An Interview With The Aquadolls

Sophie Steinberg speaks to the LA-based 'mermaid rock & roll" band about using their music to reflect the various ups and downs of being in your 20's, their new album 'Charmed' and more.
By    February 5, 2024

Image via Jenna Houchin

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The Aquadolls are lovergirls through and through. Drummer Jacqueline Proctor is an advocate for high school romances, lead singer and guitarist Melissa Brooks wants to make music about being lost in love in your 20s, and bassist Keilah Nina recently married her partner in a dreamy ceremony at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles. Decked out in equal parts leather and lace, The Aquadolls stepped right out of a Y2K band poster that came to life. The Southern California band’s “mermaid rock and roll” music exudes ‘90s nostalgia, analyzes relationships, and is made for girls who want to scream and cry on their drive home.

Founded by Brooks in 2012, the group was initially a solo project with a rotating band, until the three ladies came together officially in 2018. But long before they were The Aquadolls, the girls came of age in the LA music scene – Keilah went to shows at The Smell, Melissa dreamed of stepping out of the crowd onto the stage, and someone asked Jacqueline to go steady on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. Eventually, they became bandmates after Jacqueline and Melissa helped each other record their music and Keilah, a fangirl at the time, caught a ride home from a show with Melissa.

Their latest album, Charmed, marks the first time the three musicians wrote and produced together, with the help of The Goo Goo Dolls producer Chris Szczech. Due to the pandemic, much of the group’s earlier music was recorded remotely, making it the first time they made music in the same room. Bringing a Yoda-like energy, Chris helped the girls navigate writing music as a unit, encouraging them to take breaks, cry it out, and believe in themselves when it came to difficult instrumentals.

I listened to the album on an Amtrak ride from New York City to Philadelphia as longing guitar riffs contrasted the gray, quiet interior of the train car. The piercing album layers beach pop ambience over intoxicating, sometimes somber lyrics. I took deep breaths as I listened to “Your Heart Belongs to Someone Else,” a tragic ballad about swallowing hard truths. “Spotlight” made me curl up in my train seat as I replayed incredible dates in my head. The last song, “Cut Throat” is a manifestation of female rage. I listened, trying to absorb as much of its energy as possible. As I looked out the window, romanticizing my view of a dreary New Jersey winter, I realized The Aquadolls make music for girls who want to be the “main character,” even if it’s only for a brief moment.

I found solace in their sophomore album, The Dream and The Deception, during a difficult college breakup. The music is intense and starry-eyed as The Aquadolls give their listeners permission to overthink and scream their emotions. As I coped with heartbreak, I went on long walks in LA – rushing to “Ruby Eyes,” a song about falling hard and fast, and glancing longingly out at the city to “Meetme.” The project is a perfect late night friend, enabling and comforting at the same time.

On Charmed, the girls are more grown up. They no longer contemplate whether or not they are worthy of love, and instead, ask whether others are worthy of them. With more years of relationships and heartbreak under their belts, the lyrics are reflective, analyzing past situationships and validating anger and confusion. The album cover, the back of a tattooed coquette-angel looking out at a beachy sunset, embodies their music’s pining heroine, always questioning their love but falling hard all the same.

This January, I caught up with the band before they hit the road with Save Ferris for the Northern California leg of their tour. We discussed songwriting with, performing alongside drag queens in Texas, and everything else that matters. – Sophie Steinberg

What feels different about your third album Charmed?

Melissa Brooks: Well this the first record that all three of us contributed on, so it really has a piece of everybody in it, versus me playing every instrument or programming drums. There’s more soul to it and life, and Keilah and Jackie really helped bring it to life with a new voice.

Keilah Nina: Jackie and I joined the band right before The Dream and The Deception came out, so it was already a finished album, so this was our first time contributing. I also think all the singles we had done [before], we had recorded remotely and then stitched together, so it was also the first time we stepped in the studio together. We wrote in the studio and outside of the studio, we got to play everything, and sing everything. Some people we had worked with in the past didn’t want us to do that. We were kind of vessels that did everything, which was weird, so it felt more personal – like me crying, trying to play a baseline type of personal, but I think that’s the charm of it is that it really was like a labor of love.

Jacqueline Proctor: I feel like that’s one of the hardest times we’ve ever worked. Besides some tours, that’s separate. Now I look back and I’m like, “Would I be able to do that all again?” Obviously we did it, so we can, but I think we can incorporate some of that work ethic into the next time we write, but in a healthier way because sleep is important.

What was it like to write songs as a trio? What did that look like? Would you sit down and talk it out first or did everyone bring different ideas to the table?

Jacqueline Proctor: I feel like it happens in different ways. There’s no one way where we sit down, all three of us, and write. Some days, we go in, we start the song, and then midway we’re like, “Wait no, we can make this better,” or “Oh, we don’t have lyrics for this yet.” Then Keilah is hopping on making some lyrics, and then maybe Melissa is working on some guitar – it’s all a little bit scattered. If someone hears something and they want to do it, it’s like, “Let’s try it,” because you shouldn’t hold things in. It might not work, but you let it go and don’t take things personally because it just has to sound good for the band.

Keilah Nina: We’re a lot more sporadic than sitting down, but I think the thing that Chris [Szczech] is really good at is, if it got to a point where we were just yelling things, he was like, “Hey, do you guys want to sit down and talk about it?” Because Mel would be recording, and Jackie and I would be yelling and he would say, “How about we all sit down?”

Jacqueline Proctor: We’re crazy artists, we need a calm producer.

Melissa Brooks: We had a lot of demos, and most of them were not finished. We had rough ideas of what we wanted it to sound like, whether it was lyrics or a riff or something, and everything else was crafted on the spot. I remember Keilah had open. “Beachy,” for example, the first half was kind of written — I had the riff and the first part of the lyrics written during quarantine, and then that was it. So in the studio, we brought all the drums to life, the baseline came to life and then we all sat together and wrote the lyrics right there on the spot. I was in the booth like, “Like this?” and you guys were like, “No, try that!” It was a lot of back and forth but it was definitely curated all in that studio with the magic of Chris Szczech and his two dogs.

That sounds really magical. You talked about Chris Szczech’s calm approach to it. Do you feel like you can hear that in the album as well?

Melissa Brooks: I feel like his calm approach gave me the patience and confidence to be able to do things over and over because I was really testing my guitar playing skills. I know all of us were testing our skills, but some of those downstrokes were so fast. I was thinking, “Oh, my God, I don’t know how to do it. I need to sit here and breathe,” and he would let us go for hours, over and over and over until it was right. We felt good and he would say, “I think you could do it better.” He wouldn’t say a word, he would just sit there calmly, just watching. It made me feel so confident that we could do it, and that we could really try anything if we put our minds to it.

Keilah Nina: I think having someone like Chris help us record the record was exactly what we needed at the time. We were in such a chaotic part of our lives. We were working full time, we were in between tours and we had a specific deadline. I was really anxious going in there. Previously, we had recorded other people and it wasn’t the most positive experience. The thing that I really loved about Chris is that whenever I would second guess myself or say “I can’t do it,” he would say, “Says who?” or “Who says you can’t do it?” When I was sitting there literally crying, everyone was like, “Dude, it happens. Take a break. Take a walk and get back to it.” It was nice that he would know when to pull back and when to be like, “You could do that again. I know you can do better.” It felt good that someone had that confidence in us.

That’s really sweet and you need that confidence and safety to make good art and to produce good music. I think that’s really important. I love RhymeZone as well.

Keilah Nina: I know, I was like, “We need to be rhyming right now.” Mel’s also really good at getting that out of us. She’s like, “I want to smell something. I want to paint something. I want to feel something.” I’m like, “You got it girl.”

Melissa Brooks: I love a visualizer. Stating “I feel sad,” and asking, “Why do you feel sad? What makes you feel sad? Is there something around you? Do you see something?” I like having little visualizers that help bring the story to life.

And there are some really incredible moments of storytelling on Charmed. Throughout all your music, I really appreciate the lyricism and energy of the songs because they explore the full spectrum of love and relationships. “Spotlight” is a love song and meet cute, and “Cut Throat” is maybe a little bit of a hate f*ck song, but also encourages people to embrace sexuality. Why are those themes important in your songwriting?

Melissa Brooks: Just being real. We’re all in our 20s. This is what relationships look like for us. It’s friendships, it’s romance, it’s self discovery, and it’s really the battle and struggle and beauty of being a 20-something-year-old. You could be really any age, but it’s a reflection on what our relationships have looked like, whether it’s with ourselves or with other people.

Keilah Nina: At the end of the day, we are all truly just lovergirls. I fall in love with new things every single day – with my husband, with life. I’m truly living life as a lovergirl. I’ve committed to the bit. How could you not fall in love?

Jacqueline Proctor: You got married!

Keilah Nina: I did get married! That’s crazy! I am just a 23-year-old girl who loves love. I love my friends and I love life and I love feeling all types of emotions, whether they’re positive or negative. It’s so important that people see that no matter what happens, whether it’s a friendship breakup or a relationship breakup, falling in love with a new person every day – maybe it’s not love, maybe you’re just obsessed – that’s the beauty of being a person. I’m falling in love every day.

Jacqueline Proctor: Can we all just agree everyone just needs more love? Whether you’re in love or not in love, you just need more love. Bring back a high school romance, bring back falling hard really fast as long as you’re talking about it and learning while you go. I think it’s cool to fall in love with things and fall in love with people in this day and age, because I think we’re going to just continue to crave it and look for it more because of technology and phones. If you keep loving and that doesn’t work, you just move on and you love more.

Melissa Brooks: Yes and I know we’re not alone, so I hope that’s why people will relate to our lyrics. We’re just singing your silly intrusive thoughts and putting it into a fun song version.

I think that’s an amazing mindset to have. Also Keilah, I saw you got married at Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, which is one of my favorite places in the world.

Keilah Nina: It was literally the best day of my life. I went to go and see a band there about a year after Jake and I got engaged, and we had this bit where every time we went somewhere cool, we were like, “Should we get married here?” We said that at Bob Baker and then our friend went, “You can do that.” I emailed them the next day and immediately I was like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m getting married here.” It’s funny because in my speech at the wedding, I said, “Jake is marrying me but he’s also marrying all of my friends.” He loves my friends and takes care of them because he knows that they are important to me. Shoutout to him because when I was like, “Babe I want to get married at a puppet theater, I want it themed after ‘Carrie,’ and I also want to have a cat officiate it,” he was just like, “Yeah.” It was everything I could have ever asked for honestly. I had Mel and Jackie in my bridal party. I just feel really lucky because the band has given me so much. One of my bridesmaids started as a photographer that we had just met on tour, and now they are one of my closest friends ever.

Melissa Brooks: It was literally the coolest wedding I’ve ever been to and probably will ever go to. It was the ultimate rock and roll wedding. It was so beautiful.

Zooming out, I know you guys formalized as a trio in 2018, but how did you guys meet each other? How long have you known each other?

Melissa Brooks: I’ve known Jackie for almost 10 years because we met in 2015. I recorded Jackie’s first band. Then I was between band members, Jackie was between band members, and we were going to shows watching bands and we were like, “I don’t want to be in the crowd. I want to be up there.” We started jamming and Keilah was just hanging out. One day, I was like, “Keilah, you play keyboard?”

Keilah Nina: I said, “Nope.”

Melissa Brooks: I was like, “Perfect. Our first show is next week! You’re in the band.” She played an entire year with us, played Warped Tour on a broken keyboard where the screen was split in four directions. She couldn’t even read what it said. And then a year in and you’re like, “You know I play bass?”

Keilah Nina: I met Mel at one of her many shows because I was just fangirling. I was just big fan girl vibes. She gave me a ride home after a show once, and yeah.

Jacqueline Proctor: The rest is history.

Keilah Nina: If you go far back, you’ll see all of my fan comments on Mel’s Instagram posts. They’re actually really embarrassing.

I was a really big fan of the “Sneaky” video. I was wondering where the concept for the video came from?

Melissa Brooks: We make Pinterest boards for vibes of what we like visually, and we work with Jenna Houchin on creating a story. Jenna is really a wizard in the way that they will come up with these really cool concepts, and find these locations for us, and build these props. In the “Sneaky” video, I know that they painted the clown face on the little bride and groom. They’re just so creative.

Keilah Nina: I love working with Jenna because we’ll get on set and it’s never that serious. Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of pressure, and with Jenna, she’s like, “I like that, just do it.” A lot of the “Sneaky” video specifically is just Jackie and I f*cking around. There’s a part where I’m playing drums and that’s because we were just messing around. We feel so comfortable around Jenna that we can just dick around and then they’re able to catch those sweet spots.

Jacqueline Proctor: Music videos are weird. We just try to have a certain aesthetic and a little bit of a story. I think all of us, and all of our friends, live through very nostalgic imagery and items. We’re just really embracing our inner child, our inner teen queen, inner toddler, all of that. That’s where all the healing is and we’re not going to stop healing. We put that in our music because you have to heal in order to get your messages across. That’s just how we want to come across as a band. It’s all therapy. Yeah, we’re not perfect. We’re just musicians.

Speaking of an inner teen or inner child, I’ve heard you guys talk about the importance of having kind of an all-female band. What has been the most special thing for you all about kind of creating that space.

Melissa Brooks: We have a sisterhood. We’re not just in the band, we’re friends. It really truly feels like a chosen family.

Keilah Nina: It definitely feels more than like your average band or co-worker transactional relationship. These are the people that I picture me spending the rest of my life with. It has gotten to a point where it’s like, “I want these people by me all the time,” not just for musical or work stuff. They stood by me at my wedding and I want them there in the future. We love like sisters, we fight like sisters, and it’s gotten to a point where you cannot convince me that we weren’t meant to know each other. I feel like we see each other on a level that other people just can’t comprehend. Even when there’s conflict, the way that the girls have stood up for me in the past, it’s just a family. In other situations in the music scene, you just can’t really find that.

I know you guys have performed a lot in the last two years like with your “Spring Fling” tour, performing Riot Fest, and touring with Sitting on Stacy. How do you encourage fans and women to let loose, get in the pit if they feel comfortable, rock out, and be completely free in a safe space?

Keilah Nina: I honestly give most of the credit to Mel. I think Mel is such an incredible front person. We always give a disclaimer that, as long as you’re not a dickhead, you’re free to do whatever you want. Mel always makes that disclaimer at the top of the show but she’s such a commanding front woman that she won’t take no for an answer. She will target people in the crowd and make sure people feel like a unit. It’s really inspiring to watch because, as someone who doesn’t have that much confidence on stage, watching her be so confident makes me want to be more confident. I really commend Mel on being able to control the crowd; she’s insane at it. It’s crazy. We’ll be playing at a festival where no one knows who we are and by the end of the set, they’re all moving.

Melissa Brooks: When I go to a concert, I want to have the most fun that I can have. When I’m in the audience, I want to feel like I could be a part of the show and that’s a really important factor for us. We want to have that crowd participation so people feel like they’re not just there to watch. They are a part of the show. You are the show. Get your $20 worth!

Jacqueline Proctor: When Mel’s conducting the stage, she’s telling other people to look around and say hello to each other too. I think that’s why people also like to come up and talk to us too, because we want to feel that human connection.

Melissa Brooks: It’s a situation where you can go with a group of friends, or you can go alone and you’ll leave with a friend. You’ll leave knowing somebody. I have been told that people have started dating after meeting at our shows. That was everything to me: creating relationships, friendship, love, whatever it is. If I can help with that, why not?

Jacqueline Proctor: I’m like can you help me?

Melissa Brooks: Yeah! I’ll be like, “Who wants to kiss Jackie?” I’ll do it in a cool way that doesn’t seem desperate.

Do you guys have a favorite performance, tour, or festival that stood out to guys?

Keilah Nina: My favorite show was our Austin show, even though it ended in a literal bloodbath.

Melissa Brooks: I hit my head on a speaker and it bled. It was very scary, but before that we had Brigitte Bandit and Lawrie Bird, two drag queens from Austin, Texas at our show. It was a last minute thing.

Keilah Nina: It was super last minute and it was right in the middle of the Texas drag ban. It felt really great to give these people a space, at our show, to get on stage and talk about really important matters. I think that show felt really great because f*ck a drag ban, are you kidding me? It was so much fun and the crowd loved it. Not only were we platforming these really amazing people, but we were also just like having a really great show. The show itself was fantastic. That is what we’re doing it for to be able to talk about things that really matter to us. It ended on a high note until Mel busted her head open.

Melissa Brooks: It was a really emotional day. It was the day that Senate Bill 12 was passed, which was the anti-drag law in Texas. Two doors down from our venue was Cheer Up Charlies, which is a gay bar in Austin, and they were having a drag show protesting it. It was silly and sad and all of the emotions were high, and Brigitte and Lawrie were down to come to our show. I was like, “Come on stage dance for ‘Take Me Away’ and if you have anything you want to say, say it.” They said what the f*ck they had to say and they were right. I’m really happy to report that two months later that bill was shut down.

Keilah Nina: I think as a musician, it was a moment where I was like, “Damn, we have the power.” As a woman in the industry, I have the most insane impostor syndrome. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, I always find a way to undermine myself. It’s insane because there are these sh*tty little dude bands that are assholes that are not doing as much as we do. We’re held to this impossible standard so I think that show made me feel like, “Oh my god, we did that. We did what we could, we spoke our truth, and people listened and people cared.”

Jacqueline Proctor: At the end of the day, we just have to do what we feel is right and hope that other people want to hop on, and we can create all together.

That’s what drew me, and probably other people, to your band because there is just a divine feminine energy that is raw, encourages expression, and takes up space. Looking ahead, what’s next for The Aquadolls?

Melissa Brooks: We have a tour coming up with Save Ferris, an iconic 90 ska band, and then we’ll be supporting them for four dates February 21 through 24th. We’ll be doing NorCal dates in Morro Bay, Berkeley, Rosevia, and Fresno. We will also be playing day two of BottleRock Festival in Napa Valley with Megan Thee Stallion, Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam and Maná.

Jacqueline Proctor: Get your tickets guys, and stream Charmed.

Melissa Brooks: Expect cute stuff coming soon, and rock and roll badass shit coming soon.

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