How Psychic Twin Channeled Her Divorce Into Bucolic, Sci-Fi Synth-Pop

Erin Fein is Psychic Twin

Erin Fein is Psychic Twin. Courtesy of Psychic Twin

Psychic Twin was borne of separation—the dissolution of Erin Fein’s marriage piled up as claustrophobic baggage in her sleepy Midwestern hometown of Urbana, Ill. And though this story of a young woman uprooting and moving to Greenpoint to reinvent herself may be tried and true, her reality had no pat, third-act certainty—four years of pain, destruction and her life falling apart, captured all on record, now provide perspective that no Upper East Side therapist can match.

You can hear that journey on Psychic Twin’s gorgeous debut, Strange Diary, full of icy science-fiction confessionals that crystalize into resolutions.

There’s a lot of ’80s vibes here, particularly a love for Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush, recalling a time when synthesized music turned inward to empower the performer instead of making empty, grand declarations of universal love to rolling ravers and Las Vegas nightclubs. Fein’s triumph, then, becomes the ultimate purpose of art, which is to provide what life does not. Hence, Strange Diary is full of someone finding resolve and peace, channeling her bucolic memories of home into head-bobbing jewels while in the throws of gradual healing.

While speaking to Fein, her sense of connecting sounds to places led to the realization that these New York neighborhoods are something like small towns in of themselves. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an ugly word in music, or journalism, when we acknowledge the tremendous comfort—and value—that looking back can bring us as we build our future.

But with looking back also comes confronting the past, with all its unkind memories. It took Fein four years, but she’s done precisely this on her first record, channeling the sounds she’s loved since childhood in order to find peace with the hard lessons she’s lived as an adult. Standing out from all the ubiquitous synthesized crap out there these days, we’re all better for these songs—Strange Diary is a triumph, a reclamation of personal anguish with a pop composer’s touch that stands outside of time and inside of a still-beating heart.

This album is very naked, for lack of a better word. How does it feel to put yourself out there like that?

Horrible. [Laughs]

But you did it anyway. You’re standing by your work of course, and it’s out there in the world.

Yeah, yeah.

This is earning comparisons to a lot of the classic electro-pop of the ’80s, but on a form level, a lot of the electronic music that comes out now is very outwardly focused, not personal. It traffics in big cultural platitudes, generic statements about love and culture. Why did you go the other way and choose to look inward through this type of music? 

It wasn’t so much a decision based on other things happening around me. It was really a decision based on what type of music I felt was most nostalgic, and touches me. At the end of the day I’m a child of the ’80s, and the beginning of my love of music really started in that weird, synthy time. So I felt really compelled to write a personal project, and I just kind of knew that would be the inspiration. I’m a keyboardist. I’ve been collecting synths for 10 years, and it’s just something that I’m really into. Some of it just came out sounding like this because these are the instruments that I have, this is what I know and what I do.

The idea of nostalgia is interesting. Insofar as this is a personal record and you’re chronicling the demise of your marriage, are you returning to a place of childhood and nostalgia as a reclamation of self, intentionally going back? 

It’s certainly something that I feel is very comforting, the sounds from those types of synths. I don’t know if I was totally aware of that happening, but I realize in retrospect that a lot of the melodies and sounds were helping me to relax, to calm down and deal with a lot of pain. Part of that nostalgia was the process of healing for me.

“You’ve missed seeing snow on Christmas while you were a kid, and finally you see it as an adult, it’s beautiful, and you’re happy, but there’s this weird lingering sorrow that’s all the way through.”

What are you comfortable sharing about that trajectory in terms of your creative process? I’m gathering that some songs were written during your marriage, some during the dissolution, and some after. Did this record allow you to look some uncomfortable shit in the face?

That’s a really good way to put it. It really made me look some uncomfortable shit in the face, to be honest with you. It helped me look at myself and the things that I would criticize about my part in the situation. It helped me process some things about the person that I was married to. And it wasn’t exactly intentional—I didn’t know that these things were going to happen when I started Psychic Twin. What I did know was that I wanted the record to be personal, and at the end of the day, my life just began to unfold around that. That’s sort of how the record became what it is.

There’s a totality to it that’s really uncomfortable, and I hesitate to use that word because it’s so beautiful and catchy. But there’s something happening there when you’re singing to this “You” character about some ugly shit, but still sounding content and at peace. There’s almost a happiness to the record, too. 

It doesn’t sound happy so much as it sounds hopeful to me in the melodies. You know the feeling of not seeing snow on Christmas until you’re an adult? You’ve missed seeing snow on Christmas while you were a kid, and finally you see it as an adult, it’s beautiful, and you’re happy, but there’s this weird lingering sorrow that’s all the way through. That’s how I feel about the record.

I love the idea that we reclaim synthesized music from the commodity that it’s become. This genre is so ubiquitous and your music is nothing like that at all. What do you do with this tremendous document of time, beyond touring and supporting it, now that you’ve amassed this knowledge?

Interestingly enough, the process of writing the album wasn’t what took so long for me. What really happened is that my life fell apart, and from a logistical and practical standpoint it was really hard for me to afford to keep doing Psychic Twin. I had to move, start a new life, get a new job and the person that I was originally working with and I went our separate ways. So a lot of things changed. If given the opportunity to get into a studio now that things are a little more solid, I’m hoping I could make a record happen a lot faster than four years. [Laughs]

But because it took so long, it wound up chronicling this whole thing. So even though it was at times incredibly frustrating, I try now to see that there’s something quite special that happened there as it became the diary that it did. That wouldn’t have happened if it had come out years before. You learn to work hard and then let life unfold as it’s going to. There’s only so much we can do to control that.

Erin Fein is Psychic Twin

Erin Fein is Psychic Twin. Courtesy of Psychic Twin

There’s that famous American novel, Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, wherein an author leaves his small hometown in Middle America, writes his magnum opus, and winds up burning bridges and unintentionally implicating people in his novel. So he goes back and everybody resents him. Are you concerned about that at all? How do you walk that line as a creative? The idea of “You” is almost existential on this record, but how does that sit with you now?

It is a little uncomfortable for me to go home, not because of my record. It’s just that when your life transitions, you have a lot of baggage there. I have a lot of history there. Some of that history is incredibly positive, and as the years go by and my life begins to truly move forward, I can kind of relate to that feeling of having no home, that you lost the home you had to some extent. That’s a really lonely place to be.

Well, Brooklyn’s here for you. We’re a whole borough of people like that!

[Laughs] That’s true, yeah.

You’re from Urbana, Ill. Where can I hear home on this record? Is it the kind of place where I walk into the center of town and people know my first name? 

It’s a bit bigger than that, but not much. One of the weirdest things about moving to New York is that you often do run into the same people, particularly in your neighborhood. But so often you go somewhere and know it’s very likely you will never cross paths with that person again, even though you both live in the same place. Whereas where I came from, if you’re going out to shows and in the music scene, you’re gonna become friends with the whole scene. You’re going to know everyone. And that is a strange transition.

Where I can hear my town in the record? There’s something about where I live that’s acquired in some of the tremolo, dreamy synth sounds, like looking out on the vast landscape. And that is certainly a sonic visual for me, when I listen to it. Though that’s pretty personal. In the Midwest, “the sound of music” probably isn’t associated so much with this. [Laughs]

“I was called to leave because the music didn’t make that much sense where I was living.”

But people often think of cities when they think of synths. Maybe that’s because there’s a futuristic, almost sci-fi sound to synths. To be honest with you, that’s part of why I moved to Brooklyn. I felt that way, too, and felt like these synths were telling me I had to leave, you know?! I was called to leave because the music didn’t make that much sense where I was living.

You’re saying you hear Urbana in some of the arrangements?

Yeah, for me it’s in the sad, somber, Twin Peaks-y tones that I very intentionally used. There’s a particular road in my hometown called Windsor Road, it’s right on the edge of town, and you always drive back and forth, back and forth on this to get to my parent’s house. It’s really beautiful, there’s this beautiful view of farms and you see the little city. It’s got eeriness and comfort. I always think of that road when I think of those sounds. I don’t know if anyone else would hear that, you know, but I do. [Laughs]

Someone could listen to this completely liberated from all that context and still connect with a lot of what you’re working through. Are you playing with the idea of what a traditionally feminine gender identity means in the relationship, too? Our singer seems to move from a place of vulnerability to contention as the record progresses. 

That probably was happening inside of me, for sure. I don’t know if I thought about it specifically, but I liked the idea of this being a genderless album.

Well, I guess it goes back to the idea of people passing by you on the street as full-fledged stories and identities that we only scratch the surface of. I’ve never thought of these small little neighborhood cultural pockets in Brooklyn as towns in of themselves, but maybe they are. 

They are, yeah! It’s funny—one of the things that started to make me feel more comfortable in Brooklyn was the realization that if I stay in my neighborhood for a while…I know my neighbors now. I see bartenders walking back and forth, we say hello to each other. There are little children that I say hi to and people that I always see in the park.

And it really does begin to open up and start to become a little less lonely. Especially if you are staying in the same neighborhood, which is something that I would highly recommend to people trying to make a transition from a smaller town—find a neighborhood you feel comfortable in and stay put, so you can feel a little bit of a home forming around you, you know?

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