The name came first. Comfort World—borrowed from a mattress store sign Alex Niedzialkowski (nee-jul-KOFF-ski) saw on a trip to Yakima. Her then-boyfriend was accompanying her and she took the sign as an omen of bliss. The long running configuration of her band Cumulus had broken up, leaving her unsure of herself. “I felt completely overwhelmed and insecure in everything,” Niedzialkowski explains. “I questioned whether I’d ever be able to find my people again, let alone write another album.” But the relationship, the apartment she and her boyfriend shared and the day job that enabled it all, were their own kind of Comfort World. They kept her safe while she tried to sort things out. Until they didn’t.
Things hit hard and fast: the relationship crumbled, the day job evaporated, the apartment was emptied and cleaned for the sake of the deposit, and she got word that her mother had developed breast cancer. If there was comfort to be found anymore, it eluded her. But Niedzialkowski is fundamentally, inescapably, a songwriter. So she started writing again. What else was there to do? “Basically, this entire world that I had built around myself was crumbling apart,” she says. “Comfort was complete bullshit. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, writing these songs to get me through it.”
After accruing songs, she felt ready to begin recording Comfort World, her second record for Trans Records. On the advice of label head Chris Walla, Niedzialkowski went in the studio with 21 year old producer Mike Davis, Walla’s former intern. Immediately, it was clear that the process of recording Comfort World would be different than any other record that Niedzialkowski had been involved in. For one, Davis demonstrated an intuitive knack for fleshing her acoustic iPhone demos out into full-fledged compositions. More importantly though, Davis believed in her, at times more than she believed in herself. “From day one, Mike was asking me to play instruments I’d never played, and asking me to try out new ideas, as if he had full confidence I could do it. It was my first time feeling like that in a studio environment.”
I Never Meant It To Be Like This, the first Cumulus record, was recorded over four days almost exactly as it had been arranged. Comfort World, by contrast, was languid, recorded over the course of seven months at Walla’s studio, Hall of Justice. Niedzialkowski brought in a crew of friends to fill out the album. There was time to play, experiment and chase the song. In the warm cocoon of the studio, surrounded by Mike and her friends, she felt as though she could do anything. The events of the recent year had shredded her and making Comfort World wove her back together.
Fast forward a few months, Comfort World was slated for release, but life’s realities were weighing heavy on her chest and Niedzialkowski had to release that in the only way she knew how. Made more confident by the writing and recording process of her full length album, and having put together a new live band lineup, “Retreat” was written. Niedzialkowski began to make it a point to play the song at every show. She spoke about consent on stage, and the feelings that had led up to this song, and immediately women were approaching her with their own stories.
“Retreat”, written to have a chorus so catchy that people would be singing along about enthusiastic consent before they could think twice about it, would have to be a separate release. And maybe it was always meant to stand on its own. It was becoming clear that this song was too important to save for a third album. In 3 minutes, Niedzialkowski carved out a pop monument with sharpened hooks and tightly wound guitar, recalling the anthemic joy of ‘90s Sheryl Crow as much as the sweet introspection of Mirah. Premiered by NPR as “a catchy reminder that you deserve respect” , Retreat was not the song of someone giving up on the world. It became a hymn of power and control built on guitars and keys, for people who have had enough of being quiet, who are ready to build a new world.