Arts & Culture

Q&A with Natural Velvet

We talk to Corynne Ostermann of the post-punk outfit about their new album.

On the eve of their fifth birthday, Natural Velvet has released a stellar new album, their second with local label Friends Records, and it is everything we wanted and more. On each track, the post-punk quartet shows up with a pure, raw energy that’s packed with searing guitar, thunderous drums, and the wild howl of frontwoman Corynne Ostermann. 

As they tackle themes like femininity, identity, and rage, the band careens between melodies that are dark and brooding or bright and loud as a hot strike of lightning. It’s the kind of music that, as Ostermann puts it, blooms, the more you listen, even as a black rose on the vine. We talked with her about their new songs, band gangs, and villainesses like Cruella de Vil.

How long have you been working on this new album, Mirror To Make You?
Corynne Ostermann, lead singer and bassist, pictured far right: There was a natural break at the end of the last record, She Is Me, because it came out in September 2015, and by October, I had lost my long-term relationship, as well as the home I was sharing with that person, and a good friend from high school, who died overnight. I think everyone had a really rough 2016, and I would say mine started in late 2015 and I’m still just trying to push through it. The music was my natural reaction to the world trying to cut me down. 

At the end of the day, I knew what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about this specific feminine rage, which is something that doesn’t get any play within popular culture. I wanted to talk about both the over-the-top camp aspect of that feminine rage, but I also wanted to humanize it in a way. From there, it was just fitting the puzzle pieces where they needed to go.

Was writing these songs cathartic?
Yes and no. Anytime we perform them, I’m re-experiencing that rage. I also think there are a lot of people out there, especially feminine people, who don’t allow themselves the right to anger because it’s not culturally sanctioned. Masculinity, sure—you can be angry and break things and be hardcore—but it was very much a learned thing for me. I grew up evangelical Christian and there’s a lot of unlearning that had to go with that. Allowing myself to be angry and dark and brooding took years of practice. You can still be soft and feminine and pretty but also angry. Anger and rage can be positive influences. They can signal change—like a calling to arms—where you have to express yourself but also step back and ask, ‘Okay, how do I fix this? How do I make my place right in the universe?’

I was also learning to identify with these overly camp feminine icons of film and pop culture. A lot of it was based off of me repeatedly watching Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. And Sailor Moon cartoons, where the villainess is like, ‘You’ll never defeat me.’ Ultimately I’d be sad at the end when the protagonist would win over the antagonist because they were so much more fabulous and well dressed and way more fun to watch. Another great example of this is Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmations. You love it when she’s sitting in her chair yelling at her subordinates. It was super cathartic for me to watch these films and write these lyrics based within that kind of femininity because it’s pretty much private revenge fantasy. [Laughs.] 

Ultimately the goal is to talk about these realities of living while also still having fun. At the end of the day, I’m an entertainer. I want people to enjoy this record. I don’t want to make them have a bad day. But I do want there to be something for them to chew on. 

Have you always been interested in that deconstructing the concept of femininity? 

I am a trained painter and I’ve been working with the concept of aggressive femininity for years, specifically related to pop culture. Give me Paris Hilton and Britney Spears with a shaved head in 2007 or give me nothing. Painting has always been a feminist battleground from the get-go. The painting department at the Maryland Institute College of Art is also like bro-zone USA. [As a student there,] I was an out feminist, making work within this hyper masculine culture, so I had to defend myself. 

Having been raised religious in the Midwest during the Bush years, by the time I figured out that I was a feminist, I was pretty saturated in it. I was a high schooler with a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. I also minored in Gender Studies at MICA.

How do you share concepts with your bandmates?
My bandmates have their own inspiration and we have our own little band culture and language, as all bands do. Bands are pretty much glorified street gangs. But my band mates are people of color and also queer people, and I have to contend with the fact that I am a white woman, writing about feminism. Ultimately I’m writing about my perspectives—nobody else’s—because I couldn’t pretend to speak for them. 

Instrumentally, we write all of the songs together. The majority of the time, they’re jammed out in the basement. We’re blessed that we’re all good friends and we hang out outside of band time. Just the other day, we went over to Greg’s [Hatem, drummer] and did a double feature of John Waters’ films that Spike [Arreaga, guitarist] had never seen. We started the band so young—I was 21—and we’ve all seen each other go through so many different phases.

Speaking of friends, Mirror To Make You is your second album with local label Friends Records. How does it feel to be a part of that musical family?
We are incredibly blessed to be able to work with Friends. Jimmy [MacMillan, owner] is one of the good guys. He looks out for each band on the label and his active roster is on the smaller side so you get a lot of individual attention. It has been instrumental in allowing us to grow.

They have nurtured such a nest of diverse local talent. 
I was at a talk last night at The Crown where they were interviewing younger artists. The word ‘artist’ had such a connotation to them. They were like, ‘We just need to be respected,’ and I’m like, you also have to understand that ‘the artist’ is the product of the community in which you’re based. Future Islands does this particularly well. They have always been very local  and have really favored working with local bands and artists. 

Like Beth Hoeckel and Lesser Gonzales for past album art, and Post Typography for their current tour posters.
They’ve always given back to the community. We would be nothing as a band if it weren’t for working with the community and playing on bills with all of these local artists and musicians. There’s accountability in Baltimore, especially with the art scene being so small. You can’t be shitty. You have to take care of your neighbors. 

Now that it’s out there, how do you feel about this new album?
I did have to give myself some distance, but when I finally came back to it, it made me extremely happy. Is it perfect? No, not by my standards at least, but there is an utter freshness that is present only in this record. It’s also sonically the most well produced record we’ve made at this point because we recorded with Martin Bisi in New York. I mean, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch—the giganticness of that room, the history of that room, our excitement to play, plus getting to work with Rob Girardi back here in Baltimore at WrightWay Studios. Rob is unbelievably talented; he knows how to keep a big fat sound without crushing the bloom of it. 

Do you have any favorite songs?
“It’s All Mine” is probably the most direct—I’d call it more or less the manifesto of the record. “Kristina” is probably the purest song on the record. I love that one. My friend Kristina is my BFF from college and I had not seen her for three-and-a-half years. The idea of writing a love song makes my skin crawl, like ew, barf, and I was thinking it would be way more relevant to write this song of longing and love for a friend, because those are the people who are going to stick with you longer than anyone else. 

Speaking of “It’s All Mine,” that video was so wild and fun.
That started off as a complete joke. It was born out of being stuck in a van with my band mates for too long. But it was a great shoot—I was crying and laughing the whole time. 

You’ve mentioned that it was partially inspired by the 1953 film, Gentleman Prefer Blondes.
I love Jane Russell in that film because she plays a very specific trope, which is the sassy brunette. And the script for that was written and acted out before the Hays code was reversed, so it’s loaded with innuendo, completely inappropriate for the 1950s, and unbelievably campy. I mean, you know she’s not trying to find love on that cruise ship full of the Olympic gymnastic team . . . And the beautiful part of this is, every man in that synchronized gymnast scene in flesh-toned swim trunks definitely wasn’t interested in what she was selling anyways! There’s only one instance in our entire video when I’m touched by one of the guys, and that’s when I’m thrown into the pool, and there’s a reason for that. I ultimately didn’t want to function as a sex object, where I’m being looked upon by the camera in this male-gazey kind of way. I wanted my character to function as the aggressor, the person who objectifies. I was the feminine grotesque. The anti-diva. 

It really was a feminine fantasy, with the glitter and the gold swimsuits and the aquamarine pool.
It was also really body positive in its own way. If you can at least feel comfortable enough in your own skin to drink a beer and ride an elliptical for a few hours on film, that’s great. If that makes you feel good, thank you for jumping on the trampoline.