BEING CLASSICALLY trained has never exactly been a badge of honor in the world of popular music (unless you’re in an early ’70s prog rock band). The reality that music is ultimately a learned skill—or science, rather—challenges our mythologized perception of the artist as a solitary, tortured soul, imbued at birth by some higher power with this fake shit we call talent.
Jordan Bagnall, the singer and songwriter behind Portland pop project My Body, is classically trained and proud of it: “I started playing piano when I was seven, and then the viola in school until college, and I have this short list of things I’ve picked up along the way,” she says. “For me, it’s like I learned another language that I never really stopped using.”
Bagnall’s compositions prove that possessing a classical “vocabulary” is virtually always an asset, even when you’re working in a different idiom. My Body makes indelible, heavily synthesized music that seems primed for commercial success. But the project’s deceptively catchy pop songs are spritzed with hidden complexities stemming from Bagnall’s vast knowledge of her craft; her dense but never overpowering vocal overdubs are anchored by erratic drum loops and rapid keyboard arpeggios, alluding to a self-conscious virtuosity simmering beneath the radio-ready glaze.
My Body’s forthcoming EP, Seven Wives, will be released in January on Portland label Bug Hunt, and follows last year’s Six Wives. Both are conceptually linked: “We shaped these last two EPs around this story called Thirteen Wives by Steven Millhauser, which is an allegorical story about a man who claims to have 13 wives, but I think he’s really just writing about one wife,” Bagnall says. “I don’t know if I relate to that character, but I think the idea has some merit, as just being yourself requires you to be several different people, and then by being with another person that identity becomes even more fragmented.”
Singing about identity dislocation in the context of a relationship seems like a bold move for the duo, considering Bagnall and co-producer Darren Bridenbeck are also romantic partners. “[Darren] and I were both really reluctant to be a couple in a band together, because mostly you just hear really terrible things about that scenario—but we gradually started playing music together, and then I think it was inevitable that we would start a more formal project,” she says.
Bagnall never takes any Rumours-esque potshots, but she’s still unflinching: In Seven Wives’s closer, “Pomme,” she airs an apprehension most of us in committed relationships aren’t willing to admit we experience. “No matter who you love/Your love is never deep enough/No matter who you want/Your want’s not worth a broken heart.”
But for the most part, her lyrics quaintly celebrate romance. In her and Bridenbeck’s case, it’s a triumphant romance—one that has endured and resulted in the creation of important art. She unconsciously validates the project in the refrain to “Half a Heart to Holler”: “What was love before you came along?”
If Portland had a version of the Wrecking Crew, then Bagnall would be its (considerably hipper) Don Randi. She was an original member of Typhoon, played in the oft-forgotten (but great) Doubledutch (with Dhani Rosa, of the similarly oft-forgotten but great Eskimo and Sons), and has done a variety of freelance arranging and piano accompaniment for local artists. For the past decade, Bagnall’s behind-the-scenes work has augmented some of the best music to come out of Portland—but her own material demands just as much recognition.
The local music scene is paying off the debt. My Body’s creative core of Bagnall and Bridenbeck is rounded out live by Kyle Morton of Typhoon and Thomas Himes of Wild Ones, but even with a new live act and their best and most accessible record yet in the queue, the duo seems to be dialing back some of their loftier ambitions.
“I would still be happy to be in a pop band, or make something that was more mainstream-appreciated, but the longer we’re in this band, the less we want to scrap around for really big labels to notice us, or dump a lot of money in PR, or be really fixated on how many people are listening to a track in a day,” Bagnall says.
After living in Brooklyn for a little over four years, she and Bridenbeck moved back to Portland this past January, realizing that they lacked a meaningful community despite New York’s higher ceiling for artists.
“Maybe there’s a payoff to trying really hard to [hustle in a big scene], but it doesn’t seem like there is, and it’s sort of cliché, but it wasn’t making us happy,” Bagnall says. “The more time we’ve spent doing this, the more we’ve come to value actual time spent making songs, or having band practices with people we really enjoy.”