Breaking their own rules: Synth-pop duo Smaller Hearts meld guitar influences new recordings

The Halifax synth-pop duo, Smaller Hearts, began as a game. Kristina Parlee and Ron Bates tore up a bunch of pieces of paper, and on each they wrote a word that could describe a song: slow, fast, quiet, loud, odd time signature, with or without certain instruments, et cetera. Then they’d mix the paper all up in a bowl and pull out a few. The results were treated as instructions: the corresponding song would be written and recorded to the random spec of the draw.

When Smaller Hearts first started, Parlee and Bates enforced a firm rule of no guitars allowed, as an effort to get out of their comfort zone. They stuck to this through three albums, but eventually this rule that was initially liberating had become a limitation. The synths are still at the forefront, but by permitting their earlier punk and indie rock styles to influence their current interests, Smaller Hearts believes that this song is one of the truest expressions of the sounds they love.

This song is partly about trying to escape reality by sleeping and dreaming—but also about the limits of that approach. Sleeping through your problems can feel like a relief; but at some point you might notice that you’re accidentally escaping a lot of good stuff as well as bad. Parlee and Bates wanted it to feel dreamy and optimistic, but tinged with melancholy. There’s a cloud of background noise throughout that frames the sunnier guitar melody and vocal harmonies—the hope is that it reflects the moment of pleasant confusion you feel upon waking from a hopeful dream.

“The title ‘Sleeper Agent’ doesn’t appear in the lyrics,” explains Bates, “but it metaphorically can stand for the song: our agency in deciding what parts of life to engage in versus what parts to tune out; and the change that can happen if a person who’s sleeping through their life becomes activated and wakes up.”