American songwriter, actor, and writer Cleo Handler has created a witty, fun, and compelling indie folk pop album with her sophomore long release “gold“. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles, Cleo has been an acclaimed songsmith. Her compositions in her Young Like Us series are top-notch, sound fresh, and have stood the test of time. Along with that, she has created and directed original films like The Living, Olympian, and Routine, and has also written Out to Lunch and Moon Party. Her #LifeOnAir was an experimental, interactive mystery series completely told on Instagram.
An all-rounder artist, her artistic expression is very natural, relatable, and intelligent while being expressed in the dialect of everyday experience. In that vein, “gold” encompasses Cleo’s musical direction as a solo artist. The record consists of 14 tracks with each track running for around two to three minutes. Keeping the songs tight in their form, allows small capsules of bright aural delight to be savoured.
The song “songs” sets the tone for the unique sonic feel of the record. “birthday” with its intelligent rhymes, talks about a birthday cake. What if your name wasn’t on it? Having multiple cakes but can’t taste anything and all that is tasted crumbles into a paste. What magical lyrical poetry! The song “but i’m a vegetarian” is a contrast in its tone and direction from the above songs and hints at the sunny cloud darkness in the tone of the record. “heard it here first” is about the thoughts one might have about whether loved ones still think of us (“echoes left behind“) and unruffling a crowded mind. PSA and LES, with their catchy galloping drum beat, take the album in a more upbeat and rock direction. The song “problem” is my favorite from the record and a highlight. It reminds one of pop punk songs and feels like it’s in the same ethos. The penultimate song “enough” pushes sonic edges with its odd tonality which gives an almost dark witty vibe like Nirvana in its lyricism. The album concludes with the title song, where gold is a much larger metaphor for the complex and alchemy dynamics in human relationships. “Gold chocolate coins don’t make habits” is a line that stays with you from this song and the genius of Cleo Handler.
The overarching theme across the album is relationships and addressing the thoughts regarding the fissures and dilemmas in them. Away from the required order of musicals, Cleo makes great use of the random and messy. Still, there is order in the chaos and much elegance. There are so many incredible lines that will stick in your mind, which is a testament to Cleo’s mastery of songwriting. For example in the song “mine“, lines like “I used to be a part of it but now just a part, you used to be a part of me, used to have my heart“. Lyrical brilliance!
The album has a unique sound that is both fresh and timeless. “gold” seals Cloe’s knack for unique compositions and catchy hooks. Her sonic and poetic writing is compelling and her songwriting has to be unwrapped from its simple surface to the meanings hidden in the lines. Cleo Handler is a remarkable artist who is clearly a master of her craft. Her work is a testament to her passion and dedication, and she will continue to make waves.
We get to talk to Cleo about her music and the record.
Which there any artists and musicians that you draw inspiration from and the musical works/albums which have most had an impact on you? There are a million artists I’ve been inspired by over the years but I’d say the single most influential album for me has been Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Her raw emotion and honest storytelling have always blown me away. But, more recently, I just can’t stop listening to Wet Leg. Their debut album is incredible, and so funny. Whenever it comes on, I have to listen all the way through.
What is your lyric and song writing process like? Who and what have been your lyric writing inspirations? I’ve always been obsessed with lyrics. In indie music, in musicals… whatever – my brain latches onto them and never lets go. I remember learning one day that “lyricist” was a potential job and just freaking out because I couldn’t believe such a fun thing could be a career. There are so many artists whose lyrics have inspired me, but I’d say Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields is at the top of my list. I love his wit and the way he plays with song length and form. His freedom and creativity inspire me to let go of preconceived ideas of what a song “should” be, and instead, just do whatever I want.
How was the compositional, recording and production process for “Gold” different from your previous efforts like Young Like Us? The process of making gold was different from previous efforts like the musical web series Young Like Us and other theatrical projects because it’s more personal and less of a character-based narrative, although it definitely still tells a story. Also I’ve written most of those projects with amazing collaborators, which is always a fun and rich creative experience, but there’s something really powerful about taking the full reins yourself from time to time. The last (and first) time I made a solo album was in the pandemic and super isolated, so my experience with gold, getting to work really closely with engineer Claire Morison and the incredible musicians she connected me with, felt not only super meaningful but also electric. I remember cracking up with her and our bassist Sarsten over some musical decisions in “LES,” and then driving home, leaving a voice memo for a friend that was so full of energy and joy that I listened to it in many darker moments later on to remind myself of how good that session felt.
As a multi-hyphenate creative, how does your experience in acting, writing, and directing inform your music-making process? Acting, writing, directing, and songwriting are all pretty tied for me. I love telling stories – for others to relate to, and for me to make sense of – and I’ve always felt most alive and connected to others when making this kind of work, in any form. And music has always been a huge part of the way I want to make and share things with the world because it’s a huge part of me and the way I grew up. Clearly-defined roles and creative lanes can be useful of course, but for me, the best stuff comes from the projects where you’re all kind of doing everything, playing make-believe like a bunch of little kids goofing around at a sleepover. That’s when others can really surprise you and you can surprise yourself.
Which are your favourite tracks on the album that hold a special significance to you? What was the most challenging part of creating “Gold” and how did you overcome it? This album came out of an extremely difficult, disorienting time in my life – a period of pain, loss, confusion, and major upheaval. There was a lot that didn’t make sense to me, and the only way I found I could process any of what I was feeling was through writing. The tracks are all little slivers of that extremely layered, messy pie. Each song that made it on the album (there were many that didn’t) came from an impulse that felt somehow unignorable, impossible to quiet. “wonderful” holds a special significance because I wrote it much earlier than the rest, and the three accompanying lyric videos are extremely meaningful to me because, as a filmmaker, I really found myself craving a visual embodiment for some of this storytelling. I wanted the chance to add some nuance and ambivalence to the tracks, because a lot of the emotions involved are pretty multi-faceted and sloppy, and I wanted to capture them with a bit more depth. Film has always been a really powerful tool for me to capture grey areas like that, so I am incredibly grateful to my good friend Katia for making those videos with me. We had a blast filming together, and for me, the editing process was really clarifying.
What in your opinion is the difference between approaching a musical and a standalone EP/album? A musical is a beast – it’s the greatest puzzle of all time, and when the pieces fit together just right, it’s absolutely magical and transformative. But for me, a standalone album allows a bit more space for messiness and rough edges. That’s probably a personal taste thing, but as much as I love a clear sense of structure and drama that builds in a musical, as both a creator and an audience member, I can find it really freeing to step away from all that sometimes, and with an album, just throw a bunch of ideas on the page and see what sticks. It can be looser and more piecemeal, like hopping from stone to stone and suddenly finding yourself on the other side of the river.
What can fans expect from your upcoming live shows and performances to promote “Gold”? I’m not yet sure how much I plan to play “gold” live. It’s a really personal album and I’m proud of the way the tracks and videos feel now, and how they will be experienced in that form. But I definitely know that anyone who wants to follow along on social media will continue hearing about all sorts of music and films and stories of all kinds, because I don’t plan on stopping.