I'm talking to Monica Metzler by phone from the back of my Forester, where I'm huddled away from the cold in a makeshift bed. My friend and I had arrived on the coast the day before, anticipating a warm night of open-air camping. Instead we found ourselves in a wintery fog characteristic of those other eights months in Oregon we prefer to forget about during the balmy bliss of August.
It seems fitting, then, when Metzler explains that The Cruelest Month, her first full-length release under pseudonym Moniker, is an homage to the cycle of hibernation and rejuvenation she experienced in the throes of an Oregon winter.
"If I could, I would have the album released on the darkest day of January," she says.
The compilation of whispery, experimental folk songs is Metzler's tribute to overcoming internal struggles, which often tend to manifest themselves most prominently during the coldest months. The album title is a reference to her study of ancient cultures, from which she drew the concept of the "cruelest month": Many Northwest tribes viewed February as the critical period during which its members would either make or break it. "All of us have experienced some form of the cruelest month," Metzler says. "The struggle is equally internal and external. To be a warrior in these cultures was also about overcoming the parasites in your mind."
For Metzler, this project was her own make-or-break situation. Hailing from Corvallis, the multi-instrumentalist had been working under the alias Moniker on various projects and collaborations for years in the Portland area. But this marked her first effort to create something entirely on her own. "I think there is a point for every artist, in which they have to see if they can go it alone," she says. "I had reached that point in my growth."
So she huddled in her basement during the cruelest month (OK, since we're talking about Oregon, cruelest months) of early 2014, with the intent of seeing what she was made of. The 11-track album was written, recorded, mixed and mastered almost entirely on her own. The result is a collection of mystical "folktronica," led by Metzler's evocative, lounge-ready vocals, speaking of myths and personal empowerment. "Shivers in the cold/ Nestles in your bones/ Careful where you go/ The forest is your mind/ So make a trail back home," she sings on the haunting "Giver/Feast of Bones," over rhythmic guitar and what sounds like the wind whipping over a bleak landscape.
Metzler has accrued a band of current and former collaborators to play the material live (members of Otis Heat, Brainstorm, Unicorn Domination and Mount Mazama are on the roster), but touring isn't her main focus for The Cruelest Month.
"For me, it's a success just completing this project," she says. "This was something more personal. Something of a catharsis."
SEE IT: Moniker plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with the Tamed West and Lynnae Gryffin, on Sunday, Aug. 24. 8:30 pm. $6. 21+.