Once Cleo Tucker transitioned from female to male, Girlpool discovered their sound. (Illustration by Kristen Lucius, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

Girlpool Continues to Slay, Even After Cleo Tucker’s Transition

Tucker’s gender confirmation has shifted the duo’s sound, giving the twosome entirely new vocal options.

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Tucker’s gender confirmation has shifted the duo’s sound, giving the twosome entirely new vocal options.

Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad met at an all-ages concert in their hometown of Los Angeles. They were only in high school at the time, but the two quickly discovered that they shared a unique vision about the music they wanted to create. With only a guitar, a bass guitar and their voices, Girlpool was born.

A lot has shifted since their first EP released in 2014. Both bandmates are now out of school, have already toured and played at festivals, moved across the country and have matured greatly in their sound. Beside the pains of growing up, the most significant change in their sound over the past four years came from Cleo’s recent transition from female to male.

Girlpool's music has become more complex and mature this past year. (Image via LA Weekly)
Girlpool’s music has become more complex and mature this past year. (Image via LA Weekly)

Now that Cleo (they, them) sings in a tenor range, they must rework their old material for live performances and consider the new direction Girlpool must take in the future. Harmony and Cleo came from a quaint, garage band punk sound and are evolving into a dreamy, ethereal vibe.

Their 2014 self-titled EP is charmingly minimalistic. They mix riot “grrrl” punk with folk-strummed guitar chords and slightly-out-of-tune homophonic soprano vocals. Perhaps most striking of the EP is the song “Jane,” which has a bluesy guitar riff over a steady, simple pedal tone quarter notes in the bassline. Harmony wails a high-pitched scream during the bridge, much like Grimes does in the chorus of her song “Scream.”

Their songs lyrics took on topics that were very high school gothic, like unrequited love or the growing pains of being a teenager (they were 17 and 18 at the time of the EP’s release.) “You like me better in my underwear / When I try to kiss you, you get scared / Why don’t you / Leave me, go out the door / I can’t handle your shit anymore,” sing Harmony and Cleo in the song “Blah Blah Blah.”

Their first full-length album, “Before the World Was Big,” shows their musical maturity in the short time span since their first collection. Like the EP, there are no drums on the tracks, leaving the momentum solely up to the bassline. There’s more harmonic diversity in the vocal lines, and, overall, the tracks sound more deliberate. Although the songs are short, the duo gets their point across quickly and doesn’t allow time for development beyond that.

The song “Dear Nora” embodies the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-em grunge lullaby” that The Guardian identified in the band. With low, raspy vocals and a dreamy guitar line, the duo later took this idea and ran with it, which is especially prominent in their 2018 singles.

By their third album, “Powerplant” which released in 2017, Girlpool continued to push the boundaries of their musicality, as well as their image. “We wanted to explore what we could do with the space in the songs that we had written,” said Harmony in an interview. “We had all the songs mostly done and were curious where we could take them. So we just filled them out a bit, and they feel really good.”

New to their sound, the duo added drums to their songs, which grounds the music and gives it a much more stable meter and direction. Like Harmony mentioned, everything is more musically complex and filled out. Where they once embraced the empty space between the sounds they created, claiming it was more honest and raw, they’ve since begun to fill their music.

While there were glimmers of queerness in songs as early as “Slutmouth,” with lyrics like “Sometimes I wanna be a boy / Never really wanted girl toys,” and “Do you wanna make out / I heard you had a slutmouth / From the boy down the street,” Girlpool really started to embrace queerness in their music.

Cleo explained, “Queerness is like everything about me; I don’t think it’s just my gender, or just my sexual orientation, but a queer way of life… spills into everything I create.”

Tucker claims that their identity impacts everything they create. (Image via The Carolinian)
Tucker claims that their identity impacts everything they create. (Image via The Carolinian)

In 2018, they released the single “Picturesong,” featuring Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. The song is unlike anything else Girlpool released in the past. It’s way more meditative and musically filled-out, with long instrumental breaks that build until they can no longer sustain themselves. The melody seems to wash over the instruments.

“Picturesong” represents the shift from their old sound to their new sound. It’s the first song they released since Cleo’s transition. They’ve shed their riot grrrl punk sound of simple, screechy songs to mellow, harmonically complex dreampop.

Essentially, they’ve gone from Sleater-Kinney to Beach House, and I am here for it.

In early October, Girlpool also released two new singles, “Lucy’s” and “Where You Sink.” In these songs, they maintain the same chillwave aesthetic of “Picturesong,” but with some nods to their punk roots. Harmony and Cleo still prefer to sing in homophony; “Lucy’s” is a toned-down, melancholic version of their once energetic music, with the vocals in a lower, almost monotone range. “Where You Sink” showcases Harmony’s soprano voice, but it’s more controlled than it once was.

At live performances, Girlpool has had to adapt their old songs to accommodate Cleo’s new vocal range. For example, at the Pitchfork Festival in 2018, they performed “Ideal World” from their first LP, which was released before Cleo’s transition. They sing in a deeper harmonic to Harmony, jumping up to their old range when possible.

“I think the hardest part [of exploring this new vocal range], I guess, is feeling like my own voice is foreign to me,” explains Cleo in an interview. “And that’s been frustrating, because I’ll have the desire to sing and play and there’s something in the way that I don’t know how to fix or really work with.”

Harmony and Cleo’s near-unison, almost dissonant singing used to by synonymous with Girlpool’s sound, but they must embrace a wider interval between their harmonies while performing. And from what I’ve heard so far, I’d say it’s pretty promising.

I’m very excited to see what’s in store for Girlpool as they continue to grow into their sound. While there haven’t been any announcements, with three new singles out this year, I’m pretty confident that a new album is in our midst.

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