"What if I was just experimenting and feeling and making things?" Interview with Briana Marela
The Oakland sound artist stopped by Lower Grand Radio to perform and chat about her new album, her experience at Mills College, and her favorite new music
A Peruvian-American, mixed race sound artist and Mills alum based in Oakland, Briana Marela crafts a kaleidoscopic world through synthesizer, contact mic play, physical movement, and—most of all—her voice. To hear her sing and to see her perform is a tender, heart-expanding experience. Following the release of her new album You Are a Wave—and just before her birthday—Marela joined us at Lower Grand Radio for an interview and live performance.
Listen to the full show here. Interview—edited for length and clarity—below.
As far back as you’d like to go: Where did your musical journey begin?
It’s embarrassing, but also very cute. My mom said I was just so struck by different kinds of music. Anytime we would go out places, if I heard something that I liked, I would just start dancing—as a three year old. Dancing in a really strange way. Just feeling the music, getting so into it. At home, my dad would play a lot of Andean music. I’m half Peruvian and so I grew up listening to a lot of Andean Peruvian folk music and would always, as a really small child, freak out to it and love all the music that my parents would put on. They realized when I was little—I realized too—just how important music was to me. I started as an appreciator, but then felt drawn to make sounds, as well.
When did you start experimenting with sounds?
In middle school, I was writing pop punk songs because that felt like the thing to do. And I had some really funny songs. Actually, my very first song ever, I recorded for my mom because I had never recorded it. And it's a silly pop punk sounding song called “I’ll Do It Tomorrow.” The first lyrics are, “If only everything could go my way, I’d never have a reason to try.” It’s very middle school. I started just writing these songs acapella. I didn’t know how to play any instruments. My voice has always been my first instrument and the instrument I know best. And that’s stayed into my practice this whole time.
What role does your voice play in your music?
My voice is my access point for communication—and communicating really difficult things, too. Through music, through singing, I feel like I’m able to communicate things that I couldn’t speak words about. My voice has been really important to me to use in exploring and making music because of that emotional connection. I think it’s cool that some people end up finding that with different instruments that they play. A part of their soul is in that instrument and they communicate through that. But for me, I don’t know if I ever found that. My voice has just been that thing.
I know it must be hard for you—because it’s inspired by the passing of your father—but can you tell us about what went into your newest album You Are a Wave?
Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because with COVID and the lockdowns, my school went online for the last couple months of school that I had. March to May 2020. A lot of the recordings on this album were things I had almost finished, I thought. These fixed media pieces. Then my dad passed away really suddenly. I was in a deep state of grief and heartbreak and I was doing some writing, but also, at the same time, set all music aside. I just did not work on music for a year, at least, after his passing. It was really difficult to care about things. When you experience deep loss and grief, it's hard to care about the things that you used to love. I knew I still loved music and wanted to keep doing it, but it was just hard to have the heart to keep doing it.
That album, it’s a lot of recordings I did at Mills during my years of grad school there. And most of the album isn’t really able to be played live because it’s a lot of fixed media pieces. There are only a couple songs on that album I can play live. It’s hard because I’ve been hesitant to even want to tour a lot after this album. Also, just because it’s still such a weird time to be musician. I have all these other new songs that you heard that I’ve recently been working on recording and hopefully gearing up to do another record.
You’ve compared this latest album to your first release from 2010, Water Ocean Lake. Can you explain that connection?
That album was really special to me because it I made it in when I was 19, 20. I tried to capture those feelings of being so young, experimenting, not having any expectation, and just feeling so free. Something I thought about with this album was wanting to go back to that time mentally and think about what would I do if I just didn’t care at all about what other people think about me? Or some stupid Pitchfork review. What if I was just experimenting and feeling and making things?
Maybe it’s not for everybody, but that's not what this album was about. And I still have some music from the past that wasn’t released that’s more like some things I put out. Indie pop. Indie rock. There’s some stuff like that that will probably trickle out of me at some point. But, I do think that through making this album and thinking about the beginnings of my explorations with electronic music from Water Ocean Lake, I want to stay with an experimental electronic path.
Were you already in that frame of mind when you went to Mills? Or did Mills help you get that in that frame of mind?
Mills really helped me. Just rejecting commercialism or not thinking about having to sell my music. I think that’s a sad thing. Or it’s just a reality if you’re a musician, you’re a business, you’re a brand. I hate the word “brand” so much. Going to Mills helped me detach myself from that feeling of “this is something I have to sell.” I don't want to think about my music that way anymore because it doesn’t serve me.
How do you feel about losing Mills? (Ed. note: The college announced it would cease granting degrees after 2023. Learn more about its storied experimental music history here.)
I have been really enriched by my time that I’ve spent in school. School’s not for everybody, but it really worked for me in terms of finding like-minded community and having access to resources. These schools have amazing equipment. The Buchla 100. I'll never be able to afford a Buchla, ever. Just the fact that I got to use it and record some pieces for this album is so special.
I feel like my setup is very, very simplistic. But I make it look like more than it is. I have this beautiful rock that has a contact mic underneath it. And I have this metal chisel. When I chisel on the rock, it's triggering the contact mic. And I’m just using that to trigger back samples of sounds that I’ve recorded that fit that song.
And the light bulb—I’m recording samples of my voice live into my computer, and then using the light bulb to play them back. The camera of the computer is looking for light. Actually, it’s looking for the color white. It’s just doing a tracking of where my voice in the sample is and the duration of the sample. It’ll get really nice and glitchy or play back a nice longer, granular bit.
And this is your typical live setup?
It has been for this year. I had started playing something like this set in 2020, 2019. But then, like I said, I took a really big break from playing music. And it wasn’t even until earlier this year that I opened everything back up. All my patches and my program were there just waiting for me to come back to them. It felt really good to get back into it and to get back into the mindset of feeling so creative and exploring things like I did when I was in school.
I had to say, when I saw that you were opening for Kikagaku Moyo, I was like, “That seems pretty leftfield.” You used this same setup?
Wow. How did it go?
I think it went great. I think some people were like, “Huh, what was that?” All the staff at the Warfield are so nice, so sweet. And this one guy said to me, “Thank you so much for bringing this kind of music to the Warfield.” And I was so flattered, just because they probably don't see experimental, weird, ambient music come through. Tomo from Kikagaku Moyo had asked me to open and I guess he had heard my music a long time ago and kept track of me a little bit. Saw that I was in the Bay and had a new album coming out and asked if I wanted to open.
Of course, I’ll ask about the Bay Area, but I want to ask about another place first, because your Peruvian-American heritage is important to you. How close do you feel to Peru? And have you been?
A really sad thing is I didn’t get to go to Peru until 2020 when my dad passed away. Growing up, my dad and his sister lived in in Seattle, where I grew up. And so my big experience and connection to my Peruvian culture was through them. And my Tia Fabi used to throw these huge parties at her house. She loved throwing parties. She was friends with, in my mind, all the Peruvians in Seattle.
I just remember as a kid going to the Peruvian parties. It’s not, maybe we think of American parties where it’s all adults hanging out, drinking. There were adults hanging out, drinking, and there was so much food and there were kids running everywhere. Super intergenerational. Old people dancing, too. Kids dancing. Kids just playing and going crazy. Amazing music. So much salsa. It was a little tiny bit of Peru, but in Seattle.
My dad had a lot of troubles with immigration and so he couldn’t travel back to Peru until he retired. He had to figure out all this annoying, bureaucratic stuff with the government. But then he was like, “I’m going back to Peru, finally.” He had just retired and moved back to Peru, and then he unfortunately passed away only five months later. He was excited for his kids to finally get to come to Peru after figuring out all this stuff. I try to think of it now as he figured out everything he needed to figure out. He was called back to his homeland and his ancestors. That’s where his soul and spirit still is, I think.
You have this Peruvian background, you grew up in Washington, but now you’re based in Oakland. Does the Bay influence who you are and the music that you make?
Absolutely. Obviously, there’s the Mills connection.But even before I went to Mills, I remember coming on tour and playing in places that don’t exist anymore. The Hole. The Ridgeway House. I remember coming through and playing in Oakland and just feeling people really understood me, which is a funny thing to say maybe. I just always felt audiences appreciating music in the Bay are so open, so welcoming, so kind. And I think that kind of energy resonates with me still and makes me want to be here, making music and being around people who are also making music and doing all sorts of creative things. There’s just a really good energy here that I feel drawn to.
Are there any Bay Area artists you’d love to collaborate with?
An artist who’s more well-known here who I think is incredible is Spellling. I would maybe be scared to ask her to collaborate. I’m just a nervous person. I don’t do a lot of collaborating, actually. But when I do, it’s been really fun and rewarding. My friend Sally Decker, who went to Mills, she and I did a collaborative album that came out this year.
Beyond the Bay, any music you’ve been loving lately?
Yes. I’ll start with the Bay Area connection. Cole Pulice just put out a new album and it's so beautiful, so incredible. Cole plays mostly saxophone and, on this album, there’s different instrumentation, wind synth, midi wind synth. Their album is incredible.
In terms of bigger artists, I love the new Shygirl album that just came out. So good. And obviously Bjork. I'm a huge Bjork fan. I’ve been slowly digesting her new album because I feel like it's something that I think is going to grow on me a little bit. And Bjork’s always a little bit ahead of her time. It’s really cool. There are some really interesting experimental moments on it where things feel very amorphous and not super neat. It’s kind of wandery. I appreciate that energy from her. It resonated with me because I'm making this kind of amorphous music too. And she’s been a huge hero. I admire her so much. And it’s funny to think, wow, maybe in some strange cosmic way we are on a similar wavelength.
Maybe one day we'll have a Bjork and Briana Marela collab.
Oh my God. Only in my wildest fantasies.