Ask Spencer Peppet about her influences, and you can trace a clear lineage to the Chamber Folk boom of the mid-2000s: the immersive, lightly orchestral fingerprints of acts like Wye Oak, Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird freckle her work as guitarist and songwriter for The Ophelias, the Cincinnati-based band whose sophomore LP, Almost, is being released nationally this Friday via respected indie imprint Joyful Noise Recordings.
Quick as she is to cite the Indie troubadours of the Obama administration as inspirations, it’s evident that Peppet is an even bigger fan of her own bandmates.
“I never felt like I’m the one calling the shots,” she says. “We feel like an actual team together; I’ve never worked with a group so intuitive, creative and aware and just so on it.”
Peppet initially enlisted Micaela Adams (drums), Grace Weir (bass) and Andrea Gutmann Fuentes (violin) in her senior year of high school to upgrade her solo material for a one-off live performance, transforming whispery lo-fi tunes into confident compositions that recall The Cranberries or Horse Feathers. This experiment in Baroque Pop proved more fruitful than Peppet expected — the quartet wrote an entire live set’s worth of arrangements in just one day, generating enough enthusiasm among its members to form a fully-fledged band.
“It was a totally magical experience, honestly,” Peppet says. “I felt like I had found the best people in the world.”
By graduation, The Ophelias had already crafted an album’s worth of material. Creature Native LP was released in August 2015. For a home-recorded and self-released project, the record aims miles beyond the over-mumbly minimalism that can oversaturate Bandcamp’s sstreaming landscape.
Creature Native dips into ominous greyscale hues, tinting wiry Folk Rock landscapes with the band’s own brand of overcast cloud cover. Sheets of guitar and bass ripple against jittery percussion, tempered only by sleepy violin melodies stretched thin. A cover of the Velvet Underground and Nico’s “These Days” slips so seamlessly into the tracklist that you could mistake it for an original.
In 2017, Joyful Noise announced that it would reissue Creature Native as the inaugural installment in its monthly White Label Series, a subscription-based catalog of overlooked records curated by the imprint’s own artists. WHY? frontman and fellow Cincinnatian Yoni Wolf nominated The Ophelias for the January pressing, lavishing praise in the liner notes.
The Ophelias opened for WHY? just two months later at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater, which happened to be attended by Joyful Noise founder Karl Hofstetter. Encouraged by Wolf, the band handed its demos to Hofstetter.
“At first, (Karl) was like, ‘Oh, you guys might be a little young, you might be a little inexperienced at the moment, but we could pass this on to some other labels we know,’ ” Peppet says. “But then he listened to the demos and was, like, ‘No, we definitely want you on our label.’ ”
Now labelmates with the likes of Kishi Bashi, Sebadoh and The Low Anthem, The Ophelias have ventured into more ambitious territory, crafting new material that holds firm to its DIY ethos while asserting its place in the “Prestige Indie” canon.
“Fog,” the lead single and opener on the band’s sophomore album, bursts with optimism not heard on previous outings, stacking layers of vocals harmonies atop a single piano note before segueing into a breezy chord progression. Clocking in at just under two minutes, the track packs an impressive amount of curveballs in its short span, with a triumphant chorus bouncing between violin solos and heavily distorted vocal bridges before fading out.
The Ophelias’ newfound maximalism can be partly attributed to Wolf, who produced Almost, sprinkling in some extra percussion while challenging the band to explore new territory.
“I’ve learned a lot from him — especially about hooks and songwriting,” Peppet says. “(Yoni) is a big hook proponent. And he definitely has an ability to look at a song, even if it’s very unfinished, and say, ‘Oh, I know what we should do.’ Sometimes, it’ll be like, ‘We should drop everything out and put this one thing in here.’ Other times, he’ll say we should add six different vocal harmonies to one part.”
On a personal level, Peppet says she’s made a point of being more direct in her songwriting since her earlier forays.
“I don’t care if the person it’s about knows it’s about them — it’s what needs to be said,” she says.
That directness is especially evident (lyrically and sonically) in Almost’s second single, “General Electric.” Carnivalesque keyboard melodies trade space with a revolving door of bleary-eyed refrains, the catchiest of which isolates the bass before easing into a sing-song stanza: “Control me like a puppet/Call me on my cellphone /I’m General Electric/You’re a Casanova.”
Ophelias fans can also look forward to an updated version of “Night Signs,” which will also appear on Almost. The song was uploaded last March as a demo but has since climbed to six-digit streaming numbers on Spotify thanks to its inclusion on several taste-making playlists, including Spotify’s own “Viral 50” chart.
From playlists to magical songwriting sessions to fateful encounters with label heads, one could make a case for divine intervention playing a part in The Ophelias’ rise to their first national release. But there’s much more than serendipity that’s taken the quartet this far. They’re skilled musicians, earnest artists and, above all, friends who genuinely admire one another.
“I know a lot of bands can have a frontwoman and rotating members behind her,” Peppet says. “We’re all definitely a group together. It’s very equal, very level and I miss that when I don’t have it.”