Carmen Villain is as mysterious as her music. Born Carmen Hillestad, the half-Mexican, half-Norwegian chanteuse began her career as a cover model for magazines like Vogue, Marie Claire, and Nylon. She now lives in London, and has spent some time in the United States – different publications have mentioned Michigan and New York. And – despite a being covered by sites from SPIN and Pitchfork to VICE to Refinery 29 – that’s about all we know about Carmen Villain.
Carmen Villain’s debut album, “Sleeper,” does little to alleviate the mystery, though that might be just the point. The album – featuring a woman’s face (Hillestad’s?) on a jet black background, all but hidden by her white-blonde hair – contains twelve songs, several with portmanteau titles like “Lifeissin,” “Slowaway,” and “Kingwoman.” The lo-fi alt-rock album contains plenty of fuzzy guitars and drums that often overpower Carmen Villain’s sometimes mumbled, sometimes monotone, usually layered vocals. Which isn’t to say that the effect isn’t intentional – it is, contributing to a dark, witchy sound that’s trendy enough to be written about in the music pages of the magazines where Carmen Hillestad once modeled. There’s an anxiety underneath all the lovely layers: it’s a dreamy sound, but it’s a fever dream.
Carmen Villain’s official Facebook page lists her influences as Royal Trux, Cat Power, Sun City Girls, and Syd Barrett. The Cat Power influence is especially recognizable in the way Villain layers and buries her voice amid the guitars and keyboards. Sun City Girls, a 1980s experimental rock band, lends itself to the mystery and the occasional sheer strangeness of Carmen Villain’s sound.
Carmen Villain reminds me of another model-turned-singer, Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, who sings with boyfriend Sean Lennon in the project Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Kemp-Muhl and Carmen Villain share an almost bored-sounding inflection, as well as occasional nonsensical lyrics and a to-the-moment, on-trend sound. And, of course, they’re both gorgeous it girls.
In the opening song, “Two Towns,” Hillestad croons, “Just give me some money,” before the song transformers into a dreamy, sing-songy, layered melody. “Two Towns” is a strong opener, but the standout here has to be “Lifeissin,” Carmen Villain’s first single. Reverbed guitars, keyboards, murmurs, and wind-like noises are layered to create a haunting atmosphere, anchored by Hillestad’s haunting, murmured vocals.
“Seek out, breathe in. / Breathe frost, yeah / Life is sin,” she sings. It doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to – it’s the effect that counts.