Kate Cooper knows what she’s doing. In just under three years, the frontwoman of Australia’s An Horse, which opens for Manchester Orchestra this Wednesday at the Metro, and drummer Damon Cox went from record store employees rehearsing after work to Letterman-approved indie exports. Their sophomore effort, Walls, which came out last week, marks the first new release from the now full-time An Horse, but making the jump wasn’t a pain-free process.
“When I wrote [2009's] Rearrange Beds, I was working a job and playing for fun,” says Cooper from her home in Toronto, a few days before heading off on a string of tours that will last through midsummer, when they’ll also play Lollapalooza. “Now I’m playing music for a job. When you’re busy, you’re so busy, and when you’re not busy, you have a lot of time on your hands. It’s this weird dichotomy. The downtime for Rearrange Beds was the first time I didn’t have to get up at 6 a.m. Given the time on my hands, I think too much and I dig myself into holes and get anxious.”
It shows on the record. “Trains and Tracks,” the first song released, is a frantic, rapid-fire spurt of indie power pop with lyrics about ticking clocks, dying batteries and runaway trains. But musically, Walls isn’t a far cry from its predecessor, with Cooper still taking up guitar and lead vocals and Damon Cox holding it down on drums and backing vocals. Cooper’s simple guitar arrangements run under her equally straightforward second person lyrics, which she says are more often letters to herself than pleas to others.
“I talk to myself constantly,” Cooper says. “I think to myself constantly. Damon’s staying at my house and he’s like, ‘Wow, you talk to yourself a lot.’ I’m totally selfish. I just write about me. I don’t think about who I’m writing about until after and they’re like, ‘You’re an asshole.’”
It’s a style that makes for a provoking narration. “Know This, We’ve Noticed,” a guitar-picked track that morphs into a roundabout singalong with its chorus of “Know this, we’ve noticed / That you’re not fine,” seems all the more unsettling when it’s not clear for whom the indie pop intervention is intended. And Walls is never short on drama — the third song on the album, “Airport Death,” nonchalantly kicks off with the ominous declaration, “I sat in an airport thinking / I’m gonna die.” But what might seem like a metaphor for, at the very least, travel-induced anxiety is actually the story of a flight home from hell, when a recently hospitalized Cooper attracted some uninvited attention.
“This strange man came up to me and said I was ill and it was because my heart was broken, and he could feel it from my energy,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Hey dude, leave me the fuck away.’ The man said to me, ‘I will come to your workplace and give you this book about healing.’ It’s strange because the Rolling Stone review said ["Airport Death"] was about meeting a boy in the airport and, no, it’s about literally wanting to die.’”
Lyrically and musically, Walls is a rawer and darker effort than its predecessor, at times taking on an almost demo-like quality. While Walls‘ production helps set the mood — Cooper says the optigan, a vintage keyboard sampler, adds an almost inaudible gloom to tracks like “Leave Me” — her songwriting deserves its praise, too. Album highlight and lead single “Dressed Sharply” is a nascent-crush-song-meets-21st-century-technology-blues. Cooper tries to put on a happy face in this ode to waiting for email, which hits the nail on the head in addressing the anxieties of modern relationships and the physical distance often between them. Geography, travel and space have been long-standing motifs in An Horse’s lyrics, and Cooper’s are just as in transit as ever. But Walls‘ focus is more isolated and hesitant than before — which probably has something to do with Cooper moving halfway across the globe.
“When I wrote a lot of the songs for Rearrange Beds, I had been living in Brisbane for nine or eight years,” Cooper says. “I was confident in my city, I knew everyone. And then I moved to the other side of the world where a warm day is -10 and I didn’t speak French. It’s less confident in so far as subject matter. I’m not going down to my local coffee shop to hang out. I’m staying in and figuring exactly what to say to order a coffee.”
As performers, An Horse is anything but unconfident. Thanks to some high-profile tour experience opening for Death Cab For Cutie, Silversun Pickups and Tegan and Sara, Cooper’s voice is bolder than ever before, taking on songs such as the album’s title track with a balance of sweet restraint and delicate power. “Walls” as a mission statement is Cooper at a crossroads, a big emotional question mark, but it’s also one of the record’s rarer, calmer moments, with Cooper on the acoustic guitar instead of her usual electric.
“I think with Rearrange Beds it was more like, get in a room and press record and capture that,” Cooper says. “With Walls, we laid it over a bit more.”
The result is a more deliberate, textured effort that still manages to sound like it was crafted by just two people.
“I feel like people know who we are now and we’re delivering something,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I think I knew that band.’ It does feel good.”
An Horse opens for Manchester Orchestra at the Metro on May 4. Tickets for the all-ages show are $16 and can be found here.