Sarah Register moved from Oklahoma to Manhattan in 1997 looking for her voice. Instead she found a haunting partnership. Alongside friend/drummer/co-croaker Andrya Ambro, Register supplies the dark guitar muscle to Brooklyn’s Talk Normal, a noise-brood coven of two whose 2009 debut, Sugarland, was a strange contest of black and white magics, wringing fallen-angel harmonies through a swamp of dissonant fuzz and relentless kick-drum thunder.
Talk Normal’s self-produced sophomore LP, Sunshine, is a project three years in the making that will finally see release via Joyful Noise on October 23—a few days after the duo plays the Knitting Factory tonight during CMJ 2012. And if leading singles “Bad Date” and “Cover” prove portentous, the band’s hypnotic spell has only grown stronger. I chatted with Register on a cloudy afternoon in Brooklyn from her Williamsburg troll pad (“pretty much right next to the bridge”) about the ups and downs of her last three years, why she doesn’t groove on improv comedy anymore and what we can expect from Sunshine.
What brought you to NYC 15 years ago?
I just always thought music was magical, and I thought that New York was the center of the world music-wise. So I went to college at NYU in the audio engineering program. I figured I could get into helping other people make music that way while I figured out what to do for myself.
And has Talk Normal proven a satisfying way of finding your own musical magic?
It’s been going on for a while now, long enough to have had ups and downs for sure. Andrya and I have devoted a lot of our time, money and lives to it. So it’s definitely been all over the board in terms of what it’s taken from us and given back. Talk Normal is a living, breathing thing that talks and has needs and demands, and we’ve tried to give of ourselves as much as possible to that. I think we’re in a healthier place right now than in the past. It was pretty challenging getting our first record together financially, mentally, in a lot of different ways. But that’s standard.
You’ve been working on Sunshine for three years. What took you so long?
This was an important album for us—Andrya and I have been working together and individually toward being more open, being more free and also having more fun. We put some of these songs together very slowly and tried to make the sound as close as possible as to what was in our heads. There was at least one month where I stepped away and didn’t listen to any of these songs all month. But we’ve been done with this album since the beginning of the year, so it’s thrilling that it’s finally gonna be out, 10 months after we finished!
Are you happy with the results?
I think we grew a lot making this record. Andrya just has such a tremendous amount of personality in her voice, and it’s been shining more and more, and that’s just a wonderful thing to experience. It was a long process…figuring out where we were and what our dynamic was between us. Figuring out what could be great about us and what already was and how that could be even more, how we could be better to each other while traveling. We’re definitely trying to focus on what’s gonna be next. We’ve got a couple new songs that are coming out pretty great, actually. It’s a good testament to some of the hard times growing and moving forward during this last record.
Where does the title Sunshine come from?
You know I’ve read a lot of things that talk about “their tongue-in-cheek album title, Sunshine,” which is fine, but it actually is an album about joy. The word comes up in four of the nine songs. It’s just got a good feel to it. Oh yeah also, that movie Rockers? That’s a favorite of Andrya’s and mine, and there’s a character named Sunshine in it. It’s a movie that gets quoted a lot in and around me [laughs]. So of the many things that Sunshine was, it was also part of Rockers.
Did you work to be more honest and open lyrically on this album, too?
There’s a couple of cases that were direct reactions to things I experienced. One of them I keep pretty close to my heart…but another one, which would totally not even be translatable when you look at the lyrics, is “Baby Your Heart’s Too Big.” A big part of that song is about sickness and the potential death of someone who was very important to me, but lyrically it sounds like something you’d say to your girlfriend.
How do you and Andrya split up songwriting?
Usually I’ll write down a bunch of words and hand them over to Andrya, whether or not she knows what the song’s actually about. She takes that and puts it in a different place—adds some new thoughts, takes out some rhymes and throws it back to me, where I’ll be like, “Oh! Fascinating! Look what you did with this!” [laughs]. Andrya often writes about perspective and new things and experiences. I’m more buried in the past. A lot of different things come out of that. We’re always either writing together or it’s all Andrya, which is great, because otherwise it might just be me waxing poetic about my teenage years. Which would not be great.
Do you write poetry?
I suppose that I do, yeah.
Does it rhyme?
Most of the time [laughs]. But, it’s completely unfair because there’s other times when I’m not on my stupid rhyming kick…like, for a while I was taking improv comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and in class there’s more than one game that has to do with rhyming off the top of your head and sort of spitting words out, and all of those cases I completely failed! Apparently I’m not cut out for public improvised rhyming.
You’ve been performing for a while, though. Do you feel comfortable with yourself on and off stage?
I definitely don’t feel like a fully realized performer yet. I’m very aware of everything when we’re performing, and you compare that to when you see other people on stage and they’re all rolling their eyes back in their heads and they’re just in wherever, whatever other world. But as a listener, when I listen to some of the things that Andrya and I have done, I’m really proud. I feel humbled that there are moments in songs that kind of give me that magical feeling that means something to me completely separate from creating it. That’s cool. We’re definitely not done yet.
Talk Normal plays at the Knitting Factory on Friday, October 19, as part of CMJ 2012.