Discovery: Briana Marela

Published August 21, 2015

ABOVE: BRIANA MARELA. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIET OBRACH.

With cinematic soundscapes ranging from piano-based ballads to synth-based glassy pop, Briana Marela experiments with technology to see just how far she can push sonic limits.  The Seattle native worked with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers to develop her latest album All Around Us, which marks her debut with the label Jagjaguwar, and although the title is taken from a children’s book, Marela explores emotional depths of adulthood through confident and straightforward lyricism.

On a song like “Dani,” the musician, producer, and vocalist simply and angelically sings “She lost herself / Dani / You’re not the only one lonely / Tonight,” over expansive piano notes. The following track, “Surrender,” however, changes pace as her voice assumes multiple roles through loops and processing, falling directly in line with deep drums, a dual bassline, strings, and more.

While she recorded the album in Reykjavík with Somers—also bringing on Amiina on strings and Samuli Kosminen (of múm) on percussion—Marela is a born, bred, and proud Pacific Northwestern multi-instrumentalist. She has spent most of her life in Seattle, leaving only for her time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she studied audio production and music technology. Her dedication to exploring sounds is manifested in former self-releases as well as All Around Us. Prior to this album’s release, we spoke with Marela over the phone.

NAME: Briana Marela

BORN, RAISED, AND BASED: I grew up in North Seattle and lived here basically my whole life, except for college. My brother lives in Seattle and my sister lives in Olympia. It feels good to be close to them. A lot of my friends live here, and I also just love the Northwest–I think it’s really beautiful here.

MEETING ALEX SOMERS: My sister and I were on tour in 2012 and happened to play a show at a small gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. This artist, Scott Alario, had his photographs up on the wall. They were really beautiful and of his daughter, and they were really meaningful, they really spoke to me. He happened to be at the show that I played because friends of his were playing as well. I remember talking to him after the show about his photos, and he talked to me about my music, and then we kind of just parted ways. He added me on Facebook later, and then months later, I got an email from Alex saying something like, “My friend showed me your music, I really like it and think it’s really special and would love to try and help you figure out a vision for your next album.”

Part of me was like, “This is never going to happen, but it’s a nice idea. It’s a nice dream.” I didn’t think it could be possible, just figuring out the logistics and stuff can be so complicated. But me and Alex talked for a couple months, just emailing back and forth, figuring out a good time. I sent him demos of the songs I wanted to record and he was into it. So I made a Kickstarter to help fund some of the money, and then for the rest of the money I took out a loan. A lot of friends were going to grad school around that time and it was sort of like, “Well, I can spend my money going to grad school, or I can spend it taking out a loan to live a different kind of dream.”

HIGH SCHOOL BEGINNING: I was in high school, kind of just playing music, like singing with guitar, and didn’t really know much about how bands sounded the way they did on recordings; I just imagined that’s how they always sounded. I didn’t understand the concept of people doing lots of overdubs, or producing and what that meant in terms of shaping a song on a recording. For my senior project, I recorded an EP with a friend of my voice teacher. All of a sudden I understood how people got songs to sound a certain way—doing double tracking of vocals, adding octave vocals, or adding multiple guitars. Like, “Oh wow, it’s not just one guitar on the recording—it’s often two or three, even if it’s a solo musician.” I think that blew my mind at the time: that you could make something so much more than yourself, even if it’s you playing all the parts, or you and one other person. All Around Us is like that, because most of the instruments are either played by me or Alex, and there’s a lot of instruments on it. I did so many overdubs; it’s very much an album of fun overdubs. [laughs]

A WORLD OF DABBLING: I’m definitely first and foremost a vocalist. I’m pretty proficient at keys; I can play guitar and other sort of like piano-y string/bass instruments. I played violin in high school, so I have a really good sense of it. But I wouldn’t play a solo recital with any one of those instruments. [laughs]

I feel like Alex and I really bonded over the fact that we don’t consider ourselves to be super prolific at any one instrument; we can noodle around on different ones, and come up with a part that we like, and record it. That’s something Brian Eno has talked about that I’ve always really admired: he always viewed himself more as a producer than a musician because he’s arranging sounds more than being really proficient at playing an instrument.

ICELANDIC BIRTHDAY MAGIC: We were supposed to record on my birthday, a Friday. I didn’t really know anyone in Iceland, my closest friend there became Alex, and I woke up in the morning and he surprised me with a birthday cake, which was…really surprising! [laughs] I was ready to record, like, “Okay, we’re going to start recording,” and he was like, “Wait, we’re not recording on your birthday!” He had planned a little picnic and we went out into nature to this small hot springs. It was really magical to just be like, “Wow, an escape from recording for the day.” We made up the time, but I hadn’t had a birthday surprise in a long time, and it’s fun to be surprised.

PERUVIAN ROOTS: When I was really young, in my singing group we sang all kinds of songs kind of catered to kids, but also could be fun for kids to sing. I remember singing Beach Boys songs, Beatles songs, songs from musicals… From there, my dad would listen to a lot of Spanish music, because he’s Peruvian. I remember, growing up, listening to especially this one singer named Raphael. He’s this really amazing singer and his songs are all these emotional ballads that I think I’ve always kind of responded to.

THE ART OF AESTHETICS: A big part of the visual element, I would say, is that I really love it being tied to my friends. I love working with my friends, or people who will be friends, to work on the visuals. One of my best friends, Dani, did all the album artwork, and another friend of mine, Lucinda, did my press photos. I just see myself so much as a musician that I have a sense of what I like visually, but then these close friends are able to understand where I’m coming from and they always make something where I’m like, “That’s it! That’s exactly what I was seeing!” But they can do it and I can’t because I’m not as much of a visual artist.

TITULAR TRACK: In my past few small albums that I’ve released, even though this is like a debut, I always named the album after the song that I feel really encompasses how I feel about the album as a whole. I really do think the title track, “All Around Us,” is a representation of how I feel about the music as a whole, even though it’s a little bit slower, and at times darker than some of the more light moments in the album. It is where my headspace was at when the album was written.

ON DEATH AND DYING: I’ve always had a fear of dying. The person who I’d be singing “All Around Us” to is my ex-boyfriend, who is also really scared of dying. When he’d get really dark about things, he would be like, “What’s the purpose of living, if we’re all going to die?” In the song, it’s kind of like I was trying to say that there’s meaning in everything we do, and one of the most important things we can do is love each other and tell each other that we love each other, and try and not be afraid of dying–even though I have a fear of it myself. If we are able to show that we love each other and keep moving forward in our lives, I think that’s the best reason to keep living.

BEING OUTSIDE: The biggest part of nature that feels meditative to me is going and sitting by water. I often do that alone, just to think about things: I’ll go find somewhere beautiful to sit, where I can just watch water reflections. I also did that in Iceland a lot; I would walk through the town, by myself, to the edge where the water was, and sit on the rocks and just write and look out at the water and the mountains. I did some really good writing while I was there. Hopefully some of that will go on my next album.

ALL AROUND US IS OUT TODAY, AUGUST 21, VIA JAGJAGUWAR. FOR MORE ON BRIANA MARELA, VISIT HER WEBSITE.