"I've always been inspired by dark things," says Nicole Dollanganger. "I think it goes back to something as simple as watching Tales From the Crypt. Rosemary's Baby rocked my world as a kid, and The Exorcist left a big impact on me, as well. Things like that just provoked something in me."
Darkness has always been an intrinsic part of Dollanganger's life and work. Growing up in Stouffville, Ontario, she began collecting creepy antique dolls at an early age — a hobby shared by her parents — and enthusiastically absorbed the bleak sagas sung by country queens Bobbie Gentry and Tammy Wynette, which her father regularly listened to. She also found considerable inspiration — as well as her stage name (she was born Nicole Bell) — from the twisted works of author V.C. Andrews. "Getting introduced to her novels, like Flowers in the Attic, when I was 14, that just carved a lot of what my notions of romance [were]," she explains with a laugh. "The weirdness of the gothic kind of world she created was just so inspiring."
In 2011, Dollanganger announced herself as a singer and songwriter by posting "Coma Baby," a grim self-penned and -recorded lullaby, on Tumblr. Buoyed (and surprised) by the positive response it received, the musician, who is still only in her mid-twenties, has gone on to release five albums full of explicitly frank tales of kinky sex, untimely death, small-town violence, soul-crushing depression and grievous self-harm; her sixth, Heart Shaped Bed, is due in full later this year.
Dollanganger's music is stately, ethereal and haunting, often sounding like something you'd hear emanating from an antique phonograph or cobweb-covered music box during a quietly ominous moment in a horror film. Her high-pitched, child-like vocals lend an additional layer of creepiness to the proceedings — music that has resonated with everyone from fellow Canadian artist Grimes, who released Dollanganger's 2015 album Natural Born Losers, to controversial late rapper XXXtentacion, who sampled her song "Poacher's Pride," to the producers of The Walking Dead, who featured 2016 single "Chapel" on the show's sixth season. While it isn't exactly rocking or metallic, per se, the overwhelming darkness of Dollanganger's output has also struck a chord with quite a few metal fans and musicians. She's toured with Code Orange twice, and in 2017 she collaborated with grindcore experimentalists Full of Hell on the title track for their album Trumpeting Ecstasy.
"I was really into them, and through them finding out I was a fan, we ended up getting in touch," says Dollanganger. "[Vocalist] Dylan [Walker] reached out to me and said, 'Hey, would you be into doing a collaboration of some kind?' I was so excited — I didn't really know what it would entail ...
"Dylan sent me an industrial-sounding beat, and he gave me his lyrics, and he left it kind of up to me to interpret from there ... When they first mastered it, they sent me the track in an email. And I remember I was in the car when I listened to it for the first time, I was like, 'This is crazy!' I could not have anticipated it sounding anything like this. I was blown away!"
Crossing over into metal and hardcore realms is actually second nature for Dollanganger. A regular attendee of Ontario hardcore gigs in her teens, she's credited a basement show by local heroes Exalt with inspiring her to make music in the first place, and she's collaborated on many of her past recordings with Matt Tomasi of Toronto stoner/doom rockers Acid†Priest. She's also been a Marilyn Manson fan since high school, and counts Type O Negative as one of her all-time favorite bands.
"There's elements to Manson's music that are quite pop-oriented, that are very inspiring to me," she explains. "He has that heavy thing, but also that kind of delicate, entrancing, melodic vibe to him. When my world started to open up a bit, I went from just recording what I could in my room, and not really considering production too much, to kind of falling in love with producing — that's where someone like Manson is on a whole different spectrum, and is just very inspiring. The same can kind of be said for Type O Negative ... They had both lightness and darkness. It could be very romantic, or it could be really heavy and dark. I just love that."
Originally titled Hillbilly Noir, Heart Shaped Bed has been nearly three years in the making. With songs about incest ("Uncle"), obsessive love ("Tammy Faye," "My Baby") and seedy hotel assignations (the title track), the album is another fascinating entry in Dollanganger's artfully tawdry catalog. But there was a time, she says, when she didn't think she would ever finish it. With Grimes' backing, Natural Born Losers received significantly more attention than anything she'd previously recorded, and the sudden shift in exposure caused her to have second thoughts about sharing her darkest musings with the rest of the world.
"It was such a massive jump to go from releasing my songs on a whim ... to the roll-out and release of that record, and that exposure," she says. "I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about what I was saying, which I'd never experienced before. I had made all these demos for this record of love songs, which I was going to call Hillbilly Noir, but I was having a lot of nerves with the intimacy of it, and the personal subject matter. I kept thinking, 'No, you can't say that! That would be weird to share!' It was a rough period of writing for me."
Feeling frustrated creatively, Dollanganger stepped away from the project for a while. But after taking time to tour and deal with some personal health problems, she returned to the album with a new perspective.
"I went back and listened to the demos, and I sat at the piano afterwards, and kind of on a whim put this song together called 'Heart Shaped Bed,'" she recalls. "It came out instantly. It was the most natural thing ... like tapping into this old friend, of sorts. And I realized, 'Oh, the issue here is that I'm not allowing the things that I actually want to sing and write about come to the surface.' I [named] the album Heart Shaped Bed because that song felt like a pivotal turning point for me."
The first five songs of Heart Shaped Bed have been available to listen to on Bandcamp for several months, and Dollanganger promises that the second half of the record is very much in the same vein as the first, though — happily for us — even stranger.
"I wanted it to have a cohesive sound," she says. "It sort of became a concept record, so it was important that it sounded like it was all part of the same world. But at the same time, the second half is definitely a bit more weird. It became a much darker record than I originally intended, but I was very excited to roll with that."