LEWISBURG, W. Va. — On a Friday afternoon in October 2019, Haley Dahl, the leader of the bicoastal punk rock orchestra Sloppy Jane, sat at a small upright piano in the belly of Lost World Caverns here, recording tracks for the band’s second full-length album, “Madison,” out Friday.
Her head bent forward in concentration, Dahl struck the keys, loosing a mesmerizing cascade of notes. The piano tuner, Maria Caputo, sat on a rock nearby to tweak the instrument when needed, which was often because of the cold and damp. After a round of takes, Jack Wetmore, a producer and musician on the album, reached into the piano’s innards to mute the strings.
“It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole,” he said.
“I don’t think the idea was for this to be easy,” Caputo said. “The idea was for this to be awesome.”
This awesome thing started the way most do — in the wake of heartbreak. In 2017, Dahl attempted to distract herself from unrequited love by spelunking the internet. Her searches led her to discover Leland Sprinkle, who built the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia’s Luray Caverns in the 1950s. She wanted to play it, but when the powers that be said no, she chose the next best thing: dragging her own piano, along with her band and a backing orchestra, into another cave and making an album there.
“The decision early on that no matter what, this is a project that is happening fueled everything else,” Dahl said a few months after recording “Madison.” She was at one of her favorite spots in Brooklyn, Kellogg’s Diner in Williamsburg, and surrounded by a handful of people who contributed to this moonshot of hers: a few of Sloppy Jane’s core collaborators — the videographer Mika Lungulov-Klotz and the multi-instrumentalists Al Nardo, Bailey Wollowitz and Lily Rothman — and the album’s engineer, Ryan Howe.
Besides involving a cave and a piano, the project needed to be “giant” and “beautiful,” Lungulov-Klotz said. “Everything else was becoming a bigger person and learning how to compromise or learning how to record in a place that is super humid and doesn’t want you to touch it at all.”
Subterraneous settings can lend music a beautiful, ethereal resonance. But recordings are rare, for good reason. At Lost World, the cave dripped, echoed and randomly hummed. Because of the humidity, the recording equipment was relocated to a car parked at a nearby grate aboveground. Five band members needed a day to get the piano into position and another one to get it out. Each workday started at around 3 p.m. and ended anywhere from 6 or 8 a.m. Over two weeks, Dahl, 21 musicians and a film crew endured a constant temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit and numerous round trips through a long, sloped tunnel.
Having done her homework on caves, which included trips to more than 30 scattered across the country over a year and a half, Dahl was aware that the conditions would be grueling. Additionally, the project was funded not by a record label, but by credit cards, a GoFundMe campaign and the kindness of others, including the owner of Lost World, Steve Silverberg, who allowed the band to use the cave free as long as they recorded outside of business hours.
Accordingly, Dahl tapped the group’s cellist, Sean Brennan, to recruit additional orchestra members, most of whom were students from his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music. But utmost, Dahl knew she would need to enlist people who would fully commit. “Everybody needed to be really, really gung-ho, and that was going to be the only thing that was going to carry it,” she said.
Realizing big ambitions and singular visions in a D.I.Y. fashion seems to be a criterion for Dahl, 26, who started Sloppy Jane 11 years ago as a high school student in Los Angeles. A boyfriend back then gave her a Roy Orbison CD that was so well loved it became scratched to the point where a peak in “Only the Lonely” fell into distortion. It was anguishing yet inspiring: “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to make musically,’ something that has the highest high and the lowest low, that goes in and out of lucidity, where it’s like this beautiful thing that just unravels,” she said a few weeks ago during another interview in Williamsburg, this time at Bar Blondeau.
Rather than seeking formal training, Dahl opted for self-direction. “Ideas are the things that are important,” she said. “You just need to walk around and trust yourself.” So she did her time on the Los Angeles punk scene, and in 2015 released Sloppy Jane’s first EP, “Sure-Tuff,” six songs of rock ’n’ roll high jinks that feature Phoebe Bridgers, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who has been Dahl’s friend since high school, on bass.
Following the EP’s release, Dahl started work on the band’s first full-length album, “Willow.” She wanted to not only base it around a narrative theme but also expand beyond the bass-drum-guitar sound when performing the songs live. Dahl recalled that Bridgers told her, “Go get your orchestra.” So after recording “Willow” in Los Angeles with Sara Cath, Dahl headed to New York in 2017 and found Nardo, Wollowitz, Rothman, Brennan and others. Once she had the band she desired in place, she released “Willow” in March 2018.
The opening musical passage of “Madison” references the final piano outro of “Willow,” beginning where the other ends, but the two albums differ. Musically, where “Willow” is more of an alt-rock opera, “Madison” is a wall of sound with poppier leanings that key in a spectrum of emotions — the uplift of “Party Anthem,” the delightful weirdness of the wordless “Bianca Castafiore,” the wistfulness of “Wilt.” And thematically, where “Willow” is about “numbness” and “touching but not being able to feel,” “Madison” is about “loneliness” and wanting someone who is just out of reach, Dahl said. “It’s like you figured out how to have these feelings, but you have nowhere to put them.”
The desire to make “Madison” happen was intense enough that nothing could stop it. Not even a mugging a month before the cave sessions, during which Dahl was slashed in the face, hand and back. After the incident, the band talked of delaying the recording to spring 2020 but decided to push ahead. Even after it was done, Dahl was concerned she had irrevocably harmed herself mentally. “But then the pandemic happened,” she said. “And I was like, ‘No, good call, because now I have a lot of time to recover.’”
At the start of last year’s lockdown, Dahl left the closetlike space she had called home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, first spending a few months in Wisconsin and then returning to Los Angeles. She spent the pandemic working on other people’s projects, both visual and musical; doing more cave recordings; putting the final touches on “Madison”; and finding it a label, Bridgers’s Saddest Factory Records.
Dahl hopes someday to do a third album that picks up where “Madison” leaves off and uses the piano she played in the cave, then she wants to perform all three as one piece in concert. For now, more traditional shows are on the horizon, including an appearance at Pitchfork’s festival in Paris this month. But perhaps the cherry on the cake is that she is verging on the sound she has wanted to achieve since she was a teenager.
“I think that I got close with this record,” she said. “I think that it sounds like a scratched Roy Orbison CD.”