“Dark, Light, & Bloomy”: Art School Girlfriend’s Debut Album ‘Is It Light Where You Are’ and the Breathtaking Weight of Loss

Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green
Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green
An intimate inner reckoning, Art School Girlfriend’s ambient debut album ‘Is It Light Where You Are’ is a record of turmoil and surrender, vulnerability and growth.
for fans of Gordi, The Japanese House, The xx
“Is It Light Where You Are” – Art School Girlfriend




Each of us has our own methods of processing difficult emotions and keeping our heads above the rising tides, but seldom is that experience captured so vividly and fully on record. An intimate inner reckoning, Art School Girlfriend’s debut album is a record of turmoil and surrender, vulnerability and growth. Ambient, minimalist indie electronic and R&B engulf the ears in a moody and brooding outpouring of tender emotion, earnest longing, and haunting self-reflection.

Is It Light Where You Are - Art School Girlfriend
Is It Light Where You Are – Art School Girlfriend
Lost my head there for a minute
I found my way back, I realigned
Now we’re left with something else
Won’t you look back on me sometimes
Lay your head here for an evening
I like it when you come around
You still move slowly when you’re leaving
Won’t you look back on me sometimes
Where’d you call from tonight?
Are you feeling alright?
Is it light where you are?
How is it this time?
Are you thinking of things?
It still blows through my mind
It’s okay now, I think
Yeah, I’m feelin’ alright

Released September 10, 2021 via Wolf Tone Records / Universal Music Group, Is It Light Where You Are is a stunningly ambient, reflective, and emotive affair. It’s a powerful and deeply evocative showing from Polly Mackey (aka Art School Girlfriend) – one that showcases her production, instrumental, vocal, and songwriting talents all at once, depicting what she describes as “a year of seismic change,” with lyrics “straight from the pages of [her] 2019 diary.” Reminiscent of artists like Gordi, The Japanese House, The xx, and Beach House, Art School Girlfriend’s music is a hypnotic radiant mix of darkness and light.

Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green
Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green



“I guess it’s evolved over the four years I’ve been releasing music as Art School Girlfriend,” Mackey says of her artist name, style, and focus. “I don’t do well with addressing my feelings, and tend to suppress everything, so it’s a way of making sense – and use – of them all. The name was stolen from my ex who went to art school – she was going to use it as a DJ name, but never did.”

Ever since her 2017 debut single “Bending Back” and its parent EP Measures, Mackey has built (and nurtured) a reputation as an architect of ambient landscapes full of feeling. Four years into her professional career, Art School Girlfriend’s debut album solidifies this aspect of her artistic identity, immersing the senses in an intensely intimate kind of storytelling accompanied by equally enveloping atmospherics. Is It Light Where You Are is vast, yet singular; a wintry and uncompromising world we can likely all relate to and feel a part of.

“The bulk of this record was written during the two weeks after a long-term and quite strange breakup situation,” Mackey tells Atwood Magazine. “I had left Margate, I was staying on my friend’s sofa in London, and felt very un-anchored. So I found solace and temporary-home in a small corridor-like studio, where I spent 12 hours a day. I’d get up at 7 AM and drive to the Hampstead ponds and get in the cold water to try and shock away my feelings, shower and go to the studio.”

“It definitely feels more wide-screen and expansive than I thought it would,” she says of the album. “I co-produced the majority of the record with the brilliant Riley MacIntyre whenever we could get downtime at Church Studios. We both love throwing the kitchen sink at stuff, production-wise, and then tinkering for ages, so it slowly bloomed into something bigger than I thought it would. I never wanted the album title to be a track title… but when I wrote the lyrics for this track it just summed the themes of the album up so perfectly.”

 




I think it’s a crystallization or time capsule of a very particular stage of my life, like a year’s diary. I don’t think I’ll write an album like this again, and I’m really happy it’s been captured.

Is It Light Where You is immediate and all-encompassing: From the moment the album’s opening track “In the Middle” hits with those deep, pulsing beats and Mackey’s enchanting mix of falsetto and chest voice, the record embeds itself in the ears and the mind. “It’s the great ideal, but I hold too tight and I end up living in a world I feared,” the artist sings at the start, dwelling in dark depths of self. “You can read my mind quicker than I write it, but I show my teeth. Words dance on my tongue but they don’t come easy, and they’re hard to hear. You’re a river running fast and I jump right into it.” She soars in a sweepingly cinematic chorus that ripples with heartache and the relentless pangs of breakup:

Can we meet in the middle?
All I feel I never say
You lay in the middle of the night
Won’t you turn my way?
Can we meet in the middle?
I go falling through the day
I wait in the middle of the night for you to turn my way




The tone is set from the start, and while few songs are quite as heavy as “In the Middle,” that weight will nevertheless hang heavy throughout the album’s full forty-five minute journey. The following tracks continue to piece apart the pain of love, loss, and separation as Mackey expands her musical reach and the possibilities of her art.

A blend of turbulence and calm, “Is It Light Where You Are” embodies our evergreen search for balance in turmoil and order in chaos, with the contrast of deep, pulsing sonics and fragile, up-close hushed vocals luring us further and further into Art School Girlfriend’s world. She opens gently and unassumingly, her energy rising as a multi-textured, dramatic soundscape comes to life around her:

Lost my head there for minute
Found my way back, I realigned
Now we’re left with something else
Won’t you look back on me sometimes?
Lay your head here for an evening
I like it when you come around
You still move slowly when you’re leaving
Won’t you look back on me sometimes?

“This is probably my favourite track and video I’ve ever released,” Mackey reflects. “The song wrote itself really quickly; it felt like I was chasing it. It’s based around a phone conversation with someone I was trying to get over, someone who was in a different place to me both mentally and physically. The title ‘Is It Light Where You Are’ has a double meaning: obviously time zones, but also, my world felt quite dark to me at that point and I was trying to make it light.” The single is released today alongside a fan-contributed video. “I put a call out to fans asking them to film the skyline wherever they were in the world, all at the same time — 8:30pm BST on July 2nd 2021 — to help answer the question: Is it light where you are?

Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green
Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green



Mackey cites another personal favorite in “Give,” an impassioned and inescapable ethereal haze. “It contains some of my favourite production moments, and it feels like the song that’s closest to my chest,” she explains. “This song is about new love. It’s about those first few weeks of properly falling for someone, and getting to see behind the curtain of their armour. There’s quite sweet personal lyrics in this song that might not make much sense to anyone outside of the relationship, and they’re some of my favourites. The main chorus is about having love reciprocated. This song has the most raw moment on the album – just me and a piano, no compression or effects or anything – which I think is interesting, as this track also has some of more intense electronic sounds in it too.” It’s these juxtapositions that make this song in particular so intoxicating, while also speaking to the magic of Art School Girlfriend’s artistry as a whole.

Give me your worst
Make you mine
She’s swimming in waves
Too high
Look at your things
I like your mind
Tell me to stay
This time
Her side
Said so
There’s nothing that I lack
Loose tie
My phone
She’s something else
You give me back
She gives me back




As a lyrically forward artist, Mackey shares a few of her favorite lines from the album:

It’s better to lack what you need than to be pacified” – the lyrics for “Softer Side” were mostly taken from my diary, and this was a particular lesson I needed to learn.
I get along just fine / I can kid the moon / til I see you both in low light” – “Low Light” is an homage to Chet Baker’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and here I directly pinch one of his lyrics about kidding the moon.
Spin me out, so blue!” – it’s rare that I write lyrics that warrant an exclamation mark, but this song is about excitably falling for someone, and this is referring to the feeling when their eyes meet yours.
Sat here looking at you / through my phone screen, it’s all I can do / it’s a game that I play / makes me feel like I’m staying away” – we’ve all been there!

Further magical moments abound throughout Is It Light Where You Are: From the dazzling “Softer Side” and the rapturous “Low Light” to the mesmerizing haunts of “Colour Me,” “Helm,” and “Good As I Wanted,” Is It Light Where You Are keeps its audience on our toes until the bitter end. Closing tracks “Bored of Myself” and “Eyes on You” take increasing advantage of space and sonic distance, providing ample opportunities for our own introspection and wandering. “Eyes on You” is an especially gripping finale, full of ghostly singing and moody, vast synth chords that try to drown the ears in the weight of their sound. “Silent, my pose, eyes on you. Taking my blows in your room,” Mackey sings, the words slowly oozing out of her soul. “Silent, my tired eyes on you. Rising, my prize into view.”

Coming out on the other side of Is It Light Where You Are, we feel refreshed and renewed – as if our souls, too, have gone through the wringer and have been thoroughly rinsed clean. It’s a powerful feeling, and quite a beautiful, striking way to return to our present surroundings.

Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green
Art School Girlfriend © Jake Green



Forty-five minutes of music cannot truly convey a year’s worth of seismic change, but Art School Girlfriend nonetheless succeeds at capturing her reckoning vividly and on record. 

Her debut album is a breathtaking catharsis: A soundtrack to emotional upheaval and healing.

“I feel like this record has been my therapist, having had to absorb all my brain-swirl and emotional outpourings,” Mackey shares. “Letting all that out in the world is quite exposing, but it felt necessary to make it. I obviously hope this becomes some people’s favourite record of all time, but if not that, I hope people get hit in the feels a bit, or they think some of the sounds are cool.” Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Art School Girlfriend’s Is It Light Where You Are with Atwood Magazine as Polly Mackey goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of her debut album!

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:: stream/purchase Art School Girlfriend here ::
‘Is It Light Where You Are’ – Art School Girlfriend



:: Inside Is It Light Where You Are ::

Is It Light Where You Are - Art School Girlfriend

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In The Middle

This track was written during the intense period after a breakup. It set the tone for the whole record, and that’s why it was the first single and the first track on the album. The ending is supposed to kind of mimic the feelings of a panic attack – but underneath all that distortion are all the beautiful sounds, which you hear when that intensity breaks. Kind of sums up a breakup… once you’re out of that horrible mind-melting situation, you can see the beauty of what was there.

Is It Light Where You Are

This was a very purposeful ordering. The first line of this ‘lost my head there for a minute’. Which is how I felt – I’d lost a grip on my mental health in a way I never had before, and this song is about getting back on track and moving on. The lyrics for this are some of the quickest and easiest I’ve ever written, I literally couldn’t get them out fast enough. The night before I’d been on the phone to someone who was on the other side of the world and also sounded pretty happy and content, and it struck me how they were also mentally in a very different place to me. Again this links heavily to the main themes of the album – lightness and heaviness, lightness and darkness. It felt like things were still quite dark and heavy for me, and I wanted everything to be light.



Softer Side

I think we’ve all been there… you project an ideal onto someone and then end up looking for this person who didn’t exist. It’s a strange thing. And you end up constantly disappointing each other. The video for this looks at this in a very tongue and cheek way. My friend Tom Dream who directed it was like, “what is the most searched for thing in the world? A yeti!” So we did this Super8 heartbreak love story between me and Sasquatch.
This song has some of my favourite lyrics, which were all pulled from my diary that I was keeping that year. The chords were written on guitar, and moved to synths – a lot of these synths are Ableton stock sounds. I love the rattley chain-sounding hi-hats on this, which are from a Tempest Drum Machine.

Give

This is possibly my favourite track on the album. This song is about new love. It’s about those first few weeks of properly falling for someone, and getting to see behind the curtain of their armour. There’s quite sweet personal lyrics in this song that might not make much sense to anyone outside of the relationship, and they’re some of my favourites. The main chorus is about having love reciprocated. This song has the most raw moment on the album – just me and a piano, no compression or effects or anything – which I think is interesting as this track also has some of more intense electronic sounds in it too. This production on this is mostly made up of processed and messed up samples  – we connected two contact mics to a piano in a big room and ran it through a bunch of eurorack modules and then moved all the elements around like jigsaw pieces.

Low Light

I rarely write songs on the guitar, but this is one that came quite easily in that way. Some of my favourite lyrics are in this too. It’s a homage to Chet Baker’s I Get Along Without You Very Well, and I steal his line about kidding the moon. I quite like that this is ABABC in structure too, with no defined chorus.



Colour Me

This track is quite old; it started as a demo on my laptop with the first two sections and the ‘colour me’ line. Then it was pushed into an even darker and more interesting world with the input from Tom Furse (The Horrors ) and St Francis Hotel back in 2018, but the lyrics were written during the making of the album. It’s about laughing at how pathetic and malleable you can be when you’re infatuated with someone. A lot of this album was about digging up parts of myself that I didn’t like and taking a good old look at them. Again, this track doesn’t really have a clear structure which I like.

Helm

The album was a few weeks away from being completed before we went into lockdown. This – like Give – is about new love, and the lyrics are pretty direct. I wrote it during lockdown and wanted it to be on the album. This was mostly produced in my flat and then finished in the studio with Riley MacIntyre who I co-produced most of the album with. It was done way quicker than anything else on the record, probably because I had an actual deadline! The glassy gliassando synths are my Korg Minilogue and the crunchy chorus drums are all the percussive elements being run through sequenced SEM filter. We then added a Moog Grandmother for the climax.

Good As I Wanted

Another one about being on the precipice of a new relationship; trying to gauge if they’re feeling the same as you, and just being quite overwhelmed by it all. I think a lot of communication during those early stages is done via eye-contact. I refer to someone looking at me like taking a punch, and then at the end ‘spin me out, so blue!’. The production on this was done with Frank Colucci, and I got the main beat from a Moog DFAM. It’s in a strange 2-on-the-floor rhythm, and the constant sucking and ducking of sidechain also gives that feeling of this constant slow build throughout with moment of relief, like a rollercoaster. I feel quite a sweet, teenage excitement in this track.



Bored of Myself

I think the title really sums this up! One of things you have to adjust to after a long term relationship has ended is spending a lot of time alone. And especially during a time when you probably don’t like yourself that much either. It’s about wanting relief your own noisy brain. I listened back to the demo of this recently and it’s a lot dreamier, which I maybe wish I’d kept the vibe of, but this is one I look forward to playing live.

Eyes on You

This one is really old. Maybe 2015? I’d always wanted to save it for my album, and it was written before I’d even thought of Art School Girlfriend as a name. It‘s had quite a few production-iterations over the years, but it’s always been my favourite to perform with just me and a guitar. So stripping it back and allowing it to breathe was how it ended up. It feels right to have it as the last track on the album, like the closing of a circle.

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:: stream/purchase Art School Girlfriend here ::



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Is It Light Where You Are - Art School Girlfriend

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📸 © Jake Green

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