Kiwi-based sibling duo Clementine and Valentine Nixon have had music and performing deeply embedded in their lineage: Traveling musicians and performers go back hundreds of years on their maternal side — and has been documented on recordings such as 1968’s The Traveling Stewarts. As children, the Nixon Sisters were taught to sing traditional balladry by their grandmother, the daughter of revered Traveller musician Davie Stewart, who was once recorded by Alan Lomax.
Professionally, the sibling duo have made a career our of music that draws from that nomadic family heritage and conjures a series of contrasts: ancient and modern, beauty and brokenness, the ritual and the fleeting and more. Raised itinerantly between New Zealand and Hong Kong, the Kiwi-based sibling duo cut their teeth performing in renegade gallery spaces and rogue music venues across Hong Kong’s abandoned industrial section, eventually amassing both national and international attention with their acclaimed experimental noise and futuristic noise pop project Purple Pilgrims.
Their Purple Pilgrim material was frequently self-produced and released through a series of labels including beloved Kiwi label Flying Nun Records.
With their latest project Clementine Valentine, Clementine and Valentine Nixon write, record and perform with a fusion of their birth names. Sonically, the project sees the sibling duo refining their craft into a more fully realized and sophisticated sound than ever before.
Their Randall Dunn-produced Clementine Valentine full-length debut The Coin That Broke the Fountain Floor is slated for an August 25, 2023 release through Flying Nun Records. The album reportedly marks a pivotal moment in the pair’s creative evolution: The material sees them transposing their keyboard-and-guitar driven demos to cello, pedal steel, 12 string guitar and a collection of vintage synthesizers. Matt Chamberlain, who has worked with David Bowie, Lana Del Rey and Fiona Apple contributed percussion for the recording sessions.
The result is material that’s lush, shimmering and softly orchestral while being an accumulation of songcraft that has stretched back generations within their family.
In the lead up to the album’s release later this week, I’ve managed to write about two of the album’s previously released singles:
“Time and Tide,” a single built around the duo’s gorgeous and expressive vocal range, soaring hooks and choruses, dramatic percussion, strummed guitar and atmospheric synths. Sonically nodding at Kate Bush, “Time and Tide” aims for the celestial and the timeless, while being one of the more optimistic-leaning songs of their career to date.“We thought we were only capable of writing sad songs — but found optimism creeping in during the writing of this album,” Clementine and Valentine Nixon explain. “Without ruining the mystery, ‘Time and Tide’ is about the release that comes in too brief moments of relinquishing overthinking, fret and regret. It’s coloured with melancholy, but cheerful by our measure.”
“The Rope,” a haunting siren song that pulls the listener in, much like the old Greek myths — but whether it’s to safety or your demise is ultimately up to the listener. The Nixon’s sisters’ unncaily breathtaking harmonies ethereally float over a sparse arrangement of their vocals, strummed guitar and gentle percussion. Unlike its immediate predecessor, “The Rope” is clearly informed and inspired by a deep understanding and love of folk tradition. “The rope acts as a motif to connect us to our ancestors – we wanted it to feel as though it could be both ancient and of now,” the Nixon Sisters explain. “A feeling we call ‘ancient futurism’ – something we’ve been chasing in our songs for years now. We were reaching for a feeling simultaneously sinister and comforting as, to us, so many ancient songs are.
“We’ve always listened to a lot of new music, but the core of our creative expression has always come directly from our deep familial folk music traditions. This is something that has not always been easily identifiable, perhaps due to the fact that we’ve never been interested in making ‘folk revival music’ — there’s no finger picking on any of our family records. The folk element in our songs is on a DNA level, stretching back beyond the 1960s wave that folk music is commonly associated with.
Having felt for a long time that pop, and (more importantly to us) lo-fi or bedroom produced music, to now be the true music of the people (accessible to all) — we finally decided we wanted to use more acoustic and ‘traditional’ instrumentation to express this feeling of modernising relics. Although our personal tradition of using an excess of synthesizers is still very much present all over this album, ‘The Rope’ is very stripped back for us and tells the story of our family music in a way we never have before.”
The Coin That Broke The Fountain Floor’s third and latest single “Selenelion” is a slow-burning dream pop-like ballad featuring glistening pedal steel, atmospheric synths, strummed acoustic guitar, Matt Chamberlain’s propulsive yet dramatic drumming serving as a lush bed for the Nixon Sisters’ gorgeous, uncannily precise, soaring harmonies. And while feeling and sounding rather contemporary, the song is rooted in something much more ancient.
“Selenelion is a type of lunar eclipse where both the sun and moon appear in the sky at the same time. As a story the song is based on aspects of countless old folk songs and fables. A star-crossed dynamic,” Valentine and Clementine Nixon explain. “The meeting of a mythological creature and a mortal, always ending in tragedy.”
Directed by Britt Walton and shot in Hong Kong, the accompanying video for “Selenelion,” follows two star crossed and seemingly doomed lovers — one, who is waiting for her lover at a Clementine Valentine show in a little cabaret-styled joint. The other wandering the busy, neon-lit streets of Hong Kong, like a hungry ghost. Surrounding them are equally lonely souls, trying to forget their loneliness for a little bit.
“The video by Britt Walton follows the same doomed scenario, set in a place dear to us – Hong Kong, where we grew up,” Clementine Valentine say of the video.