Photography by Philip Cosores
It’s December in Los Angeles, which means that it’s still acceptable to meet School of Seven Bells’ Alejandra Deheza poolside at the rooftop bar of the Ace Hotel. Of course we aren’t swimming, and we don’t fit in at all among the day drinkers enjoying an obtrusive electro-indie DJ set while sipping overpriced booze out of metal cocktail shakers. In spite of the unseasonably warm weather, frat boys dressed as Santa Claus pour in and out of the other downtown bars as Deheza explains the horror that is SantaCon to me.
This is not home to Deheza. She has lived in Filipinotown for months and completed what will be the final School of Seven Bells album here, but Los Angeles is a temporary stop on a journey that will likely take her back to New York. Throughout our afternoon together, she openly misses Brooklyn, from her friends to the familiarity of the sights and the smells. “When I moved there, it was a really magical time,” she recalls, telling me that in LA she always feels that strangers are sizing her up, figuring out what they can get from her. She’s not totally wrong.
Still, Deheza’s move to LA was an essential step toward SVIIB’s completion. The album was conceived and written in New York before her best friend and bandmate, Benjamin Curtis, received his cancer diagnosis (Curtis ultimately passed away in December 2013, less than a year after beginning his battle with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma). “Seeing everything in a different context actually allowed me to listen to these songs again,” Deheza explains.
“Before, it was just too many references,” she says as we find a quiet spot indoors to talk. “I remember that room too clearly. I actually put the songs on every day so I could get used to them being around, to get my emotions healthier around them. And every time I’d hear them, I knew exactly what room I was in. I’d remember exactly what time of day it was. It would all come rushing back. When I was in New York, it was just impossible to listen to them. Going for a walk down the street, maybe to go get coffee or something, and like, knowing that I walked the same sidewalk before in a different time, it was just really hard.” Relocating to LA gave Deheza the chance to separate herself from the raw emotions the songs evoked within her. “It’s impossible to completely remove yourself,” she says, “but it was a way where I could actually work on it like a piece of art, like a song again, as opposed to just reliving the pain.”
It also helped that Los Angeles is the home of Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a longtime member of Beck’s band whose production credits include M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob. Meldal-Johnsen signed on to produce SVIIB early in the album’s conception, speaking regularly with Deheza and Curtis while Curtis was sick. His hiring intended to shake things up for the band, as Curtis had always served in the role of producer. “We got on the phone with him without any expectations, and it just made sense,” Deheza recalls. “It was really hard to give that up, having someone else have input, because we had kept such a tight creative vision the whole time. I was really surprised by how easy it was to relinquish that.”
But Meldal-Johnsen provided more than just an outsider’s opinion. Throughout the course of completing the album, he offered emotional support in what was often a devastating experience.
“Justin was always so understanding,” Deheza says. “I would just have to leave the studio sometimes. I couldn’t handle it. There are some songs where Benjamin’s vocals are on it, and we would isolate the tracks to work on them, and it was just so bizarre to hear his voice in the room. Just so rattling. It was definitely one of those things where you leave the studio and you hit the bar.”
Hanging over our conversation, as it hangs over the album, is the year that took Curtis away from Deheza. We had first spoken six months after Curtis’ death, and that conversation found the songwriter still in a bit of shock, attempting to talk about the band for the first time without Curtis and finding it difficult to not get emotional. It was clear at the time that it was just too soon for her.
Today is different. More than a year has passed, and now Deheza faces a different challenge: letting go of the project and facing a future in which Curtis won’t be her working partner. She’s become more comfortable talking about the music and about Curtis, but the wound hasn’t completely healed. It might not for a while. “Part of the reason why it took so long to go back to the record,” she says, “is because I knew that once it’s finished, I would also have to start talking about it.” But she also notices how much her emotional state has improved.
“I pretty much went off the deep end for a while,” she admits. “I just couldn’t deal. People had been begging me to get help forever, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Stupid excuses like healthcare. It was also because I really didn’t want to fucking talk about it. I just wanted to hammer it out with booze and whatever else. I didn’t want to talk about it because it was terrifying to go there, to go to that room again. Luckily, I had really great people around me.” Deheza especially credits her twin sister (former School of Seven Bells member Claudia Deheza) and Meldal-Johnsen for helping her reach the other side. “I’ve always had people around me that I could express myself around, and it’s worked for me so far,” she says. “I’m here. I finished it.”
And the finished product does what it intends. It sounds not only like a School of Seven Bells record, but like a great School of Seven Bells record. Deheza’s vocals are every bit as celestial as ever, their strong melodies positioned within the comforting oceanic warmth of her and Curtis’ arrangements. Even without Curtis to witness the completion of SVIIB, it sounds like the complete realization of the pair’s vision.
“It’s exactly what I thought it was going to sound like,” Deheza says. “I think he would have been really happy with the way it turned out.”
Now that SVIIB is about to be released into the world, a final testament from a partnership that has defined so much of her life, the difficulty now is moving on. “It’s kind of terrifying to me because this record is something physical that I can hold on to,” she says, recalling the lyric from album closer “This Is Our Time” where she professes that “Our time is indestructible.” “I don’t know what it’s going to be like now, but I do know that it does scare the shit out of me a little bit.”
Deheza is writing again, and she has spoken about working with her sister on what would be their first proper project since School of Seven Bells’ second album, Disconnect from Desire. And she acknowledges that Curtis will always be a part of the art she creates, a fact that sees her moving from sadness to hope for the first time in a long time.
“I think about him all the time,” she says. “It’s really hard for me to separate that, so I’ve just been writing words. It’s been a long time since I could actually do that. You know how we’re always putting stuff out constantly? I almost felt like that was a waste of time. I had this weird guilt about wasting it on the piece of paper. Now, I actually feel great that I can do that. It’s like, Alley, you finished the record, so now you’re going to go do things for this record so you can chill out for once. And do what you love, just write for the love of writing. That’s what I’ve been doing.”