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Softcult’s Subliminal Revolution

The medium is the message for the rising grunge dream pop duo.

by Maggie McPhee

Photos by Kayleen Widdoes | Design By Erik Grice

Twin siblings Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn live in the Tri-Cities outside Toronto, a 15 minute walk apart. “I can’t imagine not living close,” Mercedes says, given that the pair are not only each other’s best friends but creative partners. They form the beating heart of celebrated Canadian shoegaze outfit Softcult, responsible for everything from songwriting, to production, to public image. Whereas Mercedes directs, films and edits their lo-fi music videos, Phoenix makes all of their collage-based album art and oversees recording and engineering. Together, they produce a riot grrrl-inspired fanzine called SCripture and host a Discord server to foster a digital community for fans around the world. This holistic, cohesive, and DIY vision makes the perfect package for Softcult’s political, punchy alt-rock. 

In the wake of a wild year that saw both a Juno nomination for their 2023 EP See You In The Dark and their first Asian tour, the duo dropped their fourth EP, Heaven, on May 24. Since their formation in 2020, Softcult has paired earworm melodies, elliptical electric guitar riffs and raw production to create the perfect sonic vessel for their political commentary. Their songs have tackled everything from TERFs, to gendered violence, to capitalism, to the music industry. 

Heaven marks a turn for the personal, with lyrics exploring human relationships, (mis)communications, and the kind of interpersonal exchanges that might be necessary to find heaven on earth, or something close to it. “Be safe and complacent/Is this what you call free enterprise?/A slave to the man until we die/We do what we can to feel alive,” they sing on “Shortest Fuse,” a fittingly rock-forward polemic on economic conformity. Mercedes and Phoenix’s harmonies layer screaming on top of softness, as if offering a shake to the shoulders and a hug all at once. Tough love, necessary for the arduous road ahead. “Everyone has their own idea of what heaven is, whether it’s the place you go when you die, or whether it’s something you can create while you’re alive,” Mercedes tells RANGE. “And everyone has a different notion of who belongs in heaven and who doesn’t. So it can be a polarising idea whether heaven is an inclusive place or only a few people that live their life a certain way are allowed in.”

“Any time Softcult releases music, we try to challenge power structures and the status quo,” she continues. “We want people to listen to our music and think about the things that are going well and the things that need to change. So Heaven is an extension of that.” 

Phoenix and Mercedes have been playing music since the age of six, and formed their first band at 14. Over the years, they’ve finessed a fluid creative method, pulling the thread of any inspiration – whether a chord structure, lyrical line or production idea – until the tapestry of a song reveals itself. As twins and friends, they’ve developed deep trust, providing an unwavering validation that allows them to mine the depths of their vulnerabilities. “We trust each other not just as people, but as creatives,” says Mercedes. That trust fosters a synchronicity between the two so that they, more often than not, can finish each other’s musical sentences. “The times where one of us gets stuck, the other one helps finish it,” adds Phoenix. 

For Softcult, the production choices matter as much as the compositional ones, and play just as large a role in the storytelling of their songwriting. On “Haunt You Still” the vocals hide below the surface of the song, lingering like a ghost, and on “Heaven” the word “fire” in the last refrain is replaced by a blown out electric guitar riff, the sonic equivalent of a flame. Taking inspiration from Trent Reznor and Steve Albini, Phoenix leans into a raw, visceral, rough-around-the-edges production style, privileging experimentation over expertise. “Sometimes the idea you start with isn’t what you end with and there’ll be a happy accident,” Phoenix explains. “Whether it’s from not knowing totally how to do something or just trying something and it turns out different than what you expected.”At 30 years old, with more than two decades of making music under their belt, the Arn-Horn siblings have honed a naturalistic approach to their craft that has resulted in an effortlessly authentic oeuvre. Like Bikini Kill and Pussy Riot, two bright guiding lights, the Softcult project’s political message is powerful because it’s personal. Phoenix and Mercedes show up as people, not pundits, seeking connection with other people. According to them, that’s what makes music such an essential platform for social discourse. 

“So often when you’re trying to get a point across, if you have a disagreement about politics or social issues, it feels like it’s not even a debate, it’s just two people further entrenching themselves in their own beliefs,” explains Mercedes. “But music does the opposite, it can lull you in and grab you and connect with you, and you might not even know why. Sometimes people like our music and it takes a while for the lyrics to resonate with them. But sooner or later, it’s like exposure therapy, they start to come around and open their minds.” 

“Yeah,” agrees Phoenix. “You get them with the music and they start listening to the lyrics and they’re like, ‘Oh. True. Okay.’” 

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