Frances Chang builds lush sonic worlds on 'Psychedelic Anxiety'

The musician brings her experimental bedroom pop to Spacebar for a concert on Friday, April 19.
Frances Chang
Frances ChangDesmond Picotte

Frances Chang’s new album, Psychedelic Anxiety, released in February, started to take shape during the early months of the pandemic – a point in time when the musician said she was going through a number of changes that forced her to reckon with who she was on her own.

“I had just sort of separated from my old band (Giant Peach) and I was beginning to play solo. And I was quitting things, like smoking. And so, I think I was just particularly in touch with myself at the time,” said Chang, who visits Spacebar for a concert on Friday, April 19, accompanied by Financial Collapse, Bobb Hatt and Pincer. “I almost felt like I was picking up where I left off before I joined the band, in a way, because I was getting back to those impulses I had when I was first starting to make music in high school or whatever.”

Playing with a band, Chang said, much of the momentum was directed toward live performance. With that focus taken away, she again began to consider music that had different textures and dimensions, leaning into the sonic possibilities presented by home recording rather than first weighing how something would translate to the stage. These ideas take root and flourish on Psychedelic Anxiety, with Chang’s warm bedroom pop songs interrupted by electronic pops that suggest a glitch in the matrix and fleshed out with unsettling, cinematic synth arrangements. 

“With the songs each being different, there’s something about that variety, where you’re sitting inside a world rather than feeling like each song is cut from the same cloth,” Chang said. “When I sat down to make these songs, by luck or whatever, there was something animating them, and I was having more successes than failures. … I was just following an intuitive feeling where it was like, ‘This is what it’s supposed to be.’ It didn’t feel random, even if at times there was a throwing caution to the wind approach, and not being afraid to splatter paint on it and trust the gods of improvisation that it would work out.”

While the tracks operate as immersive sonic worlds, Chang's lyrics have a tendency to turn inward, with the musician lingering on childhood memories (“First I Was Afraid”) and seemingly mundane slices of daily life (“Darkside,” on which she recounts a train ride home following a night out with an acquaintance). But even these innocuous moments can disarm, with the sonic landscape injecting a sense of tension. Witness “Spiral in Houston,” where Chang sings of holing up in a bedroom adjacent to a psychic’s house, her gentle words rising like curls of incense smoke even as electronic drums inject a contrasting sense of urgency.

“Even when I’m writing the things I call poems, I like to pair them with sonic things,” Chang said. “I don’t feel comfortable leaving a poem as just words. … Words can only say so much, so I guess that’s what’s being acknowledged by wanting to add a sonic environment to it.”

Chang traced her interest in constructing these sonic escapes in part to an early obsession with fantasy novels, which she said afforded her the opportunity to step into imagined worlds that often felt far more vivid than the place she grew up in Westchester, New York. “I also attribute being a voracious reader to a survival instinct,” said Chang, who absorbed books like The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Mists of Avalon. “When I was a kid, it could be a way to escape troubling energy. And I would read a ton and be immersed in these stories that were very often otherworldly.”

As she entered into her teenage years, music increasingly began to fill this space, with Chang writing her earliest songs on a nylon string guitar purchased for her in middle school by her mother. Early on, Chang said, her musical tastes were largely informed by her mom, a woman she described as having “a little bit of a Laurel Canyon vibe,” and who favored artists such as the Beatles and Neil Young. But while some of these influences might have shaped her earliest explorations – Chang said the first song she learned to play on guitar was the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” – the musician’s sound has been uniquely her own almost from the jump.

“I think I always had my own voice, because the gift I have is a lot less self-consciousness than I probably should have,” Chang said. “Growing up in a small town, I was totally confident in myself and just really into my own thing. So, on one hand there was a lot of learning that had to happen when I came in contact with a larger culture – not that I was alone on a mountaintop or something. … But then I’ve always been able to do whatever and feel good about myself.”

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