Common Holly’s Brigitte Naggar was born in New York, but she doesn’t claim to be a New Yorker. When she was 10 months old she moved with her parents to Montreal and has lived there ever since. But despite her distance from the city, she’s still managed to write one of the year’s most relatable lines about it. On lead single “Central Booking,” off her excellent new album When I say to you Black Lightning, she catches her breath just in time to sing, “I’m sorry New York broke you,” in a, urgent, stilted, and slightly regretful tone.
It’s a line that’s sure to hit every New Yorker in the gut, just as it did with one of Naggar’s indie-rock heroes. “I once had an email exchange with Phil [Elverum] from Mount Eerie,” she says. “He listened to 'Central Booking' and said that he was also relating to that feeling a bit too much.”
Naggar wasn’t thinking specifically about loneliness, despair, or crying in public when she wrote it though. “As with most of the songs, it starts off inspired by someone and then lands somewhere else,” she explains, noting that it was inspired by someone she knows who spent a night in jail in New York (hence the title) and then later ended up exiled in Canada. “Im sorry New York broke you / It cracked your stamina / I think perhaps it woke you / But now you’re lost in Canada” is the song’s full chorus.
A broader message lies with the word “sorry,” which is used as a metaphor throughout the album to express Naggar’s belief that Canadians apologize too much. “Canada being this international joke of a country. Being lost there, that’s the only thing people do,” she says, with only a hint of sarcasm. “It’s funny how you don’t think you project your own stereotypes until you go somewhere else… It’s something I become very aware of when I leave Canada.”
Further examples of this humble fragility can be heard on songs like “You Dance,” where Naggar nervously repeats the words “Don’t p p p p panic” and “Don’t freak ou ou ouou ou out,” and on “I Try” where she sings over cello and a creaky guitar riff about looking towards others for courage despite owning plenty of it herself. Naggar also sells Common Holly T-shirts with the words “I’m Sorry” printed on them. “That was made before the song even existed,” she says, as if to illustrate her point that apologizing impromptu is an ingrained personality trait.
When I say to you Black Lightning — premiering above ahead of its release tomorrow, October 18, via Barsuk Records and Solitaire Recordings — comes on the back of Common Holly’s 2017 debut Playing House, which saw Naggar examining her first major relationship and noticing that the growth she was seeing within herself was in fact a natural manifestation of life itself. The songs sounded both cathartic and starry-eyed, like dreams lifted from a young person's notebook.
Released six months after New York indie-rocker Vagabon’s debut album Infinite Worlds, the two albums brought a fresh perspective to a genre that had endlessly elevated the voices of woozy, indulgent men. Both were necessary works, not just for themselves as songwriters, but for fans who could see themselves mirrored in the work. Infinite Worlds and Playing House went on to be two of the most celebrated freshman indie rock releases that year.
Like Naggar’s, Vagabon’s sophomore album also arrives this Friday. Both artists say they felt pressure to produce second records due to the overwhelming success of their first. “There was a lot of cycling through how the songs should sound, and thinking about where I wanted them to sit in the world of music.” says Naggar.
After a year and a half of back-and-forth with her co-producer Devon Bate, Naggar eventually settled on a darker, more moody sound for her sophomore album, one that echoes other wiry Canadian indie-rockers like Women, Chad VanGaalen, and Ada Lea. Naggar is an alumna of the religious studies department at McGill University (she points out that Ben from the rock band Ought and several members of Arcade Fire also took religious studies at McGill) and her curiosity in applied philosophy is woven into When I say to you Black Lightning. It can be heard in the rickety tones and sharp gyrations that dominate songs like “Joshua Snakes,” and “Uuu,” and in the insecurity that permeates through Naggar’s voice on “You Dance,” “Little Down” and “I Try.”
Naggar decided that looking outward — rather than inward, as she did on Playing House — was a better way to approach songwriting now that she has an audience waiting for her. “The first record, I had no intention of it being heard by anyone. Then it became a public thing,” she says. “But writing with the intention of it being heard changes how you write. It doesn’t really make sense for me to write about myself for the purpose of being heard, because why should anyone care? But knowing that I will be heard makes it worth saying something that I think is of use, or of interest to people.”
What exactly Naggar wants to say isn’t always obvious though. Maybe it’s the Canadian in her, but she likes to remain a little cryptic. “When I say to you, black lightning, what do you say?,” she responds when I ask about the title. I suggest that it makes me think of gothic imagery or walking through dead woods and she tells me that I’m on track. “That kind of directiveness, or pointing the finger away, is something I’m trying to do with this album,” she explains. “[It’s] less of a personal self-exploration and more engaging people to explore whatever the themes might be. There’s also this very conscious, confident, and deliberate idea of taking up space. Black lightning is the name of a motorcycle made by a company named Vincent. I guess there’s this idea that a young female songwriter is not the type of person that wants to step in your way and be experimental and be loud, so I like the juxtaposition of the motorcycle and this big feeling, this black lightning.”
Before she gets too serious, though, she makes sure to play it down a little. “It’s supposed to be a joke as well,” she says. “It’s all so dark and so serious, but it’s all in good fun.”