Dark times make for dark songs. And Zen Ghost, the seventh album by New York folk/postpunk/cabaret duo Frenchy and the Punk — singer, percussionist, and lyricist Samantha Stephenson and guitarist and composer Scott Helland — written and recorded during the pandemic-induced downtime of 2020-2021, finds the already shadowy sound of the hard-touring twosome taking an even darker turn. An inward spin, into the pair’s previously unexplored personal planes and interpretations of the insanity of our increasingly tumultuous age. But despite its more pronounced moodiness, Zen Ghost, like the rest of the band’s oeuvre, offers plenty of opportunities to dance in the darkness.

“The dark element’s always been there in what we do,” says Stephenson. “But [when making the album] we were just being ourselves and reacting to what was happening, so that side just came out more. It was natural for us to fall into a darker groove.”

Swathed in swirling, Siouxsie-ish Gothicism, the apocalyptic “If the World Doesn’t End First,” is one of the haunting Zen Ghost’s many instant hits. “It’s essentially a love song wrapped in a nihilistic view of the world,” Stephenson explains. “When everything feels like its unraveling, a different perspective can emerge which can help dissolve fears and bring courage to say or do what has always been in one’s heart.” Another memorable memento is “Mon Souvenir,” an unapologetically new wave-y nugget propelled by Helland’s chugging acoustic chords. With its refrain of “If I can feel / I can heal,” the song, says Stephenson, reflects the album’s central theme: “The idea of transcending those ‘mind phantoms,’ the experiences from the past that linger within all of us.” Digging deeper into the set, the misty, murky psychedelia of “Come in and Play” chronicles, according to the singer, the act of “going within. Being in touch with more esoteric realms.”

“There’s definitely more space in the songs on this album; more atmospheric, midtempo stuff [than on the group’s previous releases],” says Helland, whose effects-enhanced, electrified instrument conjures entire worlds.

Conjuring their own world is what the defiantly independent duo has done for nearly 20 years. Born in France and raised in England and America, Stephenson’s early study of piano and dance ignited her eventual rejection of corporate conformity and fueled her quest to lead a truly autonomous life through art and music. A son of jazz-loving teachers, Helland grew up in Western Massachusetts, where he was a vital player on the region’s famously fertile early hardcore punk scene as the cofounder and bassist of Deep Wound (which also included future Dinosaur Jr. founders J Mascis and Lou Barlow) and Outpatients.

“Had Scott not gone into the burgeoning speed metal scene, he would likely have been J’s choice for the bass player of Dinosaur Jr!,” says Lou Barlow. “Witnessing the passion and ingenuity he brings to Frenchy and the Punk, I still see the same fierceness he had when we were kids. He and Samantha are as DIY as it gets, and they live a life full of music and art the way that many musicians and artists only dream of.”

The dream began when the two met in 1998 in New York City, where Helland had recently started playing solo after a tenure with thrash metal outfit School of Violence. The couple’s musical collaboration started when Stephenson, who’d never performed with a band before, spontaneously jumped on stage to accompany the guitarist during a favorite song. The artistic union was immediate, powerful, and undeniable. The two took to the road with fevered zeal, turning heads with their striking Edward Gorey-esque aesthetic and steadily building phalanxes of fervent fans on the mystical-folk/steampunk festival, coffeehouse, convention, and club circuits with their boisterous, revival-like live shows.

Tapped as one of the Top 25 Duos in the US by Yahoo! Music, the freewheeling pair has released a raft of recordings that includes the acclaimed albums Happy Madness (2010), Hey Hey Cabaret (2012), Elephant Uproar (2013), Cartwheels (2014), Bonjour Batfrog (2014), and Hooray Beret (2019). And now, via the enchanting Zen Ghost, Frenchy and the Punk are casting their spell on the wider indie-folk world.

“We are so grateful to have the communities in which we play,” Helland says. “They are the reason we can do what we do, and they are very creative communities.” Stephenson adds, “There is an earthiness there that we really connect and relate to. I think when we get that connection from people who are not necessarily part of those communities, it’s because they get what we do on a visceral level; we are digging into people’s psyches and unearthing their connection to their own spirit.”

Supported by their expanding family of generous fans through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Zen Ghost is the duo’s greatest album yet, and its makers’ dedicated drive and intensely independent work ethic are passionately palpable throughout its 10 stellar tracks.

“When a person is so imbued with the drive to play music and be creative, nothing else makes sense,” says Stephenson. “Without it, they cease to exist. It is their raison d’être to their very core because it’s always about the music and art. Period.”

Hello darkness, your old friend. Sincerity shines eternal. And with Zen Ghost Frenchy and the Punk are lighting the way into inspiring new places.

"Beautifully evolved from the punk days" (Bill Dautremont-Smith WDIY-NPR affiliate)

this (Batfrog) has some serious wings to fly beyond the parameters of steampunk and into the stereo systems of anyone who loves quality folk punk” (Ron Hart, Chronogram/Bonjour Batfrog Review)

"Top 25 Duos in the US" by Yahoo Music Blog

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