Sitting in her bedroom in Durham, North Carolina, Autumn Ehinger pens and records songs while tickling her keyboard. It’s an intimate and warm set up; the way she hopes her music feels. Partial to old-school Casios, she’ll run through a few effects pedals with reverb, delay and sometimes overdrive.
“I try to get some twinkly, spacey sounds,” she says of her dreamlike melodies. Many can be heard on her latest record as Moon Racer, “Is It Really a Secret,” which was released in April 2018. Though sometimes Ehinger invites her drummer friends in Durham to play at live shows, she often prefers the intimacy and vulnerability of playing alone. Moon Racer’s show at Castle Street’s Gravity on June 8, for example, will feature just Ehinger and a couple of keyboards. Also featuring performances by Justin Lacy and Goldielux, it will be Moon Racer’s first time playing at the record store.
“I’m particularly looking forward to the Gravity show because I haven’t played by myself for some time and I think it will feel really special,” she notes. “I’m excited to come back [to Wilmington], and it will be interesting to be here in a different way this time with different songs. . . . I’ll play almost all the songs from the tape, plus some new tunes.”
“Is It Really a Secret” reflects its gradual albeit unintentional beginnings. For Ehinger, writing songs was more like keeping a diary: recording deep, intimate emotions not intended for the world to see—or in this case hear.
“I would wait ‘til I had a big feeling, and then go play and sing something,” she explains. “I’d record everything on my phone as it happened, so I could remember the words and melody exactly the way they first came out, exactly how the song first sounded and felt. When I was feeling sad, it made me feel better, to amass a weird little collection of songs, where I was working out all the feelings I didn’t have the courage or patience or desire to talk about in real life. That was really the humble purpose of these songs.”
Conflicted about letting other people listen to her songs—written so freely with quite literal lyrics and filled with little secrets—the title “Is It Really a Secret” reflects a dichotomy between artistic expression and revealing so much (maybe too much) of yourself and even others.
“What if someone knows who I’m singing about?” Ehinger asks rhetorically. “What if the person I’m singing about learns how I really felt? Eventually, I realized, even if the people who the songs are about heard the songs, it’s not like they could suddenly feel surprised or offended or something. (They had been there!) Also, I guess I didn’t care what they thought anymore.”
Ehinger looks at her home base in Durham as one of the most nurturing artistic cities to make and play music in. From the musicians to club owners to record-store clerks to show-goers and listeners, the love is felt tenfold. “Everyone is so supportive of one another, to an extent that is extraordinary,” she explains. “You feel safe to create and just exist, really.”
Thus in late 2016, Ehinger self-released three songs. Owen Ashworth, who plays music as Advance Base and operates Orindal Records in Chicago, caught wind of Ehinger. He asked her if she wanted to do more.
“So I recorded the next five songs the same way I did the first three: by myself, on a four-track cassette in my bedroom,” Ehinger remembers. “He was into it, so we decided to release all eight songs on one cassette. . . . It’s definitely been a great motivation to finish the things I start and to keep going. Owen is incredibly supportive and encouraging. I feel really honored to have my music put out by one of my favorite artists.”
Despite living in the age of streaming, wherein listeners piecemeal playlists, Ehinger recorded her eight tracks as one cohesive unit. Presented in chronological order (and available on cassette tape), it’s a love story that starts in January with a big crush in “Starry Up.” It appears to wane by February (“Princess Jasmine in the Hourglass”), only to lead to a proclamation of undying love by March in “Song of the Mogwai.”
“Then onto the summer months when somehow this ordeal is still dragging on, but you suspect maybe you’re getting played out (‘Same Song All Summer Long’),” she continues. “By September [there’s] the discovery you’ve definitely been played out (‘Friendly Ghost’), but whatever (‘Meaningless’). Finally, in October, there’s relief of no longer missing someone who could be so careless and dumb and indifferent anyway (‘Last Kiss’).”
While one story may come to a close, another begins with the final track, “New Crush.” Starting with the line, “No one before even matters now,” it’s an optimistic close—or a pessimistic beginning of the same cycle all over again.
“After being stuck in the wringer for seven songs with someone, it felt so good to declare (and mean it completely), in retrospect, they really weren’t that big of a deal,” Ehinger muses. “You meet someone new and it’s like the world just begins again.”
At the same time,“Is It Really a Secret” is about Ehinger not taking herself so seriously. At the end of the day, they are just songs she made, so she sheds any self-consciousness about being honest. “I was sort of kidding myself about my ability to keep all those feelings under the radar all that time anyway,” she adds. “It’s an acknowledgement of the authenticity of everything I say—it really is all true. And it’s OK for me to be vulnerable in that way.”
Ehinger already has her sights set on the next Moon Racer project. She’s written songs and plans to have something new out before the end of the year.