The Catalyst

Mura Masa

Mura Masa

Empress Of

Wed, August 29, 2018

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

The Catalyst

Santa Cruz, CA

$23 in advance / $25 at the door

This event is 16 and over

This show is sold out, but you can sign up for the waitlist here.

Mura Masa
Mura Masa
The story of Mura Masa is one to remind people that there's still room for optimism about the "internet generation." At just 19, Alex Crossan has shown how someone with an appetite for knowledge, even if their upbringing has been isolated, can make full use of having the world at their fingertips without getting overwhelmed by "too much information." Not only that, but again and again he's proving that it's possible parlay the myriad of potential influences that are available to anyone with a broadband connection into something unique, coherent, future-facing and very, very popular. Like, Diplo and Skrillex co-signed popular. 30-million-plays on SoundCloud popular.

Alex grew up on the island of Guernsey where "everybody knows each other" but the opportunities for young people, as he laconically puts it, "are basically: hang around beaches and drink." Most people who've grown up in small-town or rural environments can probably relate to the outdoor... socialising -- but this was an extreme case. It's not like you could even get a bus to the nearest big city if you wanted to go to a gig: the equivalent would be a five-hour ferry trip to Southampton. So culture tended to be a DIY affair out of necessity: Alex surfed (not to "be a surfer," but just because literally everyone surfs there), and played in a variety of indie bands with his friends.

"I think I was very disconnected from British music," he says. "My mum is American and I was exposed to a lot of her records at first -- Joni Mitchell and stuff -- and from there I think I assumed pop culture was American. I certainly didn't know anything about dubstep or grime, or club music -- I guess if I thought about that stuff it seemed pretty far away from what I knew. I'd never been to London!" He wasn't exactly conservative in his tastes, but felt no need to investigate anything far removed from a standard diet of indie and rock, seasoned with a little radio pop.

Then two things happened: firstly, around the time he turned 15, Alex "heard Hudson Mohawke's 'Thunder Bay' and discovered that electronic music was a thing," and then he stumbled on James Blake "and realised how far you can go with it!" And that's where the internet-digging began. "I like to do my homework," he deadpans, before explaining how via YouTube and streaming he steadily inhaled first the entire discographies of these artists, then of musicians in their circles -- SBTRKT and Cashmere Cat were early favourites -- then of the sounds that influenced all of these. Flying Lotus style psychedelic beats, grime, WARP style electronica -- but also bands like The Smiths: it was all grist for the mill as he furiously processed beatmaking and songwriting.

And as he absorbed the music, spotting connections, influences and echoes through the beats and riffs, something else was happening which was crucial to how his own music would explode into the world. Because he was taking in information about the music and its subcultures so quickly, and because there's a keen analytical mind lurking behind the laid-back exterior, he became very aware of a bigger picture, of how bedroom producers could shake the world. "James Blake is so important as an act," he says. "Not just because the music's great and I love listening to it, which I do, but in terms of the way music's going: the fact that an act like that can be recognised in the way he is really opened my eyes a bit."

So maybe it shouldn't be that much of a surprise that Alex's very early beat experiments started setting Soundcloud alight very quickly. It's not that he exactly set out with a world domination plan, but armed with this big-picture knowledge, he was making his music with full understanding of how far it can reach, and how quickly. As he worked on coalescing his own individual sound from the vast array of influences he was amassing, he watched his electronic music heroes crashing the mainstream without compromising their musical vision, and he learned about how bands like The Smiths took their very particular vision into the charts. Everything he learned increased the understanding that it wasn't an either/or thing: you can make cool, exploratory beats and songs and reach out to a mass audience and echo through the wider culture.

Mura Musa ("the name just came from a track name on a metal album, and it comes from an old Japanese myth about a swordsmith, but really I just thought it sounded cool" laughs Alex) was already starting to become quite significant thanks to this Soundcloud snowballing by the time he left Guernsey for university in Brighton. Indeed he already had label attention and representation: his soon-to-be manager Sam spotted him on SoundCloud, got in touch, and immediately proved his commitment by making the trip out to Guernsey to meet Alex on spec. Alex may have "really, really felt like a small fish in a big pond" having left the tight-knit community of the island, but he was ready to crack on.

He made it through a year of an English Literature and Philosophy degree before "music took over: not in a malicious way, but just because I literally didn't have time to do both." His focus was total on "having an ethos and an attitude of writing music that's very culturally relevant, that lasts, that's important lyrically and sonically as well." Musical collaborations were sparked online -- "I'd find myself contacting someone via SoundCloud or whatever, saying 'I'm a fan of you' and they'd go 'oh that's nice, I'm a fan of you too!' which is a pretty good sign that you might be able to work together," he muses.

The fact that collaborations, on the whole, came naturally was very important to Alex, and chimed with everything he'd learned from his self-driven musical education about how the best artists preserve their individuality. "There've been a few suggestions about working with this or that big name singer," he laughs, "but I really have to think about what that says about the music and whether it'll overshadow it." Before very long at all, he was weighing up deals, but eventually went with the major label that would not only give him creative freedom but set him up with his own imprint. His debut album is well underway, and he's determined to keep that freedom and -- like his early inspiration James Blake -- deliver a debut that is a complete creative statement, not designed by committee.

Where he'll go from here is a mind-boggling thing to consider, but calm as ever, Alex seems ready for whatever comes next. For now he's taking in his stride the growth of a young and excitable following who turn up for his shows and are even starting to sing along to some of the tracks. He never writes or structures songs with the live stage in mind, but he is beginning to turn over thoughts about pulling together a proper band to perform them, "because if you're going to do Glastonbury or whatever you don't want to just be standing up there hitting a drum pad." He may have considered himself culturally isolated on his island home, but this child of the internet generation is now ready to make a serious mark on the big, wide, real world.
Empress Of
Empress Of
"Can I make it clear?" Lorely Rodriguez asks within the opening moments of her debut album, Me. If clarity is what she seeks, Lorely has found it: her voice upfront, every word audible and strong. Her singular voice is the centerpiece of Me, her first full-formed vision of an album, following her previously shorter and more abstract releases as Empress Of. "Don't tell me who I am," she sings seconds later.

On a cold January morning, Lorely sits at the kitchen table at her current sublet apartment, sifting through a composition book, pages of lyrics stained by coffee and cognac, shuffling through photo prints from the trip to Mexico where she wrote the initial sketches of the record. The album is filtered through imagery from this 5-week retreat, a lens through which Lorely looks both inward and outward, reflects and looks forward, finds strength and vulnerability.

Where her previous recordings worked in moody abstractions, layered soundscapes hinting at a voice deep under the surface, Me plays out like diary entries from one female voice musing on the personal, the political, and all the middle ground between. "I've been living below the standard with a hunger that feeds the fire / I've been eyeing your plate of diamonds," sings Lorely on "Standard," a reflection on privilege and entitlement.

Before and after, she sings candidly on street harassment and water scarcity, but mostly Lorely's lyrics are more introspective; songs of broken relationships, new ones starting, and ultimately, self-reliance. "I just need myself, need myself, to love myself, to love myself," she sings on "Need Myself."

In 2015, at age 25, Lorely has found herself traveled a long ways from her childhood. Born in L.A. into a family of immigrants from Honduras, she grew up on the music of Latin America, Mexico, El Salvador, and her family's country; music driven by rhythm, music to dance to, drums and bass. "I started singing when I was 11, and was super into jazz," she says, recalling how as kid she would spend days searching the Internet for rare jazz recordings.

Obsessed with music, Lorely spent her childhood living between Pasadena and San Fernando Valley, attending a 10,000 person high school and multiple others before eventually being admitted to LACHSA, the LA county arts high school. She says it "saved her." She became a competitive jazz singer, and after high school received a full-ride scholarship to an East Coast music school, but quickly rejected the formality of it all. "My first semester of college, I got a laptop and was like, these jazz classes are such bullshit," Lorely says. "I started making beats in Reason and just wanted to make electronic music and write songs."

Over the summer of 2013, Lorely finally channeled those impulses into a song-a-day project while living in Boston. Every day, she'd sketch out a new song idea, make a scrappy home-recording, and post 1-minute YouTube videos she called "colorminutes" -- little snippets of her gorgeous, ethereal pop songs set to different color screens. The mysteriousness intrigued certain corners of the underground music world and on blogs. "I feel like artists today feel so determined to present a polished product and I just wanted to let people in to my personal process as a creator," she said an interview with the Boston Phoenix at the time.

A 7-inch would soon be released for her first proper 3-minute Empress Of Single, "Don't Tell Me," which was adapted from one of the colorminutes. Soon after her first EP was released by Terrible Records who will also release Me. The industry immediately wanted to team her up with a producer, but Lorely felt like the whole process was drowning her voice out: "It just ended up sounding like that person's music. I thought, 'this is my first record, I need it to sound like it's coming from me.' At that point I decided, I'm doing this myself."

The roots of Me start in an empty practice space in Brooklyn in the fall of 2013, where Lorely is dancing alone next to a little spinning silver disco ball. "After touring the EP, I realized I wanted to make music that was fun to perform live," she says. "So as I was writing, I would make a beat and pretend I was performing." But ultimately the city put her in a less-than-inspired headspace: "When I started writing it, a lot of the songs were about how much I hated living in New York, how much I hate capitalism, and Starbucks, and condos. And how every apartment has rats. I thought, 'I can't tour a record for two years that's about hating New York.'"

Her intuitive search for a more introspective and isolated writing experience led her to unexpectedly life-changing and mind-bending solo trip to Mexico, where she holed up at a friends' family's empty lake house near Valle de Bravo -- that means "Valley of the Brave" in Spanish. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me as an artist, as a human," she says. "I spent so much time writing. I had no internet, I barely had a phone. It was like being on a silent retreat.. It's in the middle of nowhere, an hour away from Mexico City. There are people there, people have vacation homes there, but it was during a season when nobody's there."

The isolation sent her deep inside her head, to pull out everything she wanted to pour into Me. "Every lyric on the record, I could tell you exactly what I was doing when I wrote it," she says, flipping through an envelope of photos from the trip, which look more like postcards -- a huge lake, big windows, a Monarch butterfly reserve in the backyard.

It's New Years Eve and Lorely is by herself in Mexico, alone on the lake with a pile of fireworks and thinking about water -- the water around her, the water she can drink and can't drink, and "Water Water," the song she was working on. "I went into the village and bought tons of illegal fireworks and blew them off in the dark off a bridge by myself ... I brought in 2014 making music, working on that track, and then I just made music the rest of the year."

"Water water is a privilege, just like kids who go to college," she sings on the track. "Water is this thing that's taken for granted, she says. "You don't realize how badly you need it until there's no clean water coming from the faucet."

During the writing process of Me, the power in the village of Valle de Bravo would go out a lot, and she quickly had to teach herself how to make fires. "The first night I was there the power in the village went out. I had to make a fire, but I didn't know how, so I threw a bunch of cognac onto wood and threw a match at it." And that was just one of the obstacles to overcome during a trip that was ultimately an enormous learning experience.

"Kitty Kat" was inspired by her experiences walking around Valle de Bravo and being cat called constantly -- just like in New York. It's an aggressive track with huge drums taking down the seemingly inescapable social norm. "I close the set with that song and I just scream," she says. "It's my empowering moment live. I hope a lot of women feel empowered by it." And "Threat" was born out of a different type of fear. "I'd been by myself for two weeks," she says of her trip to Valle de Bravo. "And had this really scary conversation with the cleaning lady one day. She seemed worried knowing I was there alone. I started sleeping with a machete I found in the laundry room under my bed."

"Need Myself" picks apart an old toxic relationship with an unresponsive partner, while "Everything Is You" details the beginning of a new one. "How Do You Do it" is a sex-positive, dance song about positive relationships, while "Standard" is a reflection on living in New York. The album's final track, "Icon," is a metacommentary on the solitary process of writing a record: "It's lonely, but I like having control of all my creative thoughts," she says.

"I wanted to write songs that gave me this feeling of reliving moments, of looking at photos," says Lorely. "As a musician I started out by hiding behind a bunch of reverb, layering my vocals because I was not a confident singer. I think that comes with being young and not being vulnerable. ... There is a bunch of doubt that comes with putting yourself out there. Overcoming the doubt is a lot of what came out of writing these songs, writing these melodies and producing it myself."

"This record is not about Mexico .. it's about me," she adds. "It's very much about my experiences. I learned how to let my voice out through this record. I learned how to record, how to produce. I learned how to write way better songs. I didn't realize this until i was almost done with it, but it was all about growth, and all about kind of being selfish and taking time for myself to really understand what events in my life have shaped me as a person."
Venue Information:
The Catalyst
1011 Pacific Avenue
Santa Cruz, CA, 95060