The local experimental pop artist, bassist, poet, and artisan headlines Dark Horse ArtBar on June 30.
Somewhere between the Victorian comic opera of Gilbert And Sullivan and the abstract hip-hop of Doomtree’s Dessa lay the artistry of the mononymous Sigra, whose self-described “synthy experimental art pop” remains a singular element in the Madison music scene. Trained as a coloratura soprano in her early teens and drawn towards more pop-oriented songwriting in high school, Sigra is not one to be pigeonholed in her genre-fluid sensibility and multi-instrumentalist proficiencies. “I started out in opera, which kind of necessitates being a theater kid. […] And so I have a really strong performance-focused brain, so I think a lot of what I do is performative in the most value-neutral sense of that word,” Sigra says. “Everything that I make is very curated.”
While she’s honed this starkly meticulous craft in her solo ventures, blending punk and classical aesthetics in several singles released since 2018, she’s lent her talents on bass guitar and vocals to the collective musical chops of MQBS (pronounced “mobs”), a “tiny little musical family,” as Sigra has coined them. With keyboardist Jack Brahm joining the collective more recently (“our silent ‘J’,” Sigra jokes), Sigra and the original members—drummer Michael Darling, guitarist Quintin Bovre, and trumpeter Beatrice Lawrence—have committed to supporting each other’s live “solo” performances. And this has persisted even as the individual members’ musical leanings have progressively diverged since their first collaborations two and a half years ago after meeting at an event the now-shuttered music-tech startup LÜM hosted at the High Noon Saloon. Unsurprisingly, MQBS will join the headlining Sigra on stage at Dark Horse ArtBar on Thursday, June 30, as her backing ensemble. The formidable, acoustic-driven singer-songwriter Candace Griffin will open the night at 8 p.m.
From Sigra’s first Soundcloud recordings in 2018 under the moniker Piedot—a reference to a youthful expression uttered when she didn’t know the answer to a question (coining her own “je ne sais pas“)—her musical approach instantly defied and dissolved many of the pre-existing idioms in Madison. On “Watergirls,” the first song on what’s now known as Piedot (renamed from False Starts after changing her stage name), Sigra leads with a layered, ghostly prelude. Echoing synth tones, breathy inhalations, and whistling lay a delicate foundation for electric bass and cymbal-heavy drum machine to wind their way in. Then, Sigra begins a sort of Sprechgesang, a jazzy talk-singing that recalls many alternative artists who flirted with the UK trip-hop scene of the mid-late 1990s.
While her melismatic intonations and bedroom pop-like self-production are distinctive and recognizable on this track, the lyricism also stands out—a queer portrait of a disillusioned dreamer and her burgeoning identity. And this focus has steadied as Sigra has severed all genre tethers.
“The way I started out writing music was kinda writing all of the lyrics first and then fitting them into a melody. But as I have grown into my production style more, it’s become a little more Frankenstein-y,” Sigra recalls. Something about the Mary Shelley allusion seems so applicable in Sigra’s poised visual style, which nods toward the Gothic essence while retaining such a strong musically literary appeal. She continues, “Everything I do is to serve the lyrics, but I’ll often start with a chorus or hook idea, or maybe I’ll have one phrase that I really like. Then, I’ll find a melody that fits that and begin to piecemeal put a beat together. And while I’m doing that, [I’ll] find a throughline of the song emotionally and write lyrics and the beat simultaneously.”
One of Sigra’s most Ableton production-heavy and surefire singles, “Andromeda,” released in May of 2020, was most confidently conceived in this Frankenstein-y fashion. With droning keyboard piano chords, a synth-bass drop to die for, and skittering beats that recall FKA twigs’ “Two Weeks,” the song explores a cosmic yearning in its lyricism. It’s a deeper layering of the emotions expressed in “Watergirls,” as Sigra flaunts her vocal range in the first 30 seconds: “Try as I might / I can’t fight such a strange déjà vu.” As the track metamorphosizes, Sigra’s production does, too (with mixing and mastering by Jacob Jones of Meteor Base Productions). She strips things down to the bareness of her vocal layers with a psychedelic phasing effect through the outro, but it’s also coupled with this thinning, clacking rhythm that pans between the left and right channels, like a metronome slowly being swallowed by the galaxy.
“Bad Faith,” the lead single from the EP of the same name, released last spring, takes things in another direction, yet in equal defiance of genre labels. Leading with a simple out-of-tune phrase played on a hand-me-down violin (cradled between her knees “like a cello,” as Sigra describes), the tempo quickly picks up as Sigra’s voice cuts in. It’s that familiar Sprechgesang cadence and coloratura soprano timbre, the sound and story of a beat poet trying to outrun her trials and tribulations. The song is sort of an amalgamation of Melora Creager (of Rasputina) and Dessa, the latter who Sigra again cites as having “a pretty immeasurable impact on the way I think, which maybe comes across best” on this song and the EP as a whole. While “Bad Faith” is only two minutes, it’s Sigra’s most lyrically dense, finally erupting into a marching drum rhythm in its last leg. The instrumental choice mirrors the galloping pace of her winding words eloquently falling over one another before a measure break, abruptly arriving at the conclusion: “Starting to think decision’s all derivative / Nothing has ever been new.”
In all her multi-hyphenate proclivities and nurturing creativity in MQBS, Sigra has additionally gathered written materials for a chapbook, 1-800-TRUTH, which was released just over a month ago on May 24. It’s available through her website (part of BigCartel) and at select spots around town—Communication, Leopold’s, and random Little Free Libraries. It showcases poetry and a couple essays that complement her deep diaristic dives into formal songwriting. Sigra also notes that the chapbook is presented by Salon des Refuse, a local network that she co-founded at the end of high school to serve as a promotional platform for independent writers. Playing on the name of the mid-19th century “Salon des Refusés” exhibition, Sigra has cleverly spun the term into a hyperbolic “trash club.” Their quarterly zine, Detritus, is very on-brand.
Following this dogged determination to introduce her literal and figurative voice far and wide, Sigra is also planning to re-release the aforementioned “Watergirls,” the very first song on Piedot, later this summer. It’ll be re-stylized in all-caps as “WTRGRLS” with a new mix and master. In partnering with accomplished director Jordyn Alft, Sigra has devised her most ambitious video project (even eclipsing the candid and tender slideshow of “Honeycore,” directed by Jake Viaene last autumn). Sigra promises the “WTRGRLS” video will be an “ode to and celebration of queerness and gender non-conformity,” as she beckons fellow queer Madison artists like Meggie Shays (of Earthlings) and Austin Lynch (of LINE) in the video to join her in a choreographed ritual dance from the downtown sidestreets of Madison to the UW Arboretum. In the communal words of the song’s chorus, “We fell in love with the solace of other worlds,” Alft’s directorial effort aspires to pay tribute to this visionary desire.
Throughout all these developments and plethora of gigs in the spring and summer season (including a full day of solo and MQBS sets during an unusually steamy Make Music Madison last week), Sigra stands tall with unshaken confidence in her sophisticated fusions of visual and musical style. From her own 27 Bones Studio where she makes “functional art and ethical oddities” that adorn indoor sets in the “Honeycore” video (metallurgy and taxidermied lepidoptera), to literary and slam poetry ambitions with a chapbook and Salon des Refuse network, Sigra is synonymous with more than just a photogenic persona or performance. But there remains something peerless in her musical intelligence and versatility, playing electric bass and singing original and cover songs alike in the gigging musical collective of MQBS, to her original solo material that exists outside the boundaries of jazz, pop, singer-songwriter, opera, and hip-hop. Sigra is as intentional and self-curated as she is prolific.