Chill Vibes, Minus the Wind Chimes: It’s a New Day for New Age Music

Chill Vibes, Minus the Wind Chimes: It’s a New Day for New Age Music

Nailah Hunter grew up in a household where magic was considered demonic, so her parents didn’t let her read the “Harry Potter” books. Her father was a pastor in the South Los Angeles neighborhood Ladera Heights and she sang at his church, and later wrote songs on acoustic guitar and performed in her high school’s choir. She also read fantasy novels and listened to Gary Stadler, a fanciful composer whose titles are filled with “fairy” or “faerie.”

“The nerdiness started early,” said Hunter, now 26 and quite close to her parents, over FaceTime on a September morning.

In college, she felt stifled as a traditional singer-songwriter or the vocalist in groups where others, “namely white dudes,” controlled the creative direction. She got a Korg Triton synthesizer and the audio production software Logic Pro. She also got deep into the harp. “The realm it accesses — the timbre, the texture, the low notes — it feels like you’re summoning things out of your body as you’re playing,” she said.

Hunter’s creations began to break from conventional song structures and develop into something freer, and in March, she put out her debut EP, “Spells.” Last Friday, she released new music alongside fellow artists on the Los Angeles label Leaving Records who likewise create a distinctive version of new age music. It’s an often derided, and loosely defined, genre that’s been called out for its cheesiness and outmoded conventions (is that a wind chime tinkling in the distance?), but the Leaving roster offers an updated perception of what new age can be, and who makes it.

The collaborative project, which features Hunter, Matthew McQueen, Diva Dompé, Ami Dang and Olive Ardizoni, is known as Galdre Visions, a name that references the Old Norwegian word for a sorcerer, or a Celtic druid that uses songs for incantations. Like Hunter, its members arrived at new age after exploring other musical avenues, though a teenage love of Enya and an interest in alternative spiritualities was not uncommon.

McQueen, who is 36 and releases music as Matthewdavid, started Leaving in 2009, inspired by harsher scenes like drone and noise music. (While the label puts out other genres, new age is one of its pillars.) He first became interested in the sound over a decade ago after discovering new age tapes at a Goodwill in Tallahassee, Fla. He also called “Planetary Unfolding,” a 1981 cosmic ambient album by Michael Stearns, “a record that saved my life.”

The label’s artists include his wife, Dompé, 33, who previously played in the Los Angeles rock bands Blackblack and Pocahaunted. In her adolescence she endured bouts of sleep paralysis, where she would wake up but seemingly could not move her body and saw terrifying hallucinations. As she nurtured an interest in occultism and mysticism, she concluded that her condition was connected to astral projecting, the belief that an individual’s consciousness can traverse different dimensions. Guided meditations she made to help process her own supernatural experiences developed into the deeply spacey and sometimes unsettling project Yialmelic Frequencies.

Dang, 36, a producer and sitarist, studied electronic composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before joining Baltimore’s experimental music scene. As she’s gotten older, she has become more interested in creating music that will de-stress her listeners, rather than challenge them. “If you came to my show and fell asleep, that’s great,” she said. “If that’s what happens, that’s flattering.”

Ardizoni too has targeted an extremely chill audience: foliage. The musician, who is 33, identifies as nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, was introduced to crystals and Eastern philosophies as a teenager in South Florida around the same time they got into Pink Floyd and acid. After singing in punk and metal bands, Ardizoni moved to Los Angeles and talked to the plants they encountered during walks or long hikes, eventually making music for them under the name Green-House.

Ardizoni also sees their music as a therapeutic force that works in both directions. “I’m a working-class queer person, assigned female at birth, and life is not always easy,” they said. “Every type of music I’ve ever made has been healing to me in some way, and I’ve wanted to share that with others.”

It’s not surprising that these Leaving artists have mostly taken root in Los Angeles: California has long been the nexus of new age music. As the 1960s turned into the ’70s, musicians working in the state produced foundational albums like Paul Horn’s “Inside” and Iasos’s “Inter-Dimensional Music.”

New age didn’t just develop out of the era’s woolly counterculture; it took inspiration from sources like Transcendental Meditation, the work of the philosophical writer Alan Watts, and German naturists from the early 20th century. “The new age movement was looking to liberate through this spiritual awakening,” said Carlos Niño, a musician who has released music on Leaving and is a longtime D.J. for Los Angeles’s Dublab internet radio station. “All that information is in the music.”

Suzanne Doucet, a German pop star during the 1960s who came to America in the early ’80s after embracing new age, said of the sound, “It’s not entertainment, it’s to expand your conscious being.”

Throughout the ’70s and most of the ’80s, new age music remained an underground phenomenon, mostly sold on cassette in bookstores. In 1987, Doucet opened Only New Age Music on a corner of Melrose Boulevard; it was the first record shop of its kind. That same year, the Grammys awarded its inaugural trophy for best new age recording.

Though new age artists soon had their albums stocked in national chains like Tower Records, for younger generations growing up in a culture transformed by punk and hip-hop, the music seemed irredeemably hokey. But in recent years, aspects of broader new age living have dovetailed with the rise of the wellness movement. “On a more mainstream level, culture has openly embraced yoga and meditation, clean and soothing design, psychedelics, the existence of aliens,” said Brian Sweeny, the creator of the Ambient Church concert series. “It’s not fringe anymore.”

When Sweeny booked the first Ambient Church performance in New York in the summer of 2016, he sold 100 tickets. At the last shows he had in New York and L.A. before the pandemic shutdown, he drew almost 2,000 attendees.

Though practices associated with new age culture are now a part of the popular firmament, this shift has come with some attendant problems, like wellness influencers latching onto QAnon conspiracy theories and continued instances of cultural appropriation. “This year I’ve been very confused because new age or the spiritual movement is the place that I’ve sought refuge and healing in a lot of my life, but I feel very disconnected from it,” Dompé said. “There’s just so many ways that it can be used to cause harm, to control people, to bypass people’s experiences, to amplify your own traumas in this really weird way.”

In order to create a more inclusive community, in 2018, McQueen started a biweekly series of free, outdoor performances at La Tierra de la Culebra, a small art park between two houses on a stretch of Highland Park. Operating under the comically direct name Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree, the series featured Leaving artists and friends of the label. After Covid-19 struck, McQueen transformed it into a livestreamed event (that’s now on hiatus) called Listen to Music Safely in Your Home Next to a Fern.

As the separation and uncertainty of the pandemic stretched into months, the plan for Galdre Visions came together as a way for the artists to connect with one another. Hunter, Dompé and Ardizoni each picked incomplete pieces of music and passed them around, layering them with shimmering digital textures and twinkling ripples from Hunter’s harp. Dang added elements like sitar and harmonium, while McQueen handled the mixing and mastering.

The members of Galdre Visions consider the songs on the EP individual spells and included vocals on each one to activate their intentions. Their voices permeate the space either through wordless chanting or Ardizoni intoning comforting phrases like, “The sun will rise again, in time.”

“Everyone is hurting in an obvious way right now,” Hunter said. “Everyone is scared and just wants to be held, so if there ever was a time for this to be received more widely, it would be now.”

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