Anyone stumbling onto Grandma’s Cottage for the first time will likely feel a strange combination of tenderness and terror. The artwork for the album, which quietly landed on Bandcamp in late 2019, looks like needlepoint embroidery from the underworld, and the music summons a strange world that’s as nostalgic as it is unsettling. “I believe [it] creates a bit of confusion in the listener; ‘Is this intended to be inspiring or foreboding?,’” says LT, the Ohio-based mastermind behind Grandma’s Cottage. “There is no true answer, and I think that is part of the appeal.”
Grandma’s Cottage isn’t just an arbitrary cult hit, though—it belongs to a micro-genre, known as “comfy synth.” Albums in the genre are often short—generally just 15 minutes or so of childlike, looping synth patterns, like something an elementary schooler might practice for their piano lessons. Comfy synth albums come adorned with overly cute imagery, with artwork depicting animals like frogs, rabbits and geese roaming the wilds, as well as portraits of homey locales like donut shops, seaside cottages, and fairy villages. It’s a bizarre, playful aesthetic, the innocence of which feels like a reaction to how dark and violent our world has become: a plea (or even satire) of our desperate need to just feel safe for a few minutes in between daily spats of dread.
World-building is a major element of comfy synth; albums generally revolve around a wholesome theme, or create a character for the listener to cuddle up with. “Comfy synth is almost like a guilty pleasure,” says the California-based Goose Mother. “To some it might even sound silly with the music and imagery, but to others it’s a fresh breath of air.” For many artists making comfy synth, the genre feels like a simple exercise in bringing some unbridled positivity into the world; others, however, view it as a conduit for darker emotions as well. “I like projects that give perspectives on ill-fated terms, things that give a feeling of worry,” says Jeff of the Comfy Synth Archives channel, which seeks to document and preserve the evolving scene. “This can be found in projects such as Unemployed Uncle Bob, Kolessa, Mum & Dad, Pooter the Clown, and Old Man’s Dream. It captures the uneasiness of life, which I have faced many times and fought with.”
This fascination with despair helps explain comfy synth’s unlikely (and ironic) connection to dungeon synth, a sinister electronic subgenre that evolved out of black metal and dark ambient. Many of the scene’s most prominent artists have a history of making dungeon synth and black metal (though all of them unequivocally reject the fascist elements that have plagued both genres); LT of Grandma’s Cottage runs the Dungeons Deep record label, and Tiny Mouse, one of comfy synth’s most popular artists, had even previously played in a fairly well-known Swedish metal band before starting the project, but prefers to keep Tiny Mouse anonymous. Sweeping albums like Hole Dweller’s Flies The Coop and Decrepit Corridor’s Lethargic Lullabies (which was also recorded by LT) actually laid the groundwork for comfy synth, blurring the line between where dungeon synth’s moody atmospheres end and comfy synth’s mollifying melodies begin. “The idea of dungeon synth is like finding darkness in the light—or maybe it is the other way around…?,” ponders LT. “The soothing ambient music almost startles the listener with its dark imagery. I thought what better way to progress this than by totally steering it in the other direction, fully embracing pleasant themes.”
The world outside is bleaker than ever, with people fighting every day for just the basic right to live happily and freely. So take a few moments to enjoy this assortment of comfy synth treasures, and rest up before the time comes to face yet another day.
Lost World splits the difference between dungeon synth’s Renaissance obsession and comfy synth’s preoccupation with all things delightful. Recorded by the Marseille-based Sandra Coincoin, The Fairy takes an ethereal approach, sketching out crystalline textures that sound as if they’re dripping off the stalactites that adorn the grotto on the cover. Lost World taps into some of that Stratosfear-era Tangerine Dream magic as well, its MIDI flutes and pitter-pattering sound effects creating a miniature world as peculiar as it is calming.
The Friendly Moon
The comfiest of all comfy synth, Sleep Well! is less an album than it is a pure ambient lullaby (one of the tracks is literally titled “Zzzzzzz”). Coated in vinyl hiss, The Friendly Moon taps into the same interstellar bounce as Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, with ambient tones that twinkle softly, like glow-in-the-dark star stickers in your childhood bedroom. Where so much other comfy synth walks the line between the familiar and the uncanny, Sleep Well! is unabashedly snug, the perfect album for drifting off into a sweet, comfy slumber.
The whimsical opulence of Goose Mother sounds like a strange cross between the fanfare you might hear in a royal banquet hall and the soap opera surrealism of Twin Peaks. Its regal organs and chintzy MIDI strings are disorienting and inviting, painting a childhood fable out of Casio presets. Malcolm, the artist behind the project, had previously played in metal bands and made ambient music before happening upon comfy synth as an outlet for what he was making. “Goose Mother just came up in my mind as something really neat to base a project around,” says Malcolm. “I felt that it was peaceful and could tell a story as well.”
The definitive release of the comfy synth genre, Grandma’s Cottage is a warbly, surreal voyage into a Thomas Kinkade painting of the mind. Released in two parts, both editions of the original album included handwritten recipe cards taken from LT’s own grandmother. “I think looking back as an adult, you remember your grandmother’s home in a particular nostalgic way that makes it seem like a magical place,” says LT. “I really wanted to capture a dreamy spirit, like a very distant memory.” The album has even attracted such a cult following that it’s inspired subversions of its theme, such as the nightmarish Grandpa’s Cottage, which plays like the sad, grumpy foil to Grandma’s Cottage’s homey charm.
Much of dungeon synth and comfy synth carries a video-game-like quality (whether intentional or not), and Mushroom Village’s Strawberry Fields embodies that aspect with its artificial pianos and looping synth melodies. Written by Marius, a Polish classical piano player currently residing in Sweden, Strawberry Fields taps into a sound that should be familiar to anybody who played video games in the early 2000’s. Its half-peaceful, half-mysterious songs conjure up the Renaissance-indebted soundtrack of Final Fantasy IX, or even the cute RPG questing of MapleStory.
The Shakespearean Frog
Based in Brighton, UK, The Shakespearean Frog makes, as the back of Handkerchief Soap attests, “beautiful song treasures.” Adorned with art of a frog playing the violin, the album has a strangely sorrowful undercurrent, its dense string chords wailing in a cartoonishly-theatrical requiem. It’s some of the most outwardly emotive comfy synth, its operatic songs spinning a sense of drama that still feels like it could fit in a toybox.
Snowy Hill House
Under the Stars
One of the more mysterious releases under the comfy synth banner, Snowy Hill House’s Under the Stars is covered under a sheen of tape hiss that gives the whole album a hypnagogic-pop quality. Songs like “Under the Stars” and “Days Passing By” are lonelier than the typical comfy synth fare, their soft guitars and lightly dissonant melodies wrapping the listener up like a warm blanket to take shelter from the cold.
Little Ones Journey
The award for the most wholesome comfy synth project has to go to Tiny Mouse, whose twin albums Little Ones Journey and The Happiest Mouse Alive could be the soundtrack to An American Tail if nothing bad ever happened to Fievel. Channeling the same cozy feelings as Mort Garson’s Plantasia, Tiny Mouse’s wide-eyed marimbas and mischievous synth lines seem to tell a bedtime story all on their own. “I just felt that a mouse is a very sympathetic lead character in my music,” says the Swedish artist, who had conceived of Tiny Mouse before comfy synth had become a genre, but quickly realized it would make a perfect framework for the project. “Tiny Mouse is all about being a symbol of kindness!”