Fragments can lead us to understand a whole. In Louise Glück's collection of poems, The Wild Iris (1992), the poet explores snippets and cycles of life—death, rebirth, transformation—bound through natural metaphor. In doing so, she creates an exercise in written and spiritual isolation: "whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice," suggesting that experiences of pain can propagate moments of renewal. For Porridge Radio's lead singer Dana Margolin, it was about experiencing intense emotional states as interconnected pieces of a larger unity. Through this process of sensing and reflection, the lead singer of the Brighton indie quartet renders out stories and images, assembling their newest album, Water Slide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky. The band's third LP is sweeping, cathartic, and more panoramic-sounding than ever. After garnering praise as one of the most promising new voices in indie rock, Porridge Radio's new album solidifies their status as a tour de force.
Written by: Sara Nuta
Photos: Tom van Huisstede
Time moves in circles. Breakthrough bands are often subject to cycles—from the strange loop of press coverage to scheduling of tour dates, life ebbs and flows. When Porridge Radio (made up of singer Dana Margolin, drummer Sam Yardley, keyboardist Georgie Stott, and bassist Maddie Ryall) released their second album, Every Bad, in March of 2020, time soon turned inward.
The four-piece, which grew out of Margolin's solo project, began to hit their stride after a few years of kicking around the Brighton circuit, receiving praise for their diaristic lyrics, striking vocal delivery, and masterfully dynamic instrumentation and live shows. The lockdown put their upcoming festival circuit on a brief pause, and the band used the time to grow. It gave Margolin and her bandmates space to reckon with newfound attention and their journey from lo-fi beginnings to becoming a more recognized group.
Much of the album, like the track ‘End of Last Year,’ explores the cycles of different kinds of relationships, including inter-band communication —loving, fighting, creating, isolating, and being together again. Despite the ostensibly timely subject matter, Water Slide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky is not a pandemic record. Margolin wrote several of the songs in 2019, some even dating back to 2018. However, the extra time did help them, in the long run, to churn out an elevated sound—combining elements of indie rock, art pop, and post-punk—that feels bigger than ever.
Dana Margolin is intuitive with her writing process. She finds room to draw and be drawn to symbols, emotional states, and phrases. The album and its title were inspired by images found in a collage by Eileen Agar. Margolin, who began painting more regularly over the last few years and is the artist behind the band's previous two album covers, explains that her initial attraction to the album's trilogy of symbols began as she drew the figures repeatedly, respectively, until they later emerged as a coherent interwoven unit. "I manage to articulate it by thinking about them as symbols and that the waterslide is joy, playfulness, and fun. The diving board is climbing, reaching, jumping, and risk and fear. And then the ladder to the sky represents endlessness."
She finds solace in searching through literal and figurative spirals, such as Jacob's Ladder, to understand the bridge between disparate states. While these three objects emerged over time, they merged in a way that felt "hugely clarifying," as the singer said in a press release: "I felt like they perfectly described what these songs were trying to make sense of, even if I didn't know it at the time of writing them." It was a no-brainer when the time came around to name the album.
Online, the notion of being perceived, or the lack of desire to be perceived, has reached memetic levels. DBWSLTTS explores different layers of bodily awareness—from health anxiety to the complex embodiment of sharing your personal life with others. This interplay between the interior and exterior worlds plays out in songs like ‘Rotten’ or ‘U Can Be Happy If U Want To,’ a standout on the album that tackles the notion of making personal art and sharing it with others—and what is lost or gained through that process. The song addresses this idea twofold by exploring entanglement between 1. someone you love ("My voice is stuck to your voice / So everything I say / Belongs to you" and 2. those that experience your art ("And every song and every rhyme / Nothing is mine / I'll give it all to you"). It is a potent track that mainly captures this intensity of emotion as it fades further and further ("and back and back") away, emulating the essence of staring into oblivion. This is especially relevant as the band grows and their relationship to making art changes.
When I asked Margolin whether mortality was something on her mind during the writing process, she talked about her relationship to health and how she found strength in fragility. "I think I had a lot of health anxiety, and I really learned how to deal with that health anxiety. I've experienced things in different ways. But, a lot of the songs come back to that physical experience of being in the world and existing in a human body that is very fragile but also very strong. Understanding the balance between those things; how my weaknesses and fragility interact with my strength and my power; how they're cyclical and go up and down as a dynamic."
"I eventually realized that how you feel about how people feel about you is in your control."
The album presents not only an awareness of self, but also the freedom that comes from releasing control around this perception. "There was a time just before we released the first album where even though we were a very small band, suddenly I was aware that people were following me online that hadn't before. I was doing interviews, and suddenly I had to decide what my boundaries were and how much I wanted to share. I definitely had a big long anxiety about being perceived and not being able to control how people perceived me. I think that is what the fear really is. I eventually realized that how you feel about how people feel about you is in your control. I realized I can give what I can give and have my best intentions and try as hard as I can to follow what I think is right. And after that I don't have any power over how people perceive me. That was quite freeing."
This sense of exhilaration, liberation, and healing feels present on the record. Lyrically, Porridge Radio's writing has been characterized by their mantra-like, circular syntax, reminiscent of chants or experimental literature. There's an intentionality and attention to detail when it comes to the instrumentation and turning simple turns of phrase into cutting aphorisms. Through this repetition, the band disrupts and unfolds narratives in their songwriting. Margolin explains her writing process: "I carry around notebooks, and I write things down in fragments. I write little phrases or words or poems, stories, dreams, ideas in a stream of consciousness. That's kind of how I write, and I always have a notebook on me. It will just be full of shit, and that's an important part of my writing process is to be able to have a space that you can splurge everything into and then create a boundary between that journal and then something that could be shared with somebody else as a song or in any other form. It's important to have a space to play and make a mess and do whatever you want and not restrain yourself, to just let it all out. I think that lends itself to the style of songwriting that I do because I can draw little pieces here or there or allow myself to improvise in a stream of consciousness, which allows me to be more emotionally frank."
Interpersonal relationships, spirituality, and anxiety loomed large while writing WSDBLTTS. Rather than repressing these emotional exchanges, Margolin dug deeper. She allowed herself to sit with them. "I realized, and it's taken a while for me to get to this point and it was maybe very obvious for everyone else, but I have very intense emotional experiences of the world. I think for a long time I'd been trying to resist that and find the balance. But actually what has helped me has been accepting that I can have intense highs and intense lows and that's part of how I experience the world, and instead of fighting it or trying to be neutral it's just to accept it and go with it and allow the intensity. Why do I have to squash that down for someone else? If it's too much then it's too much for somebody. But maybe I can just allow myself to experience the world and not have to try and moderate it all the time. When you resist things that are happening anyway, they can be really difficult and painful. But when you allow them to be painful, somehow they become manageable. That's been a learning curve."
The band stages these tensions — joy vs. pain, togetherness vs. isolation, spirituality vs. existentialism — both thematically and musically. Porridge Radio composes cathartic landscapes scattered with moments of intricate instrumentation, intelligent storytelling, and intimate dynamics. Margolin's emotive vocal range brings to mind the greats like Dolores O'Riordan, who she cites as an influence, as well as singers who experiment with unconventional vocal styles like David Berman, Jeff Mangum, and Lou Reed. The introduction of horns and strings on this album reorients their sound and fleshes out the album's cinematic quality. The band's evolution is present in their arrangements, which feel fuller and more elaborate, from the heavier, grungier breakdowns on ‘The Rip’ to softer, more stripped-back moments on songs like ‘Flowers’ and the eponymous album closer. Their range is ever-expanding.
The opener, ‘Back To The Radio,’ was written back in 2019, when Margolin felt pressure after moving to London and confronting the unknown. The sense of loneliness and wanting to board yourself up ("lock all the windows and shut all the doors") is emphasized through careworn but energetic vocals. If lyrically, the song is anxious, sonically, it soars to a volcanic, clobbering chorus and sets the tone for a musically explorative sequence of songs. The use of gang vocals is reminiscent of the early 2010s in indie rock, when Tumblr sentimentality mixed with nascent emo-revival punk songs to create soaring arrangements and choruses, the likes of which can be found on bands like Titus Andronicus, or looking towards orchestral pop, in specific Arcade Fire albums. In this sense, Porridge Radio bridges the gap between the earlier tradition of indie rock and the new genre-bending sounds of the 2020s music scene that isn't as picky about boxing themselves into the confines of a particular genre.
The introduction of new influences like the trip-hop sounds of Portishead or the gauzy wall of sound from Deftones allows the band to explore new levels of catharsis in their songs. During the pandemic, Margolin started listening to Deftones by recommendation of her bandmate Sam. As a teenager, she was big into NME and the indie scene like many of us. While last time around, Charli XCX and other pop acts were cited as major influences, this time, the band goes into a heavier direction. "In lockdown, Sam sent me a Deftones album and was like 'I think you'd like this,' and I just got so into it, and I'd like never heard them before, and at the age of 26, 27 I'm like: this absolutely slaps, and buying loads of Deftones shirts."
You can hear these new influences on songs like ‘The Rip,’ which rips (for lack of a better word) into a lacerating guitar breakdown. As a single, it is one of the biggest sounding songs on the record and one that features a striking phrase when Margolin exclaims, "I'm sick at the seams." The crunchy, stuttering intro on ‘Jealousy’ is reminiscent of Portishead. It unfolds into a powerful, heaving track about confronting hurt as she sings in a lacerating tone, "Nothing makes me feel quite as bad as you," as the keys and guitars escalate in tow.
Rawness, a characteristic of the band's sound and lyrics, plays out in various ways. The band's earlier records were hailed for being vulnerable and diaristic, featuring unvarnished proclamations of the pains of being young and alive. Despite the souped-up production quality, this sense of intimacy found on their previous more lo-fi-sounding tracks is not lost but enhanced. With the help of producer Tom Carmichael in collaboration with Yardley and Margolin, the recording captures bright, anthemic energy that Margolin half-jokingly, half-seriously likens to the sound of Coldplay. When I asked Margolin how the band managed to maintain that sense of rawness, she described the process of creating sounds to make them as unpolished or shiny as desired. "When you stop recording on an 8-track in the shed, suddenly the world opens up to you. There are just certain aspects of the band and songwriting that come through because we are a raw, energetic group of people."
At its core, the album lands on a hopeful note. A message filters through amidst the ups and downs; navigating your twenties is about taking risks and continuing to try. That is all we can ask of ourselves—to keep going.
We laughed a lot during the interview. Margolin does not take herself too seriously, and she's quick to poke fun at things. One of the band's most vital faculties is their playfulness, which emerges in the recording process and allows room to explore new directions. They used a Modest Mouse-esque megaphone method on several tracks and even created an instrument out of scrap metal that one can hear on the album. Ultimately, the playfulness and risk taking have allowed Porridge Radio to stand out and constantly cycle forward, their sound evolving and changing like their propulsive rhythms, pushing them into new seasons by never getting mired in the past. When I ask Margolin how she thinks the album might be perceived 20 years from now. She cracks a smile and answers, "stone-cold classic?"
Porridge Radio is playing Best Kept Secret Festival next month. Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky is available here .