New Zealand born, Los Angeles based Pop-Goth sensation, So Below began her musical career in 2015 with her single ‘Drift.’ Since then she has released two EPs and last month released her debut album.
We caught up with So Below to discuss the artistic process, future plans, and what life is like living in Los Angeles during the pandemic.
Congratulations on the album release. How long have you been working on it for?
Basically, about three years. There is one song in it that is a lot older, it’s about five years old but other than that I would say that most of the songs are two to three years old.
Because the album title is ‘Left Behind’ and you stayed in Los Angeles during the lockdown. I was wondering if the title was making an allusion to that? Or am I just overthinking things?
I would love it if it was but no, because originally it was supposed to come out earlier, I was planning on putting it out in March of this year, and then the whole world ended. During the initial lockdown I feel like people stopped really listening to music, people started streaming podcasts and house cleaning playlists, and no one really wanted to listen to depressing electronic music. So, that really impacted my streams and it felt like the wrong time to put it out. Then it just got to the point where I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m waiting for anymore,’ because I’ve already started working on the second record already, this year.
You’ve worked with a lot of New Zealand artists and producers. Your EPs were mostly self-produced, right?
No, I worked with my friend Leroy Clampitt; whose producer name is Big Taste, and then Sam McCarthy produced the other half of the EPs; he was in Kids of 88 and Boyboy is his project, they produced the EPs. Aaron Short, from The Naked and Famous, mixed and mastered it all.
Did you work with any of them again on this album as well?
Yes, I did two songs with Sam, one song with Leroy, and Aaron mixed the entire record and did little bits of production throughout. But the main person I collaborated with on this record is my friend, Brad. He’s American, and he’s in a band called Now Now. He lives in Minnesota, so every time we write together I go to Minnesota, and I stay in his basement in his parent’s house, it’s really fun, and they’re very Minnesotan. Often we go and it’s cold because LA doesn’t really have seasons, it’s just sunny all year round. But Minnesota has four seasons, so often we go there and it’s an amazing summer, or I go there and it’s just torrential snow the whole time, and it’s amazing! I love it so much. So most of the album was written there in his house.
Did you record it there as well? Or do you have a recording studio in LA that you go to?
Most of the vocals I recorded myself. I don’t have a tonne of live elements. I have a friend who is an incredible drummer, who is also the drummer in my live band. He recorded a lot of my drums because he has his own drum studio and he gave me a crazy discount. I think maybe four of the songs have live drums in them and then a lot of the songs have live elements, some guitar, some bass stuff, but, most of it is electronic music, it’s just in the laptop. It’s easy to make in any situation as long as you have a keyboard and some speakers.
That’s how you first started initially making music right? Layering laptop beats and vocal harmonies. Is that the same approach you have to songwriting now or has it evolved a little bit?
It’s definitely changed because when I first started I probably did a few years of just writing for myself. I think I was using Garageband, I was just making little diddies but I didn’t know how songwriting worked, how a structure of a song worked, or how you layer instruments, or anything like that. I knew nothing about how to write lyrics or really write a good melody. I did that and then my friend, Sam moved over to LA and he was like ‘let’s work together on some stuff.’ And my other friend Leroy moved over as well, so it was at the point where I needed to move too. I feel like my first EPs were the best because I didn’t know what I was doing if that makes sense, you know, Beginner’s luck. you weren’t thinking ‘Damn, this has to be the catchiest thing ever.’ You were kind of just like ‘is this cool?’ And then you kind of just wing it, and it seemed to work.
So now when I write songs I do really struggle to write by myself because you’re kind of your own worst critic, so you just sit there thinking everything you do is dumb, you just end up hating everything. But if you have someone else in the room to kind of bounce ideas off and to be a positive soundboard, it’s so much easier. But writing by yourself is just a nightmare. I mean, I find it a nightmare now, I used to like doing it, but it’s very hard doing it by yourself.
There are a couple of quite notable collaborations on this album as well. Alisa from The Naked and Famous was featured on the song ‘Fool,’ how did that collaboration initially come about?
Everyone that I worked with on this album is just my friend so we always say ‘we should write a song together.’ I think that was the only song that I’ve written with Alisa so far, we always keep meaning to write more songs together but just haven’t gotten around to it. I was doing a session with Sam McCarthy and she just came along. It’s weird because I feel like she brings this sort of major, weird melancholy sound… The Naked and Famous has this sound that is very distinct to her, and when she was in the room she definitely bought that. Initially, I was like ‘That’s not my sound’ and then eventually I was like ‘This sounds great.’ But, you get really stuck in the way that you write. When we got there she was like ‘I always start music on a keyboard, that’s just how I always do it and I don’t like doing it any other way.’ And then we got there and she was like ‘let’s write it on the guitar’ and I was like ‘nooo.’ Anyway, it ended up being a really great song, and it was a really great learning experience seeing that there are other ways besides the tiny little small way that you do things. It was nice to see other people and their process.
You have a very distinct vocal style as well. How did you develop that?
For my first EPs, it was really embarrassing. It was playing music when you’ve just started out and you send it to someone like Alisa, for example who was the biggest musician in New Zealand at the time, I would send her something and she would say ‘it sounds so great.’ But there is so much anxiety in that, giving someone something that you know is never going to be as good as what they do. It was very stressful, just making that first EP. There is a vulnerability in hearing your voice back, so I felt like the only way I wanted my voice to sound was drowned in reverb and delay.
I remember Sam and I would have literal arguments, he would say ‘Just take some of the reverb off.’ And I was like ‘No, it has to be drowned in it, I don’t want to hear my voice, I don’t want to hear how I sound.’ But obviously overtime I was like ‘actually, I don’t feel like I hate my voice anymore.’ Or, I felt like I had an interesting voice. I do feel like sometimes I listen back and go ‘why does that sound like that? I pronounced that weird.’ But, I try to just sound like me. I don’t want to sound like the classic Indie girl where they pronounce their I’s as H’s, you know? Like Billie Eilish, and she’s great! But, she has that really distinct style of how she makes her voice sound that a lot of people also try to emulate. All my favourite singers are men and I really like deep vocals, so I often try to sing totally out of my range in a really deep tone that is super out of my vocal range, and I sang it anyway but it’s a struggle live.
Speaking of which, who are some of your influences?
I haven’t listened to anything new recently, but I guess my favourite bands would be cliche: Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and probably my favourite band would be Moderat, it’s like the guy from Apparat and Modeslektor, they did a collaboration.
So your stage name, So Below, where did that come from?
I think I just wanted something that was short, concise, rhymed, and had a slightly dark connotation. There is no particular meaning behind it. I think I just had 70 Word documents, because I already had the EP but I didn’t have the name so I was furiously writing words, I was going through trying to find words that I liked and things that sounded cool. I don’t even remember how I came up with So Below, I thought it was so dumb and then a few days later I thought ‘is it though?’ And then a few days later after that I thought ‘it’s great.’
But, if you think about any band like we were just saying, Radiohead. Radiohead is the dumbest name, or Foo Fighters, or Nine Inch Nails, they’re all terrible names. But, it doesn’t really matter, it’s more about the music than the name.
From your album covers, you have a prominent aesthetic going on and you describe your sound as being Goth Pop. Do you have any visual influences?
The only thing I really read is SciFi, I’m kind of obsessed with it. I just go to second-hand book store websites and I buy really nice copies of vintage books, you can get really nice copies of ‘Dune,’ ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ with cool eighties covers. I feel as though that really affects my music. I do really like SciFi movies as well, but I don’t know if I’m affected that much visually to be honest because I have terrible taste in movies. I love Hallmark movies and just terrible Chinese Romance TV shows. Obviously, I like good films as well as classics. With movies, I’m not a tastemaker but with books, it has to be a well written SciFi book with very scientific, realistic themes.
Since you’ve been in Los Angeles over lockdown how has the musical landscape changed? We’re lucky in New Zealand because we can still have shows, but obviously, there are more restrictions around that in California.
Yeah, I don’t imagine anyone is going to be playing shows for a while. I’ve heard of some bigger bands talking about booking shows in like 2022. That was kind of what my plan was this year was to do a tour because my main fanbase is in the States and obviously that didn’t happen. I watched the Benny gig, it was so depressing to see all of those people together having so much fun, all in the same place and we can’t go anywhere. I haven’t been to a restaurant or a bar since March, or really hung out with anyone because it is still really bad here. Everyone in the whole world is looking at New Zealand right now super jealous, including me. Songwriting is crazy here right now as well, everyone is doing Zoom sessions and it’s just weird.
Have you thought about doing Zoom shows at all as an alternative?
Well, not a Zoom show but I was going to do some live performance videos. For the album, I was going to do three songs, maybe two off the album and then one of my older songs. I was also shooting two music videos and it was already really expensive and then the live videos for the three songs were going to be another 6k US and I was like no. Basically, music is just a bottomless pit where I throw all my money into. There are all of these things, I really want to make vinyl and I want to make a music video for every song but at every turn, it’s just asking people for favours or just not being able to do stuff because you just don’t have the budget.
But I would really love to do some of that stuff. The whole Instagram Live stuff, it doesn’t’ really interest me unless it’s really high quality. And then there is the whole thing where I really can’t be in the same room as someone else because of Covid. Maybe if I come back to New Zealand I can just do it all.
What are your plans for the next six months?
Well basically, I am halfway through my second album. I’d really like to finish it or at least just get all the songs together. I’m kind of just trying to work on production stuff as well. My ultimate, ultimate goal would be putting out an EP that I produced by myself, I don’t know how far off that would be in the future, but that’s my dream. I’ve got a music video coming up for my song ‘Fear’ soon, so that’s fun.
You can stream So Below’s debut album ‘Left Behind’ now.