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On 'Death Before Mourning,' Lady Midnight's many styles form a singular sound

Photo credit: Teddy Grimes

Photo credit: Teddy Grimes

Lady Midnight is in no rush.

Not till late 2016, after six years performing and recording music, did she celebrate what she now calls her “debut” at the 7th St. Entry. “Midnight Special” was a showcase for the producers she’d worked with, each of whom took center stage for a mini-set, and for the St. Paul-born singer herself, who came out and performed with each of her collaborators in ornate, self-designed costumes and hair-styling. The event was a perfect distillation of the Lady Midnight aesthetic: a well-planned spectacle designed for a small space, a combination of the intimate and the elaborate, splitting the difference between DIY and polish.

Since that show Adriana Rimpel’s alter ego has kept plenty busy. She’s recorded features for P.O.S and sung backing vocals for Brother Ali. She’s contributed to the compilation Dismembered and Unarmed and recorded an EP as Parables of Neptune with Afrokeys. She even put out an EP of her own in collaboration with Mike the Martyr. She’s done just about everything, in fact, but release a solo full-length.

“I haven’t really established my own sense of voice and said, ‘This is me,’” Rimpel says, plainspoken and quietly composed, but with a giddy undercurrent, as she sits in a back room at Sound Vérité Studios in Falcon Heights. “And I think that’s exactly what this record is going to do.”

“This record” is Death Before Mourning, which comes out this Friday, and on it Lady Midnight is no longer the versatile shape-shifter we’ve heard on previous recordings. She’s instead the clear vocal presence that anyone who’s seen her perform will recognize. And, maybe paradoxically, she’s achieved that consistency of tone by increasing her range of producers, bringing in multiple local heavy hitters from Psymun to MMYKK.

“What I really wanted to do was get away from working with one producer, so I knew that I wasn’t making compromises based on their sounds or capacity,” she says. “I was able to work with everybody and let the songs speak to me as far as what seemed like a collection or a cohesive thought.”

The sound is diverse but unified, held together not just by the voice of Lady Midnight but by her sensibility, a political thrust that’s still luxurious, rejecting the sense that hardening or austerity is necessary to take a committed stance. At times her voice floats amid the dense electronics as though intoning a mantra, as on the opening line “This is my blood song for all of my loved ones.” At others, it takes on a slightly seductive tone, like a more companionable Sade, or is unstably Auto-Tuned to create wobbly harmonies with itself.

Recorded primarily at Medium Zach’s Woodgrain Studios in south Minneapolis, Death Before Mourning has been a long-gestating work: Rimpel began work on the title track back in 2015. And in some ways it is the culmination (for now) of a career that started almost accidentally when Rimpel was an MCAD T.A. A friend asked her, “Are you still singing?” one day, which surprised her because she only sang around friends. But this led to an audition for the Afro-Cuban band Malamanya, with whom she began singing in 2010 before leaving to help form the electronic project Vandaam, and, eventually, step out for a solo careeer.

That background in visual arts still plays a role in Rimpel’s music. “As a photographer you’re fascinated with and almost obsessed with light, because that’s how you make an image, with light, and with the different tones, particularly in black and white,” she says. “In my work, that translates to this balance of light and dark that can be heard not only in the content of my work but also within the production and the phrasing. Perhaps how I frame a story and also the space that gives in between each note is important to me.”

Her performances integrate her visual style too. “I was creating these portraits of these pretty far-out people that could have been, like, Star Wars extras,” she says of her photography work. “And then I started dressing myself for shows, and I started seeing the connection: OK, this is this character I’ve been performing for some time now. I definitely had this vision of ‘I’m going to wrap you in hair’—I was just so obsessed with hair! I would make sculptures out of hair. In my early days as Lady Midnight I would wear this coat made out of weave.”

That look has drawn, though not consciously at first, from her background, which is Mexican, Haitian, and Aztec. “The aesthetic in many ways almost looks very indigenous, primordial in some ways, but there’s also this futuristic element within it, just creating new shapes for the body, new shapes for what the crown might look like,” she says. Similarly, her music has drawn from her childhood experiences, going to powwows and on marches to the Capital with her mother, a singer with a philosophy degree who became a social worker and an activist for battered women and victims of sexual abuse.

In addition to music, Rimpel is an educator, working primarily with teens and preteens who “are marginalized who have experienced abuse and trauma, and using the power of the arts to validate their identity and their existence.” She began managing teen programs at the Walker, moved on to the nonprofit Kulture Klub Collaborative, and most recently has work at Red Lake Middle School, where she led 70 seventh-graders in creating a song and a video in a week. “I feel like I can do anything if I can do that,” she says.

True to her pacing, Lady Midnight’s been indulging in a slow rollout for the album. She’ll be performing a few shows in the early summer with a five-piece live band before a proper release show in August that will offer people a chance to see how she’s integrated the various sounds she’s mastered over the years.

“Growing up, Tyrone Guzman, a Chicano and Latino activist, he used to always call me ‘Butterfly,’ because he said like a social butterfly I used to go from one group to the next to the next. It was like I belonged to all of them and I belonged to none of them,” she recalls. “I think that’s still how I am.”