It’s an understatement to say it's been a rough couple of years for Alton and Kelly Fleek, the married duo that makes dark electronic pop under the name The Spider Ferns. After an impressive debut with 2015’s debut full-length Soon Enough and 2016’s EP Safety, the duo was on a quick trajectory towards greatness when life stepped in to halt their output. In 2018, Kelly’s grandmother died and almost immediately her mother got sick, leaving Kelly in charge of taking care of her.
As her diagnosis worsened and health declined, Kelly invested more and more of her time into caring for her mother. A longtime wearer of many hats, Kelly put a full stop on life that, alongside music, included multi-media arts as well as working in publicity for LoFlux Media last July, following the band’s incredible Capitol Hill Block Party set, to help her mom cross over from this life. Her mother died in November.
After a few months of understandably overwhelming grief following her death, the duo is not only ready but bubbling over with passion and excitement to get The Spider Ferns back on their intended path. Unfortunately, yet again, life stepped in to throw a wrench this past week by halting their tour that included multiple showcases at SXSW (I don’t know if you heard, but there’s a bug going around that’s made life more than a little difficult for musicians right now).
But not even COVID-19 can bring The Spider Ferns down! Today, KEXP is proud to premiere the duo’s first single in two years, “Who Stands Alone.” A favorite of her mother’s before she passed, the song is described by the band as, “the sorrow-howl of going deep into my mother's health crisis, and the trauma it caused my family, but ultimately how we rallied into a stronger version of ourselves as my mother left the mortal coil.”
Anthemic in nature, the song leans heavily on Kelly’s expertly controlled warble, which recalls ‘90s luminaries Kate Bush and Beth Gibbons in its complex emotional sensuality. But Alton’s not sitting on his laurels with the production. The brooding electronic beat anchors the track while guitar strums and a slinky synth line subtly fill it in until rupturing at the chorus into a glorious crescendo of extrication.
It’s a moment where you can hear the loosening of the shackles of grief to make way for a liberated life of untold levels of joy. Which is something I think we all need to hear right now. We might not know what’s going to happen but we do know eventually, maybe soon or maybe not, the fog will lift and we won’t stand alone.
Below, listen to “Who Stands Alone” and read an interview with Kelly Fleek, who speaks for herself and Alton while he drives the van home from their heartbreaking canceled tour. Distraught but not broken, Fleek discusses the Spider Ferns' forthcoming record, their renewed vigor, and the beautiful ways the Seattle music scene has changed over the years.
KEXP: It's been a while since the Spider Ferns have released new music and "Who Stands Alone" is going to be your first single in two years while your last EP was released four years ago. The majority of the delay stems from you taking care of your mother while she was sick. Tell me about the journey the Spider Ferns have been on since your last body of work.
Kelly Fleek: It's been a tremendous journey. In the past few years, it has really been about my family. I had to take a tremendous step back, in general, just with the amount of energy I was putting out creatively so that I could take care of my mother as her health began to decline. My mom died with four things, she had three comorbidities to her cancer. The cancer was the final blow. That's what we've had in the past year. So ultimately, about two years ago, my grandmother became ill and then I had to take care of my mom. I was taking her to all of her doctors' appointments. Two years ago, it was 20 hours a week of my life. Eighteen months ago it went up to 40 hours a week. Six months ago it moved up to full time. It culminated with me moving in with my mother to help her die.
So we've been sitting on an album and building it and I would say we created half of the album during that period of time. I think we've got eleven songs. We don't know how many are going to end up on it. Somewhere between nine and 11 songs will end up on the full-length. It already has a name, it's called Blossom.
What's the meaning behind the name?
Well, we toured to Europe once and then to California three times in the period of time since we released our last EP and Blossom is really just about how we're growing and changing, ultimately. We really...I don't want to say that we haven't known where we were going the entire time, but we definitely know where we're going at this point. Both of us feel very grounded and like we've hit our stride.
Awesome. That's great.
We're ready. I mean, my mother passed November 30th and it's been hard. I just cried. I still have tears. It was maybe an hour ago that I was crying about my mom as I drove my van. You just never know when it's going to hit you. So we basically are just throwing ourselves fully back into our music at this point. We never stopped creating, we just had to do it in fits and starts. We've had some absolutely brilliant tours and made music that we really love in this creative time.
Absolutely. So you said you feel like you have a vision of where you're going and what's going to happen. Can you share that with us as far as what you think it's going to look like?
We have so much music that we've been working on that we feel that we've hit this fearlessness that we've never had before. With the people that we've had in our life, it becomes easy to second guess the trajectory as an artist. We decided to take a massive leap of faith and just throw all of our eggs into this basket, essentially, and we're just pushing forward really comfortably, really fearlessly. And our creativity...oh, even my mother said I was going to have some great lyrics out of her death. My mom was always really...after we released our last EP she actually called me and said, "I listened to your lyrics are you okay? Do you need to talk?" (laughs) Because I I tend to let out how I feel about the world in my music and in my visual art. But especially in my music. So I feel that we have to have a place to put all of this sorrow. And we're really great at making that happy music. We're great at making sorrow you can dance to. (laughs)
So we're more solidly there. We have a comfort level that we've never had before. And I don't know if it was just all of these transitions that we've been through and all the pain we've had to endure or if it's the fact that we've had all of this stuff sitting and waiting and we wanted to get back to. So there's also this excitement that we kind of have the beginnings of so much right now. When we go back and listen to it again, little things that we laid down, you know, sitting in a bedroom in the middle of the night waiting to take my mom to go to the bathroom or something. Alton would have his headphones on, working on a bunch of beats. So I kind of feel like we're ready to explode.
Yeah, I mean, you had that moment you could take a step back and take a break to breathe and that probably was really good for you. Maybe hard for you, though, because you been hustling for so many years.
It was really actually terrible. Sometimes I felt...you know, I help people all the time as a publicist. I mean, you know how this feels. You're dealing with a lot of really young bands who are just getting off the ground and I feel my job is just to keep them kind of going with their positivity. And so I spent so much time working to uplift other individuals. At the end of the day, I really didn't have much time to uplift myself. I've had to kind of take my own medicine and remind myself that taking that step back, like you said, it is time to breathe.
And Alton even said that one of the good things about stepping back is we've had time to really rethink and revise how we craft a song and we've rethought and revised how we're going to be performing live, what we're going to bring. We already have a stage show that you just don't see in Seattle usually. It's a visual experience along with an aural experience. Especially because our music is so contemplative, performance art is really important to us. So we always try to create an immersive experience for folks. We've had visuals, dancers, textile installations, all this kind of stuff on stage for 4 years but we're really rethinking how we do that and updating it and adding new costumes for the dancers to create a set that really fits with the new music that we have.
Sonically, how does the new music on Blossom compare to your debut record Soon Enough?
Oh, wow, it's hugely different because our first album was really a series of bedroom recordings. And then by the time Safety came out we were starting to understand even more deeply where we wanted to go sonically. So I would say our first album is a lot of the workbook for what we're doing now and, sonically, I would say we're bigger, we're fatter, we're wider, we're broader. It's all about...vocally and I would say musically, my intention is always just to break somebody's heart. That sounds really cheesy but I really want people to feel what I'm saying. What would you say Alton, sonically? Oh, wait, hold on. Roll down the window, we've got a black widow in the car.
That's a problem. Kind of ironic to have a spider in the car while talking to the Spider Ferns.
We're not afraid of spiders at all. I have a lot of respect. But what were you saying Alton? Sure, sure. So production-wise, we've just really ramped up our production and we're working collaboratively with our mastering agents on a lot of things. We worked with Adam Straney at BreakPoint Mastering in Portland. He's worked with a lot of great bands like Tacocat and the Moondoggies and Shabazz Palaces and he's an old friend of ours. So basically we contacted him and he's not producing with us but he definitely passes things back and gave us good suggestions So I feel like there's a lot of collaboration going on there.
You, personally, have been heavily involved in the Seattle scene for a long time now and have some pretty amazing stories that you told me recently. I'm curious, with the history you have and also working as a publicist and an artist, what do you think of the current Seattle scene and who are some of your favorite artists?
Oh wow. First and foremost, what I like about the scene is that it's become more equitable over the years. It's much, much more positive for women, for LGBTQ folks, for people of color. So, in general, it just makes me more comfortable. Also, it's not just about one sound of music. It continually bothers me, I have to say when people hang the grunge hat on Seattle. Sure, it's cool. And we all owe Jimi Hendrix great big kudos for bringing that sound to Seattle. But let's remember, Quincy Jones is also from Seattle. You know what I mean? We have a huge, diverse history of music. So, ultimately, that's what I like about the changes, they're more equitable across the board. And it's less clique-ish. I see more people collaborating. I see a lot of positivity. One of the sad things for us is that a lot of the bands that we've worked with over years have moved on. The sad thing about the gentrifications of Seattle is that we've lost a lot of people that we love. Fortunately, we see them on tour. Let's see, a favorite act in town...boy, that's always a huge one. I love so many. I mean, currently...what was it...Flesh Produce?
Oh yes, love them.
Oh, my gosh. I needed that. That was my first time seeing them at Freeze Fest. I think, as far as who my brand new stinking favorite is right there. That's a big one. And then, even though Erik Blood's living in L.A., along with Rachel Ferguson, Pink Lotion, I mean, they came up to have their debut at Belltown Yacht Club and I loved that more than I can say. Those are some of my brand new loves.
KEXP is the station where the music matters and, honestly, with the world in a massive crisis, I believe that music matters more than ever right now. Why does music matter to you?
Why does music matter to me? Well, jeez, I live it. Music is my number one creative outlet. Creating music, watching music, listening to music. There's so many reasons music is important to me. It's about self-expression, number one, absolutely. Alton said it's an outlet for emotions that we wouldn't otherwise express. And also I feel like music, in general, unites humans. It drives society. We all want the soundtrack to our lives. Somehow musicians are commodified and compartmentalized to the point where we also aren't respected, but that obviously doesn't stop any of us from creating.
Seattle duo The Spider Ferns don't make music, they create worlds. Each of their songs is like a new landscape. You may have heard the sounds before -- drums that seem to echo into infinity, bass lines that throb and pulse like they have lives of their own, electronic sounds that shimmer like a c...