When NYC-based artist Car Astor caused little tsunamis in 2016 on YouTube under the moniker SEE, her music was spunky and fearless, a showing of her bravado of youth (her breakthrough single “Potions” garnered over 1million plays on Spotify and 7million views on YouTube). In 2018, she switched gears and experimented with electro for a handful of singles including the fantastic “Girlfriend” and the searing industrial-tinged “Don’t Stop, Don’t Speak.” Instead of the fearlessness she fronted, she hid behind the synthesized beats of electropop, adopting a bit more mystique.
But 2020’s version of Car Astor and her EP You Say You Love Me…But I Don’t Believe You. It’s like none of that. With the bluntness of Aimee Mann and the breadth of early Sarah McLachlan, she creates lush tapestries with her layered vocals while keeping the stark instrumentation uncluttered and unfettered, allowing her songwriting to shine.
“It’s a huge 180,” she explains. “Compared to everything I released the past few years, I feel like this song and record is almost the opposite sonically. Lyrically is way more focused on being really honest – every line means something.” No longer hiding behind a spunky attitude or slick production, she has emerged from behind curtains… raw, vulnerable and tortured.
“I can’t pinpoint an exact moment of why the change happened, but I think it must be really tied to what was going on in my personal life,” she explains. Like a storyline of John Hughes’ film Some Kind of Wonderful, she was pining hard for her best friend, scared that if she confessed her feelings, it might alter the scope of their relationship. “This is an album about me falling in love with my best friend and the very tumultuous and painful journey we’ve had together over the past few years,” she reveals. “It’s an album that in many ways is the opposite of everything I had released on the internet so far. It’s also an album that forced me to see myself more clearly, whether I wanted to or not.”
The rawness of her single “Everything Stays Unspoken” cuts right to the marrow with every nerve ending triggered and shooting daggers straight to the heart. “And every time I’m near you, I think I’ll be alright / But when I get home my whole body breaks apart,” she sings with angst and pain, her voice quivering.
“In a way, this record can feel jarring to listen to because the vocals so dry and unedited,” she explains. “There are mistakes in the guitar playing, et cetera, and compared to my other releases, I was doing completely the opposite in my approach. In songs like ‘Potions’ and ‘Girlfriend,’ I was dead set on everything being perfectly timed, edited, sung. It was so freeing to make this new record and realize that the imperfections and rawness were actually the best parts.”
For Astor, this wasn’t an act or a persona she presented. This was her life, her narrative, her story. “There aren’t any metaphors on this album, no hidden meanings,” she replies. “Every line is actually just exactly what I was thinking at the time of writing it.”
Every song on her new EP You Say You Love Me…But I Don’t Believe You is a heart-wrenching exploration of her feelings. Even her tender cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” with its reverb-heavy keys tugs hard to near-breaking point. “When I say this, I definitely sound so grim and depressed in a silly way, but I would cry while writing most of these songs,” she confesses. “It wasn’t easy to do at all, and it was absolutely therapeutic. At the time, I had so many pent-up emotions and was tangled in this huge emotional mess that felt too heavy to carry, and the emotion would just spill out of me.”
For Astor, the distance from her notebook to the finished song wasn’t that far a distance. “It wasn’t easy to do at all and it was absolutely therapeutic,” she says. “I have so many memories of walking in Manhattan, being in Ubers, sitting at bars, taking the LIRR, and being that weird person who was crying in public. I just couldn’t physically keep it all in, and the main way of me coping with this was writing down EXACTLY what I was feeling and singing about it.”
The grainy black and white video which premieres on American Songwriter today, mirrors that unguardedness. Shot in her apartment in the thick of Manhattan’s strict “shelter-at-home” mandate that restricted unnecessary public travel, she and director Morgan Saint relied on home-made production values, McGyver-ing the clever and no-cost camera trickery. After a failed first attempt using the glass-walled elevators in her building, she scrapped that concept and went home. “We turned off all the lights, used a flashlight to light me, and filmed through this big mirror we have in the living room,” she discloses. “The end result is obviously very simple, but I think it comes across really intimate, almost like you’re spying on me singing the song.” Highly effective and proving that some of the best videos rely on sheer creativity, the video is the perfect companion to the song’s lyrical vulnerability.
By the time we reach the final song “M,” she almost works up enough courage to say something to her best friend but stops short. “I wish I knew how to tell you / That everything that you do makes me a better person,” she sings, the pangs of heartache still begging for requited love. It’s an open-ended narrative… a story left unfinished.
Thankfully, Car Astor’s real-life epilogue mirrors a John Hughes movie. “My best friend and I are actually living together now and we’ve been dating for the past year,” she beams. “It all somehow worked out in the end and I feel like everything that happened needed to happen and changed both of us in so many positive ways, despite it being super hard for both of us for a few years. It’s a happy ending!!!”