What swimming in the ponds of London can teach you about music: An interview with Porridge Radio
Porridge Radio released what might be one of my favorite albums of the year so far. It's swirling and searching. It yells out, but is incredibly soft. At one point, lead singer Dana Margolin yells, "I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other" over and over and over again.
So we reached out to Dana Margolin to talk about this incredible record and how she's doing in London.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did this band come together? How did you know that you wanted to do music and how did you find the people to make it?
It happened in a way that I didn't realize that it happened until like long after I was deeply committed to it. And then I realized that I had somehow unconsciously decided that was something that I was doing. At the beginning when I was about 18, 19, I started learning guitar and just writing songs and sending them to like one or two people. And then a few years later I was in Brighton, I've moved to Brighton by that point, and I had a friend who really inspired me, a lot, and we would like make music together in his living room and he kind of got me to start going to open mic nights and I would go to those on my own and just like enjoy screaming at the old men. And then I kind of, Georgie who's in the band, she saw me play once. No, she'd heard one of my friends who I'd sent my music to, sent it to her and she got me to play a show. She used to put on like the IOI festivals in Brighton. She got me to play one and then I guess that was my first real gig and then kind of met the others by accident. Kind of was like, “Oh, should we see if we can start a band? I've got all these songs that I've written,” and then we kind of did that and then, and then it just became what it is today. It kind of like evolved over the years and we played loads and loads of shows and I was writing loads and loads of songs all the time and spending all my time with my band mates. And now, here we are.
Perfect. I remember when “Lilac” came out and I was listening to it and I love the sentiment of someone just screaming, I want us to get better. I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other. I love the core of the message and those lyrics and then the kind of desperation at which they're delivered I really enjoy as well. Did those lyrics come from like a particular experience?
Yeah, all my lyrics come from specific situations and I like to make things, I guess simplify them in my lyrics and just kind of take out that core feeling from something and see where it can go as a cell and see how repeating it and screaming it and whispering it can change the feeling and the meaning of something that's actually quite simple and basic and even cheesy. But I think, yeah, it did come from a specific time and a specific relationship.
I love the waltz-y feeling in “ Circling." How did you put that melody together?
I think when I'm writing songs I don't think about how I'm doing it or what I’m doing. I just kind of let things fall out and then I look at them and I'm like, cool that that fell out. I guess I've never been a very proficient guitarist or keyboard player. And I just like playing around with things and focusing on very basic ideas and I'm not that good at playing. I mean, I've gotten a lot better over the years and I am confident in how I play now. But like I think when I wrote that I was still kind of figuring out how, I guess on keyboard especially. I was just playing around with an idea and I just stumbled upon it. And I think that's kind of how all the best songs are written. It's when you're not overthinking about how to get to a specific idea, but you just think, “Oh, that like popped into my head now, now I'm going to go with it.”
For "Every Bad," was there one cohesive idea or a thing that you wanted to say with the whole record?
There wasn't, but I think that's because I write so much. I've always got a lot of songs and so when we came to record it, we kind of had this huge backlog of songs and were thinking what songs go together. But I don't think I ever thought about it in terms of like how they go together thematically until I think it was maybe a week after the record came out. So I guess that's actually a couple of weeks ago. I write songs but I always bring them to the rest of the band. And Sam is kind of my main collaborator and we arrange a lot of songs together and I usually bring things to him first to figure out how they're going to go. And we were kind of talking about how I can keep being us. Like, was there one theme of this record and then kind of realized that like with hindsight, the things that tie all the songs together are depression, empathy and the sea. And that actually, even though we didn't kind of choose those songs on purpose, they all sent around those things. I guess the sea was the one that is more specific. But the other things are just the place where I write songs from.
I think that sometimes when you write something and then look back, it is like you were trying to say something. I feel like you kind of discovered that. Why is the sea part of that equation?
I was living in Brighton. I lived in Brighton for five years. That was where I met everyone in the band and that was where we were playing shows all the time. Brighton is in the South of the UK and it's on the coast. So I spent five years living really close to the sea and I guess like, you meet your friends on the beach and you go for a walk on the beach and in the summer you go swimming and you just hang out at the sea. And I feel free as I lived really, really close to the beach, just like a five minute walk away. So it was constantly in my mind and also I was quite sad and I spent a lot of time when I was sad I'd go to the sea and I find that very overwhelming and powerful force and it's this amazing thing because it makes you feel so small, it's so terrifying and you're so fragile, but it's also like this huge sense of calm and peace and I guess like the endlessness is at the same time as being terrifying, It's also kind of affirming and I think that was just like a really inspiring feeling. So I ended up writing a lot of songs about that feeling and about the sea. And sometimes it was more explicit and sometimes it was less explicit. I think it comes into a lot of the sound.
In Milwaukee we have a gigantic lake right next to us called Lake Michigan. And it's the second biggest lake in the world, so it kind of feels like a sea and I am like two blocks away from it and I've been going on walks a lot and even before this, there is something about sitting there and I am like, “You know, there's this huge Lake next to us every single day and we never talk about this thing,” you know? And it’s powerful.
I really, really get that. It's like the feeling as well of actually going into the water and you completely immerse yourself in it and it's like washing away your feelings or washing away your entire sense of self and you can just imagine stuff dissolving into it or being washed away by it. It's so amazing. It's beautiful.
We do this thing here. I mean it gets cold here, especially in the winter and I'm not a spiritual person. I mean, I grew up religious, but I'm not anymore. But we do a thing on New Year's Day. On like the coldest day of the year. There's a big thing where people jump into the Lake and you have to break the ice to get into the water. And I do it every year and it's like the one time where I feel like this is as close as I get to some kind of like spiritual experience where I need to be covered in that in order to restart.
I really get that. Actually, with my friends, we go swimming in the ponds in London and we kind of mark it symbolically in the year, like in the spring and in the autumn. We kind of make a whole ritual around it. It is spiritual, but it's a very personal kind of spirituality. It feels really powerful and really cleansing for sure.
The Quarantine Gauntlet
I made a list of questions. I've been calling it the Quarantine Gauntlet. They're just dumb and they are fun and I just wanted to have something silly. Where are you? Where are you holding out?
I'm sitting on the floor in my bedroom, in my house, which is my parents' house. Where I grew up. In London, in the United Kingdom.
What has been your favorite podcast that you’ve listened to while you have been in quarantine?
The only one that I've listened to has been Reply-All, so I guess my favorite by default.
Did you listen to The Case of the Missing Hit?
Oh my god, I love that one so much.
Google Hangout, Zoom Meeting or House Party?
Which ever one people want to talk to me on. I guess I like House Party. I like them. I've also been WhatsApp calling people. You can have four people in the chat. Whatever anyone wants to talk to me on. I'm just like, “Of course.” I downloaded Skype recently. You know, just tell me to download it and I'll download it. That's how I get so many viruses.
Have you made a sourdough starter or made bread?
No, neither, but I'd been baking constantly and I made so many cookies and cakes. And then on the fermented stuff side. My dad actually has been brewing kombucha, so I guess you can combine it and we're good.
What’s your favorite cookie?
I made some hazelnut chocolate chip ones the other day that were really, really good. I'm not fussy. I’ll eat anything. I'll download any app and I'll eat anything.
What’s the best movie you’ve watched?
I watched "Whisper of the Heart" about a week ago. It's a Studio Ghibli film and it was so beautiful and made me cry.
Oh that’s great, I should watch that too.
Yeah you should, it’s on Netflix now.
Oh great, I’ll watch it tonight! Have you gone live on Instagram?
Oh my God. Too much and it's wearing me down. But I will keep coming back for more, hone my livestreaming skills.
Now you’re in it, you’re committed.
And people keep being like, “Can you just do this other thing?” I’m like, “Yeah, okay, sure.” and I’m like, “Oh my god, here I am again, live streaming.” I’m a live streamer.
There you go. I’ll download any app, get on any live stream!
What is your favorite junk food item?
Oh, it depends on what they catch me. I mean I've been really enjoying crisps, which you will know as chips.
What’s your favorite flavor? I have strong opinions when it comes to crisps.
I like a lot of crisps. Yesterday I had some cheesy ones and then I had to lie down for like five hours cause I had so many of them. So I would not say those ones. They were Quavers, I don't know if you know what Quavers are. They’re like crispy, cheesy, puffy.
Do you know what flavor I had and London that we don't have here, that was an absolute delight? Prawn flavored.
You don’t have prawn cocktail?
We do not have prawn cocktail. I was like, what the hell is?
That is an amazing flavor, so good. I’ve actually never eaten a prawn in my life, but I love prawn cocktail crisps.
I thought it was so strange and I had a bag.
Did you like it?
Oh my god, I loved it.
So tangy and ugh! Maybe that’s my favorite flavor. I haven’t had one in years.
Have you started and finished a book?
I have. I read the Jon Ronson book about shame because I kept feeling really ashamed. And then I stopped feeling ashamed and then I started this other book about insects, which I'm reading at the moment. Hugh Raffles "Insectopedia," and it's like essays about insects and their place in our world. It's like from an anthropologist perspective.
What's the name of it?
"Insectopedia." It’s really good. By Hugh Raffles and yeah. I want to get some novels, though. I need to read something a bit less.
I've been trying to get into my science side a little more. I read Jon Ronson last year. I read Them. He's just a great writer.
It was so easy to just pick it up and then read it all in like a few days. And then I was like, “I don't need to be ashamed! Wow!” I felt it really hard, it was great.
The last one is, what is the song that you've been listening to the most?
Oh, I've had two albums on repeat for the last week, which I guess between them I would have listened to one song the most. I don't know what it is, but I’ve been listening to the new Waxahatchee album and the new Nnamdi album.
Both are incredible.
Yeah, they’re so good. And so I've kind of been rotating those two and that's been really nice. This morning I was listening to the Nnamdi record and I would choose "Semantics," I think.
Why do you like Nnamdi?
I actually only started listening with this album. It only came out like a week ago, right. But I just saw somebody recommended it and I started listening to it, and then I just couldn't stop. It's like this compulsion. It's like listen to the album again and again and again and again. And again, and like, I never know why I like anything, but when I have that feeling, I know that I like it. So I just go with it and then I listen to things until I can't listen to them anymore.