Rubblebucket

In summer 2015, after finishing a year of intense touring, Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth began the process of bringing their next record to life. As an experiment, Kalmia asked Alex (her longtime romantic partner) to move out while they worked on the album, then accepted the marriage proposal he made during a recording session just a month later. Although Alex soon moved back in,their 11-year relationship ended when the two chose to ‘consciously uncouple’ the following spring — a decision they honored by ceremoniously giving each other matching triangular daisy tattoos (a nod to the title track from Rubblebucket’s 2010 EP). But despite all the sadness brought on by their breakup, Kalmia and Alex kept on writing and recording together, ultimately creating Rubblebucket’s most transcendent album to date.

Co-produced by Kalmia and Alex, Sun Machine documents the pain of ending their romantic relationship, yet emerges as an unbridled and often-euphoric celebration of their lasting connection. While the breakup inspired much of the album, Sun Machine is deeply informed by several other life - changing occurrences in recent years: Kalmia’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 2013 (followed by a round of surgeries and chemo treatments), Alex’s decision to get sober after a long struggle with alcoholism, and the couple’s three-year-long attempt at maintaining an open relationship. The result is a strange and beautiful paradox: a party album rooted in radical mindfulness, a breakup record imbued with each partner’s palpable love for the other.

With its airy melodies and lavish textures, dream-logic sensibilities and dancey rhythms, Sun Machine radiates the bright and joyful energy encapsulated in its title. “It’s a reference to the sun as this abundant natural resource we all have available to us — but it’s also about the inner sun, the magma in our hearts,” says Kalmia. “When you can access that, you’re able to get through really hard moments, and evolve and develop creatively. I think that’s the best way to explain how I was able to work through the process of the two of us transforming our relationship in a positive way.”

As Rubblebucket’s most fully realized album yet, Sun Machine finds Kalmia and Alex tapping into their creative instincts more freely and directly than ever before. “Kal and I are both jazz musicians, and jazz is very much driven by improvisation — it’s about getting in touch with that inner spontaneity, where you’re channeling ideas rather than thinking them up,” says Alex. “There’s a lot of moments on this album that happened from us being in a trance-like zone, and coming up with weird sounds in the middle of the recording, sometimes by accident.”

The hypnotic opening track to Sun Machine, “What Life Is” unfolds in lyrics that arrived through pure stream-of-consciousness. “I had recently gotten sober, and the only music I could listen to was drone music,” Alex recalls. “I’d put it on and pace around my little studio apartment, and those words just started coming out of me.” With Kalmia delivering a wild sax solo later on in the song,“What Life Is” centers its refrain on a gently unshakable question: How many hours a day are you a broken tape?“We have so many distractions now, with all the crazy things happening in the world and all the devices we get to observe those things through,” says Kalmia in reflecting on “What Life Is.” “There’s so many different and confusing directions for us to get drawn in every day.”

Throughout Sun Machine, Rubblebucket adorn their exploration of love and sexuality and grief and healing with bursts of collage-like experimentation. “Annihilation Song” is woven with ambient tones constructed from a sample of Alex whistling, while the wistful but breezy “Fruity” was built from a beat supplied by Kalmia’s cousin, Ben Swardlick (a member of San Francisco-based electronic duo M Machine). And though it was written in the throes of their breakup, “Lemonade” captures a carefree romanticism (“We used to ride around on rollerblades/You kissed me on the mouth and my pupils dilated”), then magnifies that playful mood by layering in fragments of improvised conversation at the bridge. “Kal and I just hit record and pretended we were in a music venue during the trumpet solo,” Alex explains. “We talked about Kafka and chakras and existential philosophy, and at one point we talked shit about the trumpet player — which is actually me.”

From song to song, Rubblebucket infuse Sun Machine with a sweetness and generosity that speak to the devotion behind their conscious uncoupling, a process Kalmia defines as “signaling to the world that you’re doing everything you can to preserve the relationship.” With Alex describing their breakup as “the single-most significant life event beyond me being born,” both band members hope that Sun Machine encourages others to see the possibility for transformation in painful experiences of all kinds.“When I got cancer and Alex quit drinking, that was the beginning of a huge journey for both of us,” says Kalmia. “So much of that journey has been about giving myself the freedom to exist on my own terms, believing in my ideas instead of self-editing. I think this album represents both of us allowing ourselves that freedom in a totally new way, and hopefully it’ll give people inspiration to be creative in their own lives, and to just soften up a bit too.”

“This record is kind of about writing a record,” Mikaela Davis says. The 26-year-old is home in her native Rochester, New York, reflecting on Delivery, her highly anticipated full-length album, as well as the hard journey the classically trained, defiantly original harpist had to travel to become the writer, performer, and band leader she was meant to be.

“A lot of these songs came from feeling stuck and also like people were pulling me in a bunch of different directions,” Mikaela says. “I wanted to say, ‘Just wait for me. I’ll figure it out.’”

Mikaela’s plea for patience––a little bit sweet, a little bit angry and raw––fed a fierce 10-song collection. A joyride that pulls from folk rock, 70s and 80s pop experimentation, and muscly funk, Delivery manages to be both daring and comfortable, full of not just risks, but hooks.

Produced by Grammy winner John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, David Byrne, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), Delivery is a triumphant next chapter. “John tries to find that moment instead of the perfect take,” Mikaela says. “That made it all sound really special.” Childhood friend Alex Coté (drums, percussion) and Shane McCarthy (bass) play on the record - already close from years of touring. Recently, Mikaela’s ensemble became a family affair with the addition of Shane’s older brother Cian McCarthy on guitar.

Mikaela’s unconventional path to working singer-songwriter began before high school, growing up in Rochester. With plans to join a symphony, she studied the harp in college, but halfway through, she decided the traditional harpist’s path wasn’t for her. She longed to perform her own compositions rather than pieces written by others in an orchestral setting. Her break with convention was cemented when she embarked on her first tour the summer of her junior year, singing her own pop-savvy songs.

Following graduation, Mikaela moved to Brooklyn, following in the footsteps of indie artists who’ve come before her. But in the city, she could never quite find her footing. She kept busy, toured, and recorded an album that would eventually be shelved. Feeling confused and alone, she retreated back to Rochester, unsure of her next move.

Then, the last place Mikaela wanted to be saved her. Rochester’s artistic community embraced her, and encouraged by bandmates including Alex Coté and the group Joywave, she hit her stride. Rochester became Mikaela’s sanctuary.

Delivery benefits from it all. “Now, these songs kind of wonder what I should be doing––it’s me trying to get myself back to why I started writing in the first place,” Mikaela says. “Writing made me feel better and safe when the world around me was falling apart.”

If a sad smile made a sound, it’d be like the lilting piano that kicks off the album’s title track, which is also the project’s opener. The initially pared-down instrumentation gradually swells as the lyrics move from self-doubt and disillusionment to grateful acknowledgement of steadfast love. “I was starting to feel like I was going down this rabbit hole of, ‘Well, I just need to be successful! I need to write a song labels are going to like!’” Mikaela says. “Then, I wrote ‘Delivery’ for myself. That felt good.”

“Get Gone” vamps in next. “I’d been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell when I wrote ‘Get Gone,’” Mikaela says. “I went into the studio thinking it’d sound one way, but John said, ‘I’m thinking real funky, dirty––70s porn!’ That’s how my band heard it too. I was like, really?” Mikaela laughs, proud of both the creative process and the gritty gem it produced.

On harp or piano, Mikaela wrote or cowrote all of the album’s tracks save one, the beautifully forlorn “Emily,” penned by Alex. Bewitching harp kicks off the track, which pulses with empathy and grace, and features moody background vocals from The Staves. “A Letter I’ll Never Send” is innocent and starry eyed before morphing into buzzy chaos, tracing the arc of a doomed relationship. “It started as fun and no big deal, then it turned into a disaster––and that’s how the song ends,” Mikaela says. “I always wanted to make amends, but I’m wondering, is it worth it?” “Little Bird” is another song that both ponders and undergoes transformation: its delicate beginning builds into full-bodied swagger. Haunting “Pure Divine Love” soars on psychedelic strings and vocals, again with background harmonies from The Staves.

Danceable “Other Lover” puts what Mikaela can make her harp do on brilliant display––funk has never sounded so angelic and swampy all at once. With its dreamy staccato, “Do You Wanna be Mine” also reimagines what a harp can do, while singalong “In My Groove” captures the challenges, confusion, and freedom that comes with finding your own way. Mikaela’s favorite track, “All I Do is Disappear,” explores the struggle to be seen for who you truly are instead of what others want you to be: “But how can I make myself clear / when all I do is disappear?” Mikaela sings.

While most of the songs began as personal mediations and even acts of defiance, Delivery’s messages of resilience and embracing what makes you unique lands universally with the listener. “I hope people can relate these songs to their own lives and that they can help them in some way,” Mikaela says. “Just let my songs resonate with you somehow. That would make me so happy.”

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