by Nick Hanover
Header photo by Adrian Gandara
Little Thief is one of Austin’s most emotionally raw and contemplative new artists, creating disarming bedroom pop featuring her ethereal voice over simple percussion, unexpected bursts of electric guitar and cello. Though Little Thief only has one album out at the moment, we’re big fans of her work, so we spoke with her over email about getting recruited into other bands via OKCupid, writing response songs to Kevin Barnes, her show Sunday, May 14th at Beerland with Aye Nako and MeanGirls and more!
Nick Hanover for Ovrld: Like most Austin musicians, you’re involved in a few different projects, including Dead Sally. But I’m curious about how your solo project Little Thief came about, especially since it’s aesthetically very different from Dead Sally, the first band I heard you in. Where did these songs come from?
Little Thief: I’ve been writing songs probably at least since high school, but I’ve always been too terrified to actually try to make anything of them, even though it’s always been one of my dreams. I was always one of those annoying people who used to say, “Yeah I write songs, but I’m not a singer, so I don’t know that anyone will ever hear them” (which I still consider to sort of be true, but I digress). I have several old recordings from high school and college that basically no one has ever seen, but guess it just sort of became the right time in my life to give it a shot a few months ago, so I did!
Dead Sally was sort of a total accident and stylistically way out of my wheelhouse. I actually originally joined like a week after I moved to Texas from Brooklyn when Sam [Sterling], the lead singer, sent me an OKCupid message saying he needed a bassist for his band. I was going through this phase where I was just saying yes to everything, and thought “Wow, this is probably going to be a poor first date,” as all the ones where the guy is saying he wants to jam tend to be, but lo and behold, it was actually a band practice, and the rest is history.
Ovrld: The title of your debut, It Didn’t End Tomorrow Came, immediately grabbed me when I first encountered it in December. It so perfectly summed up how I felt at the end of 2016, and though there’s a somberness to it, I also interpret it as being somewhat hopeful in its reminder that as bleak as things can be tomorrow is still there. What does the title mean to you personally?
LT: Wow these are really good questions! Well, I had finished the album towards the end of last year and spent like two weeks trying to think of a good name to capture the feeling, but I just couldn’t get it to come. I had come across a few beautiful Japanese ideas while poking around on the internet, but they ultimately didn’t work out. “Kintsugi,” or the art of remaking broken pottery with gold paste, was unfortunately already taken by Death Cab for Cutie, for example, and I thought “mono no aware,” which is this gorgeous idea that translates to “the pathos of things” and is the feeling of gentle, wistful sadness you encounter when you think about the impermanence of the physical world, was probably too hard to pronounce. Actually there’s a Virgil phrase, “lacrimae rerum,” that I also thought was really pretty, but I thought that was too pretentious/hard to pronounce as well.
I guess it was just one of those things… I was trying to come up with a phrase that could be read multiple ways, like you said, just to be a little cute and clever, and one of the biggest themes in my writing is always the weight and painfulness of time, so it just sort of made sense. I like that it sort of sounds optimistic initially, I think the more obvious reading is definitely “we made it through,” but then when you take it in context of the album art and the songs it’s really kind of this weighty and horrible (and also admittedly bittersweet) admission that you can never really escape from your life. I guess it was pretty topical, too, what with the end of the world starting and all. The world has kept turning thus far, for better or for worse.
Ovrld: Though the name Little Thief and the art you use for the project all seem to nod towards twee and stuff like K and Postcard Records, there’s a morbidity to your lyrics and an ornate quality to your sound that seems to align you with goth and emo artists. What qualities do you most hope listeners identify with in your music? What qualities do you most appreciate in other artists?
LT: Well, one of the most fascinating things about doing my own songs for the first time has been seeing how people categorize my work. A lot of people have mentioned emo or goth influences, like you said, but I personally don’t see that at all, at least not once you get past the lyrical tone being superficially dark and angsty. I don’t think there’s enough camp, or any of that wry self-awareness that’s present in emo, but it’s also not really doomy the way good goth music tends to be, if that makes sense? There are also distinct aesthetics in both those genres that I don’t hear in my own stuff, for whatever that’s worth.
I have always really identified with artists who I feel like are just completely wearing their heart on their sleeve, you know? Like, I used to always think it was amazing how Trent Reznor of NIN could write these songs that sounded laughably fatalistic and over-the-top out of context, like the worst, most cringe-worthy part of his teenage diary, but you just knew he really meant them and they were so gut-wrenching because of it (I guess that doesn’t help my case with the goth thing, huh?). I feel like that’s something that really transcends genre. That emotional honesty.
Some of my biggest influences are more like sadcore bands, like The Antlers, Elliott Smith, stuff like that… and of course there’s a little bit of Thom Yorke in everything I write because I can’t help myself. All I want is for people to be able to feel some of the things I’m feeling, regardless of what the framework that surrounds it is, and I just gravitate towards what flavor of melancholic feels most appropriate to me at the moment.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, “Little Thief” is what “ferret” means in Latin, and I have had pet ferrets for years and am obsessed with them and am a huge Latin nerd, so. That’s all I’ve got.
Ovrld: A number of the songs on your album seem to come from a deeply personal place with a lot of history, but the one that continues to affect me the most is “For Kevin” and its exceptionally powerful exploration of grief. What’s the story behind it, if you don’t mind me asking?
LT: The practical story is a pretty funny and pedestrian one, actually. I was driving to the grocery story during the summer and I was listening to Of Montreal’s “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse,” where the singer, Kevin Barnes, is admonishing the chemicals in brain to “shift back to good again.” And I mean, we all deal with depression and our emotions come from a chemical place, but for some reason I just had a strong reaction, this feeling of defensiveness, and actually said out loud to my car, “We can’t all blame our problems on our chemicals, Kevin.” So, the song is dedicated to him. For Kevin Barnes. Who I’m sure was not trying to get out of any responsibility, but there it is.
As for the less practical stuff, well, I have just dealt with a lot of trauma in my life. Probably no more so than most people, and probably also quite poorly, and in such a way that it’s honestly kind of a cornerstone of my self-conception. Which is admittedly not so good, but it’s something that I’m working on. I guess the short version is that this song, and most of the album, is an examination and contextualization of all the mistakes I’ve made, and is dedicated to a very formative lost love in an attempt to name and grapple with the feelings, direct and completely tangential, that surround her not being a part of my life anymore.
How’s that for a non-answer?
Ovrld: Memory plays an almost antagonistic role throughout your debut. Why is that?
LT: Because art imitates life, and memory is one of the most uniquely tortuous and beautiful parts of being human, and I am a chronic navel-gazer.
But in all seriousness, a lot of my experiences, like coming out as trans (and getting through the life that led up to it), surviving toxic relationships and violence, unlearning my own abusive and obsessive behaviors, understanding the deaths of people close to me, coping with my own illnesses and proclivities and failures, yadda yadda yadda, have always felt sort of like endurance tests, ultimately. There’s a poetry and a weightiness to the language we use for our struggles, and when I was young I suppose I always believed that things would always feel capital-i Important, but I think one of the dirtiest secrets about life is that you just have to get through it. It just sucks a lot of the time, and not in a romantic or interesting way.
What I really am conscious of, usually, are not the big stand-out moments, not the big scars, but the interminable depressive spells in between where I can’t get out of bed or open the front door for weeks at a time and everything just sort of slides into a grey blur. Death by a thousand emotional cuts. There’s a really particular and strange sort of panic that comes along with that, and I find it to be a fascinating feeling, in a morbid way.
I hope that doesn’t mean anything to you, but I suspect it means at least something to most people, so I wanted to try to get those feelings out, as catharsis or whatever.
Can you tell I’m a lot of fun at parties?
Ovrld: One of the things that makes your debut stand out to me is your willingness to shift sounds and styles from track to track, while still remaining faithful to the core tenets of your sound, particularly the airy qualities of your voice and the strings that often back you up. Will that continue with your upcoming work or is there a certain style you’d like to explore in more depth? For instance, will the electronic elements of your debut be expanded on future releases or would you like to collaborate more with other musicians?
LT: You’re very kind to say so!
I think my overarching intention, at this point, anyway, is still basically just “get the feelings out.” I didn’t really have a vision as I was recording except that I would know it when I heard it, and I just kind of went on instinct. I think there’s a lot of mileage left in that approach.
I’m most certainly open to collaborating with others; I didn’t really mean to record all of this alone in my bedroom, it’s just that I was so shy and it was all so raw that it didn’t make sense any other way. I’m actively trying to get some people together to play live shows with me so that I’ll be less boring, and hopefully the opportunity to get some other minds involved will help me go in directions I couldn’t really envision. Plus, working with someone who actually understands rhythms instead of stumbling my way through sequencing beats would be really liberating and save me tons of time.
All that being said, I was basically teaching myself ProTools from the ground up as I recorded, and so all the electronic stuff was totally foreign to me. Now that I understand it a little better, I definitely think that’s a direction I’m really interested in moving. And also, I would love to feature my cello more prominently — the only reason I really didn’t is I have no idea how to actually record it! Especially not with my single condenser mic going into my little MBox Mini that only has one XLR input…
Ovrld: You seem to be part of a devoted and well-connected community of artists who all collaborate with one another and throw house shows. Do you feel that’s a distinctly Austin way of working? Do you prefer working on your own or with others?
LT: I’ve accidentally stumbled into a little universe that I have no business being in, if I’m being honest. It’s pretty great, they’re all really fabulous people and musicians and I’ve gained so much experience just from being around it, but I am stylistically worlds apart from what everyone else is doing. I mean, Dead Sally was my connection into this world of house shows, and the bands we play with are mostly folk punk with some other punk and some garage rock stuff thrown in… I am decidedly in no way a punk, and I personally feel like I always stick out like a sore thumb, Doc Martens and fishnets notwithstanding, but there you go. It is a really fascinating little microcosm though, and I don’t think it’s exclusively Austin at all; particularly for folk punk, there’s actually a thriving national and even international network of all these people who crash at each other’s houses and put on DIY shows and are incredibly supportive of one another.
I really don’t work with others that often, although I would like to. I think that’s one of my biggest challenges in general, is getting out of my shell and interacting with folks. I’m usually content to work alone in my bedroom if left unchecked, but obviously it’s pretty hard to get shows and connections that way. Basically what I’m saying is, if you’re reading this, get me some shows and listen to my music because I am helpless and don’t know how any of this stuff works! SOS!
Ovrld: What are some challenges you feel are especially prominent Austin? What are some things you’d like to see change in the Austin music scene in the near future?
LT: I have only been in town for just two years now, so I feel like it’s incredibly presumptuous of me to comment on anything that’s going on here in this complex cultural moment, but with that being said, I do think Austin has some really unique challenges. I was definitely attracted to the volume of talent here, but I sort of feel like there’s so much volume, and that the communities are so disparate and sometimes commercial, that it’s very hard to break into, perhaps more so than in other places. Saturation can be a real problem, because when you’re competing with a huge pool of people for a very limited amount of attention and stage space, only so many folks are going to make it through, you know? There is also the chance that I again just don’t know where to go or who to talk to, but I feel like the scene is mostly really established acts and then some really tightly-knit cliques, and I guess it would be cool if the entry was a little bit more egalitarian. Or at least, a little more accessible to socially phobic people like me (man, I hope some of this sarcasm comes through, text can be real tricky).
One thing I would be remiss not to mention, though, is that there is a pretty strong niche carved out for everyone who is not a cis white man, which is pretty rare and important. There are tons of women in the scene, and I see a lot of queer folks, and that’s all really fabulous. We still have a long way to go, but things are better here than in Brooklyn, at least, in that regard. Actually, on second thought, things do predominantly tend to be pretty white, which really needs to change as Austin has lots of problems when it comes to race anyway, so take all that with a grain of salt.
Ovrld: I saw you perform live during SXSW and we spoke afterwards about some of the difficulties with doing solo acoustic performances in Austin, particularly at DIY venues. What are some things you’ve learned about Austin audiences as a performer? What have you had to tweak to get through to crowds?
LT: Well, when I can help it, I don’t perform acoustically. I like to at least throw a ton of tape delay on my Tele and my vocals, if nothing else, because I feel something a little gimmicky and atmospheric can help you differentiate yourself from the crowd. As I was saying above, good musicians are a dime in dozen in Austin, so to even have people engage, to put down their phones or stop their conversations for a sec, I think you have to be really really honest with them. Which is what I endeavor to do, because that’s what engages me, anyway.
That being said, I am still pretty far from discovering the secret, so I’m always open to pointers from people in the know! It’s kind of gross and passe and maybe even curmudgeonly to say, too, but the fact that everyone always has like six shows to go to in a given night can really suck. Because it’s almost impossible to get people to be there for your act, and even if they are, they’re just putting together their Snap story and texting to coordinate the next show, which can be a little discouraging, when you look up and just see the tops of people’s heads. But, I just try to put something out into the room and be present, and if they want to be a part of it they can.
Ovrld: It’s awesome to see you on a bill with Aye Nako! What can we expect from this show? What are some common traits you think your projects share?
LT: I know I’m so lucky! I’ve never seen them live before, but am a big fan of their stuff. Raine [Mara] of MeanGirls asked me to be on the bill and I was floored; I have sorta the same “I don’t belong” concern that I typically do with shows, because both acts are pretty punk and I’m pretty not, but I think it should be a lot of fun. It’s sort of like an unofficial trans showcase, which is really awesome, since all three of us are fronted by trans/queer people, and I think there’s a certain level of self-loathing that we’ve all got going on which will hopefully be a compelling enough glue… I guess we’ll see! Beerland is also the perfect place for Aye Nako, I think; it’s sweaty and kinda grungy and loud and kind of always reminded me a little bit of their videos anyway.
Ovrld: What should we be on the lookout for from Little Thief this year? What are some goals you’ve set for yourself?
LT: Well, I’ve been busy writing and there should hopefully be a second release by around the fall some time! I have been way preoccupied with quantum immortality, for some reason, which if you haven’t read about it is the craziest and most terrifying thought experiment that basically says everyone will live forever but will eventually be completely alone and miserable in their own separate universes, so expect some weird songs about that. And perhaps it won’t just be me on that record, or in my upcoming shows, because as I’ve said I’m trying to get some folks together for a more comprehensive Little Thief experience. As a matter of fact, to break the fourth wall again, if you’re reading this and wanna be mopey on a stage with me, hit me up! I would love to get out in front of a wider audience and play more shows, so fingers crossed that that’s all coming too.
Catch Little Thief this Sunday, May 14th at Beerland with Aye Nako and MeanGirls!
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover