Elana Belle Carroll moved from New York City to Los Angeles in October 2014, shortly after putting out her first couple of songs under the name Party Nails. At the time, she was attempting to “move on from my previous life as a musician” and enter a more productive creative phase.
“They say you succeed only as much as you’re willing to fail, and the beginning of Party Nails certainly was the end of a failure,” she says. “In my memory, it was this vast pool of emotions and chaos and ‘What should I do?’ In hindsight, it was the beginning of a calmer, more focused era, for sure.”
Generally, she’s found a better headspace in Los Angeles, at least partly because she’s able to just throw on jeans and a T-shirt and go.
“I discovered the rest of me after moving here. I feel like, before, I was cold and sad,” she says. “Even though New York City is an amazing place to be, there’s this grit and coldness — like, true coldness. I’m a smallish person, just barely not petite — I’m like 5’4” — and to be wearing more than one layer of clothes feels awful, like I’m a child wearing my parents’ clothing. I’m weighed down; I can’t see my body; I can’t move. ... It sounds a bit superficial, but it makes a huge difference in my productivity and what I feel capable of doing.”
Party Nails is Carroll’s solo project with a bit of a Madonna vibe and 1980s synth-pop overtones. Her persona is also part flower child, as she’s liable to talk about stuff like “blossoming into your full, colorful self.” She also has a strong curiosity about the nature of pop music and where good melodies come from. From her perspective, it’s important to develop the ability to recognize when ideas aren’t special.
“For every good thing, there’s like, a ton of bad stuff,” she says. “There are a lot of songs where you can’t really tell why they’re not great. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there’s nothing great about them. That’s a lot of what I try to avoid.”
Songs will occasionally appear to her fully formed and out of nowhere. For example, she wrote “Musician” about a year ago, while she was “ferociously wrapping up” her first album, Past Lives & Paychecks. Carroll had narrowed the track list down to 18 or 20 songs and was laboring over a host of decisions she felt were extra-important because it was her debut album. “You have to decide what kind of statement you’re going to make,” she says.
In today’s music industry, there’s also pressure on rising and midlevel artists to put out new music rapidly, Carroll says. Though she’d prefer to shoot five music videos for five singles, and promote them for a couple of years, it’s not a realistic strategy. “Having new content is really important, but I don’t like the word ‘content,’” she says. “It is what it is.”
There was an additional incentive to mix down the songs quickly: Party Nails was about to go on tour. Suffice it to say, the production and promotion schedule was in rush mode. But that didn’t stop Carroll from writing and recording a song that had spontaneously appeared in her mind at the 11th hour, directly before she was supposed to put the finishing touches on Past Lives & Paychecks.
“I just couldn’t let it go,” she says of the song. “I had been trying to get in the practice of really listening, and doing a lot of research on how people experience new ideas and how they capture them. I was like, ‘Well, whoever or whatever is giving me this idea is being pretty respectful of my time. I’m not asleep, I’m not driving — I can get this idea out.’”
“Musician” was a mostly complete idea from the beginning. The first version was slow and droning and about eight minutes long, but Carroll came up with something more succinct once she struck the right emotional chord within herself. Then she messed around with distorted drum samples on her laptop, tracked the piano and bass parts in her home studio, and massaged the beat until she considered it “perfect.”
“I recorded the vocals with my managers John and Caleb — they’re really great producers and engineers themselves — and they were like, ‘Okay, what the fuck just happened? We didn’t know you wrote this,’” Carroll says.
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The song is a window into her previous life as a musician, the unfocused period before Party Nails. It’s about an ultimately toxic relationship she once had with a fellow musician, and sharing the mentality of, “I know what you’re doing because I do it, too.”
“There’s something really passionate and exciting about being musicians side-by-side, inspiring each other, and the magic of making music together,” she says. On the chorus, she sings, “I’m all done being played with / You know I’m a musician, too. “
Carroll says there is fear associated with putting out such a personal piece of music and in taking ownership of a song as its sole creative force: “I felt like, ‘You’re crazy. You can’t just make up a song in five minutes and record it with your friend, and have it be good.’” Sometimes, though, she really can.