River Allen is Ghost Piss, a valley girl voice with a haunted drum machine and a vocation for anything vegetal. Discover more about this artist who just released her debut EP, Blushing.
To be in bloom is to be achieving your potential. When a flower blossoms, its natural beauty and gifts to the world are offered in full, foremost captivating the senses of sight and smell. It’s place is not only ornamental, but essential, as it contributes to an ecosystem at large in ways we humans can only begin to comprehend. Flowers are common points of inspiration in music, even bordering on trope, because of how these characteristics are aspirational; to enchant simply by existing, by enticing an individual with your mere presence, could be nothing more than euphoric.
You wouldn’t expect this kind of beauty coming from an artist with a name like Ghost Piss. “I went to a haunted Cracker Barrel and asked the manager how a person died in there and they told me and a friend this horrible story about how a guy had died in a urinal while choking on grits,” says River Allen, the mastermind behind the house-infused electronic-pop project. “My stoned ass friend looked at me and was like… damn… Ghost Piss…”
When through repetition that phrase became nothing but “beautiful sounds,” Allen’s friend designated it as her stage name – initially as a joke, but it stuck. “When I first started making music I took myself stiflingly seriously to the point I was paralyzed. Giving myself a ridiculous name just kind of lightened the mood in my own mind! My music didn’t start out as pop, but when things got poppier I was advised to change my name to something more ‘marketable.’ I liked the idea of keeping a kind of limit to how marketable I can set my intentions. I don’t ever want to create from a place of marketability or branding, and Ghost Piss kind of keeps me safe from that ever being a possibility.”
Allen began releasing music under this moniker when she moved to Brooklyn, New York. Initially scouted as a model, she would end up working in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Battery Park as a gardener, continuing to fulfill what she had studied in college. “I went to school for a conservation ecology degree, focused mostly on plant biology and taxonomy,” she exclaims. “I originally started out in medicine, but quickly realized I don’t like thinking about my own insides and am incredibly squeamish. I absolutely adore plants for reasons I would need a whole separate interview to talk about, but when I first started studying them in 2011 I was mostly in love with the fact they didn’t poop, bleed or scream.”
Outside of music, her career in botany is the vocation of her life. She currently works as a botanist for the National Parks Service, where she finds her physical labor and efforts in environmental preservation provide not only fulfilment, but an effort of stewardship. “After working in public horticulture for a few years, I found that my physical labor was lacking a greater purpose. I wanted to plant gardens and control invasives, but not just for, like, rich yuppies in high rises. I learned about the term “restoration ecology,” and fell in love with the idea of regrowing ecosystems that may have been disturbed through fire, coal mining, or human activity. I love this so much more than ornamental gardening, and get to combine my love for botany and horticulture.”
When listening to her new EP Blushing, out now via Styles Upon Styles, one can’t help but detect how this career informs her approach to her artistic craft. Allen’s vocals float like pollen through the air, landing atop the petals of a sunflower – in this case, the drum and bass of each song. She has a knack for singing gracefully with nonchalance, her voice heightened by the pristine sonic quality of the production. But not being as firm in the mix as the beats, it’s as if she is tending the soil, guiding her hand near the stalk of each flower in order to help it stand on its own.
“I love love love pop, but also love love love house music with nasty bass lines and a kick drum you feel up in your liver. My highest priority when crafting my sound is to keep the beat and bassline a little more front and center than the vocals, and for them to always sound a little dirty and rattly.” Almost like topsoil, or perhaps (realistically) more akin to the pulse of an artist like Shamir, with the textural detail of Animal Collective – one of her biggest inspirations.
It may come as a surprise, but Allen’s sound was not always this way. Before her move up north, Allen lived in Richmond, Virginia, where the music community was dominated by harsh noise, hardcore punk and metal. “I decided I would try to contribute to the harsh noise side of things because I was very drawn to electronic music, but was very unwelcomed in that community. I was heartbroken at the rejection I felt, and gave up trying to fit in to my music scene, so I thought, what’s the exact opposite of all this tough guy, wearing all black, scowling on stage macho man bullshit I kept finding everywhere?”
“So the punkest move I could make given the situation was to write the most bubblegum pink in your face pop I could possibly muster. I started lugging pretty heart lights to all my shows, smiling a grin so big it hurt the entire time, and tried my hardest to get people to shake their asses. I know it does seem punk on the surface, but it felt punk to me.”
That punk spirit is, without question, central to Ghost Piss’s music. Maybe not in the “hardcore bro” sense that preceded her origins, but in a way similar to how someone like Karen O takes the most artful approach to the emotions and textures they use. Take EP opener “Worry,” where the reverberated saxophone reminds the listener of Julee Cruise-era synthpop, only to fade out when transitioning into a gritty, sharpened romp of an ending. Her voice fluctuates and impresses with its falsetto range, landing on the listener’s heart as powerfully as their ears.
But she’s also willing to troll and be carefree in her expressions: “Hardcore” is simply one of the most fun electronic songs of the year. The lyrical mastery of a song like this is especially impressive when considering Allen only began writing lyrics when one of her closest friends told her, quite honestly, “she just hates music without words.”
“The first song with lyrics I wrote was just an off the cuff song about how desperately I wished my Tinder dates would brush their teeth and take their dental hygiene seriously. This was a complaint [my friend Rachel and I] shared, so I thought she would especially enjoy it. But I found I liked writing! Even if it was just kind of silly stuff at first. The less seriously I took myself the more and more I wrote. And the more and more I wrote, the more I realized I didn’t have to be Morrisey or Ian Curtis to be a writer.”
“Before I had no outlet, and was pretty self-destructive, but my lyrics are now a pressure release valve for my heart,” she states, reflective of how her progress has led her to this point in her career. She’s cognizant of her own victories, in her career and art, but is moreso aware of the impact of collaboration and the support of others. The Blushing EP ends with three remixes, all of which are excellent – they further articulate the presence of texture found in the original songs, while each possessing a necessary, independent spirit.
“Styles Upon Styles suggested Kareem Ali to me, so I checked out all the music on his bandcamp. I knew I wanted a remix for ‘Worry’ specifically, and wanted someone who really created space in their music. Like whole ass landscape space. Big airy cathedral space. Kareem makes beautiful spaces with whole rafters and floorboards and high ceilings and stained glass windows for my vocals to tumble around in and that’s really all I wanted. Kareem’s vocals are absolutely pristine, and I knew he would treat mine with care. ‘Worry’ is me at my most serious and vulnerable so far, so I needed to put my song in good hands. The first time I heard his remix I cried.”
The first time I heard the remix, I was also floored – I find it difficult not to be engaged with this EP. It’s roots are rife with infectious harmonies, inescapable melodies, aggressive textures and a free spirit of confidence. I find myself mentally envisioning a field of sunflowers for myself to run through, considering they are my favorite. But, being the botanist and the artist, Allen has an adept knowledge as to what each song would be if it were a flower. “‘Worry’ is a Kalmia latifolia. ‘Hardcore’ is a Chamaenerion angustifoloum. ‘Beats in Bed’ is a Silene hookeri.”
Ultimately, with Blushing, River Allen finds herself blossoming into a musical path that is distinct, not only in name, but in texture, pathos, and informed sense of songcraft. Balanced between the ornate and the rugged, the music is as fascinating as it is fun. Like a gardener laboring away to tend to nature’s greatest glories, she crafts her music to achieve a beauty only attainable through efforts of love. There’s only one Ghost Piss in sight and sound – perhaps thankfully, there’s also not a flower with that scent. Allen finds humor when I ask her if such a flower with a smell exists: “As an expert, I absolutely hope to hell there isn’t.”