickli sets. On their new release, Both Feet in the World, At Least I Can Stand (Hickli) / Naturally (36?), Cochrane produced and engineered Hickli’s side of the record, with Hickli co-producing/engineering. Hickli assisted in engineering the 36? side of the record. The connection and co-operation are undeniable, yet each leave space for the unique voice and sound of the other on their distinct sides of record.
Both award winning and internationally touring musicians, Cochrane and Hickli had returned from a lengthy US tour prior to the pandemic. Meant to be a breather, taste of home, and a time to map out another leg of touring, Covid drastically altered the couple’s plans. Hickli shared, “We had just arrived home for the winter after touring all year long in 2019. I spent the first week crying and reflecting, knowing my bed was not going to change for a few months. Little did I know it wouldn't change for nearly a year with the coming pandemic.”
As for many people in the arts this forced a pivot by the musicians, from life on the road, living out of their van, meeting many new people in various cities, to being cloistered at home in isolation. Uncomfortable and heartbreaking to lose such intricately laid out plans at first, it eventually became a time of intense creativity. Hickli found herself diving into writing, as she recalls, “The songwriter in myself had become an unleashed animal. I had swum to the very bottom of my heart and was uncovering thoughts and traumas I'd buried for years, knowing this was the allotted time I was given to rest and heal from the tour. Taylor set up a recording studio in our little rented basement bedroom. I often found myself waking from a songwriting / recording daze to a total disaster of sprawled cables, guitars and empty food bowls. It was there I wrote and recorded 'Unholy Power,' 'Finding You're Not Missing a Thing,' and 'Love, Outlive Me.'”
As the pandemic lengthened beyond what any of us had originally expected or hoped Hickli and Cochrane received an important phone call: “Our good friend Shane, the owner of Kirk’s Grocery (Billings, Montana) where we’d played several times on tour phoned us one morning. He asked us if we would like to put out a split-vinyl record through their recently resurrected record label 'North Pole Records.' We excitedly agreed! I added two songs from my previous repertoire to tie the record together 'Two Dogs' written and recorded at Taylor’s and my first house in Bridgeland, and 'The Ebony Room' written and recorded at the Banff Centre For Arts and Creativity during my residency in late 2018.”
Hickli’s side of the album, Both Feet in the World, At Least I Can Stand, is a 5-song odyssey through the mysterious beauty of the heart. Like the imagery in her video for “Love, Outlive Me” the listener is exposed to the sensation of wandering through a forest of shadow and light, trying to untangle the nature of the connection we hold to each other and to the world. A classically trained pianist, Hickli’s compositions are mesmerizing and profound, performed from a place that seems to transcend the physical.
Ironically, though a sense of the ethereal is present in the songstress’ work, Hickli explains, “In this record I begin telling my story of working through my religious trauma. I say ‘begin’ because there’s no way that untangling over half a lifetime of religious conditioning could happen in just one record. In ‘Two Dogs’ I spiral in the reality that I can only feed one dog (or take one path,) so the other must die. In ‘Love, Outlive Me’ I face new imaginations of death with no after-life. In ‘The Ebony Room’ I embrace and accept my unrighteous, unorthodox sexuality and passion for my piano. In ‘Unholy Power’ I give up my reliance on god to step into my personal power of being human. In ‘Finding You’re Not Missing a Thing’ I finally accept myself as an atheist after a lifetime of secretly knowing but being too afraid to explore.”
Despite very serious and sometimes fraught subject matter there are many moments in the album that feel incredibly triumphant and empowering. In “Finding You’re Not Missing a Thing” Hickli acknowledges peace in accepting that the religious beliefs she has departed from can remain in others, and that we can still co-exist in love. The lyrics in “Unholy Power” carry moments of disillusionment, which resolve in lyrics such as, “now I see I’m made of human, now I am stronger than before” and “there is a point to trying so hard”. Self acceptance in the face of organized belief systems, built to create particular pathways to follow, is not an easy thing. Hickli has confronted the power of these and has released herself into the freedom of discovering her own path and truth.
An intimate baroque/art pop listening experience, Hickli affirms, “Both Feet In The World, At Least I Can Stand is my declaration of embracing myself and my beliefs as an atheist. In my old religion that I practiced over half my life, I could not have one foot in heaven and the other in the world. I had to choose. I have chosen the world! What a beautiful world it is.”
On the flip side, the 7-song Naturally by 36? thematically follows Cochrane’s exploration of the concept of artistic authenticity in the face of rising recognition and public presence. 36? is a long-standing respected staple in the Calgary scene, with credits as far back as 2014. This psychedelic art-rock collective somehow marries the chaotic subversive energy of an old school punk band with the thoughtful emotionality of singer/songwriter-esque dream pop. Gentle vocal interludes at times explode into heavy distortion laden guitar and strong percussion, lending the songs drama and adrenaline rush infused excitement.
On Naturally Cochrane leaned into their somewhat facetious take on pop production. Having stated in the record’s press release, “They say that electrons behave differently the moment that they are observed, I believe the same can be said for artists. The desire to be heard and the desire to speak truthfully are not always a complementary pairing and that is the theme for this record”, Cochrane’s approach to the material is somewhat philosophical. Of course, the push and pull felt on the record imparts a listening experience far from the stodginess one might think when hearing the mention of philosophy. A sea voyage is more apt to describe the sometimes-peaceful seeming undulations of sound, nestled between choppier textures and downright stormy moments.
The songs on the album were written throughout a lengthy time span, with some tracks dating back a ways. A prime example is “Samuel”, written in the beginning of 2013. According to Cochrane, “’Samuel’ was written from the heart of my festival adventures (hence the woah-oh-ohhhs). The song is an exploration of child-like imagination and discovery; remembering what it’s like to be a kid and learning about the world and celebrating the journey. The song is written from the perspective of a parent guiding their child through an unfamiliar world, celebrating the ambiguity of what it means to be alive, and teaching of the impermanence of all things. It was written at a time when I liked to tell stories that were a little removed from my own reality to discuss my feelings on things.”
Others, like “Isolated”, feel very much tied to our collective, yet separated, recent experience. In actuality, this track was written after a work injury restricted Cochrane to a lengthy recovery on crutches in 2017 with limited mobility, having the artist feeling themselves, “spiraling into a whirlwind of existential angst.”
“After A While” and “Changes” both address recognition and acceptance of difficult aspects of self, such as suicidal ideation/self harm impulses or thoughts, and relationship orientation. Cochrane shared that “Changes” is about, “coming to terms with the things about yourself that you cannot change. Written in one of those bittersweet moments of self-acceptance when coming to terms with who you are also means coming to terms with who you will never be. For me, this particular subject has come up in my life a lot in terms of being polyamorous. Often allowing myself to be who I am, comes with not being able to be a perfect match for people I care about, which is a hard truth for me to deal with.”
Revisited and self-recorded in isolation over the pandemic, the songs showcase Cochrane’s wizardry for creating layered soundscapes and capricious compositions. These are complimented by the performances of a retinue of talented band members, such as Laura Hickli, Mike Malkin, Justin Van Groningen, and Krystle Robyn.
The album art on Naturally is by Jane Wagner Deschner, a visual artist out of Billings, MT. Per Cochrane, “all the photos are things she collected for the artwork”. Billings, MT being the home of North Pole Records, incorporating art by an artist local to the place is fitting. The images for Both Feet in the World, At Least I Can Stand were taken on a property just outside Calgary (with permission) on 35mm film (by Grey Hills Studio). The day was an adventure including step ladders and very wet feet. Styling and graphic design were executed by Hickli herself.
Hickli and 36? delivered enthralling full band live performances of the record on September 30th at Festival Hall in Calgary, to celebrate the vinyl release. While the show was unforgettable, the record itself offers the opportunity to fall into both sides of the “coin” as your mood and heart desires, time and again.
Pick up this long-awaited gorgeous album, as well as discover videos and previous releases, at: