Talking Retro Pop and Vintage Film: A Conversation with Magdalena Bay

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida
We sit down with Magdalena Bay’s platinum-haired frontwoman to discuss life beyond college, their beginnings, and the lemonade notion that pop stardom is perhaps not as far above the clouds as their sound.

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Without a doubt, a new generation of pop stardom is upon us. In 2017, everyone’s precious newcomer, SZA, shocked the genre with Ctrl, Tove Lo awed with BLUE LIPS (lady wood phase II), Charli XCX released her mixtape Pop 2, with Lorde there was the Melodrama, the list goes on. But the sounds of all of these pioneering artists have been tied together with similar themes: explicit testaments to their chaotic lives. They are unapologetically erotic, psychologically impactful, and utterly dark.

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

But with darkness, there is always light, and up-and-coming pop band Magdalena Bay want to bring back the sunshine with their self-described – and whimsically paradoxical – “future ’90s throwback space-pop.” From originally collaborating as part of a prog-rock band in high school, the Philadelphia-based duo – composed of Mica Tenenbaum (vocals/keyboard) and Matthew Lewin (vocals/production) – have slowly started to rise over the horizon with their hazy ballads of hypnotic electronica. Their flagship track “Neon,” a spellbinding concoction of jazzy discotheque, has gained recognition from some of the vlogosphere’s most discerning music critics and is inches away from breaking a million plays. Months after dropping their most recent release, a synth-heavy love ode called “Waking Up” has already clocked a few hundred-thousand plays.

Undoubtedly, their fan base is growing larger by the day. Grappling with that fact, Atwood Magazine sat down with the band’s platinum-haired frontwoman, the 22-year-old Mica Tenenbaum, to discuss life beyond college, their beginnings, and the lemonade notion that pop stardom is perhaps not as far above the clouds as their sound.

A CONVERSATION WITH MAGDALENA BAY

Atwood Magazine: The first song I heard from you guys was the cover of “Redbone,” which I thought was amazing. Take me through some of the covers that you guys have done.

Magdalena Bay: I was abroad and thought about doing some sort of “long-distance media vlog” and that was just too much work. When you are writing across countries it is especially difficult. So I asked people to suggest covers for us to do and one of my friends suggested “Redbone.”  It took us months to release it, but then Childish Gambino’s version came out and blew up the charts, which was very good for us!

Watch: “Redbone” – Magdalena Bay

With your cover of Charli XCX's “Boys,” I honestly wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Magdalena Bay: That’s so nice. I’m obsessed with her; she’s a huge inspiration. Her style is harder; she’s definitely a bad-ass in a way that Magdalena Bay isn’t necessarily, but we could be? She’s trap and rap-influenced, but she’s really, really cool. We love her.

Watch: “Boys” – Charli XCX

You’re bubbling up to the surface now and people are dropping your name on YouTube and you appeared on a New Music Friday Spotify playlist, so do you feel like you need to cultivate an image outside of your music?

Magdalena Bay: I feel like it’s always been an intrinsic part of us, like the “image,” and I hope it comes across. I make all of the graphics, and we are really into art because we think the visual aspect of it is so important for complementing the music and just making… not a character, but it’s a vibe, and you want everything to be consistent with that. I look forward to the day when I can work with professional-ass photographers like Charlotte Rutherford etc. but for now I just need to hustle on Photoshop and make it work.

Is that why you decided to use vintage film to make your music videos?

Magdalena Bay: Yeah, so the videos we basically used archival footage that we found on archive.org, which I discovered while we filmed “VOC POP,” which is not that kind of video at all. But yeah, I love it, like it’s so fun. I went to high-school for film, but I hate actually filming things and I love editing. So, discovering archival footage is just like heaven for me. I just spend hours doing that.

Watch: “Neon” – Magdalena Bay

How would you describe your music in high school versus now?

Magdalena Bay: I didn’t know in high school that I would want to do music forever, which now I know strongly that I do. But it wasn’t until I started making pop that I knew that, that I was like ‘Oh, this I was I was meant to be doing.’ I like doing this, and I can hopefully do this well and I’m learning. It never felt that way about writing the prog-rock in high-school. It wasn’t as much my vision or my writing. So that has definitely been new.

When does it change from being just a hobby to a career?

Magdalena Bay: Ummmm, I don’t know, that’s a good question. It’s something that happens slowly, I think. The idea of wanting to do it full-time would’ve been insane sophomore year and I laugh just thinking about it. But I don’t know, as we started getting a good response, and then when we released “Neon,” and I would spend every single hour of my day working on it, it turned into a career. I did an internship over the summer and I was like ‘I hate this, I just want to be advancing my music career why am I here right now?’ It was a good internship, but I just felt frustrated the whole time I was there. I wanted to be working on music. Obviously, I am going to need a day job for like forever, but at least I know I am going to be doing music for the other half of the day.

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Well there's some fun in the hustle, right?

Magdalena Bay: I know! I’ve never really had a chance to really do that. Being at Penn, it’s so streamlined. Now for graduation, I’m looking for jobs, but like, once I progress in that I get stressed because I don’t want such a concrete path set up already. I want to see where the music goes and all that. So hopefully open-ended…

About Penn… It's such a pre-professional, corporate environment, how do you stay creative?

Magdalena Bay: It’s definitely so hard, but I am blessed that the people that I surrounded myself with are also so creative. But also, like, creative with a plan in a way. My roommates want to be comedy writers and producers, which is a little bit more corporate than me, but still, having those people around just keeps me sane. I a/b;i/m not the only one who has this dream to do something more creative. I have somehow surrounded myself with those people without meaning to. But yeah, during on-campus recruiting I panic and I think ‘Why am I here!’

Do you think being at Penn has helped?

Magdalena Bay: I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. I think in a way it’s good that I’m one of the few songwriters here because I can’t compare myself as much to other people. I feel like if I was at Berkeley or something, like, everyone around you is doing the same. At least here I feel like “I’m doing my muuuuusic! I’m a pop sooongwriter! Look at me!” haha. Whereas if I am applying to jobs in marketing, I’m like, ‘Everyone’s applying to jobs in marketing, like, how can I succeed?!” So in that sense, it is good. Also, I have a lot of free time as a student studying communications. I used to do a Chinese minor, and once I dropped that I became a full-time musician basically. I have so much free-time. Every day I can spend four hours on music and that is a special thing.

I know you don't have a stage name or anything, but do sort-of have a different performing persona?

Magdalena Bay: Yeah, for sure. We don’t perform that much, which sucks, but it’s because we are long distance so it’s a fucking hassle to perform. But yeah, I can’t dance at all except when I am on stage performing for Magdalena Bay, which I have only done a few times. It gets better each time, and I think I did well at our last performance, but I was standing on the blocks and I almost fell. So that was the only downside haha! But looking back at the videos I was like ‘Okay, that’s better than I have ever done at the club.’ So yeah, I do the most to put the persona forward, you know? Because when you go to a live show and it’s not exciting, then what’s the point?

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Magdalena Bay is an actual place, so is that where your guy's name came from? Did you go there?

Magdalena Bay: No….hahaha…. It’s the name of a woman who would e-mail Matthew at his job, which is like weird because she could eventually sue us, I guess. It was an administrator that he never met and her name was Maggie Bay, and he would just think to himself, “Wow that’s such a beautiful name.” She goes by Maggie, but her full name is Magdalena. We were just trying to think of a name for the band and he just said “It should be this” and I was like “Yes!” So we don’t know who she is, but we took her identity, and hopefully, she will never find out!

So there's a lot of words that people use to describe your music, and I don't want to compartmentalize you guys, but how would you describe it?

Magdalena Bay: In our bios, we describe it as “future ’90s throwback space-pop,” which is like a mess, but it’s just like retro-inspired pop. Now I realize that it’s actually a thing that is happening right now in pop, and like, you don’t know at first when you’re a part of it, but there are a lot of artists who are doing it. It’s a good thing in pop right now.

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

What are you working on right now?

Magdalena Bay: We are writers more than anything else, but besides all of our writing we have a bunch of demos ready to go. Whether it is going to be a new single, or possibly an EP, we are waiting for the right opportunity for a release on that. And then we are also doing pop songwriting to pitch to other artists – like super mainstream, not Magadelena Bay at all. So now we are working on outlets for that.

When you guys are cooking up a track, do you write the lyrics first or last?

Magdalena Bay: Words are always last. That’s just our style. I guess I am not a writer in that way. But yeah, we start with an idea or a vibe that is in our head. Like if it’s sometimes a bit wild, or kind of more experimental, obviously it is going to be more Magdalena Bay stuff. If it’s more mainstream like Camila Cabello inspired, you know that’ll be more contemporary and the production is more tied in with that.

What made you go back to music after your hiatus from high school?

Magdalena Bay: When I came to Penn I just like stopped writing, and then one day I just had a crisis. I went to see Amy, the documentary, and instead of being sad… I mean obviously, I was sad about her dying. It’s a really sad movie… But also, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, she was an artist and a writer, and I let that part of myself go and like what the fuck I need to start writing again.’ So I started sending Matthew demos again because we hadn’t been writing together at all. That was maybe like six months before Magdalena Bay started.

So it was like you needed to do this.

Magdalena Bay: Yeah, like writing was the best thing that I could do as a human, and I just stopped and I was like “Ahhhhhggggg!” I didn’t have anyone to write with because it had always been Matthew. Initially, we had been writing for a rock band, but once we decided to do Magdalena Bay it gave way to the pop songwriting, and now it has gone to a new level where I write every day instead of once every three months.

Is it strange at all that you are making music centered around the '70s and '80s, which are decades that you never grew up in?

Magdalena Bay: It’s definitely looking to the past, but I feel like it’s through a modern lens. It’s a movement that has been doing in pop right now. And then it’s just like… listening to Madonna and her melodies, and intonation, and stuff like that. So it’s not so much about the time period, but very specific elements that we like from older music. Mainstream pop has been very dark right now, if you listen to the radio everything is very dark and trap driven, and we just don’t like that as listeners and as writers. We are looking to other things.

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

Mica Tenenbaum of Magdalena Bay © Nicole Almeida

So you and Matt were dating for a bit?

Magdalena Bay: Yeah, so we are still dating actually. We are a couple, but it’s not like the main part of our brand because we think that’s a boring thing to highlight. But we’ve always been partners in creating things.

Once you have graduated from college, what's the plan? Are you both going to be in the same place?

Magdalena Bay: We are going to be in the same place; that’s for certain. We are leaning towards Los Angeles right now, but that could change super easily, you know? But yeah, we’ll be in the same place and work on this and….yeah… try to reach out to whatever connections we have and play more gigs. We are hoping to get a local fan base together once we are in the same spot.

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Magdalena Bay © Matt Lewis

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📸 © Nicole Almeida
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