Ruth and Mike Aiken have, since 2011, made a name for themselves as Belfast folk-poppers The Jepettos, sharing stages with the likes of The Black Keys and Foo Fighters. Now, as New Portals, the duo have branched out into R&B-tinged electropop, capping off a year of single releases with ‘WinterSkin’, due on 2 December.
We speak to Ruth about the new song, collaborations, telling the truth, their recent US tour, Bon Iver, Pinocchio’s dad, and boy bands.
Did you ever consider introducing more electronic elements to The Jepettos instead of starting an entirely new band? Or did the songs you were coming up with demand a separate project?
Yes, we did have some electronic elements to The Jepettos. On our track ‘Moving Underground’ I played our MicroKorg throughout. And it followed the banjo in the instrumental solos and outroed with a techno sound. This worked really well actually as, in the music video, this sound complemented the northern lights which we had as the video was filmed in Norway.
But yeah, we just fancied a complete change and liked how The Jepettos/Geppetto (Pinocchio’s dad) was associated with wood and this tied in well with folk and woodwind instruments which were the mainstay of our sound. The Jepettos still exist – we release a few tracks every few months under that name.
There’s a heartbreaking story on your website about how songs you wrote for a school theatre production helped a 6-year-old boy in the days before his death. “This idea of songs being portals to another better place is one that we have carried forward into our new project.” How’ve you done that?
Good question. We really focus on developing our songwriting and improving our writing skills. Part of that is learning to stick to a theme or a story more and work on making the song ‘believable’ so the listener can feel what we’re trying to say even if they can’t exactly pinpoint what the song’s about. ‘Groove Boy’ is actually about a partner cheating. The musical arrangement is upbeat but the storytelling is dark.
Our latest single, ‘WinterSkin’, has some heavy lyrical content too, but hopefully it comes across as genuine and will be something that people can identify with. It’s about being in an abusive relationship and the feeling that “I know I could do better but I’m too scared to”.
But songs don’t need to necessarily make sense lyrically to take us to another place – for example, Bon Iver’s ‘Re: Stacks’. That’s Mike’s favourite song and he’ll listen to it on a loop when he’s stressed, but neither of us have any idea what it’s about!
Did you put constraints on yourselves when starting New Portals? And did you find the music you made took you in new or unexpected directions?
We still write with sad subject matter but we wanted New Portals to be more upbeat and cheerier than The Jepettos. We now always use a drum machine when writing so we have no choice but maintain a beat which is something we never did before.
Have you found New Portals bleeding its way into new work by The Jepettos? Is that something you worry about?
Yes, there’s been some bleeding across. We’ve written songs for New Portals and ended up re-recording them for The Jepettos. We aren’t worried about that happening – it’s good to have two different creative outputs. We both can write for each act and carry these different styles with no problem at all. We know the genres really well, I guess. When we write we usually (but not always) know whether it’s one for The Jepettos (folk-pop) or New Portals (indie electronic pop).
Could you pick one album, song, or artist that changed your life? And how (if at all) has that influenced what you do in New Portals?
So, I’ve always been obsessed with melodies. I hated boy bands growing up because they’d especially start to sing a line and I could predict where the melody was going and be able to finish the line before they did. The whole thing was so predictable and that really bored me. In recent years, I just loved the melodies of Amelia of Sylvan Esso and really enjoyed the twists and turns her lyrics and tunes took.
Your videos and band photos are very striking. How important is the visual element of New Portals to you?
Yeah, it’s pretty important, but it’s not everything. I don’t want an audience to get distracted by how we look or what we’re wearing – we’d rather they listened to our sound and the vibe we’re trying to create.
What do each of you bring personally and musically to New Portals?
I defs bring ‘90s R&B fast melody lines; Mike would be the lyric guy.
What do you two bring out of each other that you don’t get working with others?
We get honesty – I can’t be as brutally honest with others as I can with Mike. Obviously we tell each other if we don’t like an idea pretty easily, but when working with others we have to be more tender about negative feedback.
You recently collaborated with Miranda Inzunza, while on tour in the US. What’s the appeal of collaborations like that?
Well, we love collaborating and learning from other artists anyway, but it was really great to network and work with Miranda as she’s really up and coming in New York and we loved her songwriting style so we asked her for a co-write. We thought “What’s there to lose?” We’re really happy with the song we all came up with in just a 3-hour session. We’ll definitely record it – not sure which act we’ll do it under but we’ll definitely get her to sing the lead vocals when we do.
You’ve already released several singles over the past few months. Which comes closest to your original idea of what New Portals could/should be?
When we started writing the production was a lot more pop but, as we’ve grown, the sound has become darker and more chilled. But still catchy – hopefully!
Could you tell me a bit about your latest single, ‘WinterSkin’?
I started writing it about a friend who was simply unvalued in her relationship at the time – hopefully you can follow this theme in the lyrics. It’s probably one of the most literal songs we’ve written in terms of the lyrics telling a story about a bad relationship.
What’s been your highlight so far since forming New Portals?
Definitely our New York trip, meeting all the Spotify team, meeting lots of the Sofar NYC team. Getting really good feedback from New Yorkers and just becoming sure of our sound and getting excited to release all our songs that we’ve made.
And what’s in store for 2017?
We’ll be back in the US, playing some shows at SXSW, and hopefully more festivals, and possibly an EP or albumette in early 2017.