What a difference a year makes. In October 2016, I sat down with Chloe Gendrow (the G is soft) and chatted about Growing Pains, the EP she’d released earlier that year. The 20-year-old University of Montana student picked at a platter of sweet potato fries, her short nails sporting chipped black polish. She recalled struggling in high school to find her musical identity.
“I wanted to be known as the girl with the guitar,” she said, and popped an orange fry into her mouth. “Now is the time to work harder. Anybody can sing. What’s going to set me apart is the depth of the lyrics.”
By the time the four-song EP was released, she was over it and itching to go it alone on her next project.
On a recent morning, I catch up again with Gendrow, this time inside Electronic Sound & Percussion, where she describes her latest move toward creative independence. “I always had other people make music,” she says. “I would sit down and I would tell them, this is what I want, etc. I don’t want to boss people around anymore. I wanted to be able to do it on my own, so that if there’s anything I don’t like, I don’t want to blame anybody but myself.”
She learned her way around recording software by watching Reid Graham, who created the electronica/techno beats on Growing Pains. Her own loops and beats provide the laid-back tracks for the nine songs on Glow, her full-length debut, which she’s releasing this week. “I figured out Logic Pro this year. It’s been a revolution.”
“I’m too young to be so cynical,” Gendrow sings on “Young Forever,” Glow’s second track. “But all these twenty-somethings are acting so typical.” As synth washes seep in, her breathy voice stays firmly in front of the mix, playing leap-frog with a languid hip-hop beat. She sounds a lot like Lorde, or maybe Lana Del Rey after the codeine wears off. Lots of vocal fries, slurred phrasing, much of it delivered with a certain style of pronunciation popular among the current crop of female alt-pop singers. When asked who she’d compare her sound to, Gendrow gets flustered.
“I have a hard time describing it to people.”
It’s easier for her to list her influences: Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and other Gen-X heroes sit alongside the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane—the music she heard growing up. She praises her parents not only for their musical tastes, but for giving her the backbone it takes to survive in a mendacious, male-dominated music industry.
“I have damn good parents,” she says. “They made me stick up for myself.”
She taps a snare a few times with her fingers, which today are tipped with purple nail polish that’s more gone than there, and laughs. “I used to play these,” she says. “I was in eighth grade band. I thought I was going to be the only girl among all the guys. I thought: I don’t have to play the flute, I don’t have to play the clarinet. I can play the drums. So I did that, and it was so much fun. I felt really cool.”
But it was the guitar that captivated the Missoula native. When she was 14, her dad offered her his well-used classical guitar, and she’s been playing it ever since. Her eyes drift longingly from one gleaming, steel-string acoustic to another hanging on the racks.
“I’m not the most amazing guitar player, but I manage,” she says.
Her fascination with sound loops supplants her love of the guitar on Glow, however, as only a couple of the songs feature the instrument.
Sitting on an amp, she holds a guitar across her lap and absently strums while touching on the emotional upheaval of the last two years, which provided fodder for the new album.
“It’s been insane,” she admits. “It feels like I had an epiphany this year. I feel like I grew up a lot. I’m not nearly as naive as I used to be, but I find a lot of bliss in being ignorant about certain things. It was one of the most introspective times of my life. I don’t even feel like I’m the same person I was when I talked to you a year ago. My style has grown so much. And I’ve changed so much.”
That boost in confidence is apparent in the music, but it’s not rooted in the bravery it takes to bare one’s soul in a pop song. Autobiography is not her thing. For Gendrow, the key to intimacy is not confession, but empathy.
“I feel like I haven’t really had my heart broken, but I’ve become way more observant of things going on around me that are heartbreaking,” she says.
“Like my friends go through so much stuff and they filter that through me. It’s been a lot of listening to their stories and listening to other people’s stories in my life and recreating that through my songs.”
Some of the songs are hypothetical situations, but they’ve caused her friends and acquaintances to wonder, asking her, “Oh my god, are you and your boyfriend still together? Is everything OK?”
“Just because I don’t post about it all the time, it doesn’t mean that we’re not together,” she says. “I like to keep that stuff private. But I feel like I’ve created this imaginary world with this album. Maybe I haven’t necessarily lived every single story that’s told in it, but I’ve imagined myself living it.”
The world Gendrow would love to live in for real is that of a Nashville songwriter. She’s visited there a couple of times, played a few open mics, and says she could see making a go of it there, hopefully writing for other artists. She recalls how the theme of Glow presented itself to her one muggy summer night. “I was hanging out on the back porch of our Airbnb one night and I saw these lightning bugs,” she says. “In the midst of the dark, they are the only light. I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s a really good analogy for life.’”
Chloe Gendrow plays the Top Hat for her album release show Thu., Nov. 30, at 10:15 PM. Free.