Julia Hale has been waiting for tonight for a long time.
The singer, songwriter and producer behind D.C. electro-pop act Den-Mate recorded her self-titled debut album more than two years ago, in early 2013. It was a passion project that she created and recorded at home on an iPad version of Garageband. She self-published them to Soundcloud, nearly a dozen in all, and saw them gain traction on Tumblr. By the time she struck a deal with the label that would become Babe City Records last year, Hale had already begun writing songs for the next album.
Hale and Babe City planned to release that new album, tentatively titled Loceke, in early 2016. But here we are, with February quickly fading, and Hale says there’s recording yet to be done. So tonight, Hale will instead play a record-release party for that first passion project—the self-titled, nine-song album Hale recorded in her bedroom before the record deal, before the tours, before she built a reputation for explosive live shows. Before Den-Mate was Den-Mate.
The self-titled record is Den-Mate as precursor, or prototype. Those Garageband demos declare Hale’s outsized talent, both as a singer and composer. Like her musical and perhaps spiritual guides, Warpaint and Still Corners, Den-Mate exists in luscious, spacious soundscapes, punctuated with jarring samples, muted bass hits, and the occasional sparse, winding guitar lines. Swimming somewhere in the mix is Hale herself, her vocals intermittently clear, melodic, and wobbly with distortion.
Only, those first recordings were flatter than they could have been, Hale says. As she recorded them, there was no room to compress the tracks, or equalize the mix. So Hale and co-producer Jonah Welt decided to remix the record and give it its proper release. The album meant a lot to Hale as an artist. “I was able to find some things I really liked,” she says. For the remix, “we wanted to keep the same guitar and vocal recordings. But just clean it up.” Now, the record sounds full and bold—the product of a studio and not just a bedroom. Plus, it will now exist in the physical world, as tapes and CDs, as well as on Spotify and elsewhere.
While Hale remains focused on electronic music—some bordering on darkwave, she says—Hale’s project has transformed as a live performance. Since joining Babe City, Hale began a regimen of live shows, performing with a four-piece band behind her that includes Welt and Babe City partners Peter Lillis and Jon Weiss. Very suddenly, Hale went from composing spacey electronica on her iPad to fronting a big, sometimes noisy rock band. “Empowerment” is the way Hale describes the feeling of those performances, and she exudes that power on stage. There, she twists, spins, pogos into the audience. The subdued vocals of her recordings become shouts and yelps. With that band behind her, she is a commanding presence.
Babe City, both as a label and a collection of people, have supported Hale as she’s moved from solo artist and producer to a bold frontperson, backed by guitars, capable of shifting from dulcet melodies to shredding screams in a hot heartbeat. “Jon and Peter are really able to see the kind of music that I do want to make. They are on the ball with trying to create that vision,” Hale says.
Of course, now it’s Den-Mate’s music that carries water for Babe City. Earned or not, people tag the Babe City crew as the stoner-bro equivalent of Loud Boyz’ corny party-punk schtick. Hale’s music and presence reminds scene onlookers that there’s more to the label than dudes and fuzzy reverb.
The next album will be important, for both Hale and Babe City. After the Black Cat show tonight, she’s out on the road through the first week of March supporting the remixed, self-titled album. But after that, she says, she’ll be back in the studio, recording those last few songs and massaging the new record into shape—in a studio, with the tools she needs to make her vision real the first time. “Just my knowlege of how to create, and how to use a computer to my benefit on this record—it’s going to be a very important record to me,” she says. “I feel very close to all of the songs I’ve created for this album.”
Den-Mate plays at 7:30 tonight at Black Cat’s backstage with Sitcom and Witch Coast. $10.
Photo by Michael Andrade