Erin Fein is very familiar with catharsis. She is not afraid to let suffering become her muse and make pain into beauty, and with her first album, she found the vehicle. Fein, through her synth pop project Psychic Twin, managed to trudge through a difficult and messy divorce and come out of it with her debut solo album Strange Diary, which chronicles her experience during those trying times. The album is an ethereal, otherworldly effort that shimmers and sways, skillfully constructed upon those dark roots, and polished to a luminous shine. The tendency to categorize synth pop as simply dance music can’t fit here. It’s impossible to ignore the pain and vulnerability plainly laid out in Fein’s lyrics, where feelings rise and fall in cycles. The protagonist continuously chases and recoils with the authenticity of a member of a tumultuous relationship in its death throes. But, with a steady, feverish throb to the beat coupled with airy and undulating vocals, Strange Diary remains enigmatic in spite of itself. As in the track “Hopeless (I won’t take part of you),” the duality of moods makes it impossible to stay a specific course, keeping the listener on edge, tantalized. Strange Diary just smoulders in its raw poignancy, not unlike the heat coming off of a healing wound.
This is how Fein helped heal hers. Originally from the C-U area, she followed her musical career to Brooklyn, where she found a second home and then flourished as an artist. Strange Diary was released through Polyvinyl in the fall of 2016, making her one more step removed from that negative past. It’s not surprising that Fein speaks openly about her album’s subject matter, and how Psychic Twin helped her through dark times in ways that nothing else could.
Smile Politely: Why did you choose the title Strange Diary?
Erin Fein: After writing the album and reflecting on what the songs truly meant to me, I realized it had become, in many ways, a musical diary of a very painful time in my life. It was even more personal than I had imagined it would be. It felt like something I had written for myself. I suppose the strange part of it all was what happened over the course of time I had written it. Also, even though, upon reflection, it did feel like a personal diary to me, it wasn't. It was never meant to be. It's an album, which I planned on sharing, and that felt very intimidating because it wound up being so very personal and about something that hurt so much.
I knew when I started Psychic Twin that I wanted it to come from the heart, to be songwriting that reflected my view of the world, and would hopefully be a vehicle for me to process emotion and perhaps understand myself a little better. So I just began to write, and my life unfolded around the project. In the end, I did go through an incredibly painful time. I'm grateful because without Psychic Twin, I'm not sure I would have survived it.
SP: Regarding the album’s dark themes, do you believe that the best art comes from enduring suffering?
Fein: I’m not sure if I think the best art only comes from suffering, but I do think that suffering is often inspiration for incredible art. Sometimes I think a person in pain can be connected more deeply to their most raw and vulnerable state. I think being in that raw state inadvertently helps people to create beautiful work because, when a person is truly in deep pain, I think perhaps they're hurting so much that they aren't able to consider their insecurities the same way they normally would. They can't, they're too consumed, and oddly more open than they ever have been before, and often don't even realize it. I also think pain often results in obsessive thinking, which is very difficult to live with, and I think it puts creative people in a situation where they must create to survive these looping thoughts, and in a strange way, it brings them a deeper focus.
When Fein relocated to Brooklyn to grow her career, she wasn’t trying to escape her past. Her marriage and subsequent divorce took place here in the C-U area, and a change of pace and new scene definitely couldn’t hurt. But she didn’t flee; rather, she aimed to broaden her horizons, and she ended up getting all that she hoped for. Now, her roots are brighter and her nostalgia fond and strong.
SP: You’re originally from the Champaign-Urbana area. Some of the toughness surrounding the making of Strange Diary compelled you to leave C-U for a fresh start in New York. How have those feelings changed? What’s it like to be back in C-U nowadays?
Fein: I did feel like I needed to leave, but it wasn't just about having a fresh start. I love CU and my family is here, and many wonderful friends. I also think the music scene is really special. It was very hard to leave, but what I realized I needed, other than a new perspective, was the opportunity to pursue music specifically in New York City. I wanted to tap into a genuine curiosity I had about what might happen to Psychic Twin if I took the project to the Big Apple. And although I think a person can have a successful creative career living in any number of places, for me, going to NYC changed the course of Psychic Twin forever.
Everything I was hoping for when I left happened. I met my bandmate, drummer and wonderful friend Rosana Caban, I met my manager Dave Mount who changed my life, I met the women who are now my music publishers, my publicist, photographers, stylists, dancers - it has been incredible! The project finally felt right, and I believe this is largely because of the decision to go to New York. I just found myself surrounded by staggering amounts of people to work with. It is a really hard place to live, but there is endless opportunity there. Every type of person lives there, and people are incredibly driven and ambitious and competitive and they take the creative arts very seriously. Sometimes that makes it exhausting, but if that's the environment that's right for you, and if you're willing to work fucking hard, your creative life can just explode with energy and opportunity. I also felt like the type of music I had begun to make via Psychic Twin, all those years ago, would make more sense in a city. Perhaps this sounds a little mystical, but I believe the music itself called me to leave.
Coming back to C-U does feel different now. Where I live in Brooklyn is such a juxtaposition to what it feels like here. But I love coming home to C-U, its peaceful and nostalgic and now that so much time has passed, it feels really wonderful every time I get to visit. Also, it just smells so good here, and it's so relaxing. I miss it. But I do find that when I'm home for a while, I get the itch to get back to the city. I think the truth is, I need both places.
Fein’s music conveys a strong femininity that refuses to be ignored or downplayed. She stands tall and wears her past struggle like a badge without letting it define her, echoing the iconic women in music who paved the way before her. The music video for “Stop In Time” enhances this theme of solidarity. The song’s lyrics mesh well with bold choreography, costumes, and an all-female cast. In that way, at the end, Strange Diary's tracks end up feeling like victory songs.
SP: Strange Diary takes the listener on a journey of a woman who wades through difficult, painful times, but comes out better and stronger for it. Who are some strong and inspirational women in your life?
Fein: Wonderful question. I am inspired by my grandmothers who both suffered deep pain and disappointment and remained joyful and funny, and who taught me about survival. I am inspired by my mother who I have seen grow tremendously before my eyes and who has taught me that change is possible. I am inspired by so many of the weird and wonderful female musicians of the world — Laurie Anderson who is an inventive and creative hero of mine, Annie Lennox whose powerhouse voice has always touched me, Janet Jackson for continuing to make beautiful and sexy pop music amidst her very odd life, Cyndi Lauper for being the weirdo I desperately needed to fall in love with when I was young. God, I could keep going… Kate Bush for paving a road for the dark, synthy and strange, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Grace Jones, and so many more women who taught me through their work that it's wonderful to be weird, and that beauty is relative, talent and ambition is powerful, and that all these things together are transcendent.
Fein recently headed back into the studio to start work on a new album. At her current speed, it promises to be another momentous step forward, and the start of something new altogether.
Psychic Twin is playing with STRFKR at The Accord this Wednesday, February 8th, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 at the door.