House of Spirits
"Everyone has ghosts," says Alejandra Deheza of her band School of Seven Bells' new album, Ghostory. "They're every love you've ever had, every hurt, every betrayal, every heartbreak. They follow you."
Those comments are how Deheza, known as "Alley," introduces Ghostory in a press release. The concept of spirits and being haunted permeates the album, the New York-based band's third.
The Houston Press spoke to Deheza, a cultured young woman whose exotic ancestry is readable in the features of her striking face, by phone from her Brooklyn home. A Guatemala native raised in South Florida, Deheza and her twin sister Claudia (with whom she formed the band, abbreviated as SVIIB) were born to a Costa Rican mother and Bolivian father, a former opera singer.
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"I can't imagine my upbringing didn't influence me," Deheza says.
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"My father listened to music from the Andes," she recalls fondly. "We had a lot of those traditional instruments around the house — pan flutes, shakers, things like that. It definitely influenced my creativity as a kid."
After a tumultuous year that included Claudia's departure from the band, Deheza crafted Ghostory's songs from the point of view of a character she named "Lafaye."
"Each song is a letter from Lafaye," Deheza says. "Not to any one person in particular, but more to a situation. The songs are her addresses to the players in those situations, as she looks back at the end of a cycle."
Mysterious as Lafaye may be, Deheza doesn't deny that the character's existence, in essence, symbolizes the songwriter herself.
"Oh, yeah," she admits, softly. "Wow."
With this succinct admission comes a sudden openness from Deheza, as she loosens the reins of our conversation and elaborates unprompted.
"When I remember certain experiences from my past, I see myself as someone totally different than who I am now," she muses. "Ghostory was a way for me to get to know that person — or at least the memory of that person."
Though she may not have planned for it, writing Ghostory was cathartic for Deheza. She sifted through her past experiences and struggles, and attempted to understand them via her developing songs — her "letters."
"I began to realize there were patterns repeating in my life," she explains. "These people and situations followed me everywhere I went. It got to the point where I couldn't ignore it anymore."
SVIIB fans have speculated whether Ghostory, in part, laments Claudia's departure from the band. Deheza doesn't dodge that question, nor does she exactly address it.
"Things changed more live than they did in our songwriting process," she says vaguely. "Ben and I have always written the majority of the songs. [Claudia's leaving] changed the dynamic, but more so changed the way people perceive us. People have a romantic notion of siblings in bands."
"Ben" is Deheza's bandmate Benjamin Curtis, and they are both familiar with such a notion. Curtis and his brother Brandon formed the Dallas-based rock group the Secret Machines in the late '90s; Benjamin left that band in 2007 to form SVIIB with the Deheza sisters.
SVIIB, operating as a duo since Claudia's departure, approached the writing of Ghostory with a fresh slant, now employing total collaboration.
"Previously, Ben and I always brainstormed songs separately," says Deheza. "I would focus on vocals, he would focus on music and production, and then we'd bring our ideas together. But for this record, we wrote together, for once.
"Now it seems like a pretty foolproof way to go," she laughs.
The duo crammed their many ideas for Ghostory, which was written and recorded between tours, into one month's work.
"We'd been so busy," Deheza recalls. "We had all these ideas for songs, and all these things we wanted to express. The energy from live shows inspired us, too."
SVIIB approached Ghostory's recording more regimentally than with its predecessors.
"We said, 'From this day to this day, we're going in to record at this time and write music for, say, ten hours,'" she imitates, with exaggerated cadence in her voice.
"That was something we'd never tried before," Deheza admits. "We didn't wait around for inspiration and just hope that it appeared. Instead, we forced ourselves to focus and make it happen, and I feel that comes through in the songs' immediate emotional tones. I don't think there's confusion as to what the mood is for each song, and that's a direct result of the way we wrote them."
Ghostory is layered with fuzzy shoegaze electronica and dreamy ambient pop. Deheza was able to mask her songs' meanings on past SVIIB albums, but not here. From its palpable lyrical shift to that telling press release, its story packs a hefty personal punch. Getting there wasn't an easy journey for Deheza.
"Ghostory ended up being cathartic, but when I wrote its lyrics, I felt really uncomfortable," she recalls. "The things I was writing about were things I didn't want to deal with for years, but I had no choice — anytime I sat down to write, I'd write only these letters. My brain kind of exploded and I no longer had the muscle to hold it all back.
"So," Deheza continues with a liberating sigh, "it was cathartic, but destructive and uncomfortable at the same time."
Ultimately, Deheza's "discomfort" led to heightened creation, easing her into a state of collected awareness and mental clarity.
"It's uncomfortable to process these emotions," she says, "which is why we have all these ways of fooling ourselves into thinking they don't exist, or thinking that something or someone can burn them out of you.
"The only way to deal with something," she asserts, "is to address it, and feel it. It sucks, but it's necessary. We turn repression into an art form."
Previously unversed in such lyrical openness, Deheza found support and encouragement in Curtis while writing Ghostory.
"Ben and I are like family," she says endearingly. "We have such trust in each other, and having that dynamic helps our band. We can 'check' one another during writing."
Though Deheza alone knows Ghostory's personal significance, she insists it carries a universal message.
"It's not a venomous record or anything, but it feels really personal because I know what it's about," she says. "But we all share the concept, because everyone has been through hard, crazy things and bad relationships."
Fresh off a short European tour, SVIIB kicks off their U.S. tour this week, and "haunts" Fitzgerald's Wednesday joined by touring drummer Chris Colley and vocalist/keyboardist Allie Alvarado.
"Fans can expect to hear a lot of new songs," Deheza notes.
As our talk winds down, Deheza seems to slowly shed her brooding "Lafaye" persona, thus revealing more "Alley." She grows more relaxed, and as we somehow segue into discussing food and fashion, we remind her that it's crawfish season in Texas.
"Hell yeah! Crawfish sounds delicious," Deheza exclaims. "We love finding areas' best regional foods while touring, and just eating and eating."
After 30 heavy minutes of discussing ghosts and emotional baggage, our conversation is now lighthearted and breezy. Deheza has one final request.
"Please send me some crawfish restaurant suggestions on Facebook?"
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