Robert Conroy has the voice of an angel - an angel who’s lived a season in hell.
Conroy is one half of the exquisite pop duo, Misty Roses, whose beautiful and ethereal voice is married to the dramatic and mesmeric music of Jonny Perl. From when they first met, they understood each other. Call it synchronicity. Call it good taste.
Together they are Misty Roses - the most startlingly original and brilliant group of the past 5 years.
In an exclusive interview with Dangerous Minds, Misty Roses, Conroy and Perl, explain the who’s, what’s, why’s and wherefores of their music.
Robert: ‘I met Jonny in late 2002, when he was still living in Brooklyn. We had a mutual friend and, in passing, I mentioned to that mutual friend that I was obsessed with Scott Walker and Julie London. To which he said “There is only ONE other person ON EARTH who is obsessed with Scott Walker AND Julie London! That’s this English guy I know, Jonny Perl!” And I found out he was a musician, and I was intrigued - so I got Jonny’s number and I called him. We met soon afterwards, and we just realized very quickly that we were on very similar frequencies. I mean, after our first rehearsal - which was three hours long, maybe - I think we came away with working demos of three or four songs that ended up on our first LP. We understood each other - musically - from the get-go.’
Born and raised in NYC, Robert had performed with a range of bands “post-punk, goth, electronic” over the years, and says he “was lucky enough to have a front row seat for a lot what happened musically over last decade or two.” The range of experience only confirmed his talents and focused his ambitions.
Robert: First and foremost, I am a singer - I’ve trained with some serious vocal coaches, in my day. And I like a lot of different kinds of music. So if I dig the people and I dig how they write songs and they dig how I write songs, then I’m game.’
British born Jonny has always been musically gifted, as a child he learned to play the cello, piano, and saxophone. Before Misty Roses he had played in a variety of combos, and was playing with a surf band in NYC when the conversation about Julie London brought him to Robert.
Jonny: ‘The synergies between our musical interests seemed so strong that we both figured it was worth giving it a shot.’
Together, they create music that is the perfect fusion of cabaret and cinema, of torch song and widescreen. You are listening to the score for a dream by Kenneth Anger or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk or David Lynch.
Robert: ‘We have been described as Lynchian - which we take as a great compliment. (And we did cover a David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti song on our disc Komodo Dragons - so it sort of fits, don’t it?) But we both love the way Mr. Lynch takes something seemingly innocuous and pretty - such as a song like “Sixteen Reasons” or “Blue Velvet” - and discovers all these inherently disturbing elements beneath its surface. I hope we create a similar kind of frisson with our best songs.
‘Musically, we are deeply influenced by non-rock popular music from the later half of the Twentieth Century. Soundtrack composers like Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith, exotica, bossa nova and tropicalia records, dub and a lot recordings of jazz and vocal standards - Ellington, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Nina Simone and such like.
‘Likewise, the work of people we like to call “middle-of-the-road mavericks”- artists who were able to create music that was both very accessible and deeply idiosyncratic and more than a little odd. People like Scott Walker, Serge Gainsbourg, Bacharach and David, Dionne Warwick, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Webb, Bobbie Gentry, etc. And these influences get filtered further through the “rock” music we like, which is primarily the “artier” end of the spectrum. Stuff like the Velvet Underground and its alumni, Bowie, Roxy Music, Sparks, Joy Division, The Banshees, The Associates, Soft Cell, The Smiths, The Pet Shop Boys, Suede, Broadcast, Goldfrapp, etc.
‘Jonny described our sound as “glamorous easy listening music” initially. I loved that. Jonny and I are really attracted to glamorous sounds. We love orchestrations - strings sections, and french horns and flutes. We dig those gleaming, cold textures of synthesizers from the 1970’s.
All the things that you’re supposed to reject if you’re into music that is “true” and “real”. We dig artifice.’
Jonny: ‘Yes - we had pretty much all these things in common as interests from the start. I will never shake off the Smiths/Postcard/C86 influences I had when I started to play guitar, but there has always been cross-fertilization - from playing in orchestras and ensembles to collecting old easy listening, Latin and Brazilian records.’
Robert: ‘And our music tends to drift into the shadows, as it were. Traditionally - until the last century, really - “glamour” was an occult term. Its a synonym for “spell”. One casts a glamour. And that connection to magic also suggests a sense of mystery - I think. Nothing can be truly glamorous without an element of darkness or strangeness. All my favorite music has some eerie, even creepy, aspect. And I find a lot of classic horror and science fictions films - like Forbidden Planet or Suspiria or The Bride of Frankenstein - wildly glamorous. Star Trek and Space: 1999 likewise.’
Their first performance as Misty Roses took place in an old East Village Buddhist tea house. Jonny played guitar and backing tracks, while Robert “channeled Dusty Springfield”. For both, it was a moment of magic, and the promise of greater things seemed almost within reach. Almost.
Robert: ‘Well - true to form - I meet this amazing musician in Brooklyn who I’m really in sync with, and he and his partner, Esther, have just made arrangements to move back to the UK. So, we had something like three months to write and record a record.’
This was how Misty Roses’ first album Komodo Dragons came about. A brilliant first release, that revealed the confidence born of sheer bloody talent.
Robert: ‘I’m really proud on that LP. I still find it really immediate and vital, which I think was a function of the writing. Because if a song didn’t gel very quickly, it was abandoned very quickly. We just didn’t have the time to dick around. So only the strong survived, in terms of the music.
‘Also, when I had first met Jonny I was in midst a very messy musical break-up. I had been part of this other project, and it was in the midst of collapsing. And there was much bitchery and drama and much tears and - in my case, sadly - gin spilt this way and that. So, I think - on my end - I had all this anger which I found I was channeling into creative energy. I remember obsessively listening to Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie and The Banshees and Coming Up by Suede during that time, because they are two perfect examples of creativity powered by spite, I think. So there was a real quality “I’ll show, you, you bastards!” to every vocal I sang and lyric I wrote.’
They were also blessed by working with Julia Brightly, who helped create Misty Roses’ distinct and layered sound.
Robert: ‘Julia is a full-on genius. She’s an amazing producer and she does everything - the recording and the mix. She has spoilt me to ruin on several fronts. She is the only person I ever want to record my vocals. And her ability in re: the mix is astonishing! She brings out all this drama and all these brilliant textures in our work - aspects to the music we barely realized were there initially. I find the mix on so many others peoples’ records so lifeless when compared to what Julia’s does with ours.’
On the back of Komodo Dragons, Misty Roses toured the UK and Ireland as support to Patrick Wolf. (“We hate Patrick! He’s way too talented, way too kind, way too handsome and way too tall!”)
It was a “brilliant experience” and inspired Robert and Jonny to write more songs for their second album Monster Zero, a trend which continued after Robert returned to New York.
Robert: ‘The process is really organic, and slightly abstract likewise. Usually we begin with a backing track that Jonny emails to me. I listen to that obsessively for a week or so and then improvise a melody against it and demo that. There are rarely any lyrics at this point, just a lot of vowels and gibberish. Then badminton match starts. There are volleys of emails with attached files. Jonny might suggest changes to the melody. I start kibitzing in re: the structure of the track, etc. Once the melody has firmed up I start looking for words. Sometimes I find a title or a phrase - maybe a line of dialogue from a film - crops up and then the song begins to sort itself out.
‘Really, more often than not, the song starts writing itself. That’s where the cultural references come into play. A lot of our songs end up being these homages to these artists/actors/etc. - Delphine Seyrig, Gloria Grahame, Mario Bava, Dario Argento - who are the gods and monsters of my own private cosmology. Then when all of these elements have sorted themselves out, and we have a “finished” demo, then we turn things over to Julia. The “proper” vocals are recorded and Julia address the mix. Then she will start sending us emails with a messages like: “Stylophone, boys. This song needs a Stylophone solo.” and add one.
Jonny: While there’s sometimes a particular idea behind a track, I prefer to let things emerge completely organically, with one sound suggesting another and growing from there. I grew up playing lots of instruments and did a lot of orchestral playing (cello) and big band stuff (tenor sax) alongside piano and guitar. I think the extra ensemble playing I did has cast a big shadow on our sound. Don’t get me wrong, I love simple, clean, fresh sounds as well, but I also really savor richness - the kind of sound you often hear in A&M records from the 60s and 70s (I am a huge Carpenters/Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 fan) and in bossa nova has been a huge influence - so I think that makes its presence felt on a lot of our tracks.‘
Robert: I went back to America, and that’s when I really began to notice how the process of Internet badminton, that our songwriting became, really began to impact the music. There was this mutation creeping into the songs. They began to go their own way - often not the way Jonny or I had expected. And I think you really see that process gather force and make its presence felt on Villainess.’
”Starry Wisdom” from ‘Villainess’ by Misty Roses
Quite simply, Villainess is a masterpiece, one of the best records of the past five years, that draws together the essential talents of two exceptionally gifted men.
Jonny: ‘The road to this album was completely different from our other records. Immediately after we made Komodo Dragons, I left NYC and moved to London where I blocked out some time to focus on writing. The combination of moving continent and being airlifted into a completely different environment definitely had a strong effect, and musically things seemed to move quite quickly away from the lush, orchestral feel of our previous work.
‘To add to this, we suddenly had to learn the processes of working remotely and writing songs via emailing back and forth. This didn’t come easily and is definitely a process we had to grow into.
‘As a result, the tracks that eventually made up Villainess were actually recorded over several years - with intermissions during which we went on tour in the US and UK, and with the Monster Zero release sandwiched in between. Overall there is a much greater use of manipulated sound waves - e.g. processed guitar loops- than on earlier records. Several tracks share a kind of dreamy sound that is both beautiful and slightly menacing/claustrophobic. To dissipate this slightly we later re-recorded “Perfect Sunset” in a guitar-heavy ‘spaghetti western’ style.’
“Perfect Sunset” - Misty Roses
The long road to completing the album ended with a final mixing session in Brooklyn in 2007. Selected tracks (“Nicht Plus Ultra”) were released on Good and Evil the following year, before Villainess was released on Frog Man Jake in 2009.
Robert: ‘In retrospect I’m sort of intrigued by how autonomous - for lack of a better word - the songs on this LP became as we amassed them. They very much had their own agendas. The “menacing” aspect of some of them, that wasn’t something we were actively trying to add, I think. The weird bits, the darkness just began to crop up. And there was definitely a sort energy at work - a really strange and feminine energy, I think. Once we finished the song “Villainess”, I knew it had to be the title track! And that’s why we have all these women singing on the record - Little Annie, Isabelle Antenna, Kim Field, Rebecca Chamberlain. There had to be female voices on this LP! The songs demanded them!’’
“Villainess” - Misty Roses
After Villainess, Misty Roses found themselves more drawn towards releasing material as singles, like revolutionary pamphleteers. As a format, it offers the opportunity to produce more diverse and immediate work, which is more in touch with the times.
Jonny: ‘The two songs had been percolating for a little while. “Puce Woman” was actually written at the same time as “Dreaming of Delphine” from Villainess, but my initial feeling was that it was a bit, too unhinged. Robert’s vocal really added a chilling coherence to the whole thing and it has become a pretty compelling track.
‘“Queen Cobra” was a collaboration with Mark Heffernan, the extremely talented guitarist from the band Remodel. Mark is one of those guitarists who make an interesting sound when he tunes his guitar and the track was constructed from an afternoon’s session. This is another track where Julia’s production makes a huge difference - each time I hear the track I can’t quite get over how massive it sounds.’
Robert: ‘In terms of the lyrics - I had been a fan of both Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith for years. You could not move in the circles I moved in NYC and not get exposed their work. I had scored the DVDs of Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle a couple of years back and found myself watching Anger’s movies over and over and over again. Then I saw Mary Jordan’s documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis - and that film was a revelation. It really placed Smith’s life, work and influence in this greater context.
‘So, both guys were sort of running around in my head when we started writing this latest batch of songs. I see both as alchemists. They took detritus and fashioned their own worlds of beauty. They helped define what it meant to be an out gay artist. And Smith and Anger were/are very American artists. They make me very proud to be American!’
Jonny Mugwump has just released “Puce Woman” (for Kenneth Anger) and “Queen Cobra” (for Jack Smith) on the Exotic Pylon Records label.
‘We are really honored and excited that our new single will be the first release on Exotic Pylon Records! We met Jonny Mugwump nearly three years ago. We were scheduled to do a live session on Johnny Brown’s Radio Joy program on Resonance FM, and at the last minute he had a conflict so Mr. Mugwump jumped in to cover for him and host the show. As soon as I heard Jonny’s name I thought “I think I’m going to get on with this guy.” Again very similar frequencies! (Many, many mutual obsessions - Burroughs, Ballard, Lovecraft, Cronenberg, Bava, Coil, Broadcast, Dub records - the list is rather lengthy.)
‘We kept in touch from there, and when he offered us the chance to work with him we jumped at it! He is a brilliant guy, who really cares about fostering creativity. His radio program, the Exotic Pylon parties, his Weird Tales for Winter series (to which we contributed) and now the label are all about trying to get people to come together and use their imaginations. He is trying to foster a greater, imaginative environment - rather than some space for hype and consumption. He also recently christened us “Wichita Linemen from the Black Lagoon” - which is very probably the best description for our sound that anyone has come up with to date.’
Misty Roses’ albums Villainess available here.
Komodo Dragons available here.
Monster Zero available here.