In almost every interview that she gives in her capacity as singer-songwriter-guitarist in the indie rock band Quilt, Anna Fox Rochinski answers some version of the same question. It has to do with Quilt’s sound, which, depending on who you are, may evoke wistfulness for your youth at the heady height of ‘60s hippie counterculture, or conjure a more obscure nostalgia, secondhand but no less powerful. Maybe you hear The Beatles in Keven Lareau’s bass lines, or Peter, Paul and Mary in Rochinski and Shane Butler’s tremulous vocal harmonies. Are Quilt trying to make us feel some kind of way, or are they merely unwitting vessels of decades of inherited pop culture memory — the way all of us, to some degree, are?
“I don't know, that's a really good question and it's a tough one to answer because we're not doing anything too much on purpose, with trying to recreate something. We're not — ” Rochinski sighs. “I mean, you can go on and on about the way that the 21st century and our generation and postmodernism has created its own version of what nostalgia even is. And it's pretty complicated when you try and sift through all these really strange conceptual layers to the whole thing.”
Quilt will release their third full-length album, “Plaza,” on Friday, Feb. 26 and perform at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that night. It’s a fitting spot for the band’s album release party, since Rochinski, Butler, and the band’s original drummer, Taylor McVay, met as students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Quilt’s current lineup is concentrated in Brooklyn and the Hudson River Valley, but the band’s formative years were spent in Boston, soaking up the DIY scene at underground rock venues like the Whitehaus in Jamaica Plain and the Butcher Shoppe in Allston. Back in those days, Quilt’s songs emerged from weird, experimental improv sessions; the band’s aesthetic, says Rochinski, is simply the nexus of its members’ combined musical sensibilities, the place where they all happen to overlap.
“We're just honestly trying to write good songs. And that might sound so contrived, but that's what I'm into doing,” says Rochinski — though she admits to having had some pretty retro influences growing up in nearby Brookline. “As a kid I was devoted to the oldies station. Oldies 103.3 Boston was just my whole life — up until fourth grade, when I heard Savage Garden.”
Quilt’s more recent material betrays an appreciation for songwriterliness as the band has moved away from its jammy roots. The songs on “Plaza,” like those of its 2014 predecessor “Held in Splendor,” are pop songs through and through — albeit pop songs marked by a certain languor, an ornate, mellow psychedelia.
The songs on “Plaza,” says Rochinski, “are a little sadder” than those on “Held in Splendor.” Rochinski and Butler write most of Quilt’s material, and on “Plaza,” Butler’s contributions are shaped by grief in the aftermath of his mother’s death. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only a death/ I changed my name, I was 17/ And why was it so hard to love you then,” he sings on the dreamy, sorrowful “Eliot St.”
For her own part, Rochinski seized “Plaza” as an opportunity to try out new ideas. Though she usually writes from personal experience, she conceived “O’Connor’s Barn” as a work of fiction. The song was inspired in part by “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the 2011 thriller in which Elizabeth Olson plays the survivor of a back-to-the-land cult in the Catskills that is ruled by a charismatic, sexually abusive patriarch.
Rochinski says she wrote “O’Connor’s Barn” bearing in mind “what I find to be a really troubling power dynamic — which happens almost all the time—which is that it's a man in charge of everybody and he takes advantage of everybody's sexuality and his power position to further his control. It's that really terrifying combination of being a charismatic narcissist, who is a psychopath, a little bit, but knows exactly how to manipulate people the right way. The song is this girl telling her friend to get the f--k out of there.”
Talking about “O’Connor’s Barn,” it becomes clear that Rochinski harbors a profound skepticism for many of the ideas associated with the musical tropes that Quilt employs so deftly.
“We're not looking back at decades past thinking that they were any better than things are now, or something like that,” she says. “I mean, I happen to be attracted to a lot of aesthetic things about certain decades. I'm sitting here in my house, I've got a wall clock on my wall that straight up actually looks like it's in the Brady Bunch's living room. We like the things we like. But we really aren't trying to have a one dimensional relationship with the past in that way at all.”
“O’Connor’s Barn,” too, is interested in the flip side of its own premise: What makes people susceptible to the thrall of a cult leader in the first place? How is it that we sometimes end up relinquishing our freedom in the very pursuit of it?
“You can boil it down to that very relatable level, too, of just wanting love and nourishment from someone,” says Rochinski. “And when someone is a control freak or is abusive or something, you rationalize it to yourself over and over, and you stay in the cycle because you can't get out.”
“Are you looking for an answer?/ Are you looking for a cure?/ Maybe you should want more.” So goes the chorus to “O’Connor’s Barn,” but it could easily function as Quilt’s motto, and a challenge to anyone who takes the band’s sonic signifiers at face value. There are no easy answers, and Quilt are not interested in providing them. They prefer the rabbit hole, the uncanny, the murky in-between — the places where even the most familiar things turn out to be strange.