Randa Smith and Brian Dekker, the duo formerly known as SOS but now renamed Black Grapefruit, have made one of this year’s most confounding and unpredictable pop records. It was written and recorded at an 18th century farmhouse in a small town called Deposit, New York, where they moved after losing their jobs and their apartment. It’s the result of a spiritual and artistic epiphany that occurred inside a sweat lodge. It’s a reach back into the Caribbean heritage of Smith’s mother and the Southern roots of her father.
But none of that fully explains the abrupt shifts in tone and style on All My Relations, premiering below before its August 10 release. Syncopated beats, distorted bursts, pitch-black electronics, clean blues guitars, and implacable glitches jump in and out of the mix constantly, and even Smith—whose voice is rich and versatile but often augmented—doesn’t provide a stable center. The quietly expansive “Seat,” with its nostalgic melancholy and its pitched-up vocals that float off like ash, holds together; the bright and buoyant “Mind” could be an FM dancehall-pop hit. But mostly, Smith and Dekker seem thrillingly disinterested in songwriting conventions. “Heart” pulses through minor-key yearning for three-and-a-half minutes and then cuts into an entirely new tune, underpinned by a double bass. “Demons” comes off like a trap-adjacent slow-jam, drops into drone-like electronics and field recordings, then returns with Smith almost whispering at the top of her register: “I think I’m haunted by you / But I ain’t scared.”
In an email to Noisey, Smith explained the process behind the record, the revolutionary shifts that they went through after moving upstate, and the reason for those rapid changes of direction:
“This body of work was born out of feeling lost. We lost a loved one to cancer, we lost our apartment, we left our jobs. It got to the point where we just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s make a complete 180 in our approach to life.” Within a couple of weeks we had packed a U-Haul, left Brooklyn and somehow ended up in a 1700’s farmhouse on the western edge of the Catskills. Not ‘cool upstate vibes.’ We’re talking no cell service, scarce internet and confederate flags. From our window we watched cougars, deer, turkeys, eagles and rabbits. It became clear we needed to let life and creativity come to us instead of forcing our energy into the world.”
In the old house where we took refuge (we still live in it, btw) there’s this room with nothing in it except an antique clawfoot tub. From the moment I saw it I was inexplicably connected. I started soaking weekly and meditating. Brian noticed and asked me to make baths for him, too. We started healing and learning to be new people independent of the identities we’d allowed the outside world to impose on us. The story is so much longer, but in short, this project is a collection of memories, both good and bad, that we needed to process and move on from. Imagine yourself in a solitary space, perhaps a tub room or driving, and imagine flashing back and forth between memories and reliving them.
That’s what we tried to sonically communicate. It’s the reason for the sharp swells and abrupt cuts between songs. It’s why some songs go on tangents and others end in short. Once the album was finished we realized we’d unintentionally created a narrative where the first song “Denim” deals with us leaving Portland in 2014 on this unknown journey and then by the last song “Hold,” we’d arrived at our loved one’s funeral just before we left Brooklyn for the woods in 2016.
Listen to the record in full above and watch an impressionistic short film about the record, shot in Deposit, below.
Follow Alex Robert Ross on Twitter.