For as long as anything in the alternative rock, pop, or shoegaze veins have existed, many names have made their mark; some even pioneered or significantly shifted and expanded the elements of the genre. Typically speaking, much of this music is fairly easy to quickly identify, given the tropes artists who claim any part of the titles exhibit within their sound. But every once in awhile, if not a bit more frequently maybe, you get those explorers of airwaves and frequencies associated, the manipulators of hertz and waveforms, who just can’t settle on being the next Aerosmith or wearing their influences too apparently on their sleeves. It doesn’t always entail a venture too far from the beaten path, but for those that explore the stars and beyond, we salute you. That is why, today, we’d like to extend our welcome to Niights!
Formed in the Lake Eerie-abiding region of Ohio known as Cleveland, Niights are a ‘90s alternative dream come true. Launched as a collaborative duo between singer guitarist Jenna Fournier and guitarist/adequately titled pedal-tweaker Frankie Maraldo in 2010, Niights found promise in times of uncertain changes. Quick to release their debut EP A Tangle of Arms, it was only a few years later, in 2013, that a full-length would follow in Whisper. With its powerful punch of emotional, cathartic, whimsical bliss and dark, hard-hitting sequences (as heard on tracks such as “Walkaway”, “Mouthful of Sand”, “Butterflies”, and “Rosebush”), it earned them the attention of 2670 Records in Japan. Soon after, following two international tours and a remixed re-released of Whisper under producer Jim Wirt in 2015, Niights would sign on with Tragic Hero Records.
Frank: ‘Niights is a collaboration between Jenna and I, as the main “directors” of the musical direction and includes the contribution and talents of a close band of conspirators. The music combines our common but, more often, quite disparate influences. We have pretty different skillsets that contributes to a varied sound.‘
Jenna: ‘Frankie contacted me through Craigslist because I was selling my former band’s van and we started talking on the phone. He was looking for a singer but I wasn’t really interested in playing with dudes again because my last band had ended terribly. I sort of blew him off nicely and said I needed to roll solo for a bit and get through the holidays before setting up and jam sessions, and if he was still looking for someone come the New Year to give me a call. Well, he wasted no time and called me New Years Day, so I went to play, and it was just instant chemistry. The guys blew me away with how good they were and yet so open to work on my ideas. We were all in a place where we just wanted to grind away at music. It was truly special.’
With Jenna having transplanted from Las Vegas to join the band, she is certainly no stranger to changes in life. Having her own virtual art shop, which features everything from enamel pins (one even being glow-in-the-dark, whoa!), oil paintings, and matted prints to shirts and artworks for the band; crafting in her own solo project that toured Japan in 2017; scoring for films; and even being featured for a demonstration video by Earthquaker Devices for their Astral Destiny pedal – Jenna Fournier has quite the resume, with plenty to keep track of and assist her handling of any changes with a positive, productive mindset. In an inspiring response to my question of what it’s like to balance what might appear to some as a hectic lifestyle with many moving parts, Jenna appears to be at ease, weathering the uncertain and flourishes in the freedom and growth it usually brings. Perhaps, even when we fear being spread too thin, our truest way to tranquility of the soul is to keep things nomadic; allow for the changes, keep the door open, continue to explore, and keep at least one bag packed for it all!
‘I think so many people obsess over this idea of having balance. Sometimes being wildly out of balance is essential to the creative process. I will get very tunnel visioned. A major challenge is avoiding burn-out, or at least remembering that its temporary and embracing a rest season. Niights usually takes priority, but I do need the solitude of painting while absorbing other people’s music, too. That can be a sort of sacred time where I let my intuition and artist-child just dance and play. Things like gear demos, writing for licensing, scoring for film, singing for CareBears or greeting cards… this sort of more commercial stuff challenges me in a different way as a guitarist, vocalist, and writer. I tend to want to say yes to opportunities and just take a stab at new things even if they feel a bit out of my wheelhouse, and it usually begets growth, but it can result in being spread too thin. When the deep soul work is being neglected, that’s the bad kind of out-of-balance.’
Even with Jenna’s insight on managing a busy life, hers has not gone without its share of pain and tumultuous times. Much of Niights’ music, especially in earliest eras, covers some of the most unthinkable experiences as lyrically painted by Jenna’s pen and vocal chords. Particularly across Whisper, subjects of abuse, loss, death of loved ones, and other forms of pain are present. One specific song that stuck out with me was “Mouthful of Sand”, where what I interpreted as a dream sequence of sorts seemed to be occurring lyrically. As it turns out, even with Jenna’s love for dream symbolism and practice of lucid dreaming, the song actually depicts more of an introspective standpoint of how Fournier’s identity felt almost completely falsified during an extremely toxic relationship:
‘I am very into dreams and dream symbols, like my mother. I used to practice lucid dreaming, and I still keep a dream journal. I have harvested lyrics, imagery, and even melodies from the dream-world. But, that particular song title is actually a reference to an album from the artist I wrote the song about. It was written after a breakup in which I felt constantly criticized… death by a thousand cuts… very judged and picked apart, which had become a pattern in my relationships and I was finally recognizing it. I could not be myself in that particular relationship, and I tried to be something I wasn’t to make someone else happy, which of course ends in resentment. So your interpretation absolutely resonates. I wrote the line that I was ‘sent running from love’, meaning I was done contorting myself into the shape of someone else’s ideal.’
With so much visceral, close-to-home subject matter being the core of a number of the songs’ lyrics, it would be understandable to find difficulty in revisiting these memories, feelings, and otherwise negative spaces in the brain each time they are performed. It’s not always easy turning this residual haunting, if you will, into an art form that gets carried, published, toured, purchased, and in some cases even worn as apparel, yet so many artists manage to take the awful events of their life and do exactly that. Even where you might wonder if this perpetuates an ever-open wound, it’s an integral part of what makes music and the artists that write it so beloved; this is a significant point at which the artist and the listener connect on a deeper level than ‘hey, your music is really cool!’ This element provides healing, not just for the listener, but often for the artist as well.
‘The songs were absolutely a way of processing and healing. I wasn’t taught to communicate certain things, and I turned to writing music instead. “Had a Dollar” still chokes me up. I had gone so numb as a means of self-protection, and in this song I started to let myself feel something, or at least acknowledge it. “Trees” is another one. It’s about Las Vegas and the lives of so many people I met growing up there and then moving back there alone at 18. It’s about being surrounded by addiction and abuse, and feeling so helpless and clinging to faith for hope. There is a line in that song that I really struggle to sing now in the few instances we perform it: ‘Where I’m from the girls get tough, ‘cause the drugs aren’t weak and the boys play rough.’ It’s like I was self-aware enough to recognize how much I’d hardened inside, but not enough to realize that I was trying to normalize that reality for myself by writing that song.‘
More often than not, music provides more than just a mass of waveforms that resonate in serotonin-inducing ways with our brains; it provides a voice that speaks words much outside of our lexicon, at a volume louder than we could ever reach. Stylistically speaking, some might not recognize what sets a band like Niights apart from predecessors as well as fellow artists in the vein of their sound. Their style weaves a dreamy blend of sludge rock, metal, shoegaze, and alternative that comes together as a landscape of ethereal yet heavy song structure. While Whisper and A Tangle of Arms proved to exhibit these trademark qualities of the band, the finest sweet spot of who Niights are is found in their 2021 release, Hellebores.
Hellebores is the album that made me a fan, as it was where I first discovered the band and began listening. I quickly walked through the rest of the band’s discography thereafter, but catchy tracks with gritty riffs, dreamy reverbed passages, all topped off with soaring vocals such as “So Into You” won me over fast. The band cites acts like Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Hum, and Failure as key influences, but for me, personally, I am reminded of the Mellon Collie days of Smashing Pumpkins, hints of Garbage, and even parallels to Silver Sun Pickups, just with a lot more distortion, feedback, and heaviness thrown in.
“Keyhole” hits some of the Smashing Pumpkins traces, while “Trail of Blood” feels like a B-side from the Carnavas or Swoon days of Silversun Pickups, and “It Was” definitely gives the grungy, catchy bite that I’ve heard in the earlier, ‘90s debut material of Garbage. The title track, “Hellebores”, comes as more of a doom metal meditation. Completely instrumental and moving from slow, sludgy bending guitar riffs to down-picked, chunky, melodic bits, if at no other point you found yourself in the pit during one of their songs, this would be the place to do it. The entire album has an energy that feels as though Niights were that obscure, forward-thinking, stand-out band you missed out on from the ‘90s. However, they are no bargain-bin dwellers, and Hellebores is much more than a worship of ‘90s alternative and mere mixes of beloved influences. When it comes to such varied, mixed-bag style of songwriting, and careful avoidance of being pigeon-holed, one has to wonder: is there a formula being followed to make it all work?
Frank: ‘There is no formula. A lot of the process, particularly those three tracks in mention, is Jenna writes a song and I flesh it out by directing the band and sculpting the sound, but it’s song by song dependent.
Jenna: ‘Hellebores feels to me like a studio album. Our drummer and bassist had both moved out of state, so a lot was finalized in-studio when they flew back to record with us for a week. I had a handful of songs, and our bassist Vinnie had what he called a booty-shaker that became “It Was.” It’s also an album that marks Frank’s writing style shifting from dreamy shoegaze into more metal-influenced rock, but we clearly did not shy away from the pop sensibility I tend to lean into. A formula that works well for us is me writing a chord composition with lyrics and melody, then the guys adding their parts. Frank did a lot of the soundscaping before I got more into pedals and production. But, sometimes he writes lyrics or has a melody idea for the vocals, and sometimes I write a riff to jam on. Hellebores took a lot of compromise, because we also had our first label and producer that had opinions on everything too. As far as themes, I tend to analyze relationships and the world around me, but I think I was hiding a bit behind cryptic metaphors in a lot of that record… probably should have gone to therapy sooner.’
Frank and Jenna also go on to speak about some of the different artists they draw influence from, as well as the kind of direction many of their songs tend to develop in as they write:
Jenna: ‘I joined the band in 2010 when they had only a couple songs written and came in with a few of my own. We were definitely drawing from quintessential shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive as far as sound, but wrapping that texture and atmosphere around more lyric-focused songwriting. I also think that everything we ever listen to shapes our sense of melody and writing, and we all like a lot of different styles. The band collectively loves The Smashing Pumpkins and always referenced their success story when people would talk about how our almost genre-jumping dynamic range was bad for marketing or something.‘
Frank: ‘I’d also include the bands Failure and Hum as influences; both bands have knack for textural production while still having a foot in traditional ‘riff rock’ and cohesive songwriting. If there isn’t a strong song behind the sound, I don’t have a lot of time for it. The song and melody has to be good, even if it’s initially written in a style I wouldn’t particularly reach for. Songs like “Caterpillar” or “Trail of Blood” initially sounded like country or folk songs when Jenna had the initial progression and melody, and now they sound something like a baroque-dream pop, or like a Donovan or Syd Barrett song. The style can be manipulated and adapted, but the melody and structure has to be there first. “Trail of Blood” went from almost a nursery rhyme, and you can still hear it a bit in the verse, to a dub-inspired wall of sound approach. There’s many songs in our small catalog that develop along that way.’
As mentioned at a previous point in the article, what makes Niights magnetic to music lovers such as myself, beyond the ingenuity and sincerity of their sound and approach to blending various elements across different genres, is their sincerity as people. The band aims for connection, both within their own confines with each other and fans alike. As Frankie points out, while he and Jenna serve as ‘main directors of the musical direction’, collectively, their ‘disparate influences’ are exactly what aids in their uniqueness. To ask what the band is about is to be answered only by the music, truly, and even with that sort of ambiguity, somehow it all just makes sense in the end result.
Frank: ‘I could say it’s big loud guitars, Jenna’s delicate voice, and big loud drums, but that’s not true for every song. It’s ultimately the songwriting; the level of detail we take in chord choices, progressions, transitions, melodies, and lyrics. It sounds cliche, but that’s songwriting. We’re not the sort of band that is going to be happy with just copying a sound or a vibe and leaving it at that. It seems to me that some artists or bands in the broader ‘rock’ genre are very beholden to a specific sound/vibe. For better or for worse, we try not to think about that and instead focus on the songwriting and musicianship, rather than what it’s ultimately going to be perceived as. When people see us live, I think that comes off even more, that we are a somewhat unique entity.‘
Jenna: ‘I would say Niights is about courageous expression and artistic experimentation, but it’s also about vulnerable collaboration and compromise, drawing from extremely personal emotions while also bouncing off each other.‘
Frank: ‘We aim to make music that we want to hear. I like one-word band names that don’t give you an idea of what the music will sound like, like KISS. You don’t know what KISS is going to sound like until you hear the music. Nights just sounded good to me.‘
Jenna: ‘But we added the extra ‘i’ after a few years of being impossible to find online.’
Of course, while speaking with the band, I had to ask about two of my favorite things to hear stories of whenever I get the opportunity to chat with fellow musicians: interesting tour stories and collaboration prospects! Given how busy Frankie and Jenna are even outside of the band’s commitments, I could only imagine how difficult it was navigating their tasks during the pandemic lockdown, too. Virtually every active band has some sort of story to tell about wins gained prior to 2020, only to be slowed down during it, and then having to find the courage and strength to continue on even with ongoing uncertainty running amuck in everyday life afterward. Niights had covered a lot of ground from 2015 to 2019, so it’s no surprise that a hard pause would serve as discouraging.
Frank: ‘There was nothing like the first time touring Japan. The first show in Tokyo – a place I’d never been before – being on stage and having a curtain open up to a bunch of people on the other side of the globe there was bizarre. Getting off stage in a place you’ve never played before, be it stateside or abroad, and having people tell you they cried during a particular moment, or young people, teenagers, come up and tell you how much the performance affected them, and they are visibly shaking, that’s a crazy feeling for me, but also endearing because even someone as jaded as I can remember feeling that excitement and it’s encouraging to keep going on.‘
Jenna: ‘Touring Japan is surreal. My first tour there was solo and the rooms would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then going back with the band… people were so excited and it’s so energizing to play when you know people are pumped and into it. One time the jet lag hit me like a wall on stage and I felt like I was a little out of body… not sure how I made it through that gig to be honest. Four tours over there now, and every time I have these sleeping spells where I just feel like I’m going to faint out of nowhere. I’ve passed out in the trunk of a rental car, back of a taxi, a green room, a train… everyone would joke that it was a sleep tour. Very ‘rock star’, right?
Another time in the middle of a 3-week US tour, I fell down a flight of icy steps loading gear out the back door. The venue hadn’t salted and I was so angry because I was banged up and knew I would be sore for the rest of the tour. I went in and uncharacteristically demanded a shot of tequila from the bartender for the pain and he asked me if I wanted any ice… we laughed about that one for a minute. We once played an after-party for Warpaint and the members all came out to dance… that was a very cool night because I’m a Warpaint fan.’
Speaking on potential collaborations or ‘dream tours’…
Jenna: ‘I would love to just hang out in a studio working with Kevin Shields. I would also love to collaborate with Grouper… Liz Harris is a major inspiration to me. I would love to see her process or write and sing together.‘
Frank: ‘We just did a mini tour with Mercury Rev, which was one of the bands that included on a mix CD that I gave to Jenna when I joined the band. It was exciting to tour with a group that was influential on the genesis of the band. So, really any artist that is influential on the band would be an honor, be it Smashing Pumpkins, Boris or Failure. The opportunity to work with Ken Andrews would be a goal of mine.’
When I talk to bands that have managed to continue on past the lockdown, it is more often positive stories of championing their craft and either picking back up where they left off, or finding a ‘big break’ or productive expansion of sorts. Many of them do, thankfully, seem to have experienced growth or better solidarity as a band. But each is also, sadly, not without its painful anecdotes. As we move on towards a ‘new normal’, it is probably redundant to speak too much on what has slowly began to pass as a memory, albeit an important one. But the unique stories behind bands like Niights, these against-the-grain sound scientists breathing fresh air into music and art, is always inspiring to me as well as others; it proves how indestructible the human spirit can be.
Frank: ‘Prior to the pandemic we did a fair amount of touring, broke in new band members, and had a couple of new songs. Then the pandemic derailed it all, so we now have stockpiled material that we haven’t got to and it’s been hard for a variety of reasons to regain that focus.‘
Jenna: ‘Like a lot of bands, a lot of momentum was disrupted, but I’ve also been able to grow in other ways. I’ve used the time to write and learn to record better at home, and really found a passion for the production side of music. It’s wild to think that in 2019 we were gearing up for a big album release, did our longest US tour and biggest tour of Japan to date, and had this idea that the next couple years would be full of constant touring to support Hellebores. Instead we split from our label, I started a Patreon, wrote maybe thirty songs, took audio engineering classes, adopted a dog and hardly left the house. I think I’m still somewhere between surviving and thriving.’
The admiration for Niights, for me and other fans, factors in how down-to-earth they are. The message of ‘just doing it’, not thinking too hard on ‘Does it work? Will anyone like it? Am I crazy?‘, boldly crafting because you mean it. This is something that is always to be treasured. Even if it’s not exactly that much of an “original” thing anymore, or if others claim to it, too.
With Niights, it can be seen, heard, and felt. These publications are all about highlighting well-rounded artists that bring authentic art straight from the heart (nice rhyme) to the table, paired with well-roundedness as human beings too. The art is usually, and probably always should be, an extension of the artist; for those who really mean it, it might as well be a vital, external organ. This is exactly what Niights, in my humble opinion, stand as a reflection of.
Jenna: ‘I love music. It just turns my brain on like few other things in life, and if no one ever liked what I made, I would still create for the joy of creation itself. But, the real thing that keeps me WORKING hard are the people who do support it and appreciate it. People have shared their own stories of depression, anxiety, or even traumatic events with me and told me that my songs have helped them get through rough times, and I’m heart broken and overcome with gratitude and mind blown all at the same time. I want people to find solidarity and feel seen and less alone in the universe. It gives me purpose to believe I have a duty as an artist to keep sharing, courageously and honestly, in hopes that it will connect with someone somewhere in that way.‘
Jenna Fournier – Guitars, vocals
Frankie Maraldo – Guitars, additional noise
Alex Wright – Bass
Jeremy Dodge – Drums
Niights have big plans for the coming year, 2023. Having recorded new material, readied to ‘come out of hiding’, as Jenna puts it, and with plenty of eyes already fixed on their next move… it’s about time you join in as well. Be sure to bless your ears and your dreams with the sonic graces of Niights via their Facebook, Bandcamp, website, and Instagram today! Good, new music awaits your open ears – will you tune in?
Header image courtesy of Kristen Lauber