Golden Curls Make Fairy Tales for Modern Life

St. Louis “woozy pop” band releases its debut album on Friday, November 15.

KE Luther
KE Luther
Nov 13, 2019 · 7 min read

Sarah Downen, the songwriter behind St. Louis pop band Golden Curls, is obsessed with fairy tales. She carries a beautifully illustrated book of Scandinavian folk stories in her bag, which she eagerly shares with anyone who is interested. For Downen and many others, the enduring power of these narratives lies in their ability to take dark, complicated issues and turn them into bright, simple ideas.

And the same is true for the music of Golden Curls. Downen uses the familiar tropes of heroes and villains, enchanted creatures and damsels in distress to explore the pleasures and pain of modern life. At the core, the songs are “about macro views of emotional moments, the dark places your mind can go,” she explains. “Everyone struggles with being sad.”

On a quiet fall evening in South City, Downen and her bandmates — guitarist Stephen Favazza and drummer Philip Zahnd — sit on the front porch of Favazza’s house discussing their favorite fairy tales. The guitarist, who is best known for his work as Hands and Feet, prefers the naive surrealism of artists like Jim Henson and the Brothers Quay.

But Downen enjoys the older, more traditional narratives. “I was raised in a really conservative home,” she says, “and there were a lot of religious stories. You choose the right path and you do the right thing. And there’s a moral kind of outcome every time.” She laughs, “I’m intrigued by the opposite of that, where the good character ends up in a really dark place. Dealing with that, seeing the beauty in that journey is important. And something that’s just truer to life.”

On Friday, November 15, Golden Curls releases its first full-length album, Goblin Market. The tight collection of sparkling, shoegaze-influenced pop was almost four years in the making. According to Downen, “the vision was there, but it just took more time” to complete than the band expected. And as with any hero’s journey, there were obstacles along the way.

Stephen Favazza, Sarah Downen and Philip Zahnd of Golden Curls. Photo by Adam Newsham.

ownen and her former bandmate, Noah Blackwell, dropped a well-received EP in 2012. Though “Warm Fiction” earned the pair a loyal following, Blackwell eventually left Golden Curls and was replaced by Favazza. Around the same time Zahnd, who met Downen when they were both undergraduate students at Truman State University, came on board as drummer. This iteration of the group played its first show in November of 2015, opening for electronic artist Adult Fur at the Luminary.

A few months later, Downen posted on social media that the new material was almost done. “I did that for years,” she laughs, “and the truth was that I didn’t know how to record or mix or truly make an album that I was proud of.” Occasionally, she stepped away from the project or gave it to friends for their opinions. “There was a lot of frustration,” she says. “It was just reality check after reality check that it wasn’t good enough yet.”

The resulting version of Goblin Market is a testament to the power of perseverance. Like Golden Curls, the album is named for a series of Dante Gabriel Rossetti illustrations that accompany the poem, “Goblin Market.” In the piece, a young woman must buy fruit from an assortment of evil creatures — resisting the temptation to eat any herself — in order to save her sister’s life. “It’s this really dark, twisted fairy tale with all these sexual undertones. It’s really creepy but beautiful,” Downen explains, “and that’s kind of like the music I make.”

Golden Curls is indeed known for its distinctive aesthetic, which Downen calls “woozy pop.” She coined the term when she first started working with Blackwell to describe the approach she hoped to take. “I wanted structure. I wanted strong melodies,” she remembers. “I wanted hooks and shorter songs. But I wanted them twisted, distorted. Kind of a warped, disfigured thing. I used to say, through a glass bottle. And woozy made sense for that.”

Zahnd — a member of the St. Louis indie rock band Holy Posers — sits with his back to the wind and begins to shiver as the evening cools off. He describes the music on “Warm Fiction” as “warbly and pitch-shifted and detuned. It sounds kind of like a cassette that was left out in the sun. We’re currently more…” Downen interrupts, “More polished maybe.” After a brief pause, Zahnd clarifies: “More straight-ahead pop.”

Downen, who writes all of the songs before bringing them to the band, agrees that she is “trying to simplify. That’s actually a big goal. Keeping textures, keeping things interesting. But before, I would just layer sounds until I couldn’t really distinguish anything.” Zahnd and Favazza chuckle at the memory. “Now I want to be more intentional,” she says.

The ten tracks on Goblin Market reflect this cleaner, more refined sensibility. One of the best examples is the closing number, “Older.” The production is gentle but insistent, all rippling guitars, glittering synths and pulsing drums. Above a sharp hook, Downen sighs lines like “better get your story straight / better find what you can take / before it’s over / and you’re older, oh god.” The last two words are delivered more like a benediction than a plea.

For Downen, the track is deeply personal — the result of a recent breakup. But like the fairy tales that inspired the album, the message is more universal. “There is a larger theme to that song about finishing something,” she says, “and trying to give it some sort of value. Just looking back on the time you’ve spent and feeling like, this is for something.”

Goblin Market is the band’s first full-length album.

While each member of the band is drawn to a different song on the new album, they all agree that the opener is one of the strongest. “Agnetta and the Sea King” is based on a Scandinavian folk story about a woman who falls in love with a merman and abandons her life on land. Favazza says that “the recording process was just really great. I was fooling around with a bunch of pedals. And then when Phillip put the drums on it, it really came together.” The finished product is a haunting, reverb-soaked meditation on choice and doubt, the spare lyrics just barely surfacing over churning guitars and driving beats.

“A lot of female characters in fairy tales don’t express opinions about what is happening,” Downen notes. “Because they are so old, women are just tokens or pawns in a story about a man doing something important.” That silence allows Downen to reimagine familiar archetypes, to give voice to all the forgotten queens and princesses hiding in the shadows of traditional narratives. And in the process, she reveals her own depth as an artist and songwriter.

Downen’s undeniable talent attracts a steady stream of well-respected collaborators and supporters — beyond just Favazza and Zahnd. At one point, she sent Tom Pini of jazz collective Drangus a couple of tracks to master. Pini’s bandmate, Anthony Patten, listened to the songs and was inspired to write bass lines for them. “He sent us back recordings fully finished, ready to put in. We liked how they sounded, so we kept them. He snuck his way onto the album,” Downen jokes. The trio even convinced Adult Fur to play a rare live set at their November 15 release show at Off Broadway, bringing their relationship with the artist full circle.

Despite the band’s increasingly professional sound, there is an old-fashioned, handmade quality to everything it produces. To that end, the members are making their own merchandise for the album release: Downen is creating necklaces; Zahnd is designing light switch covers and Favazza is working on papier maché masks. “I really want people to come dressed as goblins,” Downen says, “or wear the goblin masks that we make. And then have a crazy dance party at the end.” The group laughs, but judging by the poster for the event, the suggestion is serious.

It’s rare for a band — even one with significant history — to encounter so much enthusiasm for its first album. Zahnd explains the phenomenon by saying, “Sarah is a badass songwriter.” And Favazza nods in agreement. As the sun sets across the neighborhood, Downen brushes aside the comment and turns the attention back to Golden Curls. “I don’t want it to be seen as just a cute, pretty band. We’re playing some serious shit,” she says, “so take it seriously. It’s not all fun and glitter.” Though like any good fairy tale, Goblin Market offers plenty of that as well.

The Golden Curls album release is at Off Broadway on Friday, November 15 at 8 pm, followed by a Goblin Dance Party with DJ Electric David. Admission is $7 at the door.

Listen at Bandcamp, Spotify or Apple Music.

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