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Q&A with sister swimmer

In emerging artist sister swimmer’s upcoming EP, “The Horizon Line Swallowed Us Whole,” the boundary between dream and memory fizzles and sputters, dissolves into a hum of static. In the inevitable natural disaster of experience—did you forget your body, again? Do we trust the vessel that carries us forward? Is it really love or did you just want to feel safe? Between the lines of the songs written by project curator Britt Amborn, there’s a salve to turn emotional injury into relational fortitude, as a tool to move forward from her own obsessions with worry and place and longing and what stories the body claims for keeps.

sister swimmer’s upcoming EP, “The Horizon Line Swallowed Us Whole,” is a distorted and curious investigation into what detaches self from story. Delving into the dark mythologies we construct around memory and our lived-in experiences, the music blurs the lines between poetic nuance and melody, present-minded romanticism and nostalgia-drenched escapism, and sets the scene where a glowing, beckoning horizon line, that fulfillment of being present to the body and tender with its history, is an ever-shifting daydream, a worthy pursuit.

sister swimmer

What’s the story behind the name “sister swimmer”?

It’s funny, but the story behind sister swimmer keeps evolving. The short version is that my perennially over-thinking brain made way too big a deal out of deciding on a name. I finally took the advice of my dear friend Kim Kent, also one of my favorite writers, and played a word matching game with post-its. Scribbled some words that resonated on a few dozen pieces of sticky pastel paper, stuck them to a wall, and voila! Sister + Swimmer arrived. There was a gravitational pull.

I recently realized there’s another take to it (eep, nonsensical rambling stories are my expertise, sorry!) that goes back a few years—I was a songwriter in secret for like, forever. A group of friends, the honey-hearted humans they are, gifted me the best birthday present ever: a recording session with a friend of a friend, now my pal and incredible producer Nick Ward of french tears (along with the generous help of each of the gift-givers creative talents, too, oof). Can you believe?! I lost it. I was in a swimming pool with two friends I call sisters, also inspiring music-makers who I deeply admire—Lerin Herzer and Austen Case, when my girl Lerin spilled the secret of the upcoming gift. Oops. I remember emitting some alien high-pitched sound and dropping my entire body to the bottom of the pool, to conceal how hard I was crying. My sweet friend-family. They knew this was a dream of mine that I kept convincing myself was out of reach, or wasn’t good enough to pursue. I was absolutely floored, still am, by their special kind of attentive care. But now the story is: it all began with sisters. We were swimming!

Maybe it’s obvious that I also love to swim? Not like, competitively—more like a bob about in a meandering, daydreamy, succumb to a giant body of water type of way. Happiest little clam in some gently swaying river or ocean or lake or warm over-chlorinated pool. I used to get in trouble for refusing to get out of the water when I was a kid.

You’re currently working on your upcoming EP, “The Horizon Line Swallowed Us Whole.” What can you tell us about it?

sister swimmer

Making these songs has been the most fun I’ve ever had. My intention was to hold them loosely and learn from the experience—it was just my luck that I got to work with Nick Ward. I brought him the saddest little hum-drum folksy voice memos, and he dug in with all his production genius, gave them guts, wrote guitar melodies that had me jumping up and down hollering about how sick they were (see that photo I’m sending you from Hall of Justice? Austen can attest, I was down for the count when Nick played the guitar part before the bridge in “No : Body”).

I blinked and we had four songs. I’m so proud of them, and the dear friends that had their hands in the process. We covered a lot of ground—there are distorted guitars and rich atmospheric textures and quiet cinematic tones where Jeremiah Moon’s cello sweeps us through a darker landscape. I teared up when I heard his cello parts in the mix, it was such a gift. It’s illuminating to look at the whole project in hindsight, to see the thread-like current winding through. I was writing (am still) a lot about disassociation, historical weights and the stories our bodies protect, the fawn side of fight or flight, a pull between nostalgia and escapism, my allergic reaction to being seen, feeling like too much or not enough simultaneously, how all these things swirl and tangle in our relationships. All my delusions, ha. I can’t wait for it to be fully released. I can’t wait to write more.

Oof, the last song that we’re putting out from it, is SO FUN and is my anthem song, truly. I love it so much. Wait, I also love the next one too—it’s my baby, the first one we made, ugh. And it’s out on May 1st!

You’ll be performing at Capitol Hill Block Party this summer. Congratulations! What are you most looking forward to about that performance?

Thank you! I’m still pinching myself that this is happening. Getting to hang with my bandmates, they’re the most talented and just the best humans. I get really winded at band practice watching them interact with the songs and offer their own interpretations and styles—it truly moves me, knocks me off my feet.

If I’m being brutally honest with myself, the thing I’m looking forward to when it comes to the performance is really aiming to get to a personal place of freedom and felt safety on stage. Quieting the blaring imposter syndrome and getting lost in the intention, with the buddies who are there playing with me and the people who chose to listen and lean in. I’ve always had anxiety about being perceived—sharing the big feels when others are present can feel like actual physical overload. It’s a lot easier when you’ve got bandmates than when performing alone, I will say—god, it’s a blast. So I’m very committed to combating the nerves and my mean inner critic. I want everyone else to share their inner worlds and the inherent artistry that comes with telling your story, in any capacity or medium. It’s necessary to how we connect with each other—so I’d better take part in that responsibility, too.

And I’m absolutely ready/thrilled/stoked to race to every local set I possibly can, holy hell. The line-up is so stacked with Seattle music and I want to be there for them all, with freaking bells on.

Something I’ve frequently seen you discuss is the importance of community—specifically Seattle’s music scene. How did you first start getting involved with it and how do you think it has helped you as an artist?

sister swimmer

Before I moved to Seattle, a good pal sent me a heaping list of local artists he was about to see at a festival—as if I wasn’t already eager to be in this city, that magnified the feeling. Once I was here and connecting with people, making friends who loved the same weird shit I do, many of them were involved in music in some form. It feels like sheer luck to have found my people, who generously share their devotions. Friends who swim in their eagerness around devouring art together: how we long for it, how it moves us and widens our perspective, our own creative practices, the respite of finding we weren’t alone, all along—who praise each other when we manage to spin something sparkling from our darkest depths. When someone decides to make something in the face of what feels impossible, decides to lean into their community by sharing their story and grit and humanity—that’s so big and brave and worthy of celebration. I love being their cheerleader. I’m stunned and inspired and propelled forward by these friendships, and I’m overwhelmingly grateful to receive their encouragement and generosity, too.

I’ve been blown away by this local music scene. This whole project started with the act of friends supporting friends and lifting them up on their shoulders—an experience echoed by so many lovely, earnest people in this industry who I’ve recently connected with. Everyone understands how complex it is to be vulnerable and share what you’ve made, and champions each other and lights one another’s fires to keep going, keep speaking. To stay involved in the play of it, too, all the reasons why we gravitate to it in the first place. Something my friend/killer bassist/also killer musical talent behind Juliette (ALSO PLAYING CHBP YES), Scott Kulicke and I have repeated back and forth is this cheesy saying that goes, “Rising tides lift all ships.” I fervently hope I can do that for other music-makers, too—there’s room for everyone. It’s helped me so much as an artist to witness the sweet belief we have in one another, how artists belong to each other and need each other, that doing it alone just isn’t the option, or nearly as satisfying.

What is your writing process like?

It starts with the words, for me. I was the kid in second grade that always had a notebook with her, writing short stories at baseball games, flea markets, on long drives, obsessed with “Harriet the Spy”—but even now, I’m constantly collecting some translation of my current landscape, adding to my “graveyard” doc with what I notice externally and internally. I’m mesmerized by any chance to tease out what is illusive, watch the shape slowly take form. I’m going to butcher it, but a favorite poet of mine, Mary Ruefle, said something I cherish about writing, something like: “If you have any grid of intent, you’re on the wrong path, a dead-end, at the top of a cliff you haven’t even climbed.” It’s cheesy, but I learn everything by following the mystery. To try and give up control, to spill everything out in as many words as possible, before I start to resist it and become my own worst critic.

I usually take all my scribbling to the piano, to connect in a more visceral way—it ends up being a breadcrumb trail back to my body. I need a lot of ways to name what I’m feeling, what I’m protecting myself from feeling. When I majored in Creative Writing, I think I chose the emphasis in poetry because it felt noncommittal, brief, safe in layers of abstraction. Songwriting is allowing me to be more direct, more embodied, or, oops, maybe I get to hide under even more layers.

And then I take whatever I have to Nick—what a total game-changer. I’m an A+ student at starting a hundred different ideas all at once, and have so many first verses and random choruses and visions about where I want them to go (asking for a friend: how many voice memos can an iPhone hold before it spontaneously combusts?)—but I can easily abandon one idea for the next. Collaboration is essential for me, and these songs belong to him too. It’s been the best experience working with a producer-pal I trust, who can see [my internal chaos] from a birds-eye view and become a creative director to the potential of it all. These songs get taken to the next level, and sharpened far beyond my own limiting sphere and what I could’ve possibly dreamt up.

Do you have a favorite song you’ve written?

sister swimmer

This is hard! Wow. It’s usually the one I’m currently working on. It’s easy to hyper-fixate on a new world and get pulled under its waters. I love the start of the process.

But I should answer your question. I’m really proud of where “Knuckles” went—I wrote it in 2018, around the time of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. I’m not the best at accessing my anger, but it felt like I could do nothing but let my rage boil over, let the me-too movement made me braver. It did end up changing a lot when we recorded it, lyrically, five years later. It was tough to see it with fresh eyes–I thought it was asking for more. I ended up learning new things about my own experience as the song shifted into something different. I was wishy-washy about it though, and finally Nick was like—”Hey. It’s our last day of recording this. So you’d better figure it out or let it be.” This girl needs a deadline. I scrapped the whole chorus and rewrote it in the final hours. Along with the emoootions that came with hearing Jeremiah Moon’s cello, it was very cathartic.

You have some really interesting visuals accompanying your music. In particular, I’m drawn to the photograph with the yarn tears used for “Knuckles”. I know that your art direction is done in collaboration with your husband. How did you work together to come up with that idea specifically as well as your visual branding more broadly?

One of my favorite parts of this project is getting an up-close seat to my husband (Jesse Amborn)’s creative process. He’s an incredible designer and artist. His brain is this endless treasure trove of ideas and color, and he just speaks a language of visual story-telling. I’ll have some grandiose, half-baked idea—and he can jump in and take it to the next level or refine it in a way that is simultaneously grounding and bigger and better. I knew I wanted some creepy distorted visuals that had to do with feeling disconnected from my body, and when he interpreted these songs, my volume went through the roof. I felt like he read my mind. I can’t believe I get to work with my partner. What luck. I’m star-struck by him. Also, a major shout-out to my girl Megan Moon, the photographer behind it all. She took rolls and rolls of film to depict the narrative of this EP, in various locations, exploring different concepts—and our visuals couldn’t have the depth or gravity they do without how she finds the magic. She absolutely killed the photos shot with the yarn tears, and I’m so grateful for her way of seeing. She’s been along for the ride since the beginning. I often save photos she takes and shares on her Instagram to reconnect to beauty when everything else is tinted dark.

One of our prompts for these songs and the visuals that accompanied them was: what are the different ways that we intentionally or unintentionally distort the body? Specifically that of the narrator, in a dissociative way, with nods to whatever internal chaos is hidden but blindingly present. But while Monster Song was very internally focused, Knuckles was more external—something happened. There was an intrusion. It felt right to have the body interact with something tactile, like the yarn tears.

Along those lines, water seems to be an important theme both lyrically and visually with your music. What drew you to that?

sister swimmer

I have this prose poem I wrote in college, haven’t read it in forever—where the character is mythologized in a pull between the desert and the ocean, becomes the contrasting environment. Always a fish out of water, or…a desert rat out of the desert? Ha. Can’t think of what the opposite of fish out of water would be. I always dreamt of living close to water. I was born by the coast in Southern California, but moved to Arizona when I was young. It was my goal even as a kid to get back to the ocean and away from a landscape where the inhabiting creatures had to be armored, invincible, almost Machiavellian to survive. I do miss the desert, with a big “wish-I-could-be-everywhere-at-once” pang in my heart. I wish I could be there too. All the sunsets and big sky and eternal warmth.

This might be nonsensical, but let’s see if I can make sense. When I look at water, the same prickly conductivity happens in my chest as when I think about the future, about having children, about death, about everything I can’t control and can know nothing about—all the mystery I can’t physically touch and understand, the way the world is or was, all the precious things I can’t hold on to forever. But, that feeling with water is slightly different. The feeling when writing is the same too. It’s present, curious, feels like a soft electricity, soothes all my urgency. It’s a very grounding experience with the mystery rather than an anxious one. It’s a persistent metaphor that’s hard to get away from—incalculable blue, the extremes of chaos on the surface and eerie quiet below, a constant lesson of how to give up to the currents—let them pull rather than swimming against.

This is going to sound crazy, but the hazy way your visuals combine with your prose on Instagram makes me think of perfume. If there were a sister swimmer perfume, what would it smell like and why?

Creosote branches – the scent of monsoon season in Arizona. There’s nothing quite like it. Roses in late June, at peak bloom. If we could bottle up how the air shifts salty when you get closer to the ocean, before you can even see it. I really love this question.

Who, or what, has most influenced your music and artistic style?

sister swimmer

Ooooh. Okay, fun. 

If I boil it down…I’m going to try and pick five. This is so impossible. Adrianne Lenker. Radiohead. Mazzy Star. The entirety of Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism”. Julia Jacklin. Gia Margaret. Lucy Dacus. Sylvan Esso. Samia. Dang! I can’t do it! There’s so many more.

I feel like deep down, probably like everyone else in the whole world, I was very influenced by the music I gravitated towards in high school. Radiohead was like, my entire identity, to the point that I was pretty snooty about it. Oh boy—I actually had a picture of Conor Oberst taped to a wall in my bedroom, which is mortifying, but the Bright Eyes fervor was real. I also have a vivid memory of screaming every word to Third Eye Blind’s “Motorcycle Drive By” when I was newly anointed with a driver’s license, driving alone and feeling everything on this long, dark desert road up to where I grew up in Cave Creek, Arizona. Of course I was obsessed with Elliott Smith, and The Strokes, Broken Social Scene, The National, The Microphones. I was a big emo kid, but also, so many artists of the 90s. Fiona Apple, Nirvana, The Breeders, Jeff Buckley. I used to sing into my hairbrush in elementary school to Shania Twain, Brandy’s “Never Say Never,” No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom.” This is getting ridiculous, I could go on forever. Feeding into my horrible addiction for nostalgia. I spent an hour and a half in my car after work the other day, making a Spotify playlist of bangers specifically from 2008-2010 that I’ve titled: “2008 - the year I got arrested at a Bloc Party show,” which is an absurd story for another time.

Can I do an honorable mention of non-musical influences? This also feels like home base for a too-absorbent heart:

Ada Limón’s poem, “The Leash.” This book, forever for always: The Seas by Samantha Hunt (best read alongside Maggie Nelson’s Bluets). Oh wait, one more novel—Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Ana Mendieta’s work, namely, her Silueta series and photograph titled “Flowers on Body.” The desert southwest—particularly the road that winds through Saguaro National Park. The spark of feeling I get somewhere in my ribcage when I watch my dog run full speed down a swath of beach, she’s actually flying—I aspire to that level of free, of play, of reckless abandon, of lying in the sun belly-up, of not caring about how much sand is stuck in your hair, of relentless devotion and way of returning to the ones that call you home.

What are you listening to currently?

Will I ever stop listening to Adrianne Lenker and Chappell Roan’s latest records, over and over?! Probably not. Oh! I’m loving the new Bnny. Slow Pulp. Omar Apollo. Francis of Delirium. Bury me in every Moses Sumney song.

Listen to sister swimmer's single "Knuckles" now.

Photo credits: Megan Moon,, @megonfilm.

sister swimmer

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