Katya Brook

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Remember the Old, Embrace the New: Clementine Valentine on the Timelessness of Their Debut Album

The art-pop sister duo tell Rolling Stone about the road to their stunning debut, 'The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor'

During the early months of 2020, Clementine and Valentine Nixon, the cult New Zealand sister duo then known as Purple Pilgrims, embarked on an extensive tour through Europe and the United Kingdom before returning home to play several concert hall performances alongside the acclaimed psychedelic folk singer-songwriters Weyes Blood and Aldous Harding. Ostensibly, it was a triumph. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe simultaneously, everything was about to change. 

Sitting on opposite sides of me at a circular table inside a coffee shop located on Auckland’s Karangahape Road, the sisters are revisiting the moment when an incalculable number of dreams and hopes were dashed against the jagged rocks of the unknown. “We had a lot of plans, huge plans, and there was a lot of excitement,” remembers Valentine, pausing periodically to measure the weight of her words. “But what happened wasn’t unique to us. It was a collective experience.”

As New Zealand entered its first nationwide lockdown, Clementine and Valentine retreated to an isolated rural valley two hours from Auckland. Amidst natural splendour and stillness, they began to look inward and reflect while recording the demos for their beguiling new album, released as Clementine Valentine through the storied Flying Nun label on August 25th. Made up of nine escapist folk songs reframed as high-gloss art pop, The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor represents the latest iteration in their ongoing creative journey. In Valentine’s words, “It’s been our gift and our downfall that we’re constantly feeling like we want to break out of some box we’ve put ourselves in.”

Homeschooled between Hong Kong and New Zealand’s South Island by parents with deep family roots in folk music, the sisters began making music together in the early 2010s. “In the beginning, things were very rudimentary,” reflects Clementine. “We had a couple of amps, guitars, a tape recorder, and borrowed microphones.” During those halcyon days, they lived in Christchurch, where Clementine went to art school and worked at The High Street Project, a now-shuttered experimental art gallery with close links with the city’s sonic arts and experimental music community. Ensconced within the local counterculture, the sisters began captivating small audiences with ethereal folk songs buried under abstract guitar drones and psychedelic noise. 

Not long after, they watched liquified volcano silt swamp their family home in the wake of the devastating February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. “When we came back the following week, plants were already growing out of the building,” Valentine says. “All of a sudden, we were confronted by the transience of society, technology, and everything.” 

Propelled into action by the experience, Clementine and Valentine recorded their debut release, a limited edition 8” lathe cut record for New Zealand sound artist Antony Milton’s esoteric PseudoArcana label, before returning to Hong Kong, where they became intensely active within the island metropolis’s DIY music scene. “Since then, it’s been a natural progression of meeting people and getting opportunities,” explains Valentine. 

After some burnt CD-Rs with collaged cover art made their way into the right hands, the sisters began taking part in long, sprawling tours throughout the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom, recording several ambient folk tracks for a split LP in Massachusetts with the American psych-pop artist Gary War along the way. “We were thrown right into the deep end,” Clementine says. “And we were exposed to artists we’d read about in The Wire [magazine] in high school,” Valentine continues. “We met Jackie-O Motherfucker, and saw Weyes Blood perform.”

In 2013, Clementine and Valentine returned to New Zealand when their family purchased some land near Tapu, a small village on the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula. On arrival, they were overcome by the beauty of the region’s native rainforests, pristine beaches, and azure ocean waters. “Having lived in these urban settings like Hong Kong, the environment was a massive experience for us,” says Clementine. “We became far more connected to it, and we embraced that.” 

Clementine Valentine

Credit: Katherine Brook

Living off the grid in Tapu, the sisters built a small home studio in a shed on their family land. There, they became enamoured with concepts like ancient futurism and the idea that a garden could be one’s earthly heaven. Over the following years, they released and toured their first two albums, Eternal Delight (2016) and Perfumed Earth (2019), aided by collaborators including Gary War and the atmospheric guitar experimentalist Roy Montgomery. By dialling down the noise and swathing their mythology and fantasy-informed folk songs in layers of reverb, sungazed synthesisers, and outdoor field recordings, they drifted into a dream pop zone that led to lofty comparisons with Beach House, Kate Bush, and Cocteau Twins. 

In January 2020, Clementine and Valentine arrived in Aberdeen during the early days of their UK and Europe tour. “We had this experience there that informed the writing of The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor and connected back to our family’s musical history,” explains Valentine. “We knew we had connections to the area, but when we went to the venue, the organiser of the show said, ‘You have to see the opening act tonight. We’ve got something special planned.’”

Back in the 1960s, Aberdeen was a regular haunt for the sisters’ great-grandfather Davie Stewart, a fabled street musician and wandering troubadour who was recorded by the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Sixty years later, when they walked into the venue, Clementine and Valentine were greeted by the Scottish experimental folk musicians Barrett’s Dottled Beauty (Alan Davidson and Gayle Brogan) performing a cover of one of Davie’s songs. “They were literally even performing on a stage our great-grandfather used to perform on,” Valentine says. “It was like time had somehow collapsed and brought us together.” “It was extremely profound and something we never even expected,” Clementine continues. 

After the show, Alan took the sisters on a midnight tour of Aberdeen and showed them the city’s old folk club and the street corner he remembered seeing their great-grandfather busk on in the 1960s. When they started talking about the experience, they realised they were living the same lifestyle as generations of their travelling musician ancestors. Even deeper, when they looked into the history, they found that the way reviewers have described them was similar to how critics had described Davie during the second folk revival. “They’d use words like otherworldly,” Valentine says.

“We thought we started making music through The High Street Project [and the experimental scene in Christchurch],” she continues. “We knew we were informed by our background and singing with our grandmother as children, but until then, we’d never fully realised how much these two sides were connected. We thought it had happened through connections we’d formed while playing noise music in galleries.”

While Clementine and Valentine were demoing The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor, their plans for further overseas tours were cancelled, rescheduled, and rescheduled again in response to the pandemic. In the depths of defeat that followed, their experience in Aberdeen became a guiding light, opening the sisters up to a moment of ego death when they realised that making music was innately part of them. Like it or not, their only choice was to continue, but it was time to let go of the Purple Pilgrims alias and carry on under their given names. “It just felt like a necessity,” Valentine admits. “It was the most natural thing for us to do, and in that connection, we connected with ourselves.”

Once The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor was at the point where, as Clementine puts it, “It could have been a finished album,” the sisters connected with the New York‑based producer Randall Dunn (Oneohtrix Point Never, Jim Jarmusch) through a mutual friend. “He has a very textural element to his music,” Valentine continues. “We’ve always been fascinated by that filmic side of sound, and we work in really similar ways.”

 Working in a primarily analogue studio with gear and processes that Clementine describes as “a dream,” Randall fleshed their keyboard and guitar-led demos out into a panoramic soundworld where ornate cello, guitar, vintage synthesiser textures and percussion provided by the celebrated session drummer Matt Chamberlain (David Bowie, Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple) sit in contrast with Clementine and Valentine’s majestic old-time vocals. Soaring and swooping like never before, on singles like “Endless Night”, “Time and Tide”, and “The Rope”, they sing with the freedom that comes from expressing pure emotion without any filter or fear, articulating their shared musical visions with a crystal-clear clarity that continues throughout the album. 

“We’ve never made revival folk music, but we’ve always viewed our music as folk music,” says Valentine. “Whatever we do, we look to create contrast. Since our familial music is our core DNA, we wanted to contrast that feeling with something that feels more of the now.” She pauses for a moment before continuing, “We didn’t want it to feel like a relic of the past. We want it to be something we’re breathing new life into.”

Clementine Valentine’s The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor is out now through Flying Nun Records. In early September, they’ll embark on a national New Zealand tour taking dates in Wellington, Dunedin, Auckland and Christchurch (tickets available here).

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