Have you ever watched a movie from the last few years followed closely by a movie from the mid-20th century? Obviously the level of technology has changed drastically in the intervening years, and all of the superheroes flying around and space battles taking place couldn’t happen in the 1950s. But that doesn’t mean that these older movies don’t hold value as well. Everything had to be done in a much more hands-on method without the help of CGI and other advancements, and the loving attention and hours of work that went into makeup, sets, and costumes comes through even today. Old Hollywood obviously influenced movies today, but the aesthetic and the sounds of those movies have pervaded every bit of the entertainment realm. That allure, plus the underbelly of the city it lies on top of, strongly influenced LA duo Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian, who take that level of work and pour it into their experimental pop as duo Midnight Sister.
The two both have training in the arts of what made Old Hollywood work. Giraffe studied set design in college, and comes from a whole family well versed in the works of the stage. “[My sister] studied acting for awhile and then I studied set design and our mom’s a costume designer and my dad was lighting designer so we all love playing dress-up and it just organically developed into something we loved to do,” Giraffe explains. Her and her sister, Nicky, put that love to use by creating Giraffe Studios, a studio that does everything from production to graphic design to miming. With such a foot in the door of entertainment, it was only a matter of time before Juliana got into music.
On the other hand, Balouzian has always been a musician, but not in the realm of pop. He began as a classical musician, starting at a young age. “ I started off playing the violin when I was really young and then I stopped playing music for awhile. And it’s cool because I started back playing and recording really experimental stuff with my viola or whatnot,” he says. Between his classical knowhow and his penchant for pushing the edges of conventional music writing, Ari knows his way around a composition.
The universe pushed the two together during the filming of a short film that Juliana was helping her sister create. She remembers, “we filmed that in London, well part of it here [in LA], part of it in London, and then Ari scored it so that was kinda the first time we all worked together creatively.” It was also one of the first creations for Giraffe Studios, and the collaboration sparked even more of a creative fire in everyone involved. From there, Midnight Sister was born.
Listening to the duo’s debut album, Saturn Over Sunset-which was released in September-it’s impossible not to hear the creative backgrounds that Giraffe and Balouzian come from. Each song is lovingly crafted as its own narrative, and none of them are your standard pop songs. Take “The Drought,” a track that both musicians bring up frequently in our conversation. A narrative based around the years-long drought California suffered through a few years ago. What begins as a slow dance of a few strings begins to build and build until it turns into a cacophonous mass of them. “It’s called ‘The Drought’ and it’s this natural disaster and the outro of that song just feels like it’s this crash of water just coming down,” Giraffe says. As Balouzian describes it, it is almost like creating music for a movie. “With Juliana’s lyrics it’s kinda like she’s writing the films and it just goes together, I can put the music to that in a certain way, so it gives an emotional context for what the music is,” he elaborates.
The process for Midnight Sister in songwriting follows a loose pattern. “Ari would send me a stripped down or bare bones version of an instrumental played usually on the keys. And then I would write the vocal melody and the lyrics on top of that and then send it back to him and from that we would both have ideas and build the arrangement around it,” Giraffe reveals. It’s a process that has clearly worked, as Saturn Over Sunset hums along with nary a bad track in sight. It’s clear in talking with them that both members have a ton of fun figuring out how experimental they can get and what will work in their music. Balouzian muses “…Letting things unravel in an unexpected way is pretty cool. Like I didn’t expect that working on such structured music would be that exciting but it is actually almost more fun than making fully experimental music because you toe that line.”
Lyrically, Midnight Sister draw from the history of LA and Hollywood, from the glitz all the way down to the sordid side that most tourists will never see. At one point Balozian cites the book City of Quartz-a non-fiction book by author Mark Davis about the many factions and histories that have created the modern LA-as an influence. Giraffe also draws influence from a piece of media, but this one is (unsurprisingly) a film: Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1954 thriller Rear Window. She explains “I just love the set for that movie which takes place all in one apartment building and just seeing your neighbors through your window and coming up with what their life is, I always liked that idea.” While working inside at a job on Sunset Boulevard in the time during which the album was written, Giraffe would look out on the people passing by and craft narratives around them, much as Rear Window protagonist Jeff does (although with less hair-raising conclusions). As a visually-driven artists, Giraffe is also a fan of Tim Burton and Davids Lynch and Fincher. Talking about Lynch’s influence on her, she says, “I love things to seem really quirky and fun but there’s also secretly such a dark twist inside to it.” With Fincher, we have a long discussion on Zodiac and Giraffe reveals that Se7en is one of her favorite movies ever. These heavily narrative experiences are key to how she writes music. “I wanted to become a character myself, sort of a narrator, so as if I was writing a description or something of a character and illustrating a mood or a persona or a relationship,” Giraffe explains of the mindset she gets into when she writes a song.
Throughout the interview it’s evident that Giraffe and Balozian are fiercely proud of doing things their own way. With how experimental they like to be and how personal Saturn Over Sunset is, it would be hard for anyone else to replicate anything close to the feel that Midnight Sister. Balozian remarks that he much prefers working on it themselves and with people they know as opposed to using huge producers and studios. “…For us to struggle through things a little more on our own it makes it feel a lot more authentic,” he says, and Giraffe readily agrees.
Unsurprisingly, this hands on approach extends to their visual efforts as a band, too. If you’ve ever seen a Midnight Sister music video, you know that it’s full of the same theatricality that they bring to their music, plus an extra dose of surrealism. Take the video for “Blue Cigar.” A bevy of unusual characters and settings collide throughout the video, and Giraffe Studios was behind it all. “Nicky and I, we are very, very hands on with our visual work. We designed all the costumes and designed the makeup and character development and the set design,” Giraffe says. As mentioned before, her theatre background makes this kind of work second nature for Giraffe. This level of dedication also goes into Midnight Sister’s live shows, where Giraffe also designs the makeup and costumes that her and Balozian wear.
After a two year process of writing Saturn Over Sunset has been out in the world for two months now. With each listen another facet of a character or a narrative is revealed, a testament to the depth and thought of the writing that Giraffe and Balozian employ. As Midnight Sister, they have brought the highest levels of artistic design and creativity to their music and its surrounding aspects, and the result is a sound and a narrative unlike any other you’ve heard before. As long as their artistic fire remains lit (highly likely) and LA continues to provide inspiration with the weird and quirky history it reveals more of every day (also highly likely), Midnight Sister will be a band that you should keep on your radar. Who knows what fantastic, experimental stories they’ll tell us next?