From the June 2020 issue of Rolling Stone:
Half a Life: Songs for Lucy
**** out of *****
It’s hard not to be aware of Rachel Berry’s story.
Broadway’s enfant terrible crashed onto the scene as a fresh-faced, but—if legends are to be believed—incredibly entitled twenty-two year old, who then cleaned up the Tony and gained a reputation for being a superbitch. In the years that followed, she picked up two deserved guest star Emmy nominations for roles on Cardiac Arrest and everyone’s favorite comedy, The Unbelievable Story of Us, while her private life—and her public relationship with the gorgeous Noah Puckerman—was subject of constant scrutiny by the press.
She was set to break through in Hollywood with a feature after a summer stint at Caesar’s that sold out nightly and got overwhelmingly positive reviews, even from Berry’s harshest critics. It’s not a time in most people’s careers when they’d take time off, but Berry did not only that; she also fired long-time friend and manager Kurt Hummel, and then disappeared off the face of the earth.
During Rachel’s absence from public life, the music industry caught a buzz of some demos leaking on a website titled letterstolucy.com that weren’t really like anything anyone had heard before. Acoustic guitar, mixed with electronic beats of the early 90s trip-hop variety; did we love it? Did we hate it? Was it progressive or reductive? Nobody could really decide, until the project in question, who by December had named themselves Half a Life released a cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Hysteric, which spread through the blogosphere like it was leaked from the latest Beyonce album.
Who were these people? If pressed, I could’ve told you that the woman’s voice sounded familiar, but other than a niggling feeling at the back of my mind, it never really connected to anyone I knew. The Letters to Lucy website was of no help whatsoever; with its sparse design and utter lack of personal information, displaying only two silhouettes of a man and a woman behind a guitar and a keyboard respectively, it could’ve been a joke project by She & Him or Mates of State as much as it could have been the serious work of two complete nobodies.
And then, right before New Year’s Eve, Half a Life played a show; in a coffee house in Jersey, where nobody was expecting to see them, but the band themselves recorded the performance and put it up on Letters to Lucy and suddenly, it all made sense.
Except it didn’t, at all.
Rachel Berry and Noah Puckerman, with new hair styles and completely casual clothing, jamming away in a Jersey coffee house with a custom Taylor guitar and a 3000 dollar keyboard that—and I’m not kidding—they then also themselves carried back out to a car. [Whoever filmed them caught that part, too, to my great enjoyment.]
So, let me dwell on that for another moment:
Rachel Berry, in jeans and a sweater, carrying a keyboard out of a coffee shop and laughing gloriously both at whoever was filming her lugging it back to the car.
My friend Zachary, over at Pitchfork, called the performance a Joaquin Phoenix moment. That’s funny, but a little insulting, since what Half a Life are recording is actually music. There’s craftsmanship behind it and a lot of feeling. So what brought this project on?
When I put this question to them, they exchange a look, and then Puckerman laughs and shakes his head. ”All yours,” he says, and after a moment Rachel—on her fifth coffee of the day, by her own admission—turns to me and smiles.
“I had something approximating a nervous breakdown at the end of the summer,” she then says, easily.
I almost drop my pen. ”I’m—are you serious?”
“And you want me to print this?” I ask, because everyone knows what happens when you go after one of the Hummel children.
She smiles at me, indulgent now, and says, “I’m not ashamed of it. People have no idea what this industry is like once you’re in it. The amount of pressure on you to keep on achieving, and to never take a moment to rest… Sometimes, you just need a break. I didn’t take one soon enough, and paid the price.”
“So, if this is a break—are you going back to Broadway at some point?”
She shifts in her seat, and leans into Noah—who tells me he’s really more of a ‘Puck’—and then says, “Maybe someday, but right now, my focus is on this.”
“All right—but, how do you go from being a seasoned performer to … doing something like this?”
She takes a sip of her coffee and nudges Puck, who clears his throat and says, “Well, Rachel moved out of the city at the end of the summer; or like, in the fall. She bought this new house and it had a spare room, and we just thought that we’d put some recording equipment in it, just in case she wanted to come out of retirement. I mean, CDs are sort of her stable source of income so—that would’ve been an easier thing to step back into than actually going back on the stage.”
He talks about the house like it’s his, and I look between them for a moment, before hesitantly asking, “Did you also move out of the city?”
He grins. ”No. I live in Brooklyn.”
“We just record at my place,” Rachel says, flexing her fingers around her coffee mug; and it’s a casual but deliberate move, because I immediately notice the absence of—well, any rings. ”And then I send him packing, because if he could he’d just stay on my couch indefinitely and let me feed him.”
“Whatever; like your cooking is worth sticking around for,” he says, and nudges her in the side until she laughs.
I blink, because these two are acting more like siblings together than—
“You’re not a couple, are you?” I blurt out.
They both grin at me, and then simultaneously say, “No comment.”
I look back down at my notes and say, “Which one of you writes the lyrics?”
Rachel raises her hands. ”With some help.”
“Everyone I know,” she admits, with a cheeky little smile that has me smiling back on instinct. ”We’ve not really said anything publicly about the band because it’s—sort of a family project of love. I mean, Noah and I perform everything, and record everything, but we have friends that help us with everything else; my friend Tina designed the website for us, and our friend Mike helps us with the rhythm section, and so on and so forth.”
I hesitate for a moment, and then say, “You write about—”
“Loving women,” Rachel says, with a small smile. ”Is that where you were going?”
It’s interesting. She’s been exceptionally pleasant throughout this interview, but I can see why she has the reputation of digging in her claws if you push her too hard; and after a second Puck leans in, whispers something in her ear, and she closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths and then nods.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable,” I offer.
“No, that’s fine. I’m not uncomfortable with loving women,” she responds.
I do actually drop my pen at that.
“So—when you said no comment—”
“Noah and I are the very best of friends,” Rachel says.
I stare at her. ”So who’s Lucy?”
Puck stretches out his legs and says, “It’s not that literal. They’re songs that we wish we could’ve sung to people that we knew years ago; so that’s like—you know, the general idea. When love seemed simple and like it was the only thing we mattered. So when we were teenagers.”
Rachel nods. ”I mean, there is a Lucy, but—we just needed a name, really.”
“On that subject, where did Half a Life come from?” I ask.
“One too many beers after a delicious dinner,” Puck says, with a very straight face. ”Um, Rach here was going off on how she was just half alive for a long time, but our music project was making her feel things again—”
“Yeah, and then our friend Mike noted that it’s because it’s not everything I’m doing; it’s just you know, one part of my life.”
“Yeah. So, half a life,” Puck says. He smiles after a moment and then adds, “I mean, it can mean whatever you want it to. So don’t take that too literally. But it’s the truth.”
“What’s your favorite song on the album?” I ask them both.
Rachel’s nails tick against her mug for a moment, and then she says, “I have very strong feelings about the Hysteric cover, because that is about someone in particular, but in terms of things we’ve originally written—Down for a While is up there for me.”
“Because it’s about oral sex,” Puck adds, and Rachel slaps him in the stomach, before looking at me apologetically.
“It’s really not. Please don’t print that … unless you think it’ll make the album sell better.”
I laugh at her, but they’re just fooling around now; the song is about horrible addiction and how coming off it actually makes the world seem new all over again.
Then, I look at Puck, who rubs at his chin and then says, “I think that—what she wrote in False Memory really rings true with me. I mean, I think about some of the shit I did when I was younger and the way I remember it now is totally different. And um, my favorite song is Hey, Baby.”
“That’s not a love song, is it?” I ask. ”I mean, the other ones are clearly—about relationships in some context, but—”
“No, it’s about my daughter,” Puck says.
“Yeah, that’s a really good one,” Rachel agrees, a little more seriously.
“So what’s next for Half a Life?” I ask, when she finishes her coffee and Puck looks out the window for a while.
I get a shrug from both of them. ”More small shows,” Puck says, after a moment. ”I mean, we like the acoustics in those kinds of places. And we’re really just in it for the music, so—”
“If you want to make sure we don’t go broke in the next five years, buy the record on the Letters to Lucy website, but yeah, we basically just—look for intimate little venues where we can play together at short notice, and it’s not really about making a huge splash,” Rachel says. She smiles wryly and says, “I used to think I needed applause to live; I guess I still do, on some level, but it doesn’t have to come from hundreds at a time.”
There is something beguilingly naive about their approach to this project, and the business-sensible part of me wants to tell them they’re sitting on a gold mine, and could go big label with this, but—they don’t seem to want to. Songs for Lucy is being put out by their own label, Puckleberry Jam Records, and available for download from their website and iTunes. They both look like they’re completely happy with that decision-making process, so who am I to tell them they’re doing it wrong?
“What inspired the music?” I ask. ”I mean, not the words, but the actual music.”
Rachel perks up at this question a little and says, “What didn’t?”
“Yeah, but it all started with that cloud, didn’t it,” Puck says.
Rachel nods. ”I have a friend who is this real electronica buff. I mean, she literally listens to anything from Kraftwerk to modern day electrohouse, and then likes blending that type of music with 80s new wave; it’s all very synth and beat oriented. I never in a million years would’ve listened to any of that growing up, when my entire life was about musicals, but it was a great change of pace for me after the summer. So—I listened to the music on that cloud, and then Puck said he could reinterpret that kind of music on the guitar, and then—we just sort of… went for it.”
“It was trial and error, I mean, taking some really electronic stuff and blending it with lo-fi wasn’t easy, but I think we’ve done something unique,” Puck adds.
“I would agree,” I say. ”You’re not really like anything else that’s out there.”
They both smile at me, and then Rachel says, “I don’t know, I guess I’ve just been broadening my horizons lately. My life was very single-focus for ages. Now it’s more—open. And that’s something that I hope shows in the music.”
I nod, and then glance at my watch; it’s almost time for them to head off to another performance, and so I look through my list of questions. ”Any other bands you two would recommend to people who like Half a Life?”
“Early The Weeknd; and definitely Purity Ring,” Puck says, and then frowns for a moment. ”Also, you can’t ever go wrong with the Smiths. One of the first things we played with was This Night Has Opened My Eyes, which—let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Rachel do a Morrissey impression.”
Rachel rolls her eyes a little, and then says, “This is not at all related to what we do, but I got a lot of inspiration from Adam Wakefield’s Getting Back on the Horse.”
That is not at all what I thought she would say, and it shows.
She laughs at the look on my face and then shrugs. ”I try to buck expectations, these days.”
The door opens behind me, and Rachel’s eyes flit over to it and then light up; she raises her hand with two fingers sticking upright, and I look over my shoulder as a blonde woman rolls her eyes at Rachel, then heads to the counter to place an order.
“It was really nice meeting you,” Rachel says, with a polite smile, and an offer to shake her hand. I reach for Puck’s as well, as the dismissal is clear in what they’re doing, and then pack up my things.
When I leave the Dunkin’ Donuts, I glance back over my shoulder and see three very normal people laughing about something over new, giant mugs of coffee; Rachel's head is tipped back and Puck ruffles her hair after a second, and then they both grin at their friend again. It’s a visible sign of the carefree, people-focused attitude that makes Half a Life so enjoyable to listen to.
Expectations successfully bucked, Miss Berry.
- Tanya Allison
Songs for Lucy is available for downloading on letterstolucy.com and the iTunes store, at 4.99 for the entire album.