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Pearla's ‘Oh Glistening Onion’ investigates anxiety around asking questions

Pearla (Nicole Rodriguez), a young woman in a blue dress, lies in grass and looks at the camera, her head resting on an orange traffic cone.
Tonje Thilesen
Pearla recorded ‘Oh Glistening Onion, the Nighttime is Coming’ at various New York apartments and at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond.

Nicole Rodriguez, who performs as Pearla, is done looking for answers. That’s one theme of her debut album, "Oh Glistening Onion the Nighttime is Coming," which is set for release Friday on Richmond’s Spacebomb Records. Recorded at various New York apartments and Spacebomb Studios, the album's a playful exploration of existence, full of references to literature and scientific mishaps set to a dreamy indie-folk sound.

VPM Music caught up with her to learn more.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: Oh Glistening Onion, the Nighttime is Coming — I love that title. Can you tell me about it?

Pearla: I came across an image in a Virginia Woolf book, “The Waves,” which I reference a lot throughout the album — I talk about it a lot. It's a huge inspiration to me. But there's an image: “where the hams hang and the onions glisten.” And I found the image of a glistening onion so comforting. So, then I started saying, “oh, glistening onion, the nighttime is coming,” and it became this lullaby or mantra that I was just hearing.

I actually named this album that before I wrote it, and it started to take on a lot of different meanings. What I think it means to me right now is, you don't have to get to the bottom of everything before you can go to sleep at night and find some sort of peace.

I think I'm always sort of struggling for answers, wanting things to be solved and buttoned up. A lot of my writing in the past has been looking for answers and wanting a reason — or just some kind of comforting bow to tie on my life and the questions I have. And with this album, I was sort of like, “Let's just let the uncertainty and the questions exist, because you're never gonna get to the bottom of it.”

It's also kind of representative of the new relationship to words I had in this album, as opposed to prior writing. I was a little bit more playful, letting words be there because of what they sound like and how they feel together, and not always exactly what they mean. So, it was sort of a random little experiment.

The album is being released on Spacebomb Records, and I understand it was recorded between Richmond and Brooklyn. What was that creative process of putting it together like?

This album was so collaged together. It's been recorded in so many different apartments and studios. It started in my apartment and my producer’s apartment. Between the two of us, we would do a lot of home recordings. Then we started bringing in a band, and we recorded at this studio called Thump in Brooklyn. And it was almost done. And then a year passed during COVID, where it was sort of sitting there in this purgatory. And then I connected with Spacebomb.

It was always sort of a dream to have strings and horns, but the position that we were in was home recording, using anything we could find to make the sounds we wanted and being OK with that. So, we never would have imagined that would be a possibility. And then we went to Richmond, and we did the string and horns recording with Trey [Pollard], and then we mixed it. It was a long process and a lot of different places, and that's kind of special to me, because it feels like this collection of different worlds.

It does seem like asking questions is a major undercurrent of this album. There's this search for answers that you mentioned, and then there're also these “things that you can't wrap your mind around”— a line from “Unglow The.” How has your relationship to those questions changed?

I feel like there's this anxiety that I think just runs through my life — that sort of “But why? But this doesn't make sense, but I need it to.” After writing this album, getting older and realizing that a lot of things actually just don't make sense, and letting them exist in that way, it has brought me peace. I still ask them, but there's less of that anxiety of needing that answer. It's more keeping the questions open, because I'm always going to be learning and asking.

I was also really struck by the sense of play on "Oh Glistening Onion." Even as it dives into these darker topics, like death and existence, there's an element of wonder and strangeness in each of the songs. Is that juxtaposition something that was on your mind?

Not consciously, but I think that is kind of how I move through life. I'm a preschool teacher and I feel like that's been this thing in me: that I want to preserve this beauty and magic, and the world that I know is there, but I also am so disillusioned and saddened by so much. So, those are just kind of the two truths that I hold.

I write because I can't handle the darkness inside, but writing is also such a playful, fun thing for me that I look at it like a time to play, a time to be a kid again. To make up a song, it's such a playful thing to do.

In the process of doing that, there's something really beautiful where I feel like I'm able to now hold that darkness in a new way, where it's not debilitating me anymore. It's something I learned to wrap my head around a little bit, and then I can move on.

While you were discussing that, I was reminded of the cathartic line in the center of “Effort”: “I don't know why it's so much effort to feel good these days.”

So many songs that I love say something that I’ve felt, but almost didn't want to feel or wouldn't let myself feel fully. Just letting myself feel those things and say them out loud is very cathartic. And hopefully that's cathartic to other people who are wondering why it takes them so much effort to feel good. It's OK, because you're just not alone in it anymore.

Do you have any examples that are coming to mind of songs that have that element of catharsis for you?

There's a song by Lucinda Williams, “Am I Too Blue.” That feeling of worrying that you're too sad for someone, that you just bring them down because of your own stuff — I've definitely had that.

Can you explain the family connection of your stage name, Pearla?

My grandfather [whose last name was Pearl] was an incredible musician, and he passed away when I was seven. We shared a little bit of music together. But I was seven, you know, it was early exploration of it. But we also had just a really special bond. Every time I write or sing, I'm like, I wish he was there for this. It's important for me to remember that where I come from, and where this comes from when I'm making music.

I'd love to spend some time talking about “Ming the Clam,” which is a love song paired with a reflection on the oldest animal to be discovered by scientists. Could you tell me a little bit about Ming and how that story inspired you?

I think I just randomly wanted to know what was the oldest creature that people know. Ming died in research — they collected these clams and they froze them to bring into the lab. Isn't that so sad? And funny that something was living past 507 years old, and we couldn't just let it keep living? Because we wanted to know, and we wanted to find answers.

It's, again, about the question-answer thing, because there are obviously things that we need to know and that we should be discovering. But then there's this little sad part of that, which is that something really does get lost.

There are three things that are happening in that song: I was falling in love and wasn't letting myself fully be in it because I was so nervous. I heard that story at the same time as I had this special day at Storm King [Art Center in New York state] where I actually passed out in the grass. I was just having this awful experience in this very new love. It felt suddenly very intimate in a way that I don't think I ever let myself get to before. So, that song is sort of telling the story of Ming the clam, but also me allowing something to live.

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