Ghost Light is a record with a well-stamped passport.
The band behind it is Karikatura, a Brooklyn-based six-piece who’ve won much of their current reputation as an explosive live dance band, moving bodies all over the world — from Haitian bandstands to Czech punk clubs, the mountaintops of Chile to the parks of Kyoto. On Ghost Light, their sophomore album, they retain an electric sound informed by what they heard in these places, and channel these energies into gracefully wrought songs exploring the personal costs they’ve each payed for a life on tour. Ghost Light is a record for the end of a journey, for the night before the next departure and every sleepless night in between. These are songs for people who struggle, suffer, and party.
Forming a band with a global mindset was the plan from the beginning: The idea for Karikatura first came to Dima Kay — Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-raised, and a self-described “recovering heavy metal guitarist” — while traveling through south India in 2009. “We came together with the express purpose of traveling,” he says. “We took every chance to tour. The first couple years, we were losing buckets of money, but we were determined, and the experiences we had were worth it in every way.”
Kay describes Karikatura’s first album, Eyes Wide, as an attempt to “narrow the view to New York City, our home,” with a stylistic palette of reggae, cumbia, salsa, R&B, and indie pop they’d picked up along the way. The band created music informed by the sounds they heard in the world around them— in the streets, on the radio, sharing club and festival billings — while imitating none of them.
On their new effort, these surging influences are further distilled in the service of powerful songs that transmit the gritty power of pain, transmuted into music. Singer Ryan Acquaotta pairs vivid storytelling with melodies that connect, sharing personal stories of the private struggle to make relationships work, often from a distance.
“This album is all about heartbreak and hard choices,” Acquaotta says. “I know I let myself feel a little more flawed, more naked than usual.”
In the tradition of a lot of great R&B, loneliness is a theme on the album. Also in the tradition of classic R&B, these are songs for people who struggle, suffer, and party.
One keynote, Kay says, is “the experience when your partner forms habits to deal with life without you around.” Speaking of the resigned, slow-burning “Strangers Again,” drummer Morgan Greenstreet says, “When Dima sent the demo, I cried. I mean, I just stood in my kitchen sobbing — I could so relate to the struggle he was describing, the fight to stay connected to the people who matter most, while pushing for your goals.” He added, “I wanted to make an album that is personal and honest, and tells a complete story, a cohesive musical and emotional journey. I think we did that.”
As for the title, Ghost Light, Acquaotta explains, “I used to do a lot of theater. At the end of the night, the stage crew would finish by throwing on the ‘ghost light,’ a lone bulb on a pole in the middle of the stage, to keep you from tripping as you left. A lonely glow holding back the void, keeping the ghosts company.”
In addition to the emotional ambition of the songs, Ghost Light represents a huge leap for Karikatura in technique, arrangement, and production. “We’ve played more than six hundred shows,” Kay says. “You learn a lot that way. What slays live doesn’t necessarily transfer to a recording, where you don’t have the excitement of a live band in front of you. As a bandleader and producer I wanted to push us, not only to bring out our strengths, but also to create music as a recording band that we couldn’t necessarily recreate as a live band. I wanted to get the higher registers of Ryan’s voice, find out what would happen as Morgan grew more fearless with sampling and loop-based composition.”
Tenor sax player Noah Dreiblatt describes the album’s sound as “filthy and pristine.” This sound grew out of months of intense writing, production, and recording at Kay’s studio, Horosho Records. “I’ve always been deep into production,” Kay said. “And this time Noah and Morgan joined me in exploring the possibilities of the studio as composition tool.”
They worked straight through the heat of summer. “A lot of the album was written in the middle of the night,” Kay recalls, “in the heat of summer, trucks stopping by bodegas with deliveries, your shirt soaking through. The songs were slower. The vibe was sweaty.”
Dreiblatt pointed to the felicity of the studio for capturing “these perfect, accidental sounds” that enrich the mood of the record. For example, “the song ‘Illuminator’ features me whistling between takes, and ‘Strangers Again’ has Ryan sighing- he’s not a night person.” Dreiblatt described the effort they poured into hammering down small sounds and important corners of the record: “The ‘space chord’ in ‘I’ll Make Room,’ the drum break in the intro to ‘Try Again.’“ By the way — he does mean the Aaliyah song, covered on Ghost Light with a hard, salsa-tinged punch.
The studio ethos meant asking for more creativity from every member of the band: Dreiblatt also recorded extensively on flute; trombonist Dan Lehner lent his voice to three-part harmonies and developed much of the record’s haunting string arrangements; and Eric Legaspi explored new dynamics and phrasings on the bass.
Not every song was written in the studio, however. Greenstreet shared, “For the first time, I had the experience of composing something in my bedroom, late at night, a complete sonic world I’d built, and then bringing that to the group. It was electrifying.” The world Greenstreet had created, “La Pluie,” is among the album’s most beautiful moments, a waterfall of aching melodies and sweeping synths in shimmering textures—including Acquaotta’s voice at its most devastatingly plaintive—that rushes over West African drums. “It came out of a moment of loneliness, of desiring closeness, reconciliation. I wanted to create the feeling of summer rain, washing away the doubt.”
“With your back to me you sigh,” Acquaotta keens on “When It’s Time,” the album’s wrenching last number, “and I don’t know what to do.” It’s a return to the album’s ancient, bare-bones conceit: two people love each other, but one is called away. Every return tainted by the promise of the next departure. “When you’re not around,” Kay writes, “you become the ghost in the house, the memory that’s present in your own absence. Even when you come home to your love, you’ll be strangers again.”