“in reality, it’s those moments where you stumble upon a great idea, find a new sound, or when you lose yourself in a performance when you get this feeling that’s like “this is it”. That’s why I do it, personally.”
As the world awakens, expands, and refines itself; it’s to music we turn. Anti-Standard is for those who are forging their own path, making from the soul; for Anti-Standard number 21, I interviewed Boston-based musician KSRMR.
Whether you’re listening to her 2020 single Garden or the 2019 EP Maria-Elena, in each song we find poetry. Through spoken word, angelic piano…strings, and a raw folk-like deliverance, KSRMR brings us into a world that is not sad, but delightfully vast; like driving in a car as the sunset’s alone for the first time in so long, able to think boundlessly about both past and present.
I’ve been waiting to bring this interview to you all for so long; and am excited to share today the words of KSRMR. As she says on Spotify, beneath her discography: ‘be smart and kind to yourself!’
TP: Tell us about your journey as a musician. Did you always know it was something you wanted to pursue?
The start of my journey as a musician is tough to pinpoint since I don’t have any distinct memories of being obsessed with music as a young kid. I would sing and enjoy music like the others, but the first real memory that I can identify having a special connection with music is when I was around the age of 5. I would remember songs playing on the radio really quickly, and one of my brothers would play games with me to see how long it would take for me to recognize the song he picked, and it made me feel like I had a special ability (I didn’t but I was also five). As I progressed through school I found myself comfortable in my art classes, whether it be visual arts, theater, or music. It’s crazy thinking back to how easy it felt for me as a kid to express myself with reckless abandon. It was so fun because I could do whatever I wanted naturally given that the focus of art classes was usually to express yourself.
My parents signed me up for piano lessons at the age of 7 as a sort of rite of passage for my family, since my family did it, and my dad’s family learned it as well. My older brothers stopped lessons after a couple of years because they were more interested in other things, but I kept at it because I really liked it. To this day, there’s nothing like the stillness of sitting in a room, alone, with a real piano, and you can do anything you want without answering to anyone.
The older I got, the more complicated my feelings towards self-expression became. I had always loved to sing, but my growing awareness of people’s perception of me and the increasing difficulty of honing my musical skill created a really odd relationship with performing and expressing myself. The more I became concerned with how others would perceive my skill, the less enthusiastic I was to showing people my music since now it was something that was linked to my identity and self-worth as a person. This growing tension between my love of music and expressing myself, created a shift in my attitude where I would treat music as something that was private and sacred, shielding it from the perceived danger of it being received badly by others. Music became my escape from the noise of the world, and I started to write music for myself.
Making the decision to pursue a career as a musician is one that I’ve struggled to explain for the longest time. I found the words when I was talking to one of my friends about what it meant to be a musician. He told me that a lot of artists choose music, not for any specific reason, but because it’s the thing a lot of us feel like is the only thing we can do. This sounds like a hopeless statement, but in reality, it’s those moments where you stumble upon a great idea, find a new sound, or when you lose yourself in a performance when you get this feeling that’s like “this is it”. That’s why I do it, personally.
TP: When you collaborate with video artists on music videos-what does the process look like? Which video took the most time to make?
Making my songs is such a self-involved process, therefore, I like giving the filmmakers I work with as much creative freedom/time they can do whatever they want with it. The two people who have made the music videos for me in the past have been Vanesa Stoynova (@vanesafilm on Instagram), who directed, edited, and shot the visual EP for “Maria-Elena”, and Nixie (@nixiemaefly on Instagram) who compiled and edited the clips for the songs “Fire Escape”, “blindspot”, and the visual teaser for “garden”. The process is very simple. Friends had told me about Vanesa and Nixie, and I liked what they did, so I hit them up to see if they would be interested in working together on a project. After that, I send them the material and leave it up to them to see what they do with it. There’s something really spiritually liberating about giving your work to someone and seeing where they go with it, and luckily for me, they’ve made some really cool shit.
The video that took the longest to make was probably the visual EP for “Maria-Elena”. That whole project was a series of firsts for me, and I felt that I might as well commit to making the most of every creative opportunity along the way. Earlier in the year, I was an extra for one of their short films “Premonitions of Sleep” and had met that day through a mutual friend. After that, we followed each other and I remember in my mind wanting to keep in touch with them to work together on a future project. A couple of months later when I had actually put out the project, I hit them up to see if they would be down to work together. Thankfully, not only were they down to do a video for one song, they came up with the idea of doing a full short film to accompany the EP. After that, they sent me a whole document of shot ideas, color palette, story, the whole thing, which was so exciting.
The shoot itself was scheduled to happen around early May 2019, just before both of our semesters finished. Going into the shoot I was a little nervous because a big part of the video was dancing, which requires a lot of commitment to get right, but I felt that in order to get this video right, I had to have faith in the process. Anything I could do to execute the vision, I would do. We ended up shooting at three locations. One location was at the public gardens, one was in a diner close nearby, and the last location was at Carson Beach. Side note, I was nervous about the dancing, while I should’ve been nervous about the cold instead because during one of the scenes where I’m dancing on the beach the soles of one of my shoes broke, so cold water from the beach got into my shoes. I ended up getting a crazy fever during finals week and missed a couple exams. I’d still do it all again. All that was left to do after we shot everything was wait for the edit, and after a quick back and forth about minor details, we put it out. I am personally so proud of the project and think it’s really representative of where I was musically at the time.
TP: Your EP Maria-Elena…WOW…can you tell us a little about it?
That EP was a doozy. The first song I had written to be included in the project was “Coward”. That song came about pretty quickly since I was really infatuated with a girl at the time, and I had all this nervous energy that needed to be let out somewhere. There’s a lot of unease that comes from unrequited love, and this anxiety multiplies when that person happens to be the same gender as you. Deep down I knew that our relationship wouldn’t go anywhere due to my lack of courage, so I created this hypothetical situation where I would have the opportunity to tell her how I feel, but not follow through due to my own cowardice. After I finished this track I knew that this one was one of the better songs I had written, but I felt it was way too short to be put out as a single, so I put it on the backburner to possibly be included in future projects.
The next song that I made to be included on the EP was the song “Still”. Going into the creation process I remember this being one of those times where I needed to let a lot out. The driving emotion going into making this song was anger, and I think because I had suppressed this feeling so much, I did not go into the creation process expecting a masterpiece. This attitude gave me a lot more freedom since I ended up exploring different synths out of curiosity, with the sound coming together really quickly. The main source of inspiration was this ambient recording of non-descript chatter and small elements of noise that came with recording the area. For example, if you listen closely, there is this little drum loop that comes in from time to time. I quickly fell in love with that sample and from that point on my focus with the track was how could I melodically support this sample, and what emotions can I create out of it. The end result sounds like the way I feel during moments of transition throughout an ordinary day, like zoning out on public transport, walking to a class or a friend’s place, or waiting in a line during a mundane task. Those moments are very solitary and it allows me the space to passive reflect about how I’m feeling, what is the state of my environment, and observing the state of things around me. I was really happy with how it turned out and past this point, I made up my mind to make something.
“The night I was writing this I remembered conversations my mom would have with others where she would insist that they pronounce my name correctly because my parents did not name me “Maria”, they named me “Maria-Elena”.’
After “Still” I wrote the poem that would serve as the intro to the EP, “Maria-Elena”. I was trying to write a song and during this time I was having a lot of strange interactions with people’s treatment of my name. The song idea fell apart very quickly but it got me thinking about the history that can be found within a name. For example, during this time I remember introducing myself as “Just Maria”, a shortened version of my name because my full name “Maria-Elena” often elicits a showy reaction out of others. This includes people making a whole ordeal of pronouncing it, mispronouncing it, commenting on its length, saying it with an obnoxious Hispanic accent, asking questions rooted in ethnic stereotypes, etc. I found that by introducing myself as “Just Maria” I could avoid these awkward and emotionally taxing conversations due to Maria being a very universal name. The night I was writing this I remembered conversations my mom would have with others where she would insist that they pronounce my name correctly because my parents did not name me “Maria”, they named me “Maria-Elena”. My parents would often talk to me about the importance of my name and the choices they made throughout the process. Firstly, the doctors had misjudged my older brother’s sex at first, so my parents were under the impression that my mom was going to give birth to a girl. Because of that, they decided that the first part of my name would be “Maria” because it sounded like my grandmother’s name Mary. My mom is Venezuelan so they changed it to “Maria”, which is a very common latine name, and added “Elena” after it because technically my mom’s full name is “Fatimaelena”. At this point my name was stylized as “Mariaelena”, however, my grandma commented that it was hard to read, so they added a hyphen in the middle resulting in my name “Maria-Elena”. My name became a map of my family tree, and I found through introducing myself as “Maria” I was erasing my family history for the convenience of others, whitewashing myself in order to avoid others perceiving my actions and feelings through latine stereotypes. Ultimately, I wrote the poem as a reclamation of my identity through the story of my family tree and recalling uncomfortable past experiences as a result of plainly stating who I am. The relationship I have with my name is a little different now and I see it as something that should be protected and precious, so I still go by Maria in most casual environments.
The musical approach to the opener was very similar to “Still”, which was to provide ambiance to the poem that was consistently engaging while serving the narrative, while being sonically consistent with the rest of the EP. It is about which is me and my experiences during this time in my life and I wanted to keep this the focus. Looking back, I cringe a little when listening to it since it’s a spoken-word piece (spoken word pieces are very easy to make fun of) but I originally wanted to have the spoken part be text to speech, similar to “Fitter Happier” from OK computer. The problem was that I couldn’t figure it out, so I just said it myself. In the long run, I think it’s for the better since it would have been a little strange if it was a robot saying my life story. It probably would’ve also mispronounced my name lmao.
The last song on the EP was “The Girl that Love Forgot”. During the creation of it, I was still very lovesick and it very much builds on the emotions expressed in “Coward”. Melodically, I wanted something that was peaceful and sweet in a melancholy way. If you listen closely, it actually sounds a lot like the Christmas carol “Silent Night” which I realized after the fact, which was kind of funny, considering I definitely didn’t use it as a conscious reference, let alone think of it at all. One of my favorite moments on the EP was actually one of my friends Rowan Martin’s idea, which was this little harmonic modulation near the end when the synth changes into a piano. It’s such a small moment but I feel it adds so much to the arrangement. He also mixed and mastered the EP so big big thank you to him!
I decided to put it out because it felt like a really solid representation of where I was at the time, and honestly, I was (and still am) really proud with where I was on my musical journey. Now I use it as a frame of reference to see how much my musical style and taste has changed over the duration of my academic career. I don’t think I’ll ever quite shake the love I have for cinematic/ambient music anytime soon.
TP: What does it mean to you to be able to put forth music into the world?
To me, putting music out feels like putting myself out there. My thoughts, my beliefs, my art, and experiences are just out there on display, and if people can enjoy and relate to it in any way, that’s really sick.
TP: Do you find that attending school for music has changed the way you think about your practice?
Kind of? Music school has given me a lot of technical tools that I can use to better express my work. I was worried that going to school for music would ruin the mystery of music and reduce it down to a formula of chord changes and absolute truths of what production techniques sound the best, but I’ve found that the stuff that could ruin the fun of music hasn’t really stuck with me that much. It’s also made communicating with my friends about music much easier because now we have a shared experience that we can exchange knowledge through, which I think is the biggest way that music school has changed my thoughts about music. At the end of the day, my friends and the music I listen to are still the driving force of inspiration for my music, and as for a formal learning environment, I just want to take in as much knowledge and get to know as many people as I can.
TP: How has quarantine changed the way you put out and even create your music?
In the beginning of quarantine, I felt this pressure to work on music because of all this new free time that came with social distancing, especially because I was staying with just my brother at the time. Now, I had all this free time where I was alone and because I almost exclusively work on music when I’m by myself, it gave me a lot more time to experiment with sounds and try out new ideas now that I could afford to go beyond the creative safe zone I worked in before. For example, the shift in sound and tone that can be heard in “garden” and “lloron” happened because of this. I got really inspired while listening to Molchat Doma and other eastern European darkwave and something struck me that I could give this sound a shot. Another thing that’s changed for the better was my technical skill with producing, specifically, recording myself. Before covid, I would usually rely on others to record my vocals and live instrumentation as well as mixing and mastering. I thought that because they had better gear and had more experience recording, the end result would be better. This system actually worked while I was there and I think if it were not for covid I wouldn’t have been forced to apply what I had learned during these sessions and actually put them into practice. The coolest thing about it is that I couldn’t recreate it, but what I did do was get a clearer idea of what music sounds like when most of the process runs through me and now I can be mostly self-sufficient.
TP: Where would be your ideal place to stay in that would inspire you the most as a musician?
This one’s tough. The cool thing about locations is that they all have their own unique energies to them that are specific to that area. The unfortunate part is that because these cultures are so hyper-specific that no environment can replicate the feeling of being somewhere special. Right now I’m having a phase with music where I am drawn to heavier, grittier, and more experimental sounds, so anywhere that has a history with musical exploration found in the core of their creative ethos would be a good time. This is speaking purely in a musical sense, realistically, my ideal place to stay that would inspire me the most as a musician would be anywhere my friends are. My musical is primarily autobiographical, so in order to write I have to live, and I would like to live surrounded by my chosen and blood family. Above anything, anywhere where I could scream and not worry about a noise complaint from the neighbors is good enough for me.
TP: Can you break down your favorite lyrics from your latest single: ‘Garden’:
New things are definitely coming. I can’t say what it is or when it’s coming out, just know I’m always working on something. Can’t sit still for too long.
Thank you again for being a part of this! Your music really is magical.
Thank you for having me !! hope everyone has a good day and is kind to themselves + others (tell ur friends u love them!)