There is a palpable longevity to the songs that populate Steady Holiday’s new album Newfound Oxygen, one that’s owed in no small part to Dre Babinski’s attempt to kindle within (and outside) herself a sort of self-sustaining optimism. Arriving on the heels of Take the Corners Gently — her cautionary appeal for empathy and connection released coincidentally but no less prophetically on the eve of a global pandemic — her fourth album is a reaffirmation of many of the altruistic threads woven into her last record. Grappling with the same questions of identity and purpose, as well as acknowledging the terribly arduous work of living (let alone attempting to be decent).
Please note: This post may contain affiliate links.
“Not to say there isn’t like an evolution between the two records,” Babinski clarifies. “It feels like a lot of the same topics that I’m continuing to explore, topics that I think are pretty evergreen and seem to be the ones I circle around throughout my life: identity, where you fit into the world, and how you see the world.”
For Babinski, Take the Corners Gently arose out of a reckoning with how she would define success as an artist and her happiness as a person. Prior to the album, she’d “pegged a lot of [her] worth” on the growth of Steady Holiday as a project. “It was actually before the pandemic that I kind of hit a wall with that and realized that if I were to move forward with making music I’d have to make some really big spiritual changes.” One of those crucial shifts in perspective involved dispelling this unhealthy feeling that she was “owed something” because of the work she’d put in as an artist. “I had to completely deconstruct how I thought the music industry worked and just kind of build back up with some humility,” Babinski says. “There was a lot of just raging ego and entitlement that made me feel like I was owed a career.”
“The timing of an album like that coming from that, building back up from a shattered place in my life, the timing of it was slightly ahead of the curve in terms of pandemic breakdowns that so many of us had.” Yet what resonates even now is her tenacious idealism. Despite being plagued by questions that would drive anyone into cynical and nihilistic loops — “What am I doing with my life?” she remembers asking herself. “Everything that I cared about is actually bullshit.” — she resists.
But whereas Take the Corners Gently sought to alleviate those feelings by reminding her (and us) of the cathartic necessity of selfless compassion in the midst of such a ubiquitous crisis, Newfound Oxygen unfolds as a roadmap through that reality’s aftermath. One that begins by mirroring the lofty but a not entirely unfounded expectation of those lucky enough to even begin putting the last two year’s trauma (or any debilitating period in life) behind them, might expect a little sunshine paired with their perceived fresh start.
But on the album’s opening track “Bomb Shelter Comatose,” Babinski muses against dulcet-dreary piano keys about the irony of finding herself stuck at a “seven out of ten / not quite good or bad,” after such an already difficult period of life. Deciding to go for a swim, she reasons that whether or not she sinks, swims, or floats, the “shock” might be enough to dislodge her from her existential rut (or it might just make matters worse). As the beat kicks in, swooning alongside cooed backing vocals and a buoyantly sauntering melody switch-up, she confesses that although it’s far easier to cloister herself from the world — “it’s not living, it’s not what I want.”
Across Newfound Oxygen, Babinski’s lyricism starts to resemble tenderhearted mantras. Nowhere is that more apparent than within “The Balance,” a sweepingly ebullient cataloging of all the ways she continues to fortify her heart against life’s uncertainties. “My dreams, they would haunt me a lifetime ago / Now I’ll climb a mountain with plenty of rope,” she trills against the song’s jubilant rhythm. On “High Alert” she thumbs through the pros and cons of seeking some semblance of control (“This is how I make the chaos work” / “This is how I never seem to learn”) before the song grows out of its solitary guitar line into a pummeling anthem dedicated to the vitality of unabashed love. “So show it when you know you’ve got nothin’ to conceal / This is how love makes the broken heal,” she sings on “Reprise.”
Part of the magic of Steady Holiday’s last two albums is borne out of her ability to pen songs that resound — without didactic pretension or moralizing overtures — with earnest instruction. “I struggle with that,” Babinski explains. “I do write songs that are ethos based but it’s extremely important to me that I don’t come off as finger-waggy or judgy. Or on the other hand, being too self-helpy. All of those things are very, very near to each other.” She points to her second album Nobody’s Watching as a time when she was “still fine-tuning” the location of that thin line for her own music. “They’re very cynical,” she says referring to the songs on the record. “Taking on characters that are like: ‘I can do whatever the fuck I want, and who’s gonna stop me?’ It was very much a reaction to Trump and everything that came before and after that cyclone.”
“But it’s not where I want to write from. I’m more interested in writing songs about how I want to live, not necessarily how I am,” Babinski says, citing “The Balance” as an example of her on “my best day.” Yet for all her steely positivity what makes her lyrics all the more relatable is a healthy dose of sardonic understanding. “But motherfucker that ain’t me all the time,” she says with a smirk. “That’s just my Northstar.”
True to that sentiment, Newfound Oxygen doesn’t shy away from the litany of malaise hurled by life at Babinski. There’s the melancholic ballad “Asleep,” a hymn of lilting acoustics made all the more ethereal by her glowing vocal layerings, which tries to reconcile her life-affirming optimism with the knee-jerk religious reflex to ascribe providence to tragedy (“You say, ‘There’s someone looking over us for sure / It’s a miracle at work’ / I wanna believe in something”). Or the stunningly rapt “Can’t Find A Way,” where a gloaming piano and the intonation of a few dolorous strings yank at the heart-strings as Babinski traces delicately all the ways two people can selflessly depend on one another but still struggle to strike a spark. “It’s safe to say that I would die for you / ‘Cause I can depend on you in every way but one,” she laments, echoing a line from “Reprise” (“Love is the most elusive thing”).
And even when you find it — life’s far from a cakewalk. Amidst the broodingly dreamy movements of “All Weekend,” she muses on life’s ambiguity: “There are no guarantees, only wishes / I want you next to me but how luck changes.” Reiterating her promise to not be “cynical” — “I’ll try my best to / Have it all and let it go.” Even at her most somber, Babinski takes life in stride. “I try to focus on everything that is quietly working in my life and really acknowledge and be grateful for that,” she explains.
For Babinski, Newfound Oxygen also revisits the wranglings she had pre-pandemic with her music as both an art and a vocation. “On the heels of that I decided to start self-releasing and self-promoting,” she revealed. “Taking a lot more ownership over my — I keep saying the word ‘career,’ I hate that word — but like taking more ownership over how I operate in this industry.” Part of that has involved reevaluating her relationship with performing live and on tour — assumed requirements of a musician’s ‘career.’ Though they’re too often taken for granted by fans without considering the emotional and financial toll they have on artists. With an album release show slated for Mar. 15 at Dynasty Typewriter in Los Angeles, Babinski (who ended last year with a characteristically idiosyncratic show at Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater) knows she wants to “do something different,” but what that will look has yet to reveal itself to her.
Though if the right person gave her a call she’d have her bags packed at the drop of hat. “If Angel Olsen was like ‘Dre, come on. Come out.’ I’d be like ‘Yeah, I’m there in a fucking second,’ of course,” she admits. Others on Steady Holiday’s top five list of artists she’d open for? She takes a moment to ponder, saying she’s trying to think of a “cool answer.” She settles for a few honest but telling ones: Sharon Van Etten, Weyes Blood, and Japanese Breakfast (artists that share Steady Holiday’s immense propensity for creating lushly melodic and emotionally jarring music). She’d also love another go at it with Mitski — whom she played a run of west coast shows with in 2017, calling them “the best shows” of her life. “I just remember it being the most respectful, diverse crowd I’ve ever experienced.”
Babinski’s changing perspective about her work as an artist echoes loud and clear in “My Own Time,” a crystalline lullaby that begins with Babinski addressing ominous gatekeepers: “To all the guards at the castle gate / I have made my very best case.” It’s a song that eulogizes her decision to leave behind the commercial rat race that once had her judging her worth via Spotify numbers, staring at them “with crossed arms” thinking: “Why aren’t more people listening?” Within the twinkling stroll through soulful staccato instrumentation and lulling violins that crescendo on “Under the Moon,” she questions the pointless competition and consumption that seeks to drive every part of our lives: “Today is yours, tomorrow’s mine / This constant climb to thrive, to outrun each other.”
Instead of counting monthly listeners, she started paying closer attention to the people that were already “rooting for [her].” A decision that completely altered and enriched Babinski’s reasons for making music. “It’s just a much more connected experience and that makes phase two of being an artist worth it. ‘Making it’ is its own self-contained, very personal thing. But once you put it out there, I don’t know, I really like knowing who’s listening.” Those that follow Babinski on Instagram are no doubt familiar with her unconventional methods of making those connections with fans. At the beginning of the pandemic, she started looking for “weird things to do because it was a weird time,” so she created postcards to send to friends and family as a nostalgic but also uniquely tangible means of reinforcing those ties.
When she needed to start promoting Take the Corners Gently she shied away from a need to “engage the whole world” with an album announcement. “I wanted to just lean into the people already paying attention and engage those people,” Babinski explains. “However you make things let it be small and let it be charming, but lean into Justin in Wisconsin who buys everything that I do — like that guy. Send a postcard to Justin. Find out who’s out there and really zero in on them.” Sending out an open call on Instagram she received hundred of addresses from fans to send postcards to, using it as a creative outlet as well to write long-form anecdotes about her daily life that intersect with her music. “It’s just been so — I mean it’s a pain in the dick,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s so fun and I’m always doing it at the last minute scribbling things.” From raffling off recycled miscellany like defected/unused night guards as keychains to whimsical props from music videos, Babinski relishes any opportunity or medium with which to imbue some small appreciation to the people who listen to her music.
Though few gifts have been as magical as the music videos this album cycle has birthed. Directed by Isaac Ravishankara (Babinski’s husband) and brainstormed on walks the couple take around their neighborhood, the videos for Newfound Oxygen are dazzling cinematic worlds unto themselves. “I love making things across many different kinds of mediums and I loved the opportunity to have a visual component to the theme of a song. And Isaac, he’s been around since the inception of songs, he knows my music better than I do sometimes and has his own relationship with the songs. But also really understands me — so I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator to help bring those ideas into a different medium.” From the arresting manipulations of physics that take place in “Can’t Find A Way” to the sublime wonder of “The Balance” — the last minute of which envisions a breathtaking scene in which Babinski free falls from a cliff as she strikes a pose similarly emblazoned on the album’s cover — Ravishankara’s creations are just that. A vivid lens with which to project all the prismatic emotions that gush from Steady Holiday’s lyrics and melodies.
On Newfound Oxygen, Babinski’s soundscapes feel more spaciously vivacious. Caught between sweeping instrumentals and exuberantly interwoven vocal caresses, the songs are just as devoutly expressive of her attempts to persist as they are honest concessions of life’s destabilizing fluctuations. For producer Babinski looked to Ari Balouzian — who up to that point had only produced for the two projects he was directly involved with: dreamy indie-pop duo Midnight Sister and modern doo-wop/soul trio Gabriels. He also scored the 2020 documentary Some Kind of Heaven, which Babinski saw and gushed over, which urged her to send him a cold DM on Instagram. “I knew that we had some mutual friends so I just kind of reached out cold and I was like: ‘You’re dope. What’s your deal? Do you have time? Do you wanna get together and talk music?’ And we hit it off pretty quickly.”
Gathering together a group of musicians that included drummer Trevor Estes and bassist/guitarist John Anderson (two Gabriels collaborators), as well as other Los Angeles musicians like the stalwart vocals of folk singer/songwriter Bedouine and multi-instrumentalist Gus Seyffert — they were able to knock out the recording of the record in a relatively short period. “In the past, I’ve just had an insecurity of defaulting to producers and maybe not putting my hand up when I felt like I should,” she admits. But that wasn’t the case with Newfound Oxygen, with Babinski realizing just how “increasingly comfortable” she’d become donning the hat of a creative leader.
The whole process is indicative of her newfound commitment to cultivating the community where it already exists; of basking in the radiance of what’s going right; of understanding that nothing is permanent, everything (and everyone) must be sustained. “But I know love in a strange time / It’s a challenge, it takes work and knowing,” she elucidates in “The Balance.” On the album’s final song and title track, her distinct vision of “Newfound Oxygen” intertwines her conviction in a second wind (far from the first or last) with the slightly concerning altitude at which she’s found it. But as the song’s elated melody tumbles downward, Babinski appears as resolute as ever: “I’m ready for a hard landing, if it gets me home.”
Words: Steven Ward
Listen to Newfound Oxygen the new album from Steady Holiday below!