If college is viewed as not merely an educational pursuit but as a series of formative, often extracurricular events, then Sarah Downen had no shortage of such experiences at Truman State University. It was there that she started the band Golden Curls, initially as a keyboards-and-vocals duo. She also played in a band with Philip Zahnd, who would eventually play drums in the band's current iteration.
But it was time spent alone in the university's library that gave Downen a direction and moniker for her musical identity. It was amid the stacks that she came across Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustrations for "Goblin Market," a poem written by the artist's sister, Christina Rossetti. Those illustrations, Downen says, "creeped me out" while motivating her to find the original poem.
In the poem, a pair of blond sisters are tempted by the luscious fruits of grotesque goblin-men. Having no money, but tempted by the goblins' wares, one sister strikes a Faustian bargain: "Buy from us with a golden curl," the imps implore.
So when Golden Curls set to release its first full-length record, the singer and keyboardist sought to honor that initial inspiration by titling the album Goblin Market. "I feel like I wanted to give it more credit, so that's why I named the album after that poem," Downen says. "It's kind of our origin and this is our first full-length record."
As a college student, Downen found interesting connections with the poem and her own conservative Christian upbringing. "You're used to hearing Bible stories about happy endings and good versus evil, and getting into poetry and stranger fairy tales, I really like when it is unclear who is good and who is bad," she says. "It's a lot closer to real life for me."
Along with Rossetti's poem, Downen draws inspiration from folk tales and fairy stories while bristling against simple and pat lessons; her songs are fantastical in their source material but almost always rooted in earthen emotion. And along with drummer Zahnd and guitarist Stephen Favazza, Downen coats her songs with richly textured dream-pop and gossamer, plangeant synthesizer washes.
Goblin Market has been a long time coming; it's the first Golden Curls release since 2012's Warm Fiction EP, which Downen made with her former bandmate Noah Blackwell. That release showed much of the promise and vision that the current iteration has surpassed with regular live shows, and this new full-length finds the band at a comfortable place, existing both in the ether of Downen's dreamworlds and the sharper textures brought forth by Favazza and Zahnd.
Downen is responsible for each song's lyrical and musical structure as well as its rudimentary rhythm track; Zahnd and Favazza will add, subtract and embellish from there, and all three members note that Golden Curls is much more of a live band than its bedroom-pop origins suggest.
Favazza, a solo artist who also performs under the name Hands & Feet, credits Downen with "99 percent" of the final product. "For me personally, it's such an honor to be able to work with her," he says. "The end result is gorgeous, from the packaging to the sounds."
For Downen, working with Favazza allows her to peel back the layers to her songs. "I think he has allowed me to take a step back with feeling like I need to fill the song up with sounds and textures," she explains. "I consider him an expert in that department, and it makes me feel more relaxed when I'm writing, knowing that beautiful texture is coming, no matter what, from Stephen."
Favazza recalls an early recording session for album-opening track "Agneta and the Sea King" that began with layers of guitar tracks and effect pedal manipulations. The song, taken in part from a Swedish fairy tale about a land-dwelling princess who is spirited away to an underwater kingdom, has the album's slowest build but its sweetest payoff.
Downen isn't shy about pushing the band in a more pop-oriented direction, but when it came to sequencing the record, she had to trust her instincts. "As far as us pushing this to more of a pop record, I feel like it's a little counterintuitive to put a song like that first," Downen says of "Agneta," "but I did want to tell a story with this album and set the stage to build up to the moments that are poppier and more structured."
Opening the album with a slow-burn retelling of a fairy tale could cast the band as willfully obscure, especially given the pop delights on the rest of the LP. But for a singer whose happenstance brush with the temptation-versus-purity tussle of "Goblin Market" inspired her music, Downen doubles down to pick apart myths and fables.
"In a lot of fairy tales, there are women portrayed as helpless victims who haven't made any decisions and either bad or good things happen to them," Downen says. "So I guess I'm drawn to that aspect, and in some songs I like to tell the story from the woman's perspective. What was she thinking through all of that? What decisions did she make?
"Every tidy ending has more to it," Downen says.