Some eleven weeks into quarantine in her East Los Angeles home, the musician Sarah Lipstate decided to do some rooting around in the corners of her house. Among other things, she found her grandfather’s Pentax MG camera that had been tucked away in a kitchen cabinet for three years. Lipstate discovered a half roll of unused film still wedged in the old machine, which she had inherited after his passing, and no idea of what was in it. “I just love the whole mystery of it,” she says via Zoom.
When Lipstate got the film developed, she solved the caper: it turned out to document a family vacation in 1991 to Gulf Shores, when she was seven years old. Still, this artifact stirred wonder in the now thirtysomething guitarist and composer, and not just because of the sweet UT Longhorns cap her grandfather was wearing in the shots. (Lipstate’s family may now reside in Louisiana, but multiple generations of the family have lived in Austin and attended the University of Texas.) “It was nice to uncover memories in the form of photographs that I no longer have stored in my brain,” she says. “And in a sense, be able to create that memory.”
Evoking long buried memories and turbulent emotions through her guitar is Lipstate’s trade. Since her days as a student at the University of Texas-Austin in the early aughts, she has been crafting compelling experimental soundscapes utilizing little more than her six-string and a vast array of pedals and gear. For more than ten years, she has been releasing albums as Noveller (with an emphasis on the word “no”), spending time in Brooklyn and Austin before finally settling in Los Angeles. Albums like 2010’s Desert Fires and 2015’s Fantastic Planet build on ambient serenity before bursting into visceral soundscapes not unlike the ones Sonic Youth or Explosions in the Sky have conjured. “My ears are attuned to find beauty in discordance and darker sounds,” she says. “To me it’s just lovely.” While her music tends to lean toward the abstract, she’s built up a sizable fan base over the past decade, including the likes of Iggy Pop and indie film auteur Jim Jarmusch.
Her eighth album, Arrow, out June 12, is her most forward-facing release yet. By adding modular synth into her setup, Lipstate elicits the gorgeous soundtrack grandeur recognizable to fans of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream. And while it was recorded at home over eight months before the pandemic, the sounds speak to our particular moment: isolated, anxious, turbulent, foreboding, but with stunning glimpses of great beauty and harmony breaking through like Texas sun through a thunderhead. That tumult of feelings is familiar to Lipstate now, too, as she’s been navigating quarantine at a distance from the rest of her family. “All of my family, my parents, and my sister and her family are all back in Louisiana, and I’m the only one that’s over here just completely isolated,” she says. In addition to keeping up a daily yoga routine and exhausting everything on Netflix, she keeps getting care packages from her mother. “I’ve done a lot of puzzles,” she says with a laugh. “But my mom keeps sending me more. These boxes from Barnes & Noble keep arriving with new puzzles.”
Lipstate approached her new album as a puzzle as well. After demoing a new pedal on Instagram, she became even more intrigued about exploring the sound through a song. “When I started the album, I revisited that for ‘Zeaxanthin,’” she says, referencing the collection’s longest and most arresting composition. Twenty-odd layers of guitar and modular synthesizer went into the composition, which slowly crests across its eight minutes; the tune feels as majestic as a mountaintop view and as gut-churning as the fear of falling from it. Lipstate visibly brightens at the memory of that challenge. “I spent so much time figuring it out and really trying to do justice to this composition,” she says. “I finally got there, and it felt like this huge achievement.”
Lipstate grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, but her family are Texas alums going back generations. “My great-great-grandfather was on the board of regents for the university, Rabbi Faber, and then my grandfather and my grandmother attended UT,” she says. In a household that seemingly only played Jimmy Buffett, Lipstate started playing piano in the second grade and later played trombone in marching band. While she excelled in both competitions and recitals, this rigorous approach to music “sucked the joy out of playing,” she says. “I just remember being a little kid and being at these piano competitions and having the worst stomachache because there’s all this pressure and I’m just nervous about performing.” When she set out to make music of her own, she took a different tack. “With the guitar I wanted to strip all of that away, and I didn’t want someone to tell me this is the right way to do this,” she says.
She picked up the guitar at seventeen and took solace in the sounds of nineties Fort Worth alternative rock band Toadies, who showed her a strange new world just beyond Margaritaville. Through them, she got turned on to the likes of the Pixies, Talking Heads, and Sonic Youth. “I didn’t know anyone who was interested in the same type of music as me in Lafayette or interested in starting a band or anything like that,” she recalls. But when she went to UT to study under the radio-television-film program, she found a community. She landed a radio show on the campus station KVRX, playing experimental music like Wolf Eyes in the wee hours and getting fully absorbed Austin’s nightlife. “I went to a show every single night, like every night that I could,” she says.
After college, Lipstate moved to Brooklyn and carved out her sound, first as a member of bands including the frigid synth-pop of Cold Cave and spazz rock of Parts & Labor and then on her own. She even briefly returned to Austin, hoping to buy a house, though it didn’t quite work out for her. The album she recorded there, however, 2015’s dreamy Fantastic Planet, caught the ear of Iggy Pop. “While searching out new music for my BBC radio show, I saw Sarah perform ‘Into The Dunes’ on YouTube,” Pop recalls. “What struck me was her unhurried calm while performing a fairly complex piece that had real melodic content and structure, as well as sonics. She looked like a guitar slinger to me.”
Before she knew it, Pop’s management offered her the opening slot on his 2016 Post Pop Depression tour through North America and Europe. After that tour wound down, Pop sent Lipstate a track featuring him reciting Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and asked her to lay down a fitting atmosphere for it. “His voice is sooo deep and rich and awesome,” she says. “It was really easy to come up with that soundscape.” That transformative track appeared on his noirish 2019 album Free. The next time they went on tour together in 2019, Lipstate was a member of Pop’s Free band.
“Sarah has a real gift for using the palette of sound,” Pop says. “Her guitar tone is classic, precise, and could have been on a Ventures or Shadows instrumental. But there’s a brooding and undulating maelstrom that she develops until finally it’s just blasting. I like the emotion but also the intelligence.”
Her dedication to her craft has also earned her a significant following on Instagram (at least by the metric of experimental musicians), where she regularly posts about cool and strange new guitar FX pedals like the Old Blood Noise Dark Star Pad Reverb or the EarthQuaker Devices’ Life Pedal to her 26,000 followers. Just don’t call her an influencer. “It’s gross to call myself that, but I will say that the people who follow me are really interested in what I say about equipment,” she says. “I get to have access to a bunch of really great guitar pedals and I only post stuff I use and enjoy.” A recent Instagram video made for Guitar Center showed shelf after shelf of tantalizing gear, including her limited edition Ed O’Brien Fender Sustainer Stratocaster.
Lipstate would be celebrating the new album’s release with a tour of Europe alongside Iggy Pop right now, but the pandemic has shut down those plans for the future. So she now finds herself at home rather than on the road, “Right now, focus has been hard to come by,” she admits, saying she hasn’t been doing much in the way of recording new music. “I’m fatalistic and things are tinged a little darker…so it has been a process for me to function throughout this whole period of quarantine.” So for now, Lipstate is just spending time with her dog and cat, learning how to work her grandfather’s old Pentax, and figuring out what the next puzzle might be.