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Why Briana Marela Went to Iceland to Record Her New Album
To be specific: an East River view partially obscured by a parking lot half full of tractor trailers, a bit of lit-up Manhattan skyline visible around an industrial warehouse, weeds scaling the chain-link fences. It’s gray-purple dusk, unseasonably cool, as if a June gloom had struck the East Coast. In other words, it’s all a little lovely in a gritty way, all the more so once you walk into the dark bar on said corner, with its wood-plank floors and tin ceilings, oddly humid and crowded with weather-confused patrons trying to decide between bourbons or cold beers. And then, without prelude, a girl sitting quietly alone in the center of the room leans into the glow of her MacBook and begins to sing and the whole room goes rapt.
Briana Marela is surrounded, you soon realize, by a small arsenal of microphone, amps, pedals, micro synth, and mixer, all of which fits on the table before her, as unassuming as if she had merely been hanging out drinking coffee and writing in her journal all afternoon. But she proceeds to perform a full set of songs off her forthcoming album, All Around Us (Jagjaguwar), bright reverberating melodies over ethereal, chorus-y soundscapes. Listening, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Scandinavia, too.
“Yeah, that was a nice show!” Marela, 25, says a couple weeks later by phone from Seattle. “In the Northwest I can get used to that gloom, it can appear out of nowhere.” To make All Around Us, though, she traveled to Iceland, at the behest of Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers. He’d happened to hear an early record of hers at a friend’s house and was interested in the way she mixed digital and analog elements. “I appreciate computers, but I really like the feeling of being hands-on,” Marela says. Acoustic guitar and piano feature in her work; she took singing lessons for years and cites Vashti Bunyan, Laura Veirs, and Meredith Monk among her influences (“I love a voice that’s really beautiful and clear. I’ve always had a strong curiosity about the voice; I think it’s the most interesting instrument”).
Björk is also one of those influences, but it wasn’t just the lure of recording in the homeland of one of her musical heroes that motivated her to find a way to make the overseas trip. “I did a Kickstarter to raise some of the money,” says Marela, who previously earned a living at “weird cashiering jobs” and serving wine at the Seattle Opera, enough to make rent and fund low-budget U.S. tours. She turned to the bank for the rest. “It’s one of those things: I could be in grad school taking out a loan, or I could take out a loan to live my life to the fullest.”
In the studio, she and Somers had a natural bond and a shared willingness to try, and reject, plenty of ideas; over two and a half months, Marela took up residence in Reykjavík, working out songs with Somers in the studio and taking long walks through the city, to the water, to the lighthouse.
“A song like ‘Dani’ was originally an experiment, me singing over a drone,” she says. “But when Alex heard it, he said, ‘This song is so beautiful, I think you can write chords for it. I can almost hear them.’ He left the studio, and I just sat down at the piano and wrote them. I love how it turned out.”
Back in Washington, she’s been concentrating on making videos (see “Surrender” below), the next of which involves a karaoke version of herself in a skating rink, and rehearsing with musicians for her late-summer tour with Jenny Hval. “It’s gonna be a hard transition to playing bigger clubs and spaces after doing DIY house shows,” Marela says. “Like, will I be able to make the same connection? Onstage there’s that automatic divide between you and the audience that you don’t have in a living room somewhere. But I want people to feel like they can approach me.”