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August 2021

Softcult: "You don't have to be part of the rat race; you can find your own way"

Twin sisters Softcult may have had an ‘interesting’ time so far, but there’s much more to come.
Published: 11:52 am, May 28, 2021Words: Steven Loftin. Photos: Judith Priest.
Softcult: "You don't have to be part of the rat race; you can find your own way"

Twin sisters Phoenix and Mercedes Arn-Horn - aside from being related - are cut from the same cloth.

Growing up avid music lovers from a musical household, they began immersing themselves in the local scene of their hometown Kitchener, Ontario. It was here the pair discovered that change in the industry was needed, and their debut EP - 'Year Of The Rat' - is leading this call to arms.

Lending itself not only to the year that Softcult became an established idea with cogs fully turning (2020), but also their determination in going against the grain - especially after the last year's focus on protesting and rioting.

"There's a lot of white rats that are going in one direction, and then a red rat going in another," Mercedes explains of its artwork. "Phoenix was the one who was like, 'Well, we're the red rat - society is going one way and then this red rat…' It changes everything if one person speaks out," she continues. "Hopefully, it has a ripple effect - you don't have to be part of the rat race; you can find your own way."

Refusing to join to the rat race themselves, the sisters have been tinkering away, trying to figure out just how it is they're going to avoid it. Truly, any of their past musical endeavours have all been leading to this moment.

The prominent inspiration for the pair aligning in this way comes from the riot grrrl punk scene. First discovering the movement through the documentary The Punk Singer - capturing the life of Bikini Kill's founder Kathleen Hanna - at the age of 19, it was love at first sight - albeit, appearing in a bittersweet way.

"It's crazy - a lot of the songs we write are about abuse and stuff like that, [but] my abuser actually showed me that documentary," Mercedes explains. "And I'm glad he did because it's an amazing documentary, and it totally changed the course of my life and my passions, and how I saw myself in the music industry. But it's just a weird, crazy, messed up little web that it started from."

Similarly, the riot grrrl method of operating is where Softcult took root. From the music to the ideas-expanding zines, it's all straight from the heads, hands and hearts of the sisters. It's also the lifeblood throughout 'Year Of The Rat', from its dealing with the toll of depression ('Gloomy Girl'), the objectifying world ('Take It Off') to misogyny and sexism ('Another Bish').

A healthy dose of realism to their music - with reference points aplenty - the sisters aren't trying to drill into any new territory; instead, they yearn to push things around on the surface with their luscious slices of alt-pop; treacly and thick with lashings of substance. The ultimate goal being inclusivity for all.

When it came to forming their place in the landscape, the catalyst came through Softcult taking a look at the industry and the representation drastically needed. Truthfully, it's based on "being that person that you felt like you needed," according to Mercedes.

"So, if young women listen to our music, or see us on stage, and they learn that Phoenix is our producer - recording and producing everything we do," she elaborates. "Or that I'm in charge of the visuals - directing and editing all our music videos. Seeing that women can take these things that are male-dominated aspects of the industry, and you can do it yourself - seeing it in someone else means that you can see it in yourself."

While they're yet to see the fruits of their labours bloom and blossom on a larger scale, they have been receiving various pieces of fan art based around similar subject matter that Soft Cult focuses on. In turn inspiring them - while the world may feel a bit cynical and cyclical at times, Softcult are creating the right atmosphere to breed the change so needed.

Deciding to embark upon their journey, with their musical chops favouring shoegaze, seems a bit odd when the majority of the names that influenced the pair came out with raw, unfiltered punk - breakneck speed guitars, hollering gang vocals and the like. Softcult's more measured, deft weaving of emotion through ethereal sonics and tight-knit beats comes simply from the fact that Mercedes' voice didn't quite match.

Admitting that it would all ring great "until we added the vocals", instead, the wall of sound that shoegaze offers breeds its own form of aggression - a passive one which coddles you, proving more light-footed in its endeavour to get the message to sink in. Before you know it, you're facing the crux of Softcult's matter.

It's here the pair are steadfast. Survivors of their own abusive experiences and witnessing the misogyny and injustice, both firsthand and by telly screen, has engrained purpose into the projects DNA.

Indeed, since their band is trying to establish itself as a force for good, what better way of doing that than by setting a few ground rules - to keep the boys club of an industry from its deep-set ways. Cited as "ethical everything, creative freedom, social activism", and absolutely no prejudice or hatred.

Certainly, the burgeoning duo haven't been without their controversy. In early 2021, upon the release of their no-longer-available second single 'Uzumaki', it was pointed out by various musical corners of the internet that it was very, very similar to UK shoegaze-screamers Loathe's 'Two-Way Mirror' - right down to the accompanying video. "We call it the cursed song right now," Mercedes laughs.

For the Arn-Horns, it wasn't the loss of the track that hurt - that can be revisited when the pair are ready ("we want to redo it and rerelease it at some point") - it was the fact the subject matter, incredibly close to their hearts, dealt with their experienced abuse. Wanting to make one of their first moves into the world as Softcult something that made a difference, hoping that it would resonate with those listening. Instead, the echo chamber diluted the issue to something inconsequential.

"The thing that made us sad was the message was completely lost. It was just focusing on pretty much one aspect of the song, that to us, was the least important." They both nod, admitting to having their confidence knocked, sending Softcult back into their shells. Briefly, mind you.

A valuable lesson came from the apology the duo posted to social media. Noting that while most people accepted it, "There were some people that were saying we were playing the victim, and that really got to me because that is exactly what people say when people come forward about abuse," Mercedes recalls.

"They'll say it's for attention or that you're just totally playing up this victim storyline. It taught us that if we're going to be in a band that says these subversive things, it will trigger people, and it will strike a chord with them. We just have to be okay with that, like it's going to happen."

"And we can't let it penetrate our outer shell," Phoenix continues. "It is what it is, and that's the kind of band we are - it will elicit those types of responses, you have to be ready for people to maybe not be okay with what you're saying, and not everyone is gonna like it."

The finale rounding off the pair's EP, 'Bird Song', is a testament to where Softcult finds their strength to weather such storms. Featuring birds twittering outside Mercedes' bedroom, it's living proof the duo's project unveils more with every listen. She explains the particular allegorical epiphany: "It's like in the dawn when they sing to let other birds know that they're there.

"I thought that was a cool analogy, too, because when you meet other survivors, and you share your stories, you feel like this weird sort of trauma-bond or something. It's; I'm here, you're here, we're all still here, we got through it. We're survivors."

"We made it through the night, and it's morning now," Phoenix smiles.

Taken from the June issue of Upset. Softcult's debut EP 'Year of the Rat' is out now.

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