Magdalena Bay have more than one way of pulling you into their continuously expanding DIY universe. In addition to their cinematic, majestic-sounding music, the Los Angeles indie pop duo of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin have built a strong online following across TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, and beyond, while their debut full-length Mercurial World is accompanied by a Y2K-style website filled with cryptic messages, scientific illustrations, and old-school GIFs. Their experimental blend of mesmerizing sonics and eye-catching visual aesthetics, showcased over a series of EPs and singles including their ‘mini mix’ series, gained enough traction for them to land a deal with Luminelle Recordings, the label co-founded by Gorilla vs. Bear creator Chris Cantalini, which released their magnificent new LP last Friday.
Yet even from a strictly musical standpoint, Mercurial World is captivating all on its own. Written, recorded, and produced entirely by the duo, its effectiveness comes down to the pair’s creative philosophy as well as their collaborative and personal relationship. Tenenbaum and Lewin met at an afterschool music program in their hometown of Miami, where they formed a prog-rock band called Tabula Rosa that released two albums before breaking up. After going to colleges in different states, the duo reunited and bonded over their newfound love of forward-thinking records by Chairlift, Charli XCX, and Grimes, modelling them for their own brand of prismatic pop. As kaleidoscopic as it is intimate, Mercurial World marvelously refashions the duo’s diverse influences and shifting moods into a seamless, infectious package. For all the cosmic questions it raises, the album is ultimately anchored to the present, determined to stretch a shared moment into infinity.
We caught up with Magdalena Bay for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the Mercurial World website, the inspirations behind their debut album, and more.
Do you feel more half empty or half full today?
Matthew Lewin: Hm… It’s too early to tell [laughs].
Mica Tenenbaum: Yeah, I mostly just feel full sleepy, not half anything [laughs].
ML: Half-awake, that’s the one.
I realized it doesn’t matter which one you pick on the website, because you have to click somewhere else anyway.
ML: That’s true, it doesn’t matter anyway.
I was also looking through the secrets page, where you’ve uploaded voicemails of “secrets” fans have submitted, and there was one about the half empty/half full question. They were saying that it’s essentially a fallacy and that they never understood it – I don’t know if you remember that one.
ML: I actually don’t, do you?
MT: I kinda remember it, yeah. ‘Cause we have a lot of new ones that we haven’t got a chance to – like 200, I don’t even know how many.
ML: We have bunch more that we need to sift through and update the site.
MT: But I remember that was in the last round of that. I mean, in my opinion, the reality is the same either way, but how you feel does also affect reality.
ML: That’s just as important, in my opinion.
MK: So, it does and it doesn’t matter. The situation might be the same and you’ll feel either one or the other, but how you feel will inform the situation.
Are there any of those secrets that you keep thinking about or have stuck with you from the ones that you’ve already gone through?
MT: There are some that are just very funny. Like, someone did a whole bit about being a time traveller, which we loved. And some of them are quite serious, like, about love life or coming out, and those definitely stay with us.
ML: It’s crazy because you never know how sincere people are being through these voicemails.
MT: It’s weird to be trusted with that information, and then we’re putting it on our website, but… [laughs]
ML: I think people just need a place to vent.
There’s some really vulnerable ones, and then there are some very silly ones.
ML: I like having that mix. I want people to kind of get a little bit of whiplash, which is how we felt going through them. [laughter]
Then there are those that are just stanning Magdalena Bay.
ML: [laughs] Not much of a secret.
MT: I know, but if it makes us laugh, we put it on the secrets page.
Another part of the site I wanted to ask you about is the prophecy page, where you ask fans to tell you what they wish to know. I don’t know when you last updated the questions that appear on the page, but were there any memorable submissions that you debated whether or not you wanted to put on there?
ML: Should I just go through some of them? Again, we have a whole folder that we haven’t…
MT: Yeah, there’s a folder in our inbox but we haven’t updated those on the site.
ML: I think the ones that are probably teenagers asking if their crush likes them back.
MT: I love that. I remember doing that type of stuff when I was a teen. [laughs] And then I think when you click submit, it takes you to “You lose!,” which is a little dark, actually. We need to update that.
ML: I kinda like that. [reading from phone] Um, we have one asking if the world is flat… Does Nicole like me? [laughter] Then there are some more serious ones. I like this one: How do you perceive God? Good question. [laughs] Why does my pee-pee come out yellow? Life’s greatest questions, you know, we’ll never know.
Are there any philosophical ones that you ended up talking about?
MT: It’s kind of fun because we’ll just be on our email all day with so much stuff coming in, and then one of these will just pop in and spice it up and you take that moment – not with each other, but I’ve stopped and been like, “Oh, okay,” and move it to the prophecy folder and think about that for a second. It’s a nice little interruption to the daily flow.
Mica, you created the website, right?
MT: Yeah, we did together. When Matt mixing and mastering our album, I kind of had a lot of more time by myself because you were enmeshed in that, and I decided to start putting the framework of this website together, what it would look like design-wise. And then we kind of dug in together to flesh out a lot of the pages, and you made some and I made some.
ML: And figuring out how things interact.
MT: We love mixing in teases and secrets and Easter eggs, so we had a lot of fun with it.
I’ve had the full album for a while, and it was interesting to interact with the website knowing what those clues are hinting at.
ML: We want people to go back after the album comes out and kind of do the whole thing again.
I know that you guys met over a decade ago at an after-school music program. Do you mind sharing the first impressions that you had of each other?
MT: I realized a while later that the first time I met Matthew wasn’t when we started working in that band together, but it was a few months before when we were both playing this…
ML: It was the same music program, they put on these shows, but we were in different bands at that time.
MT: We hadn’t officially met yet, and it was my performance singing in front of a crowd. I had to sing ‘Crazy Train’ with this – I was like 15 and I was playing with like 11-year-olds. [laughter] I was shaking, it’s the most scared I’ve felt in my whole life. Like, pure stage fright. And so I sing ‘Crazy Train’ by Ozzy Osbourne, and I get off and then Matthews’ band performed. And he shredded, like it was very rock and roll. I was there with some friends and we wrote this dumb little note that was like You rock XD and gave it to Matthew. [Matthew laughs] As pre-teens do, like, “You did awesome, haha.”
ML: Yeah, like giggle and run away.
MT: Yeah [laughs].
ML: And then you got switched out of the 11-year-old band and came to our group.
MT: I remember walking into the band room and like… I don’t know, I was new at singing and then walking into a room of three teenage boy strangers was intense. [Matthew laughs] But we all became best friends.
What appealed to you about the way you each approached music? Was there something that stood out to you about the other person right away?
ML: We were both super new to writing music, and obviously we were each other’s first and only [laughter] real writing partner. I mean, Mica is an amazing songwriter, and when we were writing songs for that, even back then, she obviously had a talent for writing songs. So, we had this band and we decided to make original music, and Mica would just bring in these ideas that were already pretty fleshed out. We were in a prog-rock band, and Mica’s wasn’t writing necessarily prog rock or listening to prog-rock at the time, but I remember she came in with this chord progression that was like, switching keys and time signatures, and it just flowed together so well, it felt so natural. So obviously, she really picked up on the prog thing really quickly.
MT: Aw, that’s so sweet! Yeah, I feel like writing music for me is more intuitive, it’s just who I am. Matthew is like a theory genius, which is kind of what’s always blown me away. Just how skilled he is, not only at writing songs but playing instruments, which is, you know, I’m not like a piano player…
ML: Well, you are, but…
MT: Yeah, but you know, I’m not like shredding on piano. But that wowed me right away, just how amazing you were. And also at writing songs, which is not a science, but it’s beautiful to be able to take that technical mastery and channel it into writing a great song.
ML: I think the combination of your intuitive songwriting versus maybe my more theory-driven…
MT: Makes us a good match.
ML: Yeah, makes the match work.
MT: And when I first started to write songs, just your enthusiasm and encouragement went a long way, to be honest.
ML: Yeah, I guess. I mean, I wasn’t gonna put you down [laughter].
MT: No, I know, but when you’re 15-year-old kids, you don’t know how someone else is gonna act.
MT: Just in general, having someone else to support each other as musicians I think is important. It’s hard to kind of just be alone writing songs and not knowing, like, whether things are good or not.
You kind of go back to that time in your lives as teenagers on ‘Dawning of the Season’, which made me wonder if high school felt like something of a zombie movie to you.
ML: I guess we’re all sleep-deprived, so…
MT: I think we’ve been missing some nights of sleep in the past year and it made me think about in high school, how – oh my god, it was just so cold in this school and you’re so tired and it feels like…
ML: Well, this was my daily schedule: so, school starts at 7:15 in the morning, so you wake up at 6:00 and you get to school at 7:15 and you’re exhausted…
MT: And cold and hungry.
ML: And then you go through those eight hours, you know, falling asleep in class obviously because you just can’t help it, you just need to sleep, so you fall asleep on the desk. [Mica laughs] And then I would get home and immediately take a three-hour nap, because I was just so wrecked from the day, and then I’d wake up and have to do all my homework. And then it’s like midnight, and you have to wake up at 6am the next day. By the time I fall asleep, it’s like 1am, I get five hours of sleep, and then the whole cycle starts again.
MT: Yeah, so that’s where the zombie-esque nature comes from. But I think we were just reminiscing on ourselves 10 years ago, which is a long time, and everything just felt so… I remember being in high school thinking, What’s next? Where’s my life gonna go? What is awaiting me? This weird feeling of building up potential and angst.
ML: I wasn’t as angsty as you.
MT: No, I wasn’t feeling that away, I just think I leaned into that character train of thought…
ML: For the song.
MT: For the song.
ML: Semi-autobiographical [laughter].
Do you feel like you’re kind of adopting a persona when you’re singing?
MT: Sometimes. I think that song actually more than any other. Maybe also the beginning of the album a little bit.
ML: Yeah, I think it depends on the song.
When the idea for Mercurial World as an album and as a concept started to emerge, what did you want it to represent? And now that you’re closer to the release, do you have a different perspective on it?
MT: When we were about to start writing the album, it’s our first album, so we’re like, how do you do this? Do you think of a theme or a concept before? Should we get like a whiteboard and make schematics? [Matthew laughs] And we just kind of started making songs, and they were all connected in a way that made sense to us, revolving around a lot of the same themes. ‘Mercurial World’, the title track, was one of the first songs that had a sketch of it made and those words just popped up when I was writing the melody, and they really stuck out to us.
ML: I think it sums up all the themes of the rest of the songs. But I don’t know if there’s anything different about how we think about it now versus then.
MT: I don’t know, I think it revealed itself to us in a way, the album and the ideas in it. It’s just purely what we were thinking about and going through at the time, and it just all came out. We’re like, “Okay, that makes sense together, this is us at this moment.” I think it’s easy to look back now and see that clearly. I don’t know if along the way we had so much clarity.
ML: No, we weren’t self-aware of that.
I think it’s obviously your most confident release yet, but it’s also rooted in a kind of tenderness and genuine emotion, which maybe isn’t there in a lot of experimental pop that tends to lean towards irony. Why was it important for you to have those elements in your music?
ML: I think part of it just comes from our musical roots, you know, like Mica listening to Fiona Apple and that being one of your biggest songwriting inspirations. There’s so much raw emotion in that music, and I think that definitely rubs off on you.
MT: Yeah, and same for you. We love pop that’s ironic and we love pop that’s earnest.
ML: And I think there’s a way to just do a little bit of both, you know, ‘cause I guess in life sometimes you’re earnest and sometimes you’re a little cheeky and ironic.
A lot of the album also revolves around your relationship to each other. Can you tell me one thing that inspires you about the other person?
ML: [laughs] Wow.
ML: Who’s first?
MT: You go.
ML: Me first.
MT: Oh my god.
ML: Just everything.
ML: Oh my god! [laughs]
ML: I’m trying to think… There’s the obvious, that Mica is an amazing musician and songwriter. I think also her work ethic is really strong and inspiring. [laughter] Let me think…
MT: Well, I’ll go if you want to say more, but that’s also a good one. I feel like doing music is hard, but Matthew is just a very self-assured, confident person and it’s easy for me to draw, like, not calmness, but kind of just like… Do you know what I’m saying? What’s the word for that?
ML: I think so.
MT: Just being like, “Everything’s okay.” I have a lot of self-doubt and I’m more neurotic, so having someone next to me all the time who is so grounded and kind of more chill and quietly confident is super inspiring to me. I always try to emulate that more, and I’m still trying [laughs].
Matt, did you want to add something?
ML: Just to go back to the work ethic, I feel like “work ethic” is such a gross term, but Mica is so driven – like, she will learn how to edit videos because we need to edit videos and will put in the effort to make something happen. I don’t know, I’m not being eloquent about this, but… [laughs]
MT: It’s hard to put into words, but yeah, it’s that DIY drive.
MT: And you also inspire me in the same way. I think you have that kind of ethos and it’s been really helpful to getting things done. It’s like, if we need to do something, we’ll try to learn how to do it and do our best. And yeah, it’s gotten us this far.
It’s interesting, Mica, that you mentioned the word “grounded”, because that’s something I had noted down that caught my attention in your statement about the title track, where you said that your relationship is something that keeps you grounded in this mercurial world. What are some other things that keep you grounded in your everyday life?
MT: This is going to sound weird maybe, but like, working on…
ML: Staying busy.
MT: We just love what we do, we love creating things – whether it’s the music or the visuals or the website, we’re just obsessed with expanding this world. And we just enjoy doing it because it’s fun, so I feel like that’s what keeps us busy, but also sane.
ML: Also, playing video games, watching movies.
MT: Taking breaks from Magdalena Bay.
ML: Going on walks.
MT: We don’t take too many breaks from Magdalena Bay, we noticed, but sometimes we do.
In a few words, how would define easy living?
ML: Great question. I think easy living comes from inside, right, in a way? It’s probably an oversimplification of people’s lives because everyone has their own unique challenges and external forces will obviously impact you, so I’m not going to say that like, “Yeah, it’s all about your perspective,” because that’s obviously not true. But I think there is an element of, the way you perceive things and process thoughts is going to impact your outlook on life.
MT: Yeah, I think personally it’s about letting go of some worries, or – you know, with the album, I saw a lot big questions about the world and ourselves and the future and life and this and that. And then ‘The Beginning’ kind of comes in to be like, “You know, just don’t worry about all that. Sit back and watch the show.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.