The Musical Letters of Pinkie Promise

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Kaitlin Pelkey, as Pinkie Promise, onstage at Pete’s Candy Store. Credit: Brian Bonelli.

“Not my President!” When Kaitlin Pelkey opened her set at Pete’s Candy Store with that call and response, it amounted to more than just candor. It was context for the audience, which was about to get hit with music outside its referential terms. Pelkey, a 24-year-old Miami native performing under the name Pinkie Promise, was the final act on the evening’s bill. Her set followed the cabaret revivalism of Sabrina Chap and the classicist folk harmonies of a duo called Hawthorn. No such labels could be affixed to the finale. Following Pelkey’s agitations, the opening notes of “King of Hate” trickled from her orange Epiphone Explorer with tentative dissonance. Their jagged picking quickly gave way to fluid strumming, a dynamic shift that distilled Pinkie Promise’s sound before Pelkey sang a single lyric.

To listen to Pelkey play these songs — a collection of “musical letters” to be released this spring on her first full-length album, Dearest — is a singular, challenging, and sometimes frustrating musical experience. It is to anticipate 10 possibilities for the next chord change, only for Pelkey to play the eleventh. A song’s emotional core can seem to jump the spectrum within a single bar. The effect is, at times, dizzying. But there is also a real pleasure, earned patiently, in glimpsing the moments wherein the fragments cohere and the wholes emerge as more than the sums of their parts. The guide throughout is Pelkey’s confident singing, though even that toggles rapidly between modes soothing, playful, and menacing.

Pinkie Promise is Pelkey’s latest endeavor, with her previous band Nosy Mangabe on hiatus. That band — a collective of rotating members anchored by composers Pelkey and Andres Ramos — played ethereal “whimsy pop slash progressive jazz” that conjures flappers and speakeasies, but stays modern all the same. Nosy’s bright ukuleles, dreamy lyrics about the summer breeze, and prominent Bernie stickers suggest a house band on an indie West Egg. Pinkie Promise, by contrast, turns inward like a musical diary. The songs are personal — sometimes musingly, sometimes painfully. Even at their friendliest, they evince a darkness that has occasionally proven alienating; Pelkey traveled to Boston in November to gig in an art gallery — only to go unpaid by her host, who found the music too melancholy. Thanks in part to their conception as letters that address individuals or ideas directly, the songs feel focused and grounded even as they twist and turn. They appear to have parameters, if not necessarily rules. Pelkey’s newest song, “These Hands,” is a case in point. Part Patti Smith brooder, part Elton John toe-tapper, what could have been unwieldy is instead inquisitive — a searching assessment of what it means to inherit your mother’s handwriting and your father’s hands (Pelkey’s father is a pianist).

Pelkey’s facility for character betrays her background in musical theater: she can put on a burly contralto reminiscent of Grace Slick, and likewise affect the hammy perkiness of Idina Menzel. But the unconventional and ruminative nature of her songs reflects her more recent training in music therapy, which she studied at Berklee College of Music. An interdisciplinary focus on music, science, philosophy, and social action drew her to the field, which also demanded that she add guitar to her instrumental wheelhouse of piano and ukulele. These songs, fittingly, sound like they came not from factories but from laboratories — the sounds of a committed disregard for formula.

But Pelkey’s interest in music therapy — and the defiantly elusive music she makes as Pinkie Promise — is about more than a taste for experimentation. “I just didn’t want to be the vessel for someone else’s vision,” says Pelkey of her decision to veer from musical theater. And though she liberally cites influences — Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Joana Newsom, Nina Simone, St. Vincent, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, “idol” Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush, Weezer, and Eliot Smith make up part of the mélange — she keeps a conscious distance from them. “I wouldn’t say I model myself after anyone,” says Pelkey. “I don’t think I’m that flexible as a person.” Even the name Pinkie Promise owes its selection, to some degree, to Pelkey’s stubborn individualism: Ramos, her Nosy Mangabe collaborator, did not like the name — a position which Pelkey says is “usually a good measure of something that’s good to me.”

Brian Tate, who has played bass on sessions for Dearest and has also performed live with Pinkie Promise, called Pelkey’s confident knowledge of what she wanted to hear from him “unique” among artists with whom he has worked. She encouraged him to play more melodic and prominent basslines, he said, where other artists would have had the bassist pull back. But even in elevating her collaborators, Pelkey is asserting herself: Dearest producer (and Pelkey’s Berklee classmate) Steven Xia had a stark vision for the track on which Tate played, a haunting remembrance of sexual assault called “My First Kiss.” Xia, for his part, had wanted the cut to consist entirely of Pelkey singing and accompanying herself on guitar. When Pelkey asked him to play drums on it, Xia demurred, citing his experience of watching Pelkey perform the song solo and feeling moved by a woman telling her harrowing story with such sparse accompaniment. Pelkey — who offers a content warning before performing the song live — understood, recalling listeners “shuffling around” and making uncomfortable noises that “added another layer of meaning to the whole thing.”

Still, Pelkey “could hear more,” and she followed that sound. “I really wanted there to be a clear sense of empowerment in it,” she said, fearing that a solo version would sound “meek.” She wanted something “electric” and “big,” something listeners would feel “reverberating through” them. With a music video for the song also in the works, Pelkey furthermore thought that a busier arrangement would invite more opportunities for visual coordination. This was no small factor; Pelkey says she thinks visually through her writing and arranging processes, and the “strange synchronicity” behind the song’s arrival demands the most potent video possible.

The song — which contains lyrics such as “When you showed yourself inside / I couldn’t move, I couldn’t cry, and honestly I tried / To like it” — was written, Pelkey said, roughly a week before the #MeToo movement exploded on social media and brought unprecedented numbers of survivors’ stories to light. Pelkey initially dithered on sharing the song, but ultimately decided that the climate demanded she do so. (She also hopes to sustain the empowered moment by curating a festival for music written by, arranged by, and performed by femme-identifying artists). In the video, Pelkey will play an old Florida woman who smokes, drinks whiskey, and plays bridge — an unremarkable archetype at first glance who will go on to sing the traumatic narrative directly into the camera. Though the moment has endowed “My First Kiss” with a universal resonance, it remains a distinctly Pelkeyan aesthetic document; the song weaves a Kurt Cobain-inspired verse with airier passages, rhymes internally, synchronizes chord changes by the syllable, and demands multiple timbres of Pelkey’s voice that shift in hue and weight.

Struggling to describe his collaborator’s sound, Xia has a clearer idea of what it is not. Indie, in its modern, mainstream variety, no longer suffices as a means of categorizing Pelkey’s music. At the same time, said Xia, “experimental might be pushing it a bit too far ’cause we don’t do weird prepared piano, aleatoric noise sort of stuff.” Instead, Pinkie Promise sits somewhere in between “the gentrification of the term indie” and the “ridiculous far-out-ness of experimental,” said Xia. The music is at once too lush, too packed with classic influences to be wholly inaccessible — and far too particular to be readily approachable.

Pelkey may be sending out musical letters, songs expressly identified as public proclamations of her thoughts and feelings. But these still demand to be read in ways another artist’s letters might not. Pelkey’s songs are, somehow, at once direct and elusive: internal monologues that refuse to tidy up. Refusal, so they suggest, can be the strongest form of affirmation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated a lyric in “My First Kiss” as “When you shoved yourself inside / I couldn’t move, I couldn’t cry, and honestly I tried / To like it.”

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Matthew Taub is a Contributing Writer at Atlas Obscura. You can follow his work here:

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