“I was trying to express the aggression I was feeling without sounding like I had a chip on my shoulder.” That’s Havadine Stone of experimental electronic project Blue Lick, a duo with Chicago multi-instrumentalist Ben Baker Billington. Their debut LP Hold On, Hold Fast is a multivariable meditation on existence and a queasy sonic exploration. The album combines Stone’s vocals and writing with Billington’s roving modular synth soundscapes that oscillate between the caustic and the atmospheric, resulting in something singularly Midwestern – plainspoken but disorienting.
Composition for Hold On, Hold Fast began in 2020 with Stone starting the creative process, sending her vocal contribution to Billington. “I thought she might send field recordings,” he says, “but she ended up writing a long piece and reciting it.” Stone’s piece was a thirty-minute-or-so straight monologue navigating love, landscape, violence, the written word, and more. “And it’s all one take,” Stone says. “I recorded it sitting in my closet, with my laptop and recorder – in the dark, reading it over again. I would say a word the wrong way, even though I had practiced so much, and then start over again. That was important to me – maybe that’s part of making things hard for myself, but it was more satisfying to me.”
Once Stone turned in her vocals, Billington turned to his custom modular synth, made by Matthew Regula, to create backdrops, slicing the monologue into twelve pieces. “I would listen to her vocals over and over again,” Billington says, “writing patches for smaller, two minute pieces, then record three to five minutes of that patch. Sometimes I would write with the sounds starting and then having Havadine’s vocals creep in, or vice versa.” The attention to detail and meticulous listening paid off as the interplay between instruments and spoken word grants each aspect its own real estate.
There is a focus on beauty and love on Hold On, Hold Fast, but not the kind found in typical places. “If anything, I was trying to show the beauty I find in the Midwest, and the beauty that I find in things that aren’t soft,” Stone says, spotlighting the free jazz-tinged, gentle nugget “X,” which features the most sexually explicit language on the album – “You got cum in my eye so many times I had begun to think you were doing it on purpose.” There’s humor there, as much as there is the expression or experience of romance. “I appreciate the point-blankness of just like…getting cum in your eye when you’re in love,” she says, noting that though it may not be outright pleasant, it’s still an indication of connection and the act of love.
Other songs are more straightforward odes to the Midwest – “II” is a quick, seething number featuring panning percussion and low end from a rumbling synthesizer, invoking highway stretches, rows of corn, and subtle disruptions in an otherwise nondescript landscape. “This is the midwest,” incants Stone. “It’s flat and wide open, and when something is flat and wide open you can’t hide in it, can you? Unless you make yourself like wind. Move the body like a fish; see how it glides through the water like it wasn’t even there, like it was just thin air.”
There’s a connection between Billington and Stone submerged in the realm that precedes creation – things like intention and ethos. Though there is a surrealism in both instrumental and vocal realms, the album circumvents the soft allure of dreaminess, firmly footed in reality, but distorting it through a lens, gently. This is the Midwest without Culvers, where crop rows line the earth, where uniformity averts attention, where a few stalks back something waits, inspecting the passers by, and jotting down notes, as it has, and as it will continue to.