Aside from the in-unit washer/dryer (I’m jealous), the Brooklyn two-bedroom Horsegirl guitarist and vocalist Nora Cheng shares with drummer Gigi Reece’s brother is like many first NYC apartments. It's sparsely furnished, waiting to be lived in, and full of potential. The light is low as the common area has no windows, indicative of a landlord slicing and dicing the units in an old building to collect more rent. Nora, who left her parent’s house in Chicago a year ago, settles down next to Gigi, who sits crossed-legged on a vintage floral sofa. We're waiting for guitarist/vocalist Penelope Lowenstein to wrap up her day as a freshman at NYU, where Nora is also a sophomore (Gigi eschewed college and works as a nanny). Nora’s fluffy gray cat Ramona rubs up against my legs as I sit at their kitchen table. Both musicians are wearing an indie rock uniform of sweaters, workwear pants, and wooly socks. They eat Triscuits straight from the box and discuss their costumes for a First Communion-themed birthday party they’ll attend that evening, which feels very on the nose for a trio of 20-or-so Brooklynites, given the recent proliferation of Catholicism as hip iconography for the Dimes Square set.

Horsegirl pose in their apartment.
Look, you don’t ask the Feelies to throw on a fucking leather jacket. Do not ask us.

And now, for the disclosure: according to Spotify, I was in the top .05 percent of Horsegirl listeners in 2022. Our algorithmic overlords let me know we “spent 1,915 minutes together,” which translates to 31 hours. I suppose this makes me qualified to spend a few hours with them on a rainy Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, discussing their uniquely big year. The Chicago trio officially relocated to New York City on the heels of their high school graduations—or, rather, reunited—Nora and Gigi graduated and made the move a year ahead of Penelope. This is not unique in and of itself. A lot of folks move to NYC after school to see if they can “make it,” but what if you already have?

Horsegirl's debut full length album Versions of Modern Performance (out on indie mainstay Matador Records) has been a massive break-out success, popping up on several "Best of 2022" lists and garnering the band spots on major festival line-ups and shows at some legendary venues. In October, Horsegirl opened for Pavement at NYC’s famed Kings Theater, something most musicians could only dream of doing. Even they didn’t anticipate how the legacy of the place would affect them. “I didn’t realize how nervous I was until we were onstage doing it," Gigi says. "I was like, oh my gosh, this is horrifying…we have to play the best show of our life.”

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These are not opportunities afforded every new, young band, but Horsegirl is not every new, young band. The familiarity of their indie rock sound, rewritten in their own unique fashion, stems from obvious influences: the college radio, shoegaze, and post-punk power players that dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s, such as Television, Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth. In fact, Versions was produced by John Agnello, who famously worked with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. And SY’s Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo play on the tracks “Billy” and “Beautiful Song.”

These references appear in subtle ways in Horsegirl’s loose, distorted guitars and airy vocals, and in a few instances, result in direct lyrical reference. Like the nod to Gang of Four on the single “World of Pots and Pans.” (Nora sings: “Sometimes I’m thinking that I lust you / But I know it’s only love.”) And yet, the band's greatest songs are centered around fictional characters, like a “brand new friend” named Emma in “Pots and Pans”, or the eponymous “Billy,” the track that closes out the album, as he “waits to be crucified.” In creating those narratives, Horsegirl communicate emotionality in a way that feels universal without being diaristic. It’s moody without giving you the ick; a magic founded in three teenagers meeting at a musical education program in Chicago and writing a record, bonding over their shared enthusiasm as they began to discover these bands, the ones that would ultimately shape Horsegirl’s music.

Horsegirl pose for a Polaroid.
“Shake it like a Polaroid! Shake it shake it!!!!” The Polaroid in question…

“When you’re a kid learning electric guitar, [your teachers tell you that] what you should be aiming for is to learn this huge solo, to play this really virtuoso stuff,” Penelope says once she's arrived to our interview, speaking with her hands, offering a relaxed authority. Penelope is the most outgoing of the three; Nora is more taciturn, and Gigi’s somewhere in between. “It was an important moment for us to grow up and reject what we got told in music school to think is cool. I secretly shred, but I felt like it wasn’t really my thing. It can be done, but I choose not to do it.”

She laughs. Gigi jumps in, like a sibling might, to describe a video they have of “Penelope going crazy,” playing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Penelope grins.

“It was really empowering for us to find guitar playing that resonated and discover ourselves as songwriters,” Penelope continues. “Like, ‘this is what feels right to me.'”

“I secretly shred, but I felt like it wasn’t really my thing. It can be done, but I choose not to do it.”

Horsegirl perform live in midtown Manhattan.
Every single person in this audience had a strong opinion regarding photography at Mitski shows.

At that point, the band was a duo; Nora and Penelope, who’d recently met through Chicago’s School of Rock, collaborating on what they called an “end of high school project.” Gigi joined shortly after.

“Gigi kind of learned to play drums in Horsegirl, which is so beautiful,” Penelope says.

“That’s why you’re such a cool drummer,” Nora jumps in.

The band’s only goal was to finish a full-length before they went to college, recorded in Penelope’s parents’ basement (movie execs, take note of this perfect high school romp prompt). Success, inadvertently and deservedly, followed. The Chicago Tribune published a feature on the band after they submitted their first single “Ballroom Dance Scene” for consideration, just one year into their career. In the year that followed, that song, alongside Versions’ lead track “Anti-Glory”, has accumulated over a million streams on Spotify. Horsegirl signed to U.K. record label Sonic Cathedral in early 2021, which brought Matador and Angello to the table. They were everywhere.

“The idea for the record was articulated before anybody knew or cared about what we were doing,” Penelope says of Versions.

Horsegirl formed in 2019. Their name is an in-joke, a reference to a very specific archetype: the gawky, long-haired teen whose locker is covered in photos of horses. “It was our first show and the open mic just needed something to call us, and in middle school Penelope had a dream she was in a band called Horsegirl—and since then it stuck!” Nora says.

“We wanted, more than anything, to be the cool upperclassmen in a band,” Gigi adds.

Horsegirl pose for a CREEM photoshoot.
We’re having fun in the captions but, really, please appreciate how hard this look is to pull off. The line between Talking Heads album cover and Abercrombie + Fitch ad campaign is a fine one. (Horsegirl fits in the former.)

Horsegirl’s youth is hard to ignore—Nora is 20, Gigi is 19, and Penelope is 18—and this facet of their identity dominates press coverage. It’s as though we’ve all forgotten that Dave Davies was only 16 when the Kinks formed in 1963, or that Mick Jagger was only 19 when the Rolling Stones formed in 1962. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been for the kids; it’s almost not worth mentioning. Except that the only thing more rock ‘n’ roll than being young is being obsessed with youth, and how they operate.

One reason for the obsession with Horsegirl’s youth might be that their sound references bands that existed before they were even born. It even evokes nostalgia in the folks who did live through that era, and leaves Horsegirl vulnerable to critical scrutiny from those same listeners—like a version of a patronizing dude complimenting your band tee and then asking you to name three of their songs to prove you aren’t a poser.

“The musical scene around us and also [people our age] were, like, pop-y indie synth vibes, [but that] just didn't resonate with us,” Penelope reflects, pushing her bangs away from her face. “We have this desire for physical rock music.”

But Penelope says she’s “opposed to the idea of Horsegirl as nostalgia music,” and that, yes, they get that feedback frequently, and from different generations. "Old dudes will be like, ‘this is the sound of my youth…’” Gigi says. Penelope counters, “This is not the sound of your youth, this is the sound of my youth.”

“This is not the sound of your youth, this is the sound of my youth.”

“What’s interesting to me,” she continues, “is how you lose control over things once you put them out into the world. To us and our friends in Chicago, this is the sound of our youth, literally… There are people who write about music or work at record stores that are not our age, and they’ve seen generations of rock music, and so [‘90s nostalgia] is how it's interpreted. But I only know my experience of being a kid in a DIY community.”

Horsegirl pose for a portrait on the stairs of their apartment building.
Vampire Schoolday?

“I think nostalgia was honestly something we talked about a lot in high school,” Gigi adds. “Like not [only] in the way of making music, but in the way that it’s our life, and going through things and playing shows with our friends. Like, ‘oh, when I’m older, I’m gonna think about this and get so emotional.’”

Preemptively feeling nostalgia for youth while experiencing said youth speaks to a certain level of heightened self-awareness, one that is reflected in the band.

Horsegirl perform live in New York City.
"We’re not gonna play Laura Nyro!"

“[Our music is] meaningful to us,” Nora reiterates. “[This sound] was new to us and our friends. I guess it has its roots somewhere, that it has a different meaning for other people. But to us, it was kind of like, ‘This is now.’”

They speak in tandem on this particular subject, allowing one another to complete their thoughts before building on them. Penelope’s next: “Fugazi did punk years after punk was done, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs did punk again after Fugazi, who did punk after Sex Pistols.”

The analogy here is clear: Sonic Youth and Yo La Tango did fuzzy, shoegaze-y indie rock before Horsegirl, and surely someone else will build on what Horsegirl have created in the future.

But what’s next for the band? They’re not in Penelope’s basement anymore.

“It’s scary to be in a place where we feel like we have less roots,” Gigi says. “It’s a little bit hard to think about, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to write our second record [in New York City].’ I don’t want to abandon the idea of us being from Chicago, Chicago being such a big point of inspiration for us.” Penelope jokes that they will soon enter their “sophomore slump,” and Gigi agrees. “Yes, our sophomore slump. Our New York City-written album by New York City band Horsegirl.”

Personally, I find it hard to imagine any kind of decline—for a band that has just got their start, beloved in every geography—how could they have anything but potential?


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