Briana Marela is explaining what she means by the concept of "sister songs." Talking about "Be in Love," the first song on her new record Call It Love, she says it "starts out ambient and turns into something a little bit more like a regular song." It was part of an effort she made with several of the songs that were structured as "two separate songs [that] got combined." Call It Love is an album of ambient-pop fusion in this vein, with its disparate elements overlapped to corroborate what the singer-songwriter sees as love's many truths.
Marela grew up in Seattle and moved to Olympia, Washington, for school, studying audio production at Evergreen State College. She took a shine to Olympia, known for its storied music scenes, and began playing shows there in 2008. I mention Carrie Brownstein's book Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, in which Brownstein wrote of moving to Olympia to attend Evergreen. Brownstein wrote that Olympia's music scene in the '90s "was Paris or Berlin in the '20s, it was the Bloomsbury group, it was the cradle of civilization." Marela is similarly effusive toward her adopted city: "It was everything. It shaped every aspect of who I am today."
By 2010, Marela had become a fixture of Olympia venues like the Finger Complex, and she started venturing down the coast to California to play the DIY circuit there. During this time, she wrote what became her 2012 album Speak From Your Heart. She continued to play shows around the Pacific Northwest, with her tour for 2015's All Around Us taking her all over the country and to Europe, sharing stages with Jenny Hval and Waxahatchee. We discussed how touring just keeps getting better and what to expect from Call It Love.
Video by Neon Saltwater, @neonsaltwater, neonsaltwater.com
Thora Siemsen: Your album is called Call It Love, and the word love is in three of the song titles. How do you approach writing about relationships usually?
Briana Marela: It was a trifecta, because I think about them as being all different stages of the same feeling: love for a person; the questioning; the losing yourself. I write differently about relationships every time I write. Usually it's something that I have a hard time speaking out loud, so it becomes something that I'm able to process, like personal therapy.
TS: You studied audio production and music technology at Evergreen State College in Olympia. How does the technical inform your songwriting?
BM: I think it's a really big aspect of the way that I write, just because before I knew how to record myself and how to arrange a song, my ideas were just all in my head. Once I could be [the] one person making complicated arrangements, it [became] so easy to be able to overdub myself and to add new elements in. I usually start with a melody, which can be kind of funny, especially if you're doing beat-driven stuff. I pick a tempo that I want to record to and will sing the main melody, and then build things around that.
TS: You recorded your previous album All Around Us in Reykjavik, Iceland. Call It Love was recorded last autumn in New York. What kind of impact does location have on the recording process for you?
BM: Location can be kind of intense. There [were] times with recording in Brooklyn where I would feel kind of swallowed up by the bigness of the city. Just taking the subway everywhere and having an hour commute from my friend's place, [where] I was staying, to the studio. Just that feeling of being isolated. I think I also felt that when I was in Reykjavik. I didn't really know that many people there and was on my own a lot. I think that's my favorite way to record, to have a lot of time to think and be introspective, and come to the songs and go away by myself.
TS: Are their particular studio comforts that help with that feeling of isolation?
BM: Not necessarily. I like being collaborative with people. As much as I can be solitary and a hermit, I just love bouncing ideas off someone else. I love having someone else there to turn to.
The song will take on new meaning and change once I play it. It becomes something outside of myself.
TS: Writing a song like "Last Time," on which you sing "Our feelings changed / I feel insane to still be looking back at you babe," sort of immortalizes that moment of trying to end a relationship. What is it like to perform a song so intimate?
BM: Sometimes it can be scary the first couple times playing it, more so if the person that I wrote it about was there [laughs]. I think it's just that the song will take on new meaning and change once I play it. It becomes something outside of myself and isn't as close to me. The weight of it is gone, because it's been released in this form. I can slowly have more distance from it. If you want to get deep into that feeling again, that can make for an even more intense performance of the song, because you'll revisit those feelings and that intensity. It comes out onstage, and sometimes I'm better at channeling that than others.
TS: How has your live show changed since you got started?
BM: It just gets more fun. I love touring. I'd like to do more DIY touring. I always want to be able to have a good balance of playing [bigger] venues and smaller spaces, because I don't want to ever lose that intimacy with people that are connecting to the music. I just imagine seeing big artists in a stadium, which I haven't done in years, but it feels like you're so far away from the artist. I've had friends who went and saw Beyoncé, for example, and she looked so tiny and far away. The bigger [the] stages, the more removed you are from the audience. I wonder if people ever want to have that more intimate connection again with their fans, or with people that want to see them play. Not that I'm anywhere near performing in places like that [laughs]. I feel like even a bar versus a house show, you have to have more of a presence to command an audience of people who are all drinking, and maybe some people are there to see you and some people aren't.
TS: Are you interested in producing for other artists?
BM: Yeah, I definitely would be. I would probably be most comfortable working one on one with someone rather than a full band. I've done a tiny bit of producing. [I'm] doing a fun project with my sister right now, helping produce a little album for her.
TS: You've talked about admiring Brian Eno for seeing "himself more as a producer than a musician." In what ways is that a belief you subscribe to?
BM: I think about it in the way that I don't feel that I'm very proficient at any one instrument. I don't think I'm an amazing keyboardist. I don't think I'm the best singer ever. I don't think I can play guitar. I see a vision of a song and the way it should be, and I'm doing everything I can to make that vision unfold.
Thora Siemsen is a New York–based writer and contributing editor. She has written for Lit Hub, Office Magazine, OUT, Rookie, and the Rumpus. Find more work here and follow her on Twitter @thorasiemsen.