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Photographs by Michael Persico
Annie Sachs' debut album as Tickley Feather features a special guest: her 4-year-old son Aiden. She didn't plan it, but one night he woke up while she was recording and supplied her with what would become atmospheric interludes.
"His pupils were really dilated," she remembers. "He was like, 'I've got magic inside my bones somewhere. Your skin has a switch and it makes a slingshot come out. You have magic spells inside of you.'"
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Weird stuff. That makes it a natural fit for Sachs' bittersweet and insular songs, which find her warbling mysteriously over cheap keyboard beats and echoing melodies like a princess trapped underwater. "I wanted to incorporate that because he's a big part of the reason why I started recording," explains Sachs, "which is being stuck at home through my single parenthood."
Sachs grew up in the small town of Lexington, Va., and studied some in Richmond. She moved to Philly almost five years ago just after finding out she was pregnant. She ultimately split up with Aiden's father, moved into her own apartment and devoted herself full-time to motherhood. Her musical output soon followed, aided by the gifts of a four-track recorder and keyboard from her mother and a RadioShack microphone from her father. An ex gave her an effects processor as a long-term loan, and Tickley Feather was born.
"I burned some CDs for friends back home and I wanted to make up a funny name that signified I was just joking around," she says. "I decided Tickley Feather sounds like a tarty name." Using the equipment she had, she recorded songs that wound up on two split 7-inch singles released on friends' record labels. One of those made its way into the hands of the "it" indie band of the moment Animal Collective, which asked to release a Tickley Feather album on its Paw Tracks imprint.
Most bands dream of an offer like that, but it psyched out Sachs. "I got scared. I became really self-aware," she admits. "I battled with that. I was trying so hard to leave my own head." That's when she decided to compile the album from existing Tickley Feather songs instead of recording new and improved ones. "I probably couldn't have moved on until I got this out. I feel like this stuff is really honest. It's like coming out of the closet."
Over French-press coffee and Asian pastries in her West Philly apartment, Sachs explains her recording process. She starts with a beat, then finds an effect, and finally plays keyboards and sings, making up lyrics as she goes. That gives the songs their intimate and eccentric vibe.
Take the hip-hop-sounding "Sorry Party." "This song is so, so silly," she says. "It's about drinking too much beer and being like, 'Sorry I spent you, money. Sorry I drank you, beer.'" Several songs sound like eerie nursery rhymes, while "Convention" starts as a sleek instrumental only to segue into pricklier territory.
The album is slated to come out in late April, and it's a given that Animal Collective fans are curious to hear it. They got a taste when Sachs toured with the band last year, playing to sold-out crowds. There were lots of teenagers in the audience, including obnoxious boys, but there were also girls who beamed up at Sachs while she played. "I remember feeling that way, but all I had was, like, Courtney Love. I was glad to be that for them."
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"I feel like we're more of a punk band than a rap group, as weird as that sounds," says Bryan Poerner, half of the Yah Mos Def, over a vegan Korean dinner in Old City with Rick Mitchell, the band's other half. If you've seen the YMD live, you know where Poerner is coming from. The two may sling schoolyard boasts and esoteric references over blotchy beats and left-field samples, but they also thrash around like a hardcore band, and scream over snatches of Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill.
"After our first show we realized we couldn't get onstage and just rap in the traditional sense, because it's really boring live," recalls Mitchell. "We realized we had to actually perform, and I think that influenced the way we wrote songs."
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