S.E.Ward: sorry this took so long | Self-released; Nov. 4 | Rachel Hirsh: I’ve Been Here This Whole Time EP | Self-released; Nov. 8

Wilder Maker / Rachel Hirsh / S.E. Ward | The Pinhook, Durham | Nov. 13, 8 p.m.

“Remember when music was fun? Let’s do that!”

In recent years, there was a time when Rachel Hirsh—a Triangle music veteran who started playing music with I Was Totally Destroying It when she was a teenager, more than 15 years ago—thought she wouldn’t release music again. Bruxes, Hirsh’s post-IWTDI project, released an excellent EP in 2016, but its fully recorded follow-up was shelved after a dispute over performances with her then bandmate and ex-boyfriend.

“I spent a decent chunk of time saying, ‘Why the fuck would I ever put myself in that situation again and try to make art that way if that could happen?’” Hirsh says.

Hirsh, who released her solo EP I’ve Been Here This Whole Time on Tuesday, credits friend Sarah Ward, who plays music as S.E. Ward, for being “the kick in the butt” that helped her own release come to fruition. While sonically similar to Bruxes’ hooky ’90s alt-rock, I’ve Been Here This Whole Time doubles down on the frankness and vulnerability of her previous releases. “Being in the studio with Sarah and seeing how fulfilled they were tracking their parts and creating this thing, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can do this too,’” remembers Hirsh, who previously had played keys live with S.E. Ward.

Ward themselves had doubts that sorry this took so long, released last Friday as S.E. Ward’s first full-length and the follow-up to their 2018 EP, would see the light of day.

“I never thought I would ever get this—or anything else—done,” they say, characterizing the album as a diary of “some really big life changes” over the last couple years, with moody indie rock as fraught with loss and longing as it is hopeful and healing. They describe searching for their identity—both personally and as a musician—during that period in the wake of their divorce and newfound sobriety.

“After my divorce, I didn’t really know who I was or where I fit in, and I felt lost,” Ward recalls. “I didn’t feel like a part of any scene or anything, and it felt really isolating.”

A torn ACL—and an extended recovery abetted by a COVID-delayed surgery—derailed their first foray back into music just as the pandemic began to hit. “Then when I got sober, that completely changed my identity. I didn’t know if I could ever play music again because I didn’t know how to do this and not drink.”

In each other, Hirsh and Ward found both encouragement and a friendship that’s, frankly, adorable. The pair will share a bill on November 13 at the Pinhook, where they’ll open for Brooklyn indie rock band Wilder Maker.

“Aww, you’re my kick in the butt,” Ward says, echoing Hirsh, before going on to explain the push they get from Hirsh’s musicianship and artistry, both on stage and in the studio. Along with mutual admiration, the pair have helped each other to feel free of music industry pressure and the expectations of outsiders, creating music for themselves rather than others.

“Prior to 2018 or 2019, I was existing in environments—especially when it came to music—where I felt an expectation of me to adhere to one specific identity and to prove myself to a lot of people, especially those that were close to me at the time,” Ward offers. “That was a really exhausting way to live and a really limiting way to create music.”

By contrast, Ward has felt free to be “relentlessly honest” in the process of creating their new album, from removing the constraints of a recording timeline to no longer pretending they always know what they are doing, explaining the empowerment they’ve felt from sitting back and reflecting on the right move for them as an artist.

Hirsh, meanwhile, revels in knowing that she never has to spend a month touring in a van again. Through her latest project, she’s also redefined her relationship with music, describing it as more self-indulgent now that she’s not seeking the same external validation and affirmation.

“This EP was kind of an exercise in remembering why [I] even write songs and try to communicate our feelings in the first place,” she explains. “It’s therapeutic, it’s creatively fulfilling, and it’s just nice to do it without the context of being hyperactive in a scene and the industry—it just feels much more organic now.”

Beyond being each other’s biggest cheerleaders, Hirsh and Ward share a hope that other musicians may similarly feel released from music industry pressure as they have.

“I hope other musicians—namely women and femme folks—realize that you also deserve to put out music and deserve to have people hear it,” Hirsh says. “It doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing the way that it has been historically. You can put out music on your own terms.”

“You don’t have to live up to anybody else’s standards,” Ward adds. “You can do this.”

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