Something about the empty parts draws Nicole Miglis in. There's something in the deserts, the plains, the strips of road where no one lives. You don't often think about it, but the States are filled with miles and miles of nothing. The places that typically bubble up in the popular imagining of America—New York, Los Angeles, even the Grand Canyon—bustle with activity, but a lot of the country is simply vacant. That's the part she likes most on tour. The empty part.
Later this month, she'll get to play one of the emptier spots in the country with her band, Hundred Waters. Arcosanti, an experimental town located in the Arizona desert about 70 miles north of Phoenix, was developed by architect Paolo Soleri in 1970 as an ongoing exercise in sustainable community living. Fewer than 150 people, mostly volunteers, reside there at any given time. On May 23, Arcosanti will serve as the setting for a three-day music festival celebrating the release of Hundred Waters' new album, The Moon Rang Like A Bell.
Hundred Waters' Zach Tetreault explores Arcosanti
The record, their second, sheds the pastoral husks that compelled critics to describe Hundred Waters as folk music the first time around. It's much dreamier, more electronic, and relies more on Miglis’ voice. “With the first record, I was learning for the first time how to sing confidently,” she tells me over the phone. “With this record, I felt a little bit more confident in my vocal abilities. I felt like I knew more about who I was.”
She speaks shyly from Los Angeles, where she shares an apartment with her three bandmates. It's the first place that's felt like home in a while. Since Hundred Waters' self-titled debut was released by OWSLA, Skrillex's label, in 2012, Miglis has spent much of her time living on the road. The band has gone on huge tours with The xx and Alt-J. They have seen a lot of the world.
“It was a challenging time to live on the road for so long,” Miglis says. Honing in on a new recording project after spending so many months in motion proved even more difficult. “I'm still trying to be truthful to how I feel. I feel like it's easy to start building walls when you're performing all the time. You still have to try and be as open as you can. That's the hardest thing for me in writing again.”
While traveling, Miglis reads to stay grounded. She loves poetry, Rumi in particular, but her favorite book of all time is D.H. Lawrence's Sons & Lovers. She also keeps a journal and draws. The cover of the new album began as a black and white drawing by her bandmate Trayer Tryon that she finished by painting between the lines. When I ask if her musical collaboration with the band works the same way, she says she likes thinking of it that way: “Everybody's involved in it and has an opinion. It is similar.”
Miglis's voice haunts Moon to the bone, her lyrics cutting sharper corners than ever before. Early single “Down from the Rafters” navigates a complex psychic area as it pushes toward Hundred Waters’ take on a hook. “Every morning's like a climb from the rafters / Take a little pill, drown it out in laughter / Take a little pill, maybe think about it after,” she sings. It's one of those acid lullabies that sounds cheery enough until you zoom in.
If Hundred Waters struggled to return to earth after tour, the album's clarity proves they grew from the challenge. Moon is crystalline, patient, with plenty of breathing space inside. “We gave everything that we possibly could on the album. It's very much the limits of what we were capable of at that time,” Miglis says. “I'm proud of that. That was a very difficult thing to do.”
They'll play songs from the record to about two hundred people who have been invited to stay at Arcosanti for the fest, whose lineup also features How to Dress Well, Majical Cloudz, and Julie Byrne. No one has to pay an entry fee. Those who wished to attend filled out a short questionnaire, and if they were over 21, enjoyed camping, and got their form in early enough, they were asked to come. Guests will sleep outside; the food, drinks, and music will be free. Miglis likens the event to a house show on a much larger scale. “It's a very open, free kind of show,” she says. “Nobody has to take out their wallet or really have many responsibilities for three days. I've never been to anything like it.” Hundred Waters hope to continue organizing similar events in unusual spaces for a series they're calling “Form”. They've joked about doing one in Alaska, but if Miglis could play anywhere in the world, she'd pick Red Rocks.
I get the sense that Miglis reads landscapes the same way she scans prose. For her, the draw of the desert is not so much its stillness as its strangeness. She is someone who's always learning, always hungry to learn, whether it's through poems or alien spaces on earth. “The more you travel, the more you see parts of your country that you don't know until you experience them because they're not taught to you,” she says. “You broaden your lens and your perspective of the world. Until you travel or open yourself up, you just have what you've been taught, and that's so limited and small.”
That seems to be the goal of Form, to help people open themselves up to alternative ways of participating in music. Now that even formerly indie festivals like SXSW proceed in the grip of a corporate chokehold, Hundred Waters might have picked the perfect time to spearhead a new model. They're a good band to do it, an experimental indie outfit from Florida who caught Skrillex's eye and ended up touring with the hottest new things out of Britain before going back and making an album that sounds nothing like their first. This isn't a band that paints by numbers. They've always strained past the templates laid out for them. Now, they may well be drawing their own.