“There were experiences that hit me hard emotionally, moments in my life that hit me in a weird way,” Alyssa Midcalf shares when asked about the inspiration behind her latest album, Incubator. “I felt like the only way to process them was to write about them.” In 2019, under the performance moniker Primer, Midcalf released her first solo album Novelty. The vocalist and electronic producer has put the full wealth of her experience into her sophomore album, Incubator, sharing honest, and sometimes harrowing, stories from her own life through a pop-tinted lens.
With Novelty, Midcalf honed her ability to write songs that were both delightful and heartbreaking, taking trauma and dressing it up in sounds, rhythms, and melodies to “turn it into something beautiful.” Midcalf coined that sound as “abject pop,” pointing to its self-effacing nature since sonically it’s buoyant, but lyrically it’s anything but. She’s continued to wade in that sound with Incubator, working with friend Noah Prebish of psych-pop band Psymon Spine and formerly of the band Barrie, to co-produce 10 new wave tracks that lean into her pop propensities while still accurately capturing the highs and lows of different phases of the human experience.
Though she’d been involved with music her whole life, Midcalf decided to pursue music full-time when she dropped out of high school, joining her friend’s four-piece garage rock band and playing bass in cross country tours at just 18-years-old. Five years ago she made the move from California to Michigan, gaining notoriety for producing and performing as half of the electronic duo PARTS. And though she appreciates those early projects and how they acted as a conduit to the social world of music, Midcalf didn’t tap into the full potential of her airy vocals, angular songwriting, and self-taught production and arrangement skills until she launched a project of her own.
Many of the songs on Incubator began in Midcalf’s late teens, but she took those early versions and developed them over the years. “That’s kind of why I wanted to call it Incubator,” she shares, “because it feels like these songs have been evolving for a really long time.” However, it was the recent demise of a five-year relationship that brought many of these songs to light. In the slow-building “Feel The Way I Do”, she hits on the frustration of trying to express yourself fully with a partner and thinking that maybe if “the other person can feel how you feel inside things would be different, problems would be fixed.” That desire can be heard as she lyrically poses, “And if you knew the truth / Would you always be there?”
But not all of the relationships highlighted in Incubator are romantic. Many of the songs examine relationships we have with ourselves and our place in the world. In “Just A Clown,” Midcalf examines the plight of becoming an artist, singing, “It’s just this sad pathetic game I play / I try to win, but it moves away” over 80s style synth and oscillating drum beats. “I was going through a point where I felt like I was constantly making a fool of myself. I was trying hard to gain acceptance from people. I felt silly,” Midcalf says. “When you’re an artist or want to attempt anything ambitious in this world, it usually comes down to, who do you know? Who are you?” she explains, echoing the words of the song’s chorus.
In “Impossible Thoughts,” she calls out social paradigms over escalating percussion, singing the piercing lyrics, “Settle down find a spouse / Make some kids to replace yourself / Pray to God to save your soul.” It’s a song she started writing when she was just 19-years-old. “It’s an internal thing. It’s not about any particular person or incident. It’s about navigating life as a young person in the midst of big global changes,” she shares about the track. “Impossible Thoughts” sees Midcalf viewing her personal problems through a myopic, existential lens. “It’s the looming feeling of running out of time or wasting time or not living life right,” she explains. “That is always in the background of my life and thoughts.” The songs play out much like interpersonal relationships, moving from questioning to wanting, and from being done to trying to find reconciliation again. “Some of the songs are very much nonlinear because I view relationships and life as being non-linear,” Midcalf says, adding that a relationship tends to fluctuate “until it actually ends,” which is what the closing track is about.
In the bright closer, “Warning,” Midcalf lyrically holds a closing ceremony against a wall of sound, walking away with wisdom and rejoicing in a new beginning, as she sings, “I would have died for you it’s true / But that’s a warning.” It’s the last song she wrote for the record. “A lot of the songs are about the terrible, depressed place I was in because of the relationship I was in. “Warning” was the only song I wrote outside of that relationship. It’s a celebration song because I can relinquish all of the things that led up to it.”
Though the album encapsulates one of the hardest periods of Midcalf’s life, the sonic levity of the Incubator mirrors the music Midcalf was listening to in order to break free from her thoughts. “It was not a good time mentally and emotionally, so all I would listen to was pop music because it felt like I was escaping. Pop was a way to shut my brain off and escape from being the most depressed I’ve ever been in my entire life.” With Incubator, Midcalf could “express the terrible sadness” she endured, while also reflecting the “happy finale” she was able to find. “In my mind, it’s all of this anguish and terrible feelings and angst in songs I started as a teenager and now those feelings have ended.” She’s looking forward to relating that path to freedom with listeners. “I feel like I’m exiting that time,” she shares. “A lot of the songs are about suicidal thoughts and being depressed, which is over now. I lived through it.”
– Erica Campbell
Quote from Alyssa: Just A Clown is a self effacing pop song about feeling like you’re constantly failing. It’s a song to scream-sing along to by yourself in the car after getting rejected or feeling humiliated. It’s about coming to terms with the knowledge that the game is rigged but continuing to play along because it’s never occurred to you to quit.
Feb 22: “Warning” Video
Warning is a celebration of the end of a toxic relationship. It’s a grand finale to the record and to a years long cycle of pain and anguish. I wrote the song during a hard turn in my life. I spent so much of my life with someone who siphoned my energy and depleted my whole world of color and light. I had to come to terms with knowing I will never be able to change the past or get that time back but I could meditate on the fact that I am no longer in that place.
Feel The Way I Do is a song about a witch that has a little beast that lives deep down inside her. She discovered the beast at an early age and went through a long process to accept the beast as being a part of her. Now as an adult, even though she has come to terms with her secret, she knows she can never be fully open and honest with her partner until she tells them about her little beast. She desperately wishes her partner had a beast of their own so they could understand and empathize, but they don’t have the same experience.
April 15: LP Street Date
All Songs Written By: Alyssa Midcalf
Arrangement and Composition: Alyssa Midcalf
Additional Arrangement and Composition: Noah Prebish
Production: Noah Prebish and Alyssa Midcalf
Engineering: Noah Prebish
Mixing: Brother Michael Rudinski
Mastering: Sam Obey
Guitar on Just A Clown: Jimmy Sullivan