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Friendship, water and glass have a lot in common. For starters, they’re essential for modern life, and they can be beautiful, life-affirming and often long-lasting. Similarly, they’re all powerful and capable of wreaking havoc. But most interestingly, we can see our reflection in each of them, whether it’s a storefront, a pond or even a friendship. We cultivate our identity in friendships, relying on them for acceptance and affirmation. Friends make us think differently about ourselves, and the people we choose to have around embody what kind of people we are and want to be.
These three things also inform Bodies of Water, the impressive debut album from Chicago trio Moontype (out on April 2 via Born Yesterday Records). The record is full of references to water in various states of matter, cherished quality time and glass as a symbol of perspective—all devices to highlight the tender, wholesome moments that keep us going. It’s a sweet, intimate record, bolstered by the love each band member has for each other. All graduates of the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, they’re incredibly warm and anything but pretentious—they joke about acting like “complete idiots” at the beach during their “Ferry” music video shoot, poke fun at guitarist Ben Cruz’s “business office” and roast drummer Emerson Hunton, whose pants were so stylish that his bandmates thought he was too cool for them before they all actually met. They also reminisce about playing country music on a friend’s back porch and visiting swimming holes in Tennessee while on tour—they’re so clearly at ease with each other, which gives their music an enticing glow.
Before embarking on this journey together as channelers of benevolence and fairly eccentric rock, Moontype cultivated their own love of music in different ways. Margaret McCarthy, the band’s songwriter, lead vocalist and bassist, got her start singing in choir and playing piano from a young age. She later began making electronic music on her computer, which led to a degree in music technology at Oberlin, in addition to geology (which is fitting, given Moontype’s elemental reverence). Finding her feet in the college’s rich DIY scene, she took up bass guitar after receiving the hand-me-down instrument from her father’s friend, which Moontype now affectionately refer to as “the divorce bass.”
Cruz was awash in a land of Guitar Hero and classic rock covers as a kid, but ended up studying jazz guitar at Oberlin and playing “very strange” improvisational jazz alongside Hunton. Hunton grew up playing the piano and drums, eventually gravitating towards the improvisational music scene in his Twin Cities hometown and frequenting shows of acclaimed jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays. Cruz and Hunton played together in various configurations at Oberlin and post-college in Chicago—from the challenging jazz of Threadbare to the charming country music of Razor Shines.
Though they never played as a three-piece at Oberlin, they all ended up in Chicago afterwards, and Cruz and Hunton became fascinated by McCarthy’s songs and solo performances—both with only bass and vocals. “Usually when a singer/songwriter writes songs, there’s chords and there’s melody,” Cruz says. “But because Margaret was doing everything on electric bass, it was all basically counterpoint, like two voice parts with the bass part and the melody part. The songs just sounded so good as they were, and of course I wanted to play them.”
“Margaret said it was bass and voice, so I had no idea what to expect,” Hunton says. “I just remember being very pleasantly surprised by how twisty and turny things were.” Moontype’s “twisty and turny” quality is one of several contributing factors to their magnetism. Though their songs are rooted in a pleasant wash of soft-sung folk, rock and indie-pop, there are occasional flourishes to throw you off their scent.
Debut album highlight “Alpha” may begin as a sparse, downtempo rock number, but it quickly unfurls into a whiplash-inducing, math rock-tinged firecracker, culminating in a rhythm-and-blues-meets-jazz guitar solo. “Lush” is another pretty track, but it takes an unexpected detour via ballsy power chords and a refrain of the capital-R rock variety: “The edge of glory.” Luckily for us, the face melting doesn’t stop there—Cruz slips into a wailing classic prog solo on “When You Say Yes” and breaks into jaunty country noodling on “Stuck on You.”
“These are always problems that I create for myself, where I play stuff that’s highly inappropriate, and someone else decides that it needs to be in the song,” Cruz jokes. Even a more straightforward song like the painfully gorgeous “Ferry” is surprising in its own way. With beaming shared vocals, coarse guitars and a visceral sense of longing at the center, the song stretches on for over five minutes, despite its instantaneous pop appeal that typically warrants a track about half as long.
McCarthy wrote the songs that make up Bodies of Water before graduating from Oberlin, and if you listen back to those early solo recordings, you can hear many of Moontype’s eccentricities already baked in, like the intriguing melodic arcs of “Anti-Divinity” or “Alpha.” It’s not a stretch to think their time at Oberlin had something to do with their ability to throw a wrench into conventional rock songs. “The general vibe at that school is people are very encouraging of weird art,” McCarthy explains. “Nothing is really too out there. So I feel like that encouraged me to make whatever I felt like making and really go for it.”
Since Hunton and Cruz studied improvisation and still write uber-complicated music together from time to time, they relished the opportunity to play fun rock songs that don’t require sheet music, but they used their compositional “attitude of openness” when deciding how to round out McCarthy’s songs. “Fortunately, and unfortunately, there’s no idea too stupid,” Cruz quips.
Amidst a sea of melodies both agreeable and dizzying, Moontype’s songs have another X factor: their joint vocals. There’s a cheerful lightheartedness to how they sing together, but the resulting euphoria cuts deep, supplying listeners with 100 percent organic, sun-kissed joy and also leaving a mark on the band members. “I feel very close to Emerson and Margaret when we [sing together], and that’s just a very special feeling,” Cruz says.
“I think that’s just something we started doing for fun live,” Hunton adds. “I can think of a few songs specifically where we were just messing around in the car. We were working on singing harmonies because it’s a great way to pass the time. The end of ‘Me and My Body’ was a really fun thing to work out.”
To make things even more wholesome, the landscape surrounding their car as they mapped out these vocal harmonies was rather picturesque. “We were driving past the Palisades down on the west side of Manhattan singing the end of [“Me and My Body”] over and over again,” McCarthy says. “The sun was setting over the water—it was very beautiful.”
Though a seat in their car during a singalong may be the best seat in the house, the next best thing is surely swaying at a Moontype show. Their first live outing was a DIY pop-up show in a church alongside Ohmme’s Macie Stewart, where they were instructed to play quietly, despite the inevitably reverberant setting. Unsurprisingly, they praised Stewart’s solo performance, but as for their own, they were just glad their volume didn’t break any windows. Due to the pandemic, Moontype haven’t played many shows apart from local Chicago gigs and one brief tour on the East Coast and down South, but they’re eager to play their nourishing songs live again.
Soaking up their album really is a healing experience given its universal search for love, understanding and identity. Whether McCarthy’s pining for a friend she hasn’t seen in a while, feeling disconnected from someone who’s near, or trying to cope with being alone, Bodies of Water cherishes the special moments when connection comes easy, and we truly feel seen by ourselves and others. It also has this romantic, fleeting sense of time and distance, lending the LP that much more emotional weight in the context of the pandemic.
“I think [distance] came in because I grew up outside of Boston, and then I moved to Ohio for school, and it was a school that people came to from all over the country, so I had friends that were living in all different places,” McCarthy says. “The album is a product of moving and feeling how relationships change because of that. I’m at a point in my life where a lot of friendships have been evolving and changing and fading out and fading in. So honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it like distance and the way that the pandemic has created it because it feels like a different kind of distance, when your friends are around, but you can’t really see them.”
Bodies of Water holds close friendships in high regard, which wonderfully flies in the face of decades’ worth of rom-com characters whose sole purpose in life is evidently coupling up in fairy-tale fashion. “The love that I feel for my friends and from my friends feels just as intense as the love that I feel with romantic partners,” McCarthy says. The album even occasionally blurs the line between platonic and romantic love, perhaps nullifying the need for qualifiers altogether—after all, two friends build a synth together on “About You,” which I’m pretty sure is third base for musicians.
While most of the album is made of observed personal chaos, it’s also sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom via poetic imagery. It’s almost as if you get the main character’s perspective, and then another from an all-knowing narrator, intermittently dropping in to recenter us through nature. Between “mountains waiting blankly for the rain to run off,” a majestic wolf pack, roots searching for the ground and “a glacier in the salty ocean,” McCarthy’s references to the great outdoors feel like much-needed reminders that there’s actually peace to be found in the naturally occurring disarray of our own lives.
If there are three things worthy of our undying appreciation in this world, it’s friendship, nature and music, and Moontype treats each one with the grace and affection they deserve—but if you have room to pencil in a fourth, it may as well be Moontype themselves, a wholeheartedly earnest band in cynical times. Whether they’re chuckling about their own “Moontype language,” frolicking and hugging in matching white overalls, or singing a lovely song in unison, Moontype radiate the kind of feelings we’re all chasing.
Bodies of Water is out on April 2 via Born Yesterday Records. Preorder the album here.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Billboard and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.