Listen to this track by languid Santa Monica lo-fi outfit Mazzy Star. It’s “Fade Into You”, their hit single that features on their 1994 breakthrough album So Tonight That I Might See . This song remains to be their signature tune, noted for the sleepy, soporific vocal performance by singer Hope Sandoval.
After a decade in the eighties of big glossy production-driven records, a song like this that seems to evoke the spirit of desolate early seventies folk-rock seems like an unlikely formula for success. This approach fit pretty well to the new decade, with a lot of bands then freed up to reference older musical streams after the eighties’ emphasis on hyper-newness and burying the past was over. Even if that’s true, Mazzy Star came by those influences pretty honestly before it was fashionable anyway.
Joining Sandoval in the band was guitarist David Roback, late of Paisley Underground band The Rain Parade and follow-up band Opal, the latter of which Sandoval was also a part. That scene largely ignored (and was ignored by) the mainstream in the eighties, with references to the warm tones of sixties and early seventies psych and folk arenas more so than to the jittery new wave, sparkly dance pop, or bombastic arena rock of the time. So what helped to make this song a sleeper (and sleepy!) hit by the following decade? Just this, I think; everyone loves a mystery.
Where indie rock music was concerned by the nineties, it was warm and spare music played on real instruments that helped to revitalize the pop landscape. The times seemed to catch up to that aforementioned Paisley approach. Bands even got major label support while pursuing these kinds of tones, including Mazzy Star who eventually signed with Capitol records. The success of this song typified a sea change from big, impenetrable production values of even a few years before, instead focusing on Sandoval’s voice and making the listener lean into the speaker to hear every word.
Another shift that Hope Sandoval in particular helped to usher in, or at least reinvent during the 1990s was the portrayal of the anti-performance singer. As much as she was and remains to be a singular artist, Sandoval was (and is!) famously shy of the stage even when this song was a hit. She was less like the shining diva figure clamouring for the center of attention and more like the misfit girl in high school who could always be found in the art room, rarely speaking, and always engaged in some artistic excursion instead. This withdrawn quality affected her performances and how the recording turned out, But it also affected the way the music itself was understood.
This reticence to stand out was an extension of her personality, it seems; very shy and not prone to giving very much away in terms of stagecraft, facial expressions, and emotive delivery beyond the pure indigo tones of her distinctive singing voice. Sandoval’s performances were noted for being literally draped in darkness in a live setting to purposefully take the attention off of her. If this song was a chart-stormer, it did so without a face.
Perhaps this dynamic says more about the meaning of this song than any one literal or singular narrative. Sandoval is not the first artist to ignore the audience during performances, instead going inward to search for a source of pure expression. A common denominator among many artists who famously did this during performances from Miles Davis to Van Morrison is the single intention of the artist that the audience should experience the music, not the musician. The performer just (wait for it) fades into it.
Among other things, this works pretty well against the well-trodden dynamic of the “girl singer” as eye-candy in front of a band of dudes. And maybe that helped to bolster how focused it is on the material, and why listeners were so drawn to it. It’s no wonder this song became the band’s signature. Whatever it is, I think it’s honest as coming from the people that made it. I think that’s yet another element that helps to make it so compelling even now.
Since the song first charted, it’s been used as emotional shorthand in a number of television shows and movies, still full of tarnished beauty and a kind of elegant brokenness that also seems imbued with a kind of mystery that is hard to resist. As mentioned, I think everyone loves a mystery. Is this a love song about becoming united with a lover, or subsumed by one? It could be either, both, or neither. And with the facelessness of this song in place complete with an enigmatic and moody undercurrent, maybe this is that’s compelling of all; that we instinctively put our own faces where there is none, thereby making the story it tells our very own, whether a happy ever after, or a dark and stormy night.
After lending her voice to albums by Chemical Brothers and The Jesus & Mary Chain, Hope Sandoval formed a new band in the early 2000s with My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O’Ciosig; Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. To learn more, take a read of this article from The Telegraph in 2001 around the time the first Warm Inventions album came out.
Mazzy Star is an on-again-off-again concern along with other Hope Sandoval projects, including their last record to date, Seasons of Your Day in 2013. That was their first record together in 17 years.
Get the skinny on what Sandoval inside the group and out at hopesandoval.com.