Day by day, we sojourn through and interact with life’s ever-winding paths on a quest to some sort of fulfillment, be it individual or collective. Set to sail on its flux and forward motions, there are times when stopping and looking back seems desirable – even necessary. This includes reflecting upon something that we tend to take for granted: do we belong where we currently belong? If so, how do we know this to be certain? Whether it is a physical home, a blood or chosen kinship, a shared cause that transcends one’s very mortality, or even the solace we tend to find through art, truth is that this kind of deliberation is much more complex than we think. Boston four-piece Really From manage – and succeed – in addressing it by interweaving social consciousness and careful introspection through the act of boundless music, and Everything Is Noise is absolutely delighted to feature them on this edition of Weekly Featured Artist.
My first introduction to Really From – consisting of Chris Lee-Rodríguez (vocals and guitars), Michi Tassey (vocals and keyboard), Sander Bryce (drums), and Matt Hull (trumpet and flugelhorn) – took place a little less than a year ago on one of those days of deep Bandcamp scrolling sessions, eventually stumbling upon their third album Really From, which had just been released. Bandcamp, you son of a bitch, you did it again, I thought to myself as I listened to the opener “Apartment Song”, with Tassey’s breezy vocals gently carrying the instrumentals that felt as warm as gazing at the sunrise through freshly open windows, flowing freely in a deliberate manner yet uniform enough for your body to follow through.
Come to think of it, this feeling of warmth pervades throughout the record, albeit not always in a cozy fashion. No, the warmth primordially stems from the sheer honesty and confidence each member brings to the table, be it through their intelligent blending of math rock, indie, and improvisational jazz, or the subject matters touching upon the intricacies surrounding identity and the effects of intergenerational trauma.
Founded on Berklee principles, the self-anointed indie jazz band finds imperative to not position themselves within a strict set of musical parameters, with this general disdain towards boundaries being further explored on their lyrics and on their interpersonal endeavors. At the same time, however, they have a goal of also utilizing their music as a vessel for establishing connection and instilling a sense of belonging to those who cross paths with them for the first time.
Chris Lee-Rodríguez: ‘Belonging is definitely one of the themes we like to explore, both lyrically and musically. Belonging both in the sense of culture, identity, and place, but also belonging in terms of genre. We don’t set out to fit into a specific paradigm of genre, nor do we really consider ourselves as the labels that people prescribe to us. What we want to convey is that when people see our record, read our name, or hear our music, they are experiencing the truest sense of who we are as artists, individuals and all that comes with that.’
This collective dedication to not box themselves up into a neat category can be traced back even to their inception, back when they were (aptly) named People Like You. Formed by Lee-Rodríguez and Bryce, and risen from the ashes of their previous project I Kill Giants, People Like You sought to refine their sound by bringing their jazz background at the forefront, resulting in the band’s eclectic first full-length This is what you learned, released in 2014.
C: ‘For that first record, I wanted to really explore new sounds that were more mature and cleaner than I Kill Giants… I was going through a lot at that time in my early twenties and wanted to understand the type of adult and person I wanted to be, which is what many of those lyrics focused on.’
The familiarity in that statement is too hard to ignore, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve surely all been in that situation at some point in our lives, like closing the windows and blinds after a nice moment of sungazing for a minute, sitting down with paper and pen in hand, and really figuring shit out. It can be nerve-wracking when one starts digging deep enough, but there is freedom in this act of self-exploration, and that is how This is what you learned precisely feels like. Coupled with colorful emo-tinged math rock passages, from-the-heart vocal performance, and reflective trumpet passages, the album excels in mapping out this exact thought process; be it through the anxieties stemming from the fragility and perceived limitation of time on songs like “Everything Matters!” and “The Act of Falling”, to the hesitant yet celebratory declarations of self-realization on “Your Third Act” and “A song about white supremacy”.
C: ‘I wish I named this tune “A song about colorism”, because that would’ve been more appropriate. I wanted to explore colorism in my family and how the certain privileges I may or may not have compared to my lighter skinned family members. The lyrics stemmed from an old poem I wrote, but this song needed a lot more edits than we gave it, in hindsight. It means a lot that people still mention this song as one of their favorites, even if it’s not mine.’
Although a title like “A song about white supremacy” might raise some eyebrows, it is personally one of the standouts off This is what you learned. The way colorism is told through the contrasting of staying inside and being exposed to the sun – while treading by the feeling of being conflicted by how others, family or otherwise, perceive your skin color – is beautifully expressed. The bright guitar leads and urgent but driving rhythm masterfully accomplished by the drums and bass further augments this vivid, even triumphant piece of self-affirmation.
Band members Tassey and Hull were features on this debut before becoming full-time members after its release and by their very first tour. Honestly, after songs like the aforementioned “Everything Matters!” and the stirring “The Upstairs and Downstairs Don’t Exist Anymore”, integrating both members seemed like an obvious choice. Adding bassist Sai Boddupalli (who left the band in 2018 and is now a frequent collaborator and served as a producer for the self-titled) to the equation, the chemistry was palpable and their inclusion provided a more mellow but equally powerful and encompassing edge to their already raw and unapologetic sound. These additions would soon result into People Like You‘s second full-length Verse, released in 2017 and which saw them foray into and cementing the indie jazz blend they currently excel at.
C: ‘It was much more organic than intentional. We all studied jazz music and theory in college, so that background ultimately informs our songwriting and compositions. To be honest, we chose the indie/jazz label when we signed with Topshelf Records and they asked what genre we should be for streaming purposes. That particular combination felt truest to us, so we kind of just stuck with it.’
Matt Hull: ‘With Verse and the S/T (in comparison to our first album), our writing process changed and we started writing more as a group. The music started to shift from being ‘song-based‘ (with instrumental transitional tracks), to featuring more prominently, the other instrumental voices in the band that you wouldn’t normally hear on the frontlines in indie music. You now hear the trumpet/flugelhorn, drums or bass taking on the lead voice just as often as the vocals do… In a lot of ways it was intentional to let every voice in the band take the lead, but it is also the kind of thing that happened organically over time.’
You know you’re in the presence of a musical powerhouse in the making just by the opening track “You Need a Visa”. Verse is an absolute joy to listen to, with each song having a distinct personality and engaging story while having the ability to flow seamlessly between each other. This cohesion is largely due to, as Hull mentioned, letting every member have their spotlight, making for a collection of songs that feel expansive, rich, and with a depth that is nothing short of engrossing, without ever losing the hooks commonly found within the realms of indie and indie pop.
In addition to the lyrical sincerity laid throughout – portraying the ebbs and flows of passing through emotional whirlwinds while holding onto a sense of resiliency and cautious acceptance – this album also sees the band further exploring socially-conscious topics that would later become protagonistic on the self-titled, mainly on songs like” Variations on an Aria”, where the band tackles the feelings of displacement and longing towards a native country some of the members never had the opportunity to learn from and connect.
Really From would be released in March of last year, four years after the release of Verse – with new jobs, a band name change, the pandemic, and the process of coping from it having taken place within them. With changes of this magnitude happening on a relatively short time span, Really From set out to go big on this comeback. A new beginning, if you will.
The sheer focus and commitment on this album and on each individual track is not only an impressive feat, but also showcases the measures the band take to truly own their indie jazz sound. The self-titled feels even more layered than Verse, multifaceted in its approach but keeping a coherence that could easily compete with other indie records, and even beyond. I think that said coherence partly comes from the back-and-forth between both vocalists Lee-Rodríguez and Tassey, making the record a listening experience that is charmingly conversational.
C: ‘…A lot of the lyric writing process consisted of Michi and I meeting up and discussing ideas for lyrics or vocal melodies. Each song has its own story, but for a song like “Try Lingual” for example, I brought this stanza of lyrics to Michi and used a vocal melody she came up with during a writing session. We then talked about our experiences with the subject matter of language and she started writing some lyrics of her own as well. I will say what remained consistent was the collaboration and discussion about what we were writing about.’
“Try Lingual” is the lead single off Really From and a perfect introduction to their revamped sonic brand. Starting with a gentle swaying from the flugelhorn and acoustic guitar leads segueing into an orchestral punch brimming with both grit and grace, it tells the struggle of identifying with your parent’s native language from having been raised in an English-speaking household and its impact on engaging in communication. Already evident with this song, culture and identity would not only become central pieces on this album, but also become an opportunity to reflect upon these topics for the band and band members themselves.
That is why they have chosen the name Really From for their name and album title for this new cycle – it stems from experience. The self-titled deconstructs what the band name truly means and how it attributes to their daily lives; from the impact of being constantly questioned about where you come from (“I’m From Here”) and the racism that arise out of it, including fetishization (“Yellow Fever”), to the effects of assimilating to American culture as an immigrant (“In the Spaces”) and exploring, learning, claiming, and re-claiming a space as yours (“Apartment Song” and “I Live Here Now”). It is an active inner dialogue between feeling othered and building a sense of belonging as a result. Simply put, Really From an active exercise of learning and re-learning.
Of course, much of these social conundrums do not happen on a whim. There are too many theories, school of thoughts, and modes of discourse that try to pinpoint a source to the way identity develop over time, but Lee-Rodríguez proposes a variable that literally hits close to home, and that is the influence that family has on culture.
C: ‘If culture is a series of practices and traditions between people, then the first people with whom we interact are our families. While not true for everyone, our families are there during our first experiences of communication, socialization, and interaction. From moments of communion at dinner to holidays and everyday life, how we experience the world in the first years of our lives is through family. Because every family is different and every experience is different, there is no monolithic experience for an entire culture… My understanding of my own multiculturalism is through the experiences I’ve had with my own family.‘
There’s no doubt that our interactions with our family is intrinsic to our personal growth and our perception towards the world, be it positive or negative. This is wonderfully captured on a song like “Quirk” and the lines ‘not all that I keep/will work out for me/as you sow your seed/I’ll reap from everything that stays’. The soaring track is equally insistent and meditative, concluding with a touching second-half that comes to terms with the quirks we end up inheriting from our family.
It’s funny, while I was re-reading the lyrics and thinking about this particular subject of family, I realized that their first album cover depicted a photograph of a family, and then further realized that all the albums integrate some sort of photograph or portrait as album covers, so curiosity got the best of me and asked the band about it.
C: ‘The concept of photography for our album covers wasn’t intentional at first. For the first record, I had this picture of my grandparents, mom, and tío (uncle) as babies that I wanted to use. Then, when we were finishing up the second record, there was a picture Michi took of Matt that I really liked, and we all collaborated to come up with its concept. For the most recent record, my only contribution was that I wanted it to be a photograph as a way to complete the trilogy of these records. However, I attribute the whole concept to Michi, who conceived the composition of the photograph.’
M: ‘I guess the bigger question is, who will be on the cover of the next record? Will it be Sander or will it be Sai… or a composite of them both?’
Suffice to say, Really From formed part of my 2021 highlights, and I am not alone in this – sites like Pitchfork and BrooklynVegan have given their share of praises, and the record even landed on the #33 spot off our Top 70 albums of that year!
C: ‘It’s been pretty positive for the most part, I think! It’s very difficult to quantify the reception through the internet, as we couldn’t really tour on the record and only played a handful of shows. Personally, it’s hard for me to remember that people like us (no pun intended). I’m a teacher, and most of the time, I’m dealing with kids who either have no idea about our band or think I’m some washed old dude who only exists in school. I will shout out the GOAT and homie Jer Hunter of Skatune Network, who shouted us out on Tiktok and essentially created a moment of virality for us in the beginning of 2021. I still don’t understand how algorithms on social media work, but I will credit them for multiplying our monthly listeners on Spotify by tenfold.’
M: ‘I think from this particular album cycle and the experience of finishing and putting out an album during a global pandemic, we learned that we can work together under more logistically-challenging circumstances. A lot of the overdubs and post-production process were done remotely and we saw a lot of growth from that. It’s been different in how we’ve seen our music received in the past but overwhelmingly positive, and the few live shows that we played last year were all amazing. People have needed music more than ever these past few years.’
Really From is truly special. It’s quite hard to stumble upon a band, let alone an art project, that incorporates both challenging music and challenging conversations and making them enjoyably accessible – that’s how you know that the passion and conviction is real. In some way, that alone proves that these folks have begun achieving their goal of connecting and giving first-time listeners a sense of belonging through their music. It certainly did that to me, and I genuinely hope that those of you who are interested in delving into any of their records are able to find in them some sort of space (be it tangible or intangible) that you can call home.
Things are looking pretty good for Really From this year, so make sure to follow their socials located at the end of this article! Now, a few last words from our guests:
Shout out to the whole team at Topshelf Records!
Be kind and good to each other.
Much love to all the bands in our community, including JER, Lady Pills, Woolbright, BabyFang, Cowboy Boy, Insignificant Other, Kind Being.
Check out our other projects, including H A U N T E R, Mercet, Matt Hull (solo project), Nature Shots, Chris Lee-Rodriguez (solo project).