The very online music of Magdalena Bay
Los Angeles-based musical duo Magdalena Bay creates highly curated and unmistakably high-end pop sounds for an era of internet celebrity. Singer Mica Tenenbaum and engineer Matthew Lewin write, produce, direct and edit their songs and videos together, balancing classy music with a cheeky online presence. Having now worked on their music for half a decade, becoming more confident in their craft, they are starting to optimize the process.
Despite all their flair, Tenenbaum and Lewin didn’t start out as pop artists. They met in high school, in 2011, during an after-school music program in North Miami, Florida, in separate groups. They started dating and creating together. Tenenbaum joined Lewin to do progressive rock in a band called Tabula Rosa. Tenenbaum sang and played the keyboard. Lewin played the guitar, mixed and produced the records. The music was more than well composed. The title song from Tabula Rosa’s latest album, “Crimson”, ends with a twisting twenty-minute epic of cascading guitar solos and piano arpeggios. Tenenbaum’s voice is clean and uncompressed, unmodified and pure in tone. The college separated them. Tenenbaum attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she spent her time performing with a female comedy troupe; Lewin went to Northeastern to study the music business. They got together during the winter break at college, looking to start a new project. What started out as a craft experiment, and a bit of an art joke, quickly turned into a full-time gig making real pop music. Never having seriously considered teen pop, they thought it would be easy.
When Magdalena Bay formed in 2016, several artists were already distorting the dimensions of pop, and a few of them became the model for the group: Grimes’ high-level electronic pop, art-pop relaxed and relaxed by Chairlift, and Charli XCX’s dive into the consumerist, hyperbolic PC Music Art Collective. Pop is often disparaged for its production of factory-like songs, and while this is still the norm, these contemporary pop artists emphasized the personal in their work. Until recently, Magdalena Bay was a DIY operation done entirely in the duo’s apartment. They didn’t get the pop feel right away: the early stuff, while competent, seems almost AI-generated in its lack of flavor. With more practice, the songs became more complete. Ultimately, their sound reflects the time invested in the Internet, incorporating sounds and rhythms online. On their 2020 EP “A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling”, they laid the foundations for their musical future, as a slogan on their TikTok says: “Synthpop straight from simulation 💋.”
Their polished music is supported by a cross-media plan. The group mini mix series channels the degraded VHS quality of public access television and the antics of surreal comedy that usurped in the early twenties. A version of one of the songs, from their single “Killshot”, went viral on YouTube last year when it was edited in a popular format for the platform: with the music slowed down in slow motion, as a soundtrack of anime images. Magdalena Bay cleverly freed an official version a few months later in response. (In one of the their TikTok videos, Tenenbaum provides an overview of the bigger picture which is as wacky as the situation itself.) Much of the band’s social media works this way — extramusical content that is spooky, promotional, Where self-referential, bringing the viewer back into the orbit of music. Their Website refers to static Web 1.0 pages, when domains appeared to be isolated domains built with handmade HTML. Being very online isn’t just part of the appeal of Magdalena Bay; it is inherent in their construction of the world. Through an interactive program, they set out to establish their own pocket dimension.
Their debut album, “Mercurial World”, is by far the best, brightest and most thoughtful music they’ve ever made. Lewin said the album reflected in part the “madness” of their quarantine isolation. “We live together and make art together; it immerses you in our creative and island universe, ”he said. The music is beautifully self-contained, although it draws inspiration from several generations of pop style. If hyperpop, the micro-genre defined by its absurdity, makes a dizzying, inconsistent but euphoric mess of its many components, then Magdalena Bay takes a more sophisticated and streamlined approach, pulling similar source material to push in the opposite direction, creating something harmonious, orderly and chic. Kitsch quality, garishness, overwhelming amplitude are replaced by subtlety and ornate details. Songs such as “Hysterical Us” and “Secrets (Your Fire)” mix the vibrant neon brightness of Miami Beach, Ocean Drive, with the fast-paced, downhill funk of the West Coast.
The enchantment of “Mercurial World” comes from its perfectly synthesized sound. The duo’s crash course in pop produced a hybrid and sweet product. They cited figures from all eras — Madonna, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears — as influences, connections that are more felt than articulated. But this music also exists in a landscape sculpted by artists such as Rina Sawayama and Poppy, where art seems to interface with a wider internet culture. There are also more latent elements: the pastel hues of the most expertly arranged K-pop; the brilliance, haste and graphic color of video arcade mania; and the shift from modern indie pop to technique. As Tenenbuam’s vocals change from a squeaky half-whisper to a moan over “You Lose!” The track forms a screen of buzzing noises made of Pac-Man skeletons, springy synths and pounding drums.
The voice of Tenenbaum is at the heart of all these vibrant synthetic songs. She always seems to give a song exactly what it needs, with her vocals just tweaked enough to fit the aesthetic, whether it’s the faint echoes in “Dawning of the Season” or the hallucinatory whistles throughout. “Dreamcking”. From the title song, her vocals are gently channeled into the crevices of these whimsical productions, like the ornamental frosting on specialty desserts. In the muted chamber pop of “Prophecy,” Tenenbaum sounds almost cherubic, evoking the innocence of teenage pop from the turn of the millennium. “When you’re lying next to me / I don’t need to pretend,” she whispers. A song later, on “Follow the Leader”, she sings like a virtual idol navigating a nightclub simulator. Inside the “Mercurial World” with its clean design, his vocal performances give the music its illusory aspect and its candor. “I don’t want to tell you everything about me / I don’t want to give more oxygen to / Your fire,” she sings, on “Secrets (Your Fire)”, and that same silent sense of mystery is that which allows the music of Magdalena Bay to occupy its own dream space.