Eccentric folkies the Ophelias are poised to break big

Queer, genre-hopping and mischievous, the indie quartet is gearing up for world domination, one offbeat lyric at a time

The Ophelias are the consummate modern indie band: queer, genre-hopping, mischievous, yet grounded in emotional truths around intimacy and identity. The band, consisting of frontwoman/guitarist Spencer Peppet, bassist Jo Shaffer, drummer Mic Adams and violinist Andrea Gutmann Fuentes, are musically diverse, with songs careening in unpredictable directions. Peppet’s lyrics, similarly, can be bracingly specific, or they can be engagingly whimsical. In a frequently soul-crushing industry, the foursome are determined to achieve the same stardom as queer icons like MUNA and newly minted Grammy winners boygenius.

The band is currently finalizing Spring Grove, their most ambitious album to date, which features production by boygenius’ Julien Baker, but as of this writing hasn’t yet landed a distributor. “I understand it’s not a given,” Peppet says, joking that the profile should end with “if you want to talk, call me!” While the band preps Spring Grove, they’ve recorded a series of songs that they’re self-releasing as the Ribbon EP, out April 12. Opener “Black Ribbon” is out today, with a lo-fi video directed by Shaffer. 

“Ribbon” is the most intense song the band’s put out to date, a slow burner about a powerful attraction toward another woman. The band is proudly queer, with two trans members (Shaffer and Adams), but this is the first time Peppet herself has released an explicitly gay song. It’s part of a larger effort by Peppet to “name the feeling,” presenting herself authentically even if it means getting uncomfortable. Since their 2015 debut album, Creature Native, that honesty and restlessness have steadily garnered them a cult following. Breaking big is hard, but with the right push, it might just be inevitable.


The Ophelias formed a decade ago in Cincinnati, Ohio. Peppet, then a high school senior, spontaneously messaged Adams, Gutmann Fuentes and Grace Weir (the Ophelias’ original bassist), with the idea of starting a band. The quartet quickly wrote 10 songs together, and gradually started performing at unconventional venues like Peppet’s “culty” acting program. On Creature Native, the wordy writing recalls indie darling Frankie Cosmos, and subsequent comparisons included fellow offbeat bands like Hop Along and Rilo Kiley. On songs like Ribbon track “Rind”, Peppet drops deadpan one-liners in her own unique lilt: “Look back/At what I tole”ated/to name it/Makes your life/A little complicated”, drawing out that last word with an audible eye roll.

 

Between polished sophomore effort Almost from 2018 (which Peppet describes as a “hot pink blip” in their discography) and 2021’s rawer Crocus, major changes happened: Weir left the band, and Adams came out as trans. This caused a lot of internal anxiety for the drummer, as the initial perception of the Ophelias was an “all-girl band.” “I didn’t want people to look at us at first glance and think, ‘Man, they couldn’t survive the ‘all-girl’ thing, they had to call for help,’” Adams says. Despite the changes, Adams still feels some degree of affinity with the group’s original “girl band” description. “In my head I still play for the ‘girls’’ team,” he says, “and I’m allowed to feel that way.”

When Weir left the band, they had a convenient replacement. Shaffer, whom Peppet met at NYU, already knew the songs from working on the Ophelias’ early music videos, and had a week to learn the songs before recording Crocus. Shaffer takes a more “protean” (her words) approach than Weir’s biting bass parts, usually reacting to Adams’s frequently complex rhythms and Gutmann Fuentes’ soaring violins. “My instinct tends towards counter-melodies, since Spencer’s guitar often handles a lot of the low rhythmic stuff typically assigned to bass,” Jo elaborates.

Right now, the Ophelias are scattered across America. Gutmann Fuentes is in grad school in Maryland, Adams is in Chicago and Peppet and Shaffer live together in Queens, New York. This hasn’t stalled the band’s collaborations. “After doing this for almost nine years together, we’ve really developed a collective sense of style and we all really trust each other’s intuition,” Gutmann Fuentes says. For Adams, it’s a relief. “I actually love being remote,” he says. “It gives me a chance to kind of sketch a draft in my own little corner before presenting anything to the band.” Even relatively successful musicians need full-time work, and the Ophelias are no exception: Peppet is a textbook editor, Shaffer is a VFX artist and Adams is a substitute teacher. Meanwhile, Gutmann Fuentes is getting her master’s in history and library science, inspired by her work with local history organizations in Cincinnati.


Talking with the recently engaged Shaffer and Peppet can get slightly delirious. Several running gags may develop across a single conversation, including the band nickname “the I-feel-yas,” Shaffer’s obsession with “light scattering through semi-transparent materials” on the “Rind” single cover and this writer’s inability to pronounce the names of Mic (as in Jagger) and Andrea (as in the San Andreas Fault). They’re now attempting to bridge their non-musical and musical selves: the band’s merch reflects the members’ eccentricity. One sticker, borne of Peppet’s stream of consciousness, reads: “I’m listening to Midwest indie rock band the Ophelias and contemplating the horrors. Soon I will dream of endless fields and hallways. Do you want to get ice cream?”

Outside of music, the pair are frequent collaborators, working on videos, single covers and films together. Peppet sent a song called “Sister Wives” to Shaffer (“Cut your braids with kitchen knives/ Kill the rest of your sister wives”), which became the basis for Shaffer’s feature film, Hell Is Empty. Shaffer is thinking of making a rock opera, and who she’ll pick to do the music is obvious. Peppet says on her partnership: “I feel like it helps that we enjoy working together … and we didn’t necessarily set out to do that. We had been dating for two years before I knew that Jo could play an instrument.”

Peppet also organized an art market in Purgatory, and that’s not a metaphor for their current between-albums state, but the name of an actual Bushwick venue. It’s a way of bridging her various passions and hobbies, showing off things she and her friends make. Shaffer even hand-built a camera she dubbed the AuraScope, using a hand sensor to create “auras” around a person.

At the moment, the Ophelias are part of a loose “online DIY” world with acts like Pom Pom Squad and Squirrel Flower, as well as a New York scene increasingly open to queer, femme-led bands. NYC contemporaries include “Sapphic folk” singer Gemma Laurence, maximalist post-punks partygirl and jazz-folkies Dogs on Shady Lane. The majority of connections frequently happen through DMs and emails, often leading to genuine friendships, regardless of location. For example, Pom Pom Squad’s Mia Berrin and Peppet have stayed in touch since their days of swapping playlists at NYU, and contributed to one another’s albums. Berrin says of their friendship: “Just by nature of knowing and caring about each other, it’s meaningful to be part of the other’s art.”

Chicago-based songwriter Pictoria Vark (real name Victoria Park) says befriending the Ophelias was “affirming.” In them, Park found companions at the same level of fame, artists who “see behind the curtain, but who are not [yet] capital-F famous.” Touring can get overbearing, and it helps to have other bands on your side. “Being able to commiserate and ask questions of one another has been so invaluable to me,” Park says. “I feel less alone in having allies going through something similar.” 

The Ophelias are also heavily involved in the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), which advocates for better rights for working musicians. Over the past year alone, there have been so many setbacks for artists— Bandcamp laying off its staff, Spotify refusing to pay artists who don’t get 1,000 plays per song, Condé Nast merging their music publication Pitchfork under “men’s magazine” GQ and laying off a huge chunk of staff in the process. The circumstances are so dire that punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock recently said making poverty wage is considered “making it” as an artist. All of that makes the band committed to better conditions for touring musicians. Every member is involved: Peppet in particular works on UMAW’s social media, organizing different campaigns and representing the organization in interviews and Reddit AMAs. “More and more bands and musicians are tapping into the work that musicians’ unions like UMAW are frontiering,” Adams proudly says. “And the topic of musicians’ rights has been opened up for discussion on a broader scale.” 


While the Ophelias were touring for Almost, Julien Baker showed up in the audience, and mutual fangirling promptly ensued. Baker knows how to scale up a previously established sound, going from stark folk on 2017’s Turn Out the Lights to massive alt-rock on 2021’s Little Oblivions. The band reached out to Baker after Crocus was nearly finished in early 2021, and she contributed harmonies to lead single “Neil Young on High.” When lockdown restrictions eased, Baker’s team approached Peppet about producing their next record, and the band soon went off to the studio with Baker and her longtime recording engineer Calvin Lauber. “JB is willing to get pretty granular and chase a specific take or sound in her own music, and she brought that same energy to producing Spring Grove,” says Lauber, who now works with both Baker and the Ophelias.

Recording with Baker clearly gave the band newfound energy, which they brought into the self-produced (with Marshall Moran) Ribbon EP. 

Opener “Black Ribbon” starts off typical enough for an Ophelias song, with lightly processed hi-hats, strummed electric guitar and Peppet’s traditionally stoic delivery. As Gutmann Fuentes’s violins creep in, Peppet’s detached facade starts to slip, revealing an uncertainty toward her new feelings: “What do I do now? In a body that’s not my own.” 

Her delivery doesn’t fully lose its cool until the song’s fiery climax, where she plainly states “I want you now,” as the band sprawls out, her anxiety transmuted into desire. That vocal performance is a result of Lauber choosing the rawest, most expressive takes when editing, surprising Peppet: “I was like … is that weird? Are we keeping this? And [the band] went, ‘No, I love it!’” Anyone checking in from Almost will be startled; anyone who’s seen the band’s live show already knows how loud they can get.

Peppet also says that in Lauber, she’s found an engineer she wants to work with long-term, hinting at future plans for the band beyond the release of Spring Grove. Queer musicians like Baker and her supergroup boygenius are having a massive moment, but it’s a wave that could easily crest especially as the latter enters hiatus. Peppet isn’t worried: “I think queer people have been creating stuff for so long that the ‘wave’ is more of a history or scene.” 

The band members are devoted to their craft, massive success or not. “I realized when I was a teenager that if I didn’t devote my life to art, I was going to freak out and do something dramatic like run through a wall Kool-Aid Man-style or die in a biplane accident,” Shaffer says. 


In December, the curtain parts at the theatrical Queens venue, TV Eye, and reveals the band without Adams, currently stuck in Chicago handling bedbugs. “Normally, we’re a rock band,” Peppet announces from the stage. But without Adams, Peppet, Shaffer and touring violinist Kate Goddard reinvent themselves as an acoustic guitar/violin/electric bass trio. 

With lower stakes, Peppet is in rare form, cracking jokes about the “Ben Gibbard lookalike convention” in the audience and going on an extended bit about their impromptu acoustic set. “Tonight we’re going Lilith Fair with it … it’s the late ’90s, everyone’s wearing flannel, no one is wearing sequins,” she says, referring to her sequined skirt. “We’re out in the woods and everyone’s a lesbian … it’s paradise.” 

The impromptu trio pulls out their Alex G cover, where Peppet repeats “I don’t like how things change.” It’s ironic, as the Ophelias constantly embrace change, confidently finding connection and community in the most uncertain circumstances. Before the band ends with Almost cuts “General Electric” and “Moon Like Sour Candy,” they change again, just Peppet solo while Shaffer and Goddard watch from the side. She premieres a recently written song she describes as “about men”, called “Do It For Me.” It’s one of her most lyrically direct to date, reckoning with the way religion, politics and misogyny are all intertwined: “From the smallest space/ To the largest stage/ You will make the choice/ I will bear the pain.” 

Just before she brings the band back in, she introduces Spring Grove album cut “Vulture Tree,” rhetorically asking the audience, “You know when you’ve been sitting on the best music you’ve ever made for a long time?” But after a moment, she reframes it. “For now, I get to play these songs live, which is really cool.” 

Hannah Jocelyn (they/she) is an English-speaking New York-based writer, audio engineer and musician. Her bylines have appeared at Pitchfork, Stereogum, Them and many other places. Hannah also runs the queer-focused Transient Peak newsletter and releases music under the stage name The Answers in Between.

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