Paper Dollhouse is the ambient/drone/gothy-torch-song-with-more-of-an-air-of-murder-balladry side-project of Astrud Steehouder. When she’s not on guitar and lead singer duties with London group the Rayographs, Steehouder lets loose (quite literally) with these gorgeous loop-based soundscapes.
I caught up with Astrud earlier this month to talk about her work as Paper Dollhouse and her upcoming debut album.
aqnb: Hi Astrud, when did you start recording as Paper Dollhouse?
PD: Well I’ve always recorded stuff in my bedroom. From an early age, whenever I went to a house with a piano I would shut myself in the room and play for hours. I was never interested in playing classical pieces or really learning songs, I just wanted to play chords and create the atmosphere that was in my own head. When I went to university, I spent a long time in my room recording little melodies and songs and instrumentals onto my keyboard. I have a huge Yamaha keyboard that makes me feel secure in its presence. It’s covered in stickers and dust and I’ve had it since I was 14.
I spent a long time working out how to get the sounds I liked from it. Retrospectively I think my aim was to produce some sort of sound that was a combination of the DIY, and the weirdly sublime. It was totally compulsive and I had no idea why I was doing it. Around then I was very into slightly depressing early 80s synth pop and soundtracks, and gnarly electronic stuff- actually I still am now but I’m sort of going back to that phase a bit. After that I concentrated on playing guitar and writing songs with a band. I started recording stuff myself again a few years ago but this time on a guitar onto a dusty 4 track.
These were more bizarre folk fairy tales with layered speech and first-take spoken word stuff. Around then I named it Paper Dollhouse and I started to view it as some sort of project. Paper Dollhouse seemed to fit- the name is taken from the 1988 horror film Paperhouse, my appreciation of a dark, childlike aesthetic. There’s something creepy about it. I accidentally recorded an album last year in my kitchen and have been able to play some gigs but the newer stuff I’m working on is more based on cut and paste vocals and textures, and the use of the keyboard synth sounds. It changes perpetually.
aqnb: Is there any collaboration involved or is it a strictly solo endeavour?
PD: Recently I’ve been collaborating with photographer, writer and member of the band Liberez, Nina Bosnic, which has been fun- she has a real appreciation of ideas, visuals and atmospherics- we recently went to Berlin for a couple of shows and we have been working on old style slide projections with prisms and haunted imagery. Essentially it’s a solo project because the nature of the music seems to change a fair bit. Some of it I can play live, some is more like a montage so I’ll have to come up with a way of portraying that live…or else it will just stay on record.
I’d like to make some videos soon. I keep saying that but I haven’t gotten around to getting a video camera. I’d like to do a video in the style of Puddle Lane (80s children’s tv show) or shoot near water, outside with coloured smoke. I think that would look cool.
aqnb: What’s your creative process like?
PD: Usually I just start messing around with something on the guitar or keyboard and record it with dictaphone, 4 track, or the Mac mic in garageband. It’s all very ephemeral and lo fi. I feel I need to put all the ideas out there, preserve their immediacy. Some of the things would possibly become tarnished through overwork. I like that they sound ropey. Or that they’ve captured a conversation in the background or the internal whirrings of the computer.
There’s a special, delicate, time-capsule quality to these accidentals. I tend to record late at night. However I do it it’s kind of an unstoppable thing- I just have to get the ideas out. I used to be concerned that they weren’t all songs in a traditional sense even though I liked them. I don’t worry about that any more. They all have their place somewhere. Even if it’s on a tape, in a box under my bed.
aqnb: Is there a unifying theme to your upcoming record?
PD: Not consciously, though most of it was written toward the end of the summer, late on warm nights, so I guess the dark southern guitar thing comes across in places. The recordings themselves are fairly harsh but there’s a warmth to the songs. This album is primarily an acoustic dark folk album, mainly because I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar in my garden, kitchen or on my step in the dark. It wasn’t planned. It has a folk fairytale quality crossed with snippets of creepy childhood sonic devices and montage. To me it feels complete, capsule-like but as part of what I feel I’m doing it is very much work in progress. Like I say, all the stuff I’m doing is on the keyboard or vocals with loops. I get bored easily.
aqnb: What are some things that have directly or indirectly influenced this project, musical or otherwise?
PD: I guess a lot of soundtracks like Suspiria, 60s/70s BBC themes, Christine Harwood, a bit of France Gall, Richard D James, artists like Anthony McCall and Derek Jarman who I love, but other than that just stuff in my own head. Right now I’d say, people like Arthur Russell and Ariel Pink, but that’s more about methods of recording rather than styles of music. My tunes are a lot more melancholy but I do like a lot of reverb on pretty much anything so high five to Arthur’s “World of Echo”.
I heard this track by Pump “Falling From Grace” the other day which is brilliant and I’ve been listening to early Mute stuff like Non which comprises loads of tape loops. The Pump track was on one of the mixes that the label Blackest Ever Black (who put out Raime’s records whose records and mixes I also think are brilliant). I like wandering about and looking at buildings and people, a whole song can formulate itself if I’m doing this- I just need to find a notebook and biro in time before I forget it.
aqnb: Both this record and the Rayographs record are coming out roughly at the same time. How do you plan to juggle between both projects?
PD: Doing two at the same time is tricky because I feel like I embody two different musical characters for each, which is interesting, but I guess it’s difficult to fully focus on both equally at the same time. Maybe that’s a learned balance. It definitely keeps my brain occupied. I feel the music is pretty different, as are the ways of working, so in terms of preferring one to the other is irrelevant- both are outlets. The release of both albums is staggered thankfully.
Rayograhs is out April 25th and Paper Dollhouse is scheduled in the summer though not sure of the date yet. Hopefully it’ll balance out well. Right now I’m just getting excited about recording more, probably in my kitchen on my keyboard. It’s on my table right now but if you turn of the electricity the memory is wiped. I hope all the recordings are still there when I go home…