“I have a lot of names for a lot of schemes,” Justine Bowe says. “Party concepts, companies.” She confirms this by pulling up a list of names on her phone, revealing the origins of hex gf (pronounced hex-girlfriend), the musical project she shares with multi-instrumentalist producer Sam Vanderhoop Lee. Lee, also present for the interview, acknowledges the list. “They’re million-dollar ideas, mostly,” he says, as Bowe mentions a Halloween costume idea: Leonardo Decapitated. “hex gf was one of those ideas,” she says. But it seemed appropriate for this project. “Well, I am Sam’s hex-girlfriend,” she adds casually.
It’s hard to ignore their chemistry. Once bandmates 13 years ago in the major label indie-pop group Magic Man, the pair began dating during their tenure in the band, then broke up as Magic Man disassembled in 2015 and finally found their way as best friends and collaborators years after, first with Bowe’s solo project Photocomfort and now as hex gf. Through their shared history as musical companions, “Haters” — the duo’s debut album (out June 9) — finds Bowe and Lee as both seasoned and cynical allies of the resistance, two cohorts making music for each other while relishing in the outer edges of the industry.
“We have that past and that is the foundation that the band is built on,” Bowe says. “We’ve got a vocabulary, musical or otherwise, that really allows us to use a shorthand to make everything happen.”
“I wanna believe it without wondering why,” she sings on the album’s synthy title track, her breathy vocals investigating the complex juncture of art and occupation.
“[‘Haters’] was one of the more immediate songs we wrote together,” Lee says. “[The lyrics] speak to this idea that you’re in your thirties, go to your day job, play music, go back to your day job, leave early and go to sound check… You’re always like, ‘Am I chasing that dream, or is that dream gone?’”
“Was the dream ever a good dream in the first place?” Bowe adds.
Such a question is central to the album. Bowe — who lives in Somerville and works in communications at a university — and Lee — who works at a strategy and design studio in Brooklyn — have transitioned from the musical whirlwind of their 20s to a grounded 30s. While it comes with an air of ennui, it also provides a fresh start, a feeling of freedom to act and create without convention. The reaching indie pop songs on “Haters,” though sometimes longing and lonely, feel like two people purified by the love of making music for each other.
“You be the knife/ Cut through the noise of my mind/ And we’ll be alright,” Bowe sings on “Knife,” a driving, heartland tune pulling from the hazy indie rock of both The War on Drugs and Angel Olsen. It’s brimming with that sort of youthful dreaminess experienced on a wistful late night drive. “I made the track for Justine to sing on,” Lee recalls, adding that “Knife” was the song to rekindle their creative partnership just as the pandemic began. The immediacy in which they finished the song set a tone for the rest of the album; which Bowe says was “really focused on the fun parts” of making music. The homespun, DIY videos for “Party” and “Domino” showcase a band unworried by outside influence.
The shades of longing and isolation found throughout “Haters” succumb to a more powerful tone of vulnerability. On the pensive album opener “Tender Heart,” Bowe unpacks the soft touch of her love over a stripped arrangement of padded synths and a chirping guitar line. “Honey is slow but it is sweet,” she sings, before leaping to a breathy falsetto in the song’s sweeping chorus: “I’m tender hearted/ I’ve come this far and I won’t go back.” Her heart feels completely exposed, the unadorned arrangement making way for every nuance of emotion to glint like the shimmering tiles of a disco ball.
Such melodic simplicity was integral to their process. “One of the guiding principles was that if a song doesn’t work with just vocals and a single instrument, it’s not worth doing,” Bowe says. “For the production, we’d make one arrangement and if it worked, that was the song,” adds Lee. “And if it didn’t, we’d leave it.”
“Rumors,” the album’s languorous closer, punctuates this emotional bareness. “The rumors are all true/ I live, I live for you,” Bowe drawls as a sparse electric guitar cycles through a few lonely chords. There’s a sort of howling quality to her voice that floats over the guitar strums like an autumn fog. It brings to mind the hollering quality of Sharon Van Etten, her voice suited to howl through the valleys of the backcountry.
But ultimately, “Haters” is an album about growing pains. “It’s been a weird ride overall, but especially coming into our 30s and having this experience that there are so many paths we could’ve gone down and now we’re on the paths that we’re on — there’s a lot of angst that’s come from that for me,” Bowe says.
And yet, the album barely feels angsty at all. It’s more cathartic than anything, the byproduct of two songwriters with a shared language, unbound and on the outside, making music for each other.