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Confessions with Priest

“The way people have responded is really amazing.”

Since the release of Priest’s gorgeous self-titled debut, the 80s-inspired synthpop of the Florida duo has dominated my consciousness throughout the summer. Chances are the dreamy and fuzzy synthesizers and Madeline Priest’s standout vocals and evocative lyrics have done the same for you.

Before they start their tour next month, I wanted to check in with Madeline and her bandmate David Kazyk to see what makes them tick. Along the way I learned how Madeline gets pumped to record, how they get their sound, and about an alleged 80s Madonna connection that persists throughout the album.

Priest’s debut album came out in May, more than a year after their first EP, Samurai. People were certainly receptive to the EP, but they’ve been losing their minds over what I see as the fuller, more realized concoction Madeline and David have created: an intricate, contemplative, and even wistful, take on the retrosynth and indie-synthpop aesthetic.  In terms of band comparisons, think of a marriage of CHVRCHES and Chromatics.

“It’s been pretty great,” Madeline said. “We’ve found a much wider audience with the LP. The way people have responded is really amazing.”

Madeline and David met through mutual friends four years ago, but it took some time for them to fully settle into a cohesive project. It’s Madeline’s first professional gig, but David’s been involved in music for a while, either in bands or as a producer.

Eventually, we talked about our backgrounds in music, so we decided to demo some songs just for fun,” Madeline said. “A few months later we put Samurai on the internet and now we’re here.”

For a while, the duo had “x’s” surrounding their name, but they didn’t take long to drop them.

“We dropped the ‘x’s’ because they were originally meant to make us stand apart, but they ended up just confusing people,” Madeline said.

The Samurai EP was an enjoyable listen, but it’s certainly a different creature than the album that came after it. Of course the synths and electronic and/or treated drums are still there, but it’s all darker and more minimalist.

There is the dreamy ether that persists throughout their work, but this starker sonic palette gives the four songs a much more pronounced 80s British synthpop vibe — with some electroclash for good measure — than what we find on the recent album.

The Next Step

After Madeline and David built up momentum with Samurai, they set forth on their mission to create something grander.

“It all came together so quickly,” Madeline said. “I think we really just wanted to take this record to the next level from the Samurai EP. It still has a lot of the same dreamy qualities, but I think it’s a little more cohesive as a whole.”

They started demoing the tracks about a month before they flew to Los Angeles to record the album, Madeline said. David went a few weeks ahead of her to complete much of the basic tracking.

“… All in all the recording took about a month,” she said. “It was pretty intense.”

They would pull 12-hour days. Madeline says her biggest challenge was staying focused, especially when singing the same song “over and over, or trying to nail a certain part.”

“One of the hardest songs to record was definitely ‘Staring at the Walls,’ because there’s like no time to breathe in it,” she laughed.

“Luckily, the people we were working with made it a fun and awesome experience,” she said.

It was Madeline’s first time in LA, so she took the opportunity to eat a variety of different types of food. She also made sure to hit up the juice bar below the studio, which she says made it easy to start the day with “something green.”

Studio Life. Photo Credit: Priest.
Making things happen. Photo Credit: Priest.

“We stayed in a little house that was just a few blocks from the studio in West Hollywood, so I would listen to Beyonce or Rihanna to pump myself up on the walk over,” Madeline said.

In the studio, they have an “anything goes” approach to the writing process, according to David.

“I’d like to think that nothing is really off the table,” he said. “Obviously we have a certain sound, but what influences that can come from anywhere.”

Analogue Dreams

For recording in the studio, they like to use as much analog gear as possible, “the older the better,” David said. He prefers recording live drums, “even if you’re just going to cut it up and turn it into loops.”

They used at least five different vintage synths on the record, David said. Some were their own and others they borrowed, including an old Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and the alleged actual Jupiter 8 used on Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”

Madeline Priest, one-half of the duo partially named after her. Photo Credit: Priest.
Madeline Priest, one-half of the duo partially named after her. Photo Credit: Priest.

The finished product is among my favorite albums of the year. It retains some of the elements of the EP, but they lived up to their goal of creating something grander and more cohesive.

They told me that current bands they love include Phantogram, CHVRCHES and Washed Out, and I can hear the inspiration of all of those groups on the record. Madeline grew up loving Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, in addition to Pat Benatar and Madonna. Some version of those artists is here, too.

My favorite song is “Strong Hearts,” a bright, triumphant cut that’s as catchy and kinetic as anything Vince Clarke put out in the 80s with expressive guitars that remind me of Bernard Sumner’s noodling on New Order records.

The melodic and enchanting synthesizer explosion, “The Game,” is probably the most well-known song on the album. Rightfully so. It’s a gorgeous onslaught of so many dreamy and colorful sounds. By the time the closing mantra, “We’ll always have tonight,” kicks in, it’s a great example of Madeline and David at their most celestial.

What comes off as the best straight-up homage to the 80s on the record is the groover “When the Strings Are Gone.” It’s a nice medium-paced disco number with a smooth strut. The punchy bass and the chiming synth leads and moody synth pads pair well with Madeline’s admonitions to someone lost. This is their classic Madonna song, but it’s also a cut that would fit in well on a Chromatics album.

The record is out now on the Sweden-based Emotion label.

Going forward, Madeline and David are hitting the road in late September. So far, as of the date I posted this, Priest will perform at The 529 in Atlanta on Sept. 22; at The Empty Bottle in Chicago on Sept. 27; The Riot Room in Kansas City on Sept. 30; and at Outland in Springfield, Missouri, on Oct. 1. There are more dates to be announced at some point, probably on their Facebook page.

Madeline says that along with touring as much as possible, “we’re already working on new material that we’re really stoked on!”

We’re ready.