One to Watch for 2016
One song is all it took to convince us that Pumarosa will scale the heights of success.
One seven-minute, epic song about freedom and dancing set to propulsive bass, spaced-out guitar, more than a hint of dance music, saxophone and hypnotic vocals.
Signed to Chess Club Records, the East London five-piece led by singer and guitarist, Isabel Munoz-Newsome, released their debut single “Priestess” in September, and we’ve been unable to stop listening since. The song has hints of Woman’s Hour in its fragile opening moments, but transforms once Munoz-Newsome starts her chanting vocals. The band follow in-kind with adventurous jams, almost like finding each other for the first time before locking into a groove that morphs the song into a sort of dance-rock track that’s a million times more appealing than that description.
Pumarosa have been together for just over a year, developing from the core of Munoz-Newsome and drummer, Nicholas Owen, to the five-piece who released “Priestess”. Munoz-Newsome explains the origins of the band: “We’d been playing together for quite a few years doing different projects and sort of coming in and out of playing with each other. The last band we did together ended, and I started writing stuff on my own. I thought I would get a band to play with me... and then the band became bigger than that!”
Before Pumarosa took shape, Munoz-Newsome had some developing of her own to do as a song writer and musician: “At the beginning it was like folk music and then it became really electro, and then it became really heavy rock, and now it is what it is now!” The pieces of the band then started fitting into place: “We found Henry [Brown], who plays bass, then Tomoya [Suzuki] who plays saxophone and keys, and the last one to join was Neville [James] who plays guitar."
Despite the varying styles as she found her feet, she never regarded any choice she made as being a calculated decision: “I think everything happened organically. I never thought, ‘Well now I’m going to get into this genre.' When I was on my own and writing, I was just playing piano and guitar, there was a lot of that sort of folky music around at that point. So it seemed natural to play that. And it’s very much about songs, and I was trying to write songs rather than jams at that point.”
Her surroundings and the people she had around her influenced direction. “As different people come in then they bring their own influences, so it shifts," she says. "There was a period where we were rehearsing in Palma Violets’ studio, and while we were there the music got really rocky! And that’s just because that was what was in the walls – they’d go in and play their sweaty rock and it’d rub off on us!”
“Priestess” feels like a song written by a band, and a fully-formed one at that. It’s how the song develops that’s most impressive. From a nascent, nebulous jam, to something forceful, direct and danceable by the end, it’s got a narrative that’s easy to trace, and that’s even without Munoz-Newsome’s sharp and emotive lyrics and imagery. “Some stuff we write totally together and it comes out of us jamming,” explains the singer. “But most of it still comes from me writing on my own, and I need to write on my own. I don’t really want to write with other people. I rely on those guys to arrange the song, though, because I don’t know how to write a guitar solo, or drums…which I find completely mysterious!” This is where long-time musical partner Owen comes into his own: “I'll love it, I can tell when it clicks and I know when it’s exciting, but Nick is so good. When he does something on a song I’ve written it can completely revolutionise it. It’s wonderful playing with those guys.”
"Being in London, being an artist, you’re trying to tap into certain things or be open to certain things but at the same time you’re working within a big city"
Pumarosa’s music has been called, “industrial spiritual”, and it’s a descriptor that seems to have followed the band around for better or worse. So is it something that Munoz-Newsome wishes she’d never heard? “No, we love that!” she exclaims. “We think that’s great! Being in London, being an artist, you’re trying to tap into certain things, or be open to certain things, but at the same time you’re working within a big city,” she says of the industrial aspect of the moniker. “All of us live in various bits of London, from the rougher bits to more humanised areas, and I’m really interested and excited by those landscapes…the more industrial landscapes and how we bring that sound into the music. I also love the idea of music and gigs making something spiritual happen, like a sound making you feel like you’re lifting off. I think that’s exciting.”
With the mention of London and landscape, we discuss the current location in the city for Pumarosa, and how that might affect their music. “At the moment our studio is just off Gillett Square in Dalston [just north up the road from Dalston Junction],” says Munoz-Newsome. “It’s great, it’s cool. I think it was a car park just off the main drag of Dalston and then it was done up by the council and ‘rejuvenated’ to be a more shi-shi place…but it didn’t work! They put all this money into it but all the same people have come back and they still inhabit it…it’s quite a weird and wild little place. There’s a lot of colourful drunks, there’s a great coffee shop…it’s all run by people from the area and the gentrification hasn’t quite worked. It’s a cool place to have on your doorstep.”
You can hear the rumble and movement of the city in “Priestess”; the bass acts as some kind of anchor, a suggestion of bricks and mortar and place holding the track together, while Munoz-Newsome’s vocals, the saxophone and the jam element hint at the movement of people in and out of the city and its boroughs. “Freedom” is sung about and it feels like the theme of movement is wider than simply about a dancer…who happens to be Munoz-Newsome’s sister Fernanda. But more of her later.
I mention the current situation in New York where artists are finding it unaffordable to make music in the city due to the cost of property and living in general, and ask Munoz-Newsome whether it’s something she can see happening in London: “Yeah, in a way, that’s tragic,” she agrees. “The people who came back to Gillett Square have kind of fallen out the bottom [of society]. I think it’s terrible. It’s really dangerous, I think London is sort of strangling itself. I suppose people will go further and further out, or maybe we’ll start using other towns or cities. Maybe it will regenerate the rest of the country… or maybe that’s me being really superior, and people in Leeds and Manchester don’t want all these London twats to come and ‘regenerate’ their lovely cities!”
"I think London is sort of strangling itself"
She continues, touching on the current property situation which is veering dangerously close to a crisis: “I do think it’s dangerous. You have these companies, these ‘guardianships’, who pose as companies offering cheap space to the community, and it’s just outrageous. The kind of leases you have to sign to live in those places allows them to kick you out in a few days. I guess it’s kind of illegal.”
Fernanda Munoz-Newsome is the titular “Priestess” and star of the song’s video. I ask sister, Isabel, to tell me a more about the track and her dancing sibling: “She’s a dancer and she’s an incredible person to be around. But it’s also about anyone who wants to do that, who wants to dance, who wants to kick off their shoes!”
Munoz-Newsome explains that the song’s themes are wider than just being a paean to her sister, saying, “You can kind of just go out and dance, let go and really feel it….you can let go of a lot of baggage. And dancing is free! You might pay a lot of money to get into a venue, but that act of dancing is free, and maybe is freedom itself. There’s that Bob Marley song [“Trench Town Rock”] where he sings, ‘One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain’, and I have experienced that when it’s at its best. I think dancing makes humans coming together and doing that is a powerful and really brilliant thing. And we’ve always done it, it can be a stance of resistance. You don’t have to pay for it, no-one can get you in that state artificially - it’s up to you to do that.”
There’s a line in the song where Munoz-Newsome sings, “Who made you”, and it feels like she is comparing herself to her dancer sister, almost disbelieving that they share DNA, but when I mention this, the singer disagrees: “Noooo! I don’t think I was comparing myself to her actually. I was more thinking. I say, ‘Who made you, who made you so clear and strong, cut from clay and stone' because, like, her body is just amazing! I think she has it naturally and I guess she is trained at dancing but when she moves it’s like this thing from nature moving, or like a well-oiled machine. It’s so exciting to watch.”
While her sister is a dancer, Munoz-Newsome is also something of an artist, responsible for the single’s artwork: “Yeah, that’s one of mine,” she reveals. “I’ve just drawn and painted since I could hold anything, and I still do that. I actually studied theatre design [at college]; I did loads of drawing with that, and that was part of the problem…I always made good pictures and they were like, ‘No! Theatre is a time-based medium’, and I was always too busy arranging images.”
“Priestess” has been given another dimension through a remix from Shura, who removes the slow-build from the track and goes straight for the jugular with addictive beats. “Our label told us that Shura was into the record and she had said some really nice, spot-on things about it," she explains. "They came back a little while later and said she wanted to do a remix. I really like it, it’s totally danceable - but in a different way. It’s really feminine, and sexy. I can imagine you’d walk along singing it, doing finger-clicks! I love that she gets these rave-y sounds into it. We’re gonna be supporting her in Birmingham at the beginning of December, so that’ll be great.”
Speaking of future plans, December is shaping up to be a busy month for Pumarosa. Having missed celebrating the single release at the time, the band are going to attempt a do-over: “Right now we’re planning our single party,” she says. “We didn’t have a single launch, it kinda just snuck up on us and we were like, ‘Fuck! It’s out!’ So it’s a party to celebrate everything that’s happened, and we’re doing it with this band called, Sweat, who are amazing. My sister is going to perform, it’s going to be in this empty old derelict house…it’ll be like a proper party!”
"We’ve got all the songs, we just need to get in the studio for a while.”
The question of how to follow up an epic seven-minute single is one that Pumarosa are pondering as 2015 draws to a close, ahead of a 2016 full of endless promise. Munoz-Newsome is confident and looking forward to what’s coming next: “We've got a whole palette of songs,” she confirms. “We’re recording with Dan Carey [Toy, Bat For Lashes, Bloc Party] again just before Christmas so hopefully we’ll do a few songs with him." And can we expect another long song? ”Some of our songs do have that compulsive, bassy vibe to them and a lot are quite long! One thing about our music is that it is quite varied, so for the next single we’re gonna have to think about what that’s gonna be, and how to follow "Priestess." Do we do something in the same vein or show you guys something totally different? We have to work that out.”
We end on talk of an album in 2016, and it’s something the band are keen on: “That’s what we’re aiming for! We’ve got all the songs, we just need to get in the studio for a while.”