Natalie Huggins' Voice Is the Star on Split Oceans

Jan 29, 2020 at 6:00 am
Natalie Huggins' previous work had leaned heavily on the dramatic sound of acoustic piano, but Split Oceans takes on a more pop feel.
Natalie Huggins' previous work had leaned heavily on the dramatic sound of acoustic piano, but Split Oceans takes on a more pop feel. VIA THE ARTIST

Natalie Huggins has spent much of the past decade singing and playing keyboard in bands around St. Louis — initially with moody synth-rock band the Bureau and eventually working with psych-pop group Summer Magic, jangle-punk quartet Joan of Dark and leading her own trio Wax Wine.

But to about 30 young students, she's best known as Miss Natalie, a music teacher who instructs on voice and piano out of her Kirkwood home. She just celebrated her fifth year of self-employment.

"It's been going really good — I kind of figured out what my strong suits are and going with that," Huggins says. "I've been doing improvisation and composition and a lot of collaborative work. They do adjudicated events too — it's really awesome."

Still, the teacher tries to sneak in a few of her favorites from time to time. "I have a few high school kids that I am teaching Kate Bush and Tori Amos," Huggins says with a laugh. "I try to connect kids to what they listen to now with something in the past. I have one kiddo who is into soul music, so we've been doing a lot of Stevie Wonder."

But rather than train the next generation of conservatory students, Huggins tries to vet her kids to make sure that they are invested in a broad range of styles and not one set path.

"Nobody gets in unless they'll be down to do different kinds of music," she says. "I'm not trying to grow classically trained musicians; I am trying to form students who will carry music throughout their entire lives."

With the recent release of Split Oceans, Huggins is practicing what she preaches. With her former musical projects, either under her own name or with the cello-aided Wax Wine, Huggins relied on the sound of the acoustic piano and leaned into a dramatic vein of orchestral pop. Those recordings showed her chops but didn't necessarily express the breadth of her range as a singer, composer or lover of pop music. For her new record, Huggins digs into simmering synthetic tones, zooming bass lines and heavily chorused guitars.

"This record, really my voice is the main thing," she says, contrasting it with her more piano-centric work. "Before I was trying to balance the two, and it was, 'Look at all the things I can do!' I think I've been able to home in on my voice and focus on guitar more."

Her shift to guitar, both as a writing tool and a performance instrument, came through her work with Kevin Bachmann's band Summer Magic, where Huggins often steps out from behind her keyboard and joins the band's small army of guitar players.

"Kevin has inspired me a lot, playing with him," Huggins says of Bachmann. "I love how he plays and how he is able to collaborate with other people — he's very real." Their shared influences, from synth-pop to goth to shoegaze, come through on the record's glossy but darkly tinted palette. "There's a lot more synths and guitars on this record."

More than a shared aesthetic, their relationship in the studio allowed Huggins to strike a new artistic path while multi-instrumentalist Bachmann, along with engineer Will Godfred and drummer Mike Schurk, took care of the rest.

"There's an unspoken thing when we both get it," she continues. "That made it easier for me, since I felt insanely vulnerable."

Some of these songs date back many years, and others were completed during the last few years of demoing and recording the songs. Huggins notes that a song like "Matrix" — the sole piano-driven song in an album full of electric sounds — is one of the earliest in the batch. Singing it again is like revisiting an old friend, and a younger version of herself.

"It was so hard for me to wait to get the songs finished and get them right the way I wanted them. 'Waters,' I had a really bad relationship with until it was done — and then it was perfect. It was a really good vibe working in the studio with them; it was never rushed.

"I was just ready to get it done, and it was hard for me to feel patient," she continues. "That's something I'm probably learning."

Huggins will throw a record-release show at the Duck Room on February 22 alongside Golden Curls and Flourescent. Huggins opted to press Split Oceans onto vinyl for her first solo full-length.

"I wanted something tangible and final and classic," she says. "I grew up listening to records, and I feel like I owed it to these songs to put them on something fancy, especially with how long it took. CDs are kinda boring — it's big and colorful! It's just a better choice for how I wanted to handle this project."