“I guess this is my indie rock record,” jokes Chicago electronic musician and composer Brett Naucke – he’s referring to his new LP Mirror Ensemble, created in conjunction with Windy City mainstays Natalie Chami (TALsounds) and Whitney Johnson (Matchess). The album is still leagues outside the confines of “indie rock,” and yet – with its embrace of other collaborators and robust instrumentation – it’s a major departure from his earlier, fully synth-based output, even if modular synthesizers still form its backbone. For one, the songs on Mirror Ensemble sound like…well, songs, often boasting melodic vocalization, strings, and lush layered synthesis. To curate such a cohesion, Naucke utilized scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s foundational 1975 film The Mirror as a signpost for mood and atmosphere. It paid off – Mirror Ensemble is bold and beautiful, demonstrating the peak possibilities of focused creation and trust in those closest to you.
It’s of utmost importance to note that Naucke, Chami, and Johnson are very, very close friends, and that tight kinship is the secret glue for Mirror Ensemble – look no further than the origin point to see. “He invited Whitney and I over for wine and cheese,” begins Chami, “and was like, ‘I have an idea for a record. He showed us clips from The Mirror with the vibe he wanted, and also shared recordings and other ideas. It was straight up like a fucking PowerPoint almost – like an audio-visual presentation for us.” Soon after the group set to creating – recording at Chami’s house, and building off of what Brett had laid down as initial arrangements and synthesizer passages, Chami and Johnson composed and played viola, piano, keyboard synthesizers, and vocal sections.
Film, photography, and visuals have always been important to Naucke’s practice, especially on earlier narrative albums like The Mansion, and it’s fully baked into the sound and feel of Mirror Ensemble. “I remember he played one scene with rain, fire, people kind of moving in and out of the buildings,” recalls Johnson. “It’s probably 10 minutes, and there’s a convergence of so many elements.” Specific images like a tattered quilt, a creaky bed, a look between two people – all of these components impacted the trio’s recordings – these were often used as guides for improvisations, which were overlaid on Naucke’s modular synthesizer and other pre-composed sections.
Naucke’s vision for Mirror Ensemble is crystal clear, as are the record’s sonics. From the outset of “The Glass Shifting,” with its evocative viola, textural synth, and duet vocals from Johnson and Chami, it’s clear that Naucke is upping the sense of scale and narrative. Juxtaposing that relatively short piece with the next song, the longform “A Look That Tells Time,” Naucke takes the listener through a massive range of frequencies and timbres. “A Look That Tells Time” moves calmly from organ tones, plucky percussion, and gentle viola to lush, patient synthesizer that swells and stirs. Others like “Sleep With Your Windows Open” are naked, like you stumbled into a rehearsal you weren’t meant to see, but can’t stop watching. On it, Natalie Chami plays piano and sings softly. Room sounds impart a sense of the space, and synthesizer fades in and out, just enough to make its presence known, but never overstaying its welcome.
Mirror Ensemble is Naucke at his compositional and conceptual best. It’s a synthesizer record, an orchestral record, and in some ways even a soundtrack. While not quite indie rock, it’s a fierce burst into new territory, and with Naucke’s adventurous, ambitious writing and recording, there’s no telling where his attention will turn next.