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Step Right Up: Paper Dollhouse

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Interview with Astrud Steehouder & Nina Bosnic, Paper Dollhouse.

“I feel like the experience and the record took us on a journey, like it had an intention with us rather than the other way round.”

—Nina Bosnic

Words: Mark Carry

PDH Heath border

I recall first discovering Paper Dollhouse sometime in 2012. The mesmerizing debut album ‘A Box Painted Black’– released on Bird Records, an offshoot from UK’s Finders Keepers Records in 2011 – carved a unique world of cinematic homespun folk creations that contained haunting vocals, acoustic guitar, found sounds, electronic manipulations and slide projector as seamless textures embedded the dark minimal gothic folk framework. Paper Dollhouse began as the alias for London-based artist Astrud Steehouder that would later evolve into a collaborative project with visual artist Nina Bosnic. The resultant sound is masterfully captured on the group’s utterly transcendent sophomore full-length release ‘Aeonflower’, which retains the dense, cinematic dimensions of its predecessor while unleashing a more expansive and intense experience for the listener to get beautifully lost in.

A wide range of enthralling sounds is dotted across ‘Aeonflower’ from the gorgeous opening synth-based odyssey of ‘Oracle’, the spoken-word dance opus ‘Helios’ to the meditative slow-burning lament of ‘Your Heart’ and closing guitar-based ambient gem ‘Siren’. The album’s ten immaculate tracks inhabit an ethereal dimension of fragile beauty, pain, loss and hope where crushing noise scapes and cinematic techno is interwoven with brooding synthesizer-based laments and deeply affecting vocals.


‘Aeonflower’ is out now on Night School Records and Bird Records.


Interview with Astrud Steehouder & Nina Bosnic, Paper Dollhouse.

Congratulations to you both on the incredible new full-length, ‘Aeonflower’, which sees you explore more electronic-oriented soundscapes in comparison to the more homespun folk-based 2011 debut ‘A Box Painted Black’. One of the aspects I love about ‘Aeonflower’ is the ethereal dimension these new beguiling songs effortlessly inhabit. Please discuss for me the making of ‘Aeonflower’ and your aims from the outset in what you wanted to achieve?

Astrud Steehouder: The record took a long time to complete from inception to close but it needed that sense of duration to reflect a cycle of sorts, and the kind of depths that are not daily scenarios. It’s ethereal in the sense that it has a dark otherworldly quality but it’s equally just the sum of experience pushed through a filter of somewhat swamplike glittering rain. It’s got a very stark Greek/ Roman myth vibe which kind of came into being when naming the tracks. That part was deliberate as to me it seemed at that point like dark islands and mermaids. The tracks were pulled together like a detailed patchwork quilt, the fabric of each episode and emotions spanning time, following affecting events. Some tracks were recorded in my bedroom, some in Nina’s, some in isolation, some recorded purposefully in the studio, some reworked. Then Matt wove it together with the tape loops on the suite on side B which complete it in my opinion. The intention was to create a spectral, dark pop record. I think it goes way down into the depths in places but I think a challenge and discomfort is important in places.

Nina Bosnic: For me it was definitely a cycle, it captures and weaves together so much of both our lives over a long period of time. When I heard the record for the first time in its entirety I felt like I had not heard it before and it really affected me. It is strange. Some recordings on it are from years ago and from many different places and stages of my life and the record encapsulates so much for us. My grandmother’s voice is on the record, when she was alive, as is my mother’s singing which I recorded in our house a few years ago. All these sounds and voices are weaved deeply within, swelling to the surface every now and again. I feel like the experience and the record took us on a journey, like it had an intention with us rather than the other way round.


The new record contains a wide range of enthralling sounds that encompass an entire spectrum of utterly compelling sounds from the gorgeous opening synth-based odyssey of ‘Oracle’, the spoken-word dance opus ‘Helios’ to the meditative slow-burning lament of ‘Your Heart’ and closing ambient gem ‘Siren’. Please discuss the instrumentation used on ‘Aeonflower’? Can you shed some light on the electronic processes utilized throughout the record? 

AS: I was conscious that I didn’t want it to be purely electronic because it would have felt disingenuous at this stage to solely rely on backing tracks and vocals to perform. The guitar provides a heavy grain which goes really well with Nina’s synth I think. ‘Your Heart’ was created at home with layered synths and vocals on my massive Yamaha keyboard, as were ‘Black Flowers’ and ‘Oracle’. It has some really nice synth bass sounds which sound great with delay and reverbs and they’re really warm. They’re all played manually, no midi or quantising. The drum hits on ‘Black Flowers’ are just pressing the drum patches by key which gives it that sort of manual, false quality which I really like.

Helios’ was originally a demo I made using the Boom drum machine in Pro Tools and my keyboard for an earlier mix for a site called Discrepant. You can compare the two versions to hear what Matt did with it; he broke the kick apart to make the whole thing sound much more pounding. There’s an additional slowed down siren at the end where he hung a mic out the window to capture a police car. We sat there all night with the mic but he got it in the end, no reason for it, it just sounds good. ‘Stand’, ‘Siren’, ‘Diane’ and ‘In The Sun’ were tracked in a studio.

The vocals in ‘Psyche’ are phone recordings from one of Nina’s friends in Bosnia; she has such a great accent, it works so well for that track. ‘Diane’ was built with a single synth and vocal recordings straight into the sampler using all the inbuilt effects. Nina’s vocal is processed through a Boss VE 20 pedal- we wanted a kind of compressed, metallic sound to contrast with the ultra-ethereal vox throughout. Matt uncovered loads of tape loops on old tape machines and added those at the end of the record. They’re from a different era. They work really well. We had them going round a gin bottle in the hallway at one point. It reminds me a little of the Caretaker record ‘An Empty Bliss Beyond This World’, the dislocated warmth of it.

Please recount for me writing and recording the captivating track ‘Helios’. The spoken word segment works so wonderfully. Lyrically, I wonder would this aspect of the music form the song or would the words come afterwards? 

AS: I was on my may home from work, I was on the tube platform and I heard it in my head so I went back home, wrote it down then built a techno-ish track from it the same night. I layered up the vocals and added delay but now Nina’s doing them it sounds much richer. I like that some of the lyrics are pretty unusual for this kind of sounding material, it’s kind of mundane or cold but very metaphorical and heavy. The words clearly have dual meaning also.

NB: We practice this song in our bedroom singing into hairbrushes and dancing, it is ritual. And somehow, naturally, when performing Helios live, we are always looking at each other and taking it so seriously. I think the music and repetition of the lyrics kind of hypnotises us and pulls us in. But remembering our hairbrushes it makes us laugh and I think it must appear strange and unsettling to watch.


A myriad of ideas and illuminating spirit of invention lies at the heart of the Paper Dollhouse creations. Can you discuss the minimalist approach you have developed since the formidable debut? A tight musical telepathy seems to exist between you both; showcased beautifully across ‘Aeonflower’s sprawling sonic canvas. Can you reminisce also on first crossing paths with one another and how this collaboration has blossomed over the last few years?

NB: We met when we were both seventeen. Neither of us were making music then. We talked about starting bands for fun. Our paths crossed again several years later through music. We became close friends about five years ago and shortly afterwards started working together creatively in various capacities. At the time we were both involved in other music and art projects and it was so natural to feed off each other, inspire one another and to develop a desire to work together.       

AS: I wanted to work with Nina because she’s not afraid, she’s highly creative and understands the importance of a minimal approach when required. She’s a really good critic and stops me approaching things or presenting things in a way that’s too contrived. We’re really good friends and from early on understood visuals and atmosphere in a similar way, understanding the loss and the beauty in things. That said, I don’t want to convey complete sadness and though there will probably always be a melancholic tone to our music, I think a pop record is possible.

NB: This summer will be a time for a weird pop record with French vocals and lilac coloured artwork. Less sadness and more playfulness and light.

One of the great hallmarks of the new record is the extremes of mood (and sound) the music unleashes. For example, white noise, drone sounds, industrial and synth pop flourishes are somehow interwoven together, forming a deeply affective and highly emotive journey. What were the challenges in the recording stages? 

AS: Definitely creating consistency throughout a set of tracks that had been recorded in completely different ways and were very different in style. Matt really nurtured this record and let it breathe but transformed it into a set of pieces that lie together, they make sense. The track order was important and there was some careful editing to squeeze the tracks onto one side of vinyl. I was adamant I wanted ‘Helios’ to sound like the demo version but far better and he managed to reproduce it in a way that still sounds like us rather than him. That’s something we discussed and I think now it sounds like the version in my head, which must be a big challenge for a producer.

‘Siren’ is a stunningly beautiful ambient exploration that serves the fitting closer to ‘Aeonflower’. Please discuss the construction (or deconstruction) of this beautiful closer. 

AS: This began as an instrumental, fogged out guitar track with loads of reverb and delay and no vocals. There’s a version on a Resonance session I did solo with Alex Tucker a while back. Over time in rehearsals we experimented with vocals and Nina added synths which really give it a subtle gravitas which weight and balance it, that was missing before. It has a heavy noise element in fact which belies the super ethereal vocal. It’s where I get to use some of my guitar pedals. I harmonised with myself on the recording so it’s kind of improvised. You unconsciously know your natural timings so it’s easier to sing the phrases again. I think the drone descent at the end was an inspired production choice.

What were your earliest musical memories? I wonder are there certain records out there you feel have served a profound impact on you?

AS: Not sure of the earliest though I was very into Jean Michelle Jarre, Beverley Craven (also the Happy hardcore version) and Starlight Express soundtrack especially AC/DC. Opus 3. The Funeral March, I used to try to improvise the chords of that on the piano when I was about 8 so I kind of had my own version going on.

NB: My earliest musical memories are of the Bosnian folk songs my parents played and sang at gatherings with their friends, they still do this. This type of singing and playing music had a profound effect on me. There was a time when I couldn’t sing with them, but now I do. It’s liberating. There is so much history and folklore, so many mixed moods and emotions connected to the ritual of playing this old music. There is a lot of improvisation too, and trance like qualities which is something I love and take a lot of inspiration from.

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‘Aeonflower’ is out now on Night School Records and Finders Keepers Records.


To buy the new record ‘Aeonflower’: Night School (LP) and Bird/ Finders Keepers (Tape/ DL):


Forthcoming Paper Dollhouse tour dates are as follows:

April 25th: The Hello Goodbye Show, Resonance FM (Live)
May 2nd: Fuse Arts Space, Bradford
May 3rd: The Islington Mill, Salford for SFTOC
May 6th: The Lexington, London (with A Grave With No Name)


Written by markcarry

April 23, 2015 at 2:58 pm

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Feminatronic and commented:
    Courtesy of Fractured Air


    April 24, 2015 at 4:18 pm

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