Fear of death, and depression resulting from loss, have been at the heart of Muscle and Marrow since their early days. “I’ve always been aware that you could lose people you love at any moment,” says frontwoman Kira Clark, who formed the brooding, otherworldly rock duo with her boyfriend Keith McGraw in Portland, Oregon in 2013.
The group’s heralded 2014 debut, The Human Cry, conveyed dread and suffering with lumbering beats, wailing, echoed vocals and spare, fuzzed-out guitars that were tuned so low the strings wobbled. The group’s follow-up, Love, is just as dreary, but the sound has evolved, adding layered vocals, electronic programming and droning repetition to create an alluring, hypnotic effect.
Clark uses overdriven guitar sparingly, punctuating progressions rather than driving the rhythms. Compared to more conventional rock drummers, McGraw’s playing is so minimal that it’s primal, motivated by intuition rather than learned technique. “Keith’s primary love is composing on the computer, not drums,” Clark explains. “I had to beg him to play drums for me, because I realized that I couldn’t share the intimate, private ideas of these songs with anyone else, and the music needed beats to push it forward.”
Throughout Love, Muscle and Marrow expose the terrors in the darkness as a way to exorcise them. The opening song, “My Fear,” centers around a looped mantra—“I fear, I fear, I fear”—over a bed of pounding beats and a rapid, ascending keyboard. Clark’s voice gasps with desperation: “I… don’t… want… to… die… die… I / I… still… don’t… know… how… to… love…love… love.”
The songwriting on Love hinges on space and simplicity, with haunting, single-picked notes and airy, sustained vocal lines. At other moments (often within the same song) it builds tension with tumbling drums, crashing guitars, unsettling electronic noises and agitated screeches and screams.
“The obvious, immediate emotion on this album is pain,” Clark says. “But it comes from different places. So much of that pain stemmed from loving people, trying to love people, and loving people and losing them. To me, love and loss are completely connected. You can’t have pain over losing something or someone without first loving it. And love brings an immense joy and pleasure that’s utterly unique while it lasts.”
In conversation, Clark is amiable and thoughtful, carefully analyzing herself and her motivations. And, though trauma is not the only engine in her biography, the pain she draws from on Love is very much real. When she was in high school in backwater Oklahoma, her severely depressed older cousin and mentor Jennifer—who lived with Clark and her mom—died in a car crash. In college, Clark’s mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and doctors told her and her grandmother to start making funeral arrangements. With her grandmother’s attentive care, her mom recovered. Years later, her grandmother was stricken with severe Alzheimer’s, and began a slow, steady decline.
“I’ve experienced a lot of loss, and music has been a valuable tool for me to grieve,” Clark says. “I still deal with a lot of anxieties, but I feel better and stronger and more able to cope than I did before the band.”
While Love touches on the tragedies in Clark’s life, it was directly motivated by her grandmother’s death, which occurred midway through the songwriting process. “Bereft Body” includes the ethereal, yet elegiac vocals, “My blood is my grandma/ my love is my grandma.” At the end of the song, a wave of static builds until it engulfs the rest of the music.
“A lot of this record was written in this anticipatory state of grieving when my grandmother hadn’t passed yet, but was impaired in a really severe and devastating way,” Clark says. “I knew her death was imminent, and was kind of preparing for it through these songs.”
To a large degree, Love is about stumbling through distress and haphazardly coping along the way. However, the title is also a reference to one of Clark’s greatest inspirations, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love. Not that there are many musical similarities between Clark and Kurt Cobain’s widow, but when Muscle and Marrow’s vocalist feels anxious and overwhelmed, she summons strength by listening to Hole.
“Courtney Love doesn’t care what people think of her, and that makes me like her all the more,” Clark says. “She is messy, hated, and flawed, but at the same time, she’s viciously smart and extremely ambitious. I think she’s the voice of something inside of me that I don’t feel crazy enough to express. When people don’t like our music, I get really sad and shrink away. And that’s when I wish I could be like her, because she’s an insane, mad genius that represents female strength in a powerful way.”
While Clark acknowledges that Muscle and Marrow owes a sonic debt to Swans, most of her influences are women, and for the past few years she has listened almost exclusively to female artists. Like some of her heroes—Love, Stevie Nicks, Bjork, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple—Clark embraces and plays with gendered archetypes, flipping them inside-out as symbols of empowerment. She’s recently turned from wearing ghastly outfits to donning more feminine attire, continuing to interpolate femme tropes.
“If these female role models were available to me growing up, I feel like I would have connected to other like-minded women and found my voice and confidence sooner,” she says.”
The last track of Love, “Light,” centers a two-chord passage atop humming synth. As the song builds with tumbling guitar chords, echoing beats and anguished vocals, Clark’s tone shifts from lamenting, “Everyone I know is gone/ I stay right here” to defiant, repeated cries of “Fear my power.”
“I really love the archetype of the female witch, or crazy madwoman, because madness is much more empowering than sadness,” she says. “When I’m really depressed, I can’t do anything. But when I’m feeling a little bit crazy, I have fuel for creativity. I don’t really feel powerful in life, but when I say ‘Feel my power’ I can take on that confrontational embodiment in the music, and that gives me inspiration.”