If your love is not reciprocated, you have a few options. You can drink yourself into destruction, try to watch all the mediocre rom-coms in the world or simply point your arrows at someone else. Haley Dahl, alias Sloppy Jane, took a different route: as a grand gesture, she recorded her ambitious second album Madison entirely in a cave, some 35 meters underground. The process resulted in a mesmerizing marriage of indie folk and chamber music, but also found itself at the intersection between artistic quest and deeply personal self-flagellation.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Walter Wlodarczyk
It's 2017 when Haley Dahl first thinks about the record that will eventually become Madison. She is just starting out with Sloppy Jane, a band that once featured her childhood friend Phoebe Bridgers as bassist. Debut album Willow is yet to be released. It is a theatrical, raw punk rock record, on which Dahl regularly screams herself hoarse. But Dahl already has other things on her mind. In an effort to distract herself from her broken heart, she spends a lot of time in the depths of the Internet. There she discovers the Great Stalacpipe Organ, a stone organ built in the 1950s in the Luray Caverns in Virginia. Dahl begins to dream of a record in which the organ and strings predominate, full of symphonic elements and delicate chamber music. Recording an album in a cave and dedicating it to the person who broke your heart, how romantic is that?
At the Luray Caverns, Dahl unfortunately gets stonewalled, but she doesn't give up. In the years that follow, she and her friend and video maker Mika Lungulov-Klotz embark on a quest for the perfect cave. The duo visit more than thirty caves across the United States. Little by little, Dahl fine-tunes her vision into a plan that is challenging but achievable. “Initially I wanted to record the album completely live in two days, without leaving the cave in the meantime,” says the New York native, with an accent that betrays her childhood in California. “That was a typical idea that I came up with before I ever visited a cave. I also insisted on a natural cave, not one that had been maintained by humans. It had to be really treacherous. As soon as I started to gain knowledge about caves, it turned out to be impossible. You don't enter a natural cave through a kind of beautiful gate, you have to crawl into it through a hole in the ground. And you certainly won't get a piano in there.”
By accident, Dahl and Lungulov-Klotz stumble upon the Lost World Caverns, a cave system near Lewisburg, West Virginia, discovered in 1942 by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “We were actually in West Virginia to visit another cave, but it seemed too dangerous to us. We stayed overnight in a van in the parking lot of the local Walmart and found out that there was a cave nearby that we didn't have on our radar yet.” Owner Steve Silverberg allows Dahl & co. to use the cave outside opening hours, which has been open to the public since the 1970s. It's an offer Dahl can't refuse. After all, her mega project isn't being sponsored by a wealthy record company, but by her own credit card and a GoFundMe page. In return for $20,000 in donations, Dahl offers tol eat the suit she's worn every day for a year.
With the group of twenty musicians she has gathered around her, Dahl creates a hellish schedule: for two weeks the musicians will gather at the cave around two o'clock in the afternoon. Then they can set up their stuff and start recording around half past three. They work until the first tourists are at the door again around eight in the morning. Sleeping in one of the hotels near the cave is not within the budget, so a return trip of about an hour and a half follows to the South Appalachian Folk Center, where Dahl & co. stay the ‘night’. “We slept in bunk beds in dorms without heating. And there was no hot shower either. It was very beautiful there. I think it was built for summer camps and some hippies later bought it to rent it out for parties. We usually got back there around ten in the morning. Then we had to cook, eat, take a nap and head back to the cave around one. It was very hard, but I never heard anyone complain. I was completely obsessed with this record for years. Nothing would stop me. Afterwards, everyone went through a mental or physical breakdown in their own way, but at that time we were very concentrated and also had a lot of fun. I felt called by God to do this, I can't explain it any other way."
Having arrived in the cave - where the group also records two video clips in addition to the album - the challenges obviously don't stop. It takes a day to get the piano in the right place, there’s a constant temperature of twelve degrees celsius, and due to the humidity the hair of the bows on the string instruments does not remain tense. And then there's the natural reverb. It makes the drums on 'Party Anthem' sound like a Big Friendly Giant is knocking on the door, it makes piano ballad 'Jesus and Your Living Room Floor' feel a bit haunted, and it makes Dahl's voice still sound colossal in the otherwise intimate closing track 'Epilogue'. But it also ensures that it is almost impossible to discover errors during the recording sessions. “The echo makes everything sound so beautiful that it becomes a problem. It wasn't until listening back that we realized not every take was perfect. In the cave you don't notice at all if something goes wrong.”
Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to stick to the sheet music that Dahl has written for Madison during the sessions. She has been rehearsing for months with her orchestra – consisting mainly of Berklee students, composed by cellist Sean Brennan – and there is no room for experiment in the 'studio'. “I could never have made the record without all those musicians of different levels and backgrounds who have been so patient with me. Before I started Madison, I couldn't read or write sheet music at all. I also didn't play the piano and I didn't know anything about chamber music. I first had to figure out what I actually had to learn before I could actually learn it. People have explained to me so many times what made sense and what didn't in the music I had written. I've really gotten better at my job."
The patience to learn new things and stick to her vision is what makes Dahl most proud of Madison. “Logistics have changed some things, but otherwise the record is very similar to the first notes and demos I made four years ago. I stayed much closer to that initial idea than I thought during the shooting. The first music I wrote was a twenty-minute piece: a small piece of 'Overture', the outro of 'Madison' and 'Jesus and Your Living Room Floor'. And 'Wonderama', but that was still a very minimalist piano composition at the time. At that time I only wrote the piano part, but I already created the basis for the record. All those parts ended up in expanded versions on the album.”
Although Madison seems miles away from Willow at first glance, Dahl certainly sees similarities between the two. For her, the albums are even parts of one and the same trilogy, along with the next Sloppy Jane album. Dahl outlines the musical characteristics that can be heard on both albums: descending chromaticism and group vocals, for example. And the melody of Willow’s closing track 'Potassium (We Saw Everything)', which returns several times on Madison. And let's be honest, with a saxophone, a kazoo, a xylophone and a sliding whistle among the instruments used, Willow already showed that Sloppy Jane was not going to be a dime a dozen punk band. Even more important, however, is the thematic connection Dahl has established between her records. “Willow is kind of a twisted Pinocchio story. It's about the time when I was still working in a strip club and doing sex work, when I almost felt like an object that wanted to become real. On Willow, I did that through aggression, throwing myself against the floor over and over until I broke open and the emotions ran out of me. Madison is the continuation of that: I manage to feel things, but I'm still very broken."
Recognizing — and perhaps somewhat controlling — her emotions in the context of a gigantic, personal undertaking like Madison is a major victory for Dahl. The blue toy horse that makes its appearance on the cover of Madison and the accompanying press photos is a symbol of it. “I was talking to Mika about being patient, emotionally. I said something about not being able to hold my horses. They always ran away from me. For my birthday, Mika gave me a box full of little blue horses, which were for holding. I carried them with me for years.” The symbol also has to do with the person for whom Dahl originally conceived Madison. “Long before I started on the record, we had a brief romantic situation. When it came to an end, that person gave me a small plastic horse as a memento. It has always been an important item for me, if only as proof that those moments really happened.”
After the recordings, Dahl finds herself in a similar situation: when the release of Madison is delayed by the pandemic, she has to constantly remind herself that she actually made the record. “The album became a weird imaginary friend, something that only existed for me and a few people who had worked with it. I went through a period of mourning when it was finished, I was so sad that I no longer had that goal in mind. And when the first single finally came out, I kind of panicked. The day before its release, I got up before dawn and listened to the entire album one last time, feeling like it was still mine, before hearing the opinions of people I don't even know.” Dahl has already heard the opinion of one other person. Just before the pandemic starts in the spring of 2020, she shows Madison to the person she made it for. A kind of goodbye, in which Dahl hears what the other person has to say about the album, but also a moment that brings a personal process that has taken years to an end. From that moment on, the album is no longer a romantic gesture, but above all a victory that Dahl has achieved. “I once cared a lot what that person would think of the album,” she says, with a certain relief in her voice. “But not anymore.”
Madison is out via Saddest Factory Records, Phoebe Bridgers' Dead Oceans imprint.