Steph Bishop and Robert Maril, former bandmates in queer country outfit Kings, spent years apart before reuniting as Tender Creature. Leaning into the uncertainties of transformation, instead of struggling to recreate something long gone, is in part what makes the duo’s electronic folk-pop debut, An Offering, so compelling. Bishop’s lyrics are informed by the wisdom that comes from hindsight. Lilting vocals summon frissons of emotional nostalgia in thematically heavy songs, each rife with evocative imagery—clenched fists, the salt of the sea, torn and ripped seams. Maril is playful in his digital production, bringing a certain electricity, voltage varying, to every track.
Bishop’s tendency toward universally pleasing melodies is bent somewhat by Maril—classically trained in contemporary music, his fondness for digital music pushes him to break outside song structure status quo. «Whether it’s tweaking the melody slightly or singing the same melody over a different chord so there’s a little dissonance», Bishop says, «Robert pushes us in directions I wouldn’t normally go».
The songs make it clear that confronting trauma, rather than leaving it to fester, is the obvious choice: An Offering is an exploration of the painstaking work of untangling your hardships, your burdens and your heartbreak. From there, you’ll see your past and imagine your future with unprecedented vantage.
To create the EP, songs were crafted mostly remotely, sending beats and rough cuts back and forth; Bishop lives in upstate New York, while Maril is a few hours south, in Hell’s Kitchen.
Creating music in this way encouraged Bishop to explore new methods of songwriting. «I was just alone in my living room listening to this beat [Maril sent], singing nonsense over it», Bishop says. «I had no idea where it was going to go, but it felt really good, and really natural. It felt freeing». Maril jumps in, «I had been obsessed with this beat and sent a loop of it to Steph. I couldn’t believe it when I got back a sketch that turned into ‘If Anyone Asks’»
The very subject matter of that track is what made its creation possible: Bishop says the song is about realising you’ve lost yourself in a relationship and then remembering who you are. It was through reclaiming that strength that Bishop ultimately felt more grounded—and more comfortable in taking risks as a songwriter. «I think for a long time I felt a little timid about writing something that wasn’t going to catch someone’s ear super quickly; it felt important to sit down and write a song and sort of finish it and close it up like a book», Bishop says. «Recently I feel compelled to try out different things and be a little braver in that way».
That’s not the only act of courage that went into An Offering; lyrically, Bishop addresses the kind of memories we often recoil at recalling. Bishop wrote the titular track about being with their grandmother when she passed on; they understood the experience as a gift— «An Offering». «Climbing Trees» is about Bishop watching someone close to them struggle with his family’s response to his queerness back when they hadn’t found the words to express their own.
Reflecting on the death of one of their former students in the thick hopelessness after Trump’s election, Bishop wrote, «The Quietest Car», a slow and pensive number that’s accented by the weeping of Maril’s cello. The song finishes with a gentle crescendo that makes no attempt to obscure the sad mood, yet reminds the listener of the inevitability of moving forward—and that we must make the most of our time. «The normalising of conversation around things that might be uncomfortable is a push that I feel in a lot of ways right now«, Bishop says. «For a lot of different people».
If Tender Creature feels personal, that’s because it is—intensely so. The duo produced, engineered and performed the entirety of An Offering themselves. Bishop, primary songwriter and lead vocalist, plays guitar and ukulele; Maril, the primary producer and engineer, plays piano and cello, and programmed the synths. Close vocal harmonies, a touchstone of their work, are a constant thread throughout the EP.
Growth is difficult, even when you want it. Finding a way to reframe the difficulties in your past to shape a better future is precarious work, and learning who you are is a perpetual process. An Offering will resonate as a warm, helpful ushering along for many.