The Madison band celebrates its debut EP on February 9 at Bos Meadery.
Photo: From left to right, LINE’s members are Will Ault, Austin Lynch, Maddie Batzli, and Esther Chun. Photo by Lindsey Rothrock.
The songs Maddie Batzli writes for Madison band LINE will often sketch out the contours of a scene without ever explicitly spelling out what’s happening in that scene. There’s just enough narrative at work that the emotions and viewpoints of those involved rub off on the listener. So does Batzli’s willingness to follow the pull of a phrase or an idea even when they can’t quite fully explain what it’s about.
Take the refrain of “Monday morning stratosphere blues,” from “Monday Morning,” the second-to-last track on Choosing Sides, a new EP the band will release this Friday and will celebrate with a Sunday, February 9 show at Bos Meadery. Singing over their own tense piano chords, Will Ault’s sparse drums, and Austin Lynch’s murmuring bass, Batzli stretches those words across a variety of carefully paced melodic structures and narrative hints, with harmonies and accents from fellow vocalist Esther Chun: “Monday morning stratosphere blues / Spent Sunday waiting for these / Monday morning stratosphere blues / Spent Friday’s savings knowing / There’ll be stratosphere blues.”
The phrase has a way of sticking, even if you’re not quite sure what it’s telling you. “I didn’t know what it was telling me either,” Batzli says. “It literally just happened to me and I was like, oh, I feel like I’m being told to keep this, but I don’t know why. What it means to me now, it feels like changing the way that our world works is such an astronomically high order. It feels so far away.”
The six songs on Choosing Sides often reflect on strongly conflicting emotions, dualities, and moments where people find themselves on the exhilarating, infuriating cusp of big breakthroughs.
“I’ve gotta get to the other side, I know / I’ve been stuck in a waiting line of my own design,” Batzli sings on “Changing,” a key moment on an EP they describe as being more or less about “growing pains.” If a given listener—or even the person who wrote it—can’t pin down exactly what a LINE song is about, that doesn’t diminish the impact, and in some sense makes these songs even more lasting and vivid.
“I like the possibility in the writing process, and I feel like uncertainty is necessary to that,” Batzli says. “I don’t always feel that comfortable with uncertainty in other areas of my life, but I feel like writing is a place where I can really embrace uncertainty, and where I think it’s really healthy to embrace uncertainty.” The EP even casts doubt on whether uncertainties can or should always be resolved, drawing its title from the song “Open Wide,” on which Batzli admits, “I’m not built for choosing sides.”
The cover art, which Batzli created, shows two disembodied hands in a gesture that’s meant to suggest a weighing of options, or a balancing. In the writing process, Batzli often ends up asking where the line is, where the middle ground is, and “how to hold both sides of something.” The band’s name grew from those questions, and it suggests a playful alter ego, as it’s the last syllable of a given name, Madeline, that Batzli doesn’t go by anymore.
“The EP as it kind of grew into this concept piece is really about weighing different parts of myself and taking the leap from one perspective to another and really trying to move forward with my life and through whatever challenges are around,” Batzli says. More often than not, it ends up being a fraught and painful process, but never a cluttered one. Opening track “Kind / Of” sifts through the pain of loss to uncover some new self-knowledge, some of it bitter and some of it hopeful (“I can’t be honest, so I’ll be kind”). The band builds up delicately around Batzli’s mournful vocal melody. Lynch’s bass throws in occasional slaps and pops, which might seem jarring for a band rooted in melodic folk and indie-pop, but the percussive twang of this approach is a nice counterpoint to the silky darkness of the band’s backing vocals. (Lynch and Batzli both also play guitar in the band, switching instruments a bit live.)
While LINE’s writing process is collaborative and each member makes a clear if restrained mark on these songs, it’s no accident that LINE as a unit succeeds above all at supporting the vocal melodies. “I write vocally. I’ll write guitar and piano parts vocally as well, or in my head,” Batzli says. “I sing to myself a lot. I’m that crazy person walking or biking down the street singing to themself. Any moment between activities, I’m writing, so I don’t usually have keys or guitar available. I also like being outside and just walking around, so that has made my writing process vocally oriented.”
The band’s often gentle touch also gives these songs some thematic room, letting many of them play as dark and optimistic all at once.
“It’s hard for me to write songs that are completely, only negative, even though I do,” Batzli says. “In ‘Changing’ and ‘Monday Morning,’ I feel like they kind of have a hopeful turn at some point in them. In ‘Monday Morning,’ it’s that I’m not going to define my worth by what I do, I’m not going to define my worth in a way that a capitalist society wants me to define my worth.”
The EP’s first single and its closing track, “False Apathy,” is sonically its busiest, as if all this wrestling with contradiction and duality had to come to a head at some point. All four members still exercise a lot of restraint here, especially Ault, who brings his drum patterns to a boil with just a few well-placed tom hits. “Will leads in this really quiet way, keeping everyone on track but also wanting to be really attentive to the needs of a song and everyone else’s thoughts,” Batzli says. The lyrics sketch out a story of two people who’ve fallen out badly but still yearn for each other, and things conclude on a bleak note: “In our lies I can feel / The weight of all we left unspoken / We’re trapped by gravity / Still orbiting but still broken / Please say this isn’t how it ends.”
Batzli began trying to write fiction while in elementary school. When they started trying to write songs a few years later, Batzli tried to keep a narrative element while embracing the constraints of song structure. There’s still a complex relationship in Batzli’s work between how the words might work on the page and how they map out across a melody. The lyrics printed in the liner notes for “Kind / Of,” for instance, have line breaks within lines, and these breaks don’t always correspond with the timing of the words in the actual performances—Batzli’s vocal breaks up certain thoughts and phrases to let suspense build up. And as much as they love interpreting lyrics and poetry, Batzli also wants to leave space for whatever experiences and meanings listeners might bring to these songs.
“I feel like my songwriting style is shifting to become maybe a little bit more direct…but I for sure want people to develop their own relationship and also listen in their own way,” Batzli says. “Just because I am obsessed with reading into lyrics and dissecting them, as if I’m doing a poetry assignment—I loved that, like in high-school English classes, having to dissect a poem and read into every single line and the space between them, I ate that shit up—but I recognize the majority of people don’t listen that way. I also am just a sucker for a straight-up catchy pop melody.”