Even if it’s in an indirect way, I want people to listen to my music and feel like it’s okay to be a little different...Alternative Melodies United States - Published: 22nd January 2019 - - Words & Questions: A Lonely Ghost Burning -
There is an unmistakable sadness underlying the dreamy vibes much favoured by Houston's Velveteen Echo. The difficult-to-categorise four-piece featured on the seventh volume in our Alternative Melodies series last November, the band's debut EP, Submarine, having offered listeners a record of calming reveries imbued with a distinctly sombre tone; a melancholy daydream hinting more at an escape from the present than an excited look ahead to any potential future. A Lonely Ghost Burning caught up with songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Lauren Massa to talk process, the pros and cons of defying genre boundaries, her fondness for writing enigmatically, and some of the reasons why her work is on the sadder side of the spectrum.
Lauren: I started writing music about ten to twelve years ago. What inspired me was: my friends in high school were in the high school talent show, and a couple of my good friends learned a song on guitar and performed together. I was so jealous. I was like, “They look so cool.” So, it was pure jealously that first inspired me to pick up the guitar [laughs].
After that, I decided that I was interested in learning how to play guitar and learning how to write songs, so I got one of those off-brand guitars you can pick up from your local music store. I got a book of tabs, and it just shows you where to put your fingers, basically. I looked up the chords for my favourite Green Day song at the time, which was Good Riddance because that was what I thought was cool, and it felt really, really natural. I didn’t have anyone showing me what to do or anything, I just kinda pieced it together. Once I realised I could play someone else’s songs, it made me want to insert my own meaning and my own words.
Lauren: Wow, it’s a lot different now. I started on acoustic, playing solo, and I always in the back of my head thought it would be really neat to maybe do a full band, but I didn’t really know how to get there. I didn’t know how people found bandmates, or how you even write music for a full band. It’s definitely not what I imagined, just what I’d hoped for.
Lauren: I think it’s a god mix of both, actually, in that every band member contributes, but it’s also definitely an outlet for my feelings and my words.
I guess the reason I think it’s more of a hybrid is that I do write the songs ninety-five-percent of the time, and then I’ll go to band practice and I’ll sing a song on guitar, but then as a band we’ll flesh out the rest together. As I’m playing, the guys will make up their parts, and I’ll be like, “No, I don’t like that”, or “Yeah, that’s cool — let’s keep that.” So, it is a little more collaborative than a solo artist with a band.
I think it’s unconventional in some ways because we like to introduce a lot of different instruments. For example, our new songs that we’re writing, we’re introducing sleigh bells, which I’m really excited about. We also have a synthesizer and an analog drum machine, so there are a lot of things that aren’t conventional about it in terms of the instruments. And I would also say genre-wise, we’re still exploring, and we’re not very stringent about what a song has to sound like. We’re very fluid genre-wise.
Lauren: No, I definitely think about it a lot: how it’s kinda trickier to market in a way, because there’s not a specific genre or a specific band we can point to and be like, “We sound exactly like them.” There’s a big pop influence in our music, so I like to think of it as just indie-pop and indie-rock mixed together.
But yeah, I think about that a lot. When we’re booking shows though, it actually works to our advantage, because we fit in really well with poppy, synth-driven acts, but we can also accommodate… For example, our last show we played was with this experimental band called Merel and Tony — they’re like, indie-experimental — and they do kinda jazzy, weird modulations, but it was such a fun fit. It totally worked.
Lauren: I tell people I’m kind of a lazy songwriter — it takes me a few months to think of anything. Well, not a lazy songwriter — I’m a slow songwriter. Basically, what happens is, if I get to a place emotionally where I feel like I’m welling up with feelings and I need some sort of outlet, I’ll finally, reluctantly go to my guitar and start noodling around. Usually after a couple of hours I’ll find something cool on the guitar that inspires me. Alternatively, I’ll be walking around my neighbourhood, just to be with nature and my feelings, and I’ll think of maybe a line that’ll inspire the rest of the lyrics, and the rest of the lyrics I’ll marry to some music.
Lauren: If the lyrics or the music are there, I try to get it all done in a month. I’ll take vocal notes on my phone, and I’ll keep revisiting it a little bit at a time. This is really bad, but my favourite time to do it is while I’m driving, while I’m stuck in traffic and there’s nothing else to do and I’m super bored. [laughs] This is Houston — you sit for thirty minutes to an hour every day. So, while I’m sitting at a stop light, I’ll be messing around with melodies. Usually by the end of a few weeks, I’ll have something that I can actually present.
Lauren: It’s been great; it’s been pretty instant. Just last week I presented a song idea, and actually on this one I did do a demo — I was able to do a really shoddy home recording that had the melody and the piano, so it kinda got everyone’s gears turning. But basically, I started playing the song in practice, and the guitarist just kinda noodled around — instantly he thinks of things that I really, really like. Our drummer’s like that too, and our bassist. They just pretty much immediately, within a few minutes, lock into something that we all really like.
Lauren: Yeah, when I’m so deep in existential dread — that’s when I write my best stuff. I guess, also, some of the songs are about a really strong romantic feeling, so I guess any strong feeling.
Lauren: Oh, that’s a good question. I feel comforted on some level. I feel the same way — if I feel really sad and I’m writing and expressing that, I’ll still feel sad but I’ll feel a little like: ‘Wow! I made this beautiful thing.’ So maybe it’s not to waste; maybe I’m not wasting this awful feeling. It’s kinda satisfying.
Lauren: I’m not classically trained on guitar at all, so that’s kinda hard. I utilise a capo to kinda add variety to the music, but my guitar parts are really simple, and I think that’s an obstacle: creating interest when I’m working with really simple parts.
Lauren: I’m really impressed with what I’ve been able to create with such little training and everything. I would like to buckle down and maybe learn some skills and challenge myself a little bit.
Lauren: Well, now that we have nine songs written, I think going forward, as I’m writing songs, I’m keeping in mind, “How will this fit into our set?” It’s okay if it extrapolates a little, but is it not gonna fit at all? I want it to have a similar dreamy vibe. Me and our guitarist, Jake, we tend to gravitate towards the same guitar tones, so that really helps add consistency. I guess the most important thing is having a dreamy tone. I really like songs with a melancholy undertone, because I think the reality is life can be hard and kinda sad, and I like exploring that theme in the music.
Lauren: I think what can be annoying is when people aren’t flexible, and they’re like, “Well, you’re either pop or you’re shoegaze. You can’t be both.” And we kinda are both. It’s nice when people have an open mind when listening to our music, for sure. Some of my favourite bands in Houston that I would be really excited to play with, they’re considered more hardcore, and so we don’t really get invited as often on those kinds of bills. I think it’d be fun, but in that way our genre, even being associated with pop, excludes us from those bills sometimes, unfortunately.
Lauren: I feel like I gain a sense of purpose, because I think there’s a lot more to life than just eating and sleeping and dying. In between being born and dying, there are all these really big questions we have to contemplate, like: What it means to be human; What it means to love someone; The problem of pain: Why do people suffer? I love exploring that. Sometimes I like exploring in an enigmatic way in my lyrics. It really gives me a sense of purpose: that I can talk about these big questions in a creative way and share it with people.
Lauren: I definitely think it used to be intentional. I was in a relationship; I wasn’t happy. I was writing songs about it but I had to do it in a secret way, because I wasn’t ready to rock the relationship yet. So, the songs might have been melancholy, but I don’t think it was clear what I was sad about. So that was purposeful. A lot of the songs I’ve written are enigmatic on purpose. Also, I think another reason I like writing that way is that sometimes I think being really specific is kinda cheesy and hard to relate to.
Lauren: Even if it’s in an indirect way, I want people to listen to my music and feel like it’s okay to be a little different; it’s okay to feel sad sometimes — it’s part of life. I want people to feel encouraged to create and to feel things.
Lauren: Oh, boy. [laughs] I don’t want how much I create to ever define me because how many songs I put out a year really fluctuates. So, I think that’s a really volatile way to define your value. In some ways, I don’t want it to define me at all — I think there’s a lot more to me than what I can make: there’s the moral choices I make; how I treat the underprivileged people in my community. I hope that answers the question! [laughs] In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no.Velveteen Echo featured onAlternative Melodies 7
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