Indie Jazz Band Really From Reframes Its Origin Story


The last time Really From took the stage, they were playing a dream gig: opening for superstar saxophonist Kamasi Washington at Big Night Live, the glitzy new venue that had opened in the Seaport a few months before. It would be the most clubbian nightclub another night, a velvet ropes and bottle service scene, but on that particular Monday in February 2020, the 1,500-capacity space attempted a slightly more low-key vibe. .

It wasn’t exactly a traditional jazz club, but it was the largest venue the Boston quartet had ever played, and it was a real jazz performance, which was a welcome change of pace. As a self-proclaimed “indie jazz” band signed to Topshelf Records – an indie label best known for their emo-adjacent production – they always tended to land on rock bills more than anything else, and a bit to To their chagrin, the “emo” tag was starting to stick. Since “Verse” in 2017, they had found themselves receiving a constant stream of comparisons with the American Football group.

“I understand why people compare us to American football, but I can’t tell you the name of another song besides ‘Never Meant’,” singer-guitarist Chris Lee-Rodriguez said on a Zoom call. , a note of protest in his voice. “When music writers compare us to them, I always feel like it’s lazy because you hear clean guitars and a trumpet and sad voices. “

Really From singer-guitarist Chris Lee-Rodriguez.  (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)
Really From singer-guitarist Chris Lee-Rodriguez. (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)

Their point of frustration is less on the sound itself and more on how the comparison sometimes gives the impression that it involves a trajectory, influences and goals that have little to do with those of the band. . They are working on something more ambitious, expansive and turbulent, layering synth, trombone and bugle with ambient bursts and complex drums. And then there’s the vocals, an exploration of contrasts – brash and serene, jagged and smooth – shared between Lee-Rodriguez and keyboardist Michi Tassey. That’s a lot of sound from a lineup of just four people, completed by drummer Sander Bryce and brass band Matt Hull, but for Really From, that complexity is everything. Any blunt description, comparison or whatever, is doomed to fall flat.

The band’s upcoming self-titled album, due out on March 12, shows this particularly clearly. This is their third full-length album, but it’s also a freshly focused statement of the artistic direction the band has honed over the past seven years, breaking down the complexities of identity and culture. This is their first album under the new name; until 2018 they were known as People Like You.

“I can’t tell you why we changed our name, but I can say we were in a situation where we had to do it,” Lee-Rodriguez said. He was already using “Really From” for other personal media – a poetry book, a Twitter account – but he recognized its potential to mean more to the group, a majority of which are made up of people of color. “I know I got this question and everyone got this question, ‘Where are you really from? “”

Michi Tassey, singer-keyboardist of Really From.  (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)
Michi Tassey, singer-keyboardist of Really From. (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)

By the time they renamed themselves, the group had transformed from its earliest days. In 2014, Lee-Rodriguez, Bryce and then-bassist Sai Boddupalli created People Like You as a trio, fresh out of Berklee College of Music and fresh out of the post-graduation split from I Kill Giants, their band. beloved math-punk. . They had decided to pursue their own vision of jazz, moving away from punk territory on 2014’s edgy and rambling “This Is What You Learned” and complementing their sound on 2017’s “Verse” with the addition of Tassey and Hull. It was a warmer, more elaborate album: Tassey’s crisp vocal melodies and Hull brass flourishes were a striking nod to Lee-Rodriguez’s occasional rocky howls. But over the course of ‘Verse’ their songwriting process evolved: “My bandmates were like, ‘Hey, we love your songs, and we want you to write more,'” Tassey said. “At the time, Chris was sort of the lead songwriter, so we had to sit down and have a group conversation, like, ‘How is everyone feeling about this?'”

As they got ready to write the album that would become “Really From” towards the end of 2017, they were all set to shake up their approach. (“I was getting nervous about our writing process,” says Bryce.) But it was also a risk: four Berklee graduates with intense opinions, the sudden suppression of an established creative dynamic, endless opportunities to bruise the ego.

Independent jazz group Really From.  (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)
Independent jazz group Really From. (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)

This helped the quartet unite in their vision for their third album. On “Really From”, they tackle this thorny question: “Where are you really from? – in all its senses, seeking answers only for themselves. Lee-Rodriguez says how he interprets it varies depending on the circumstances: “If you’re white and you ask someone that, you say ‘Your answer is not enough for my perception of you.’ It is the otherness of a person. If you are a BIPOC person, especially Latinxs and Asians asking me, “where are you really from? – they say, ‘Oh, you’re not white, you have to be like us, because we don’t feel like we’re from here.’ “

Really From’s eponymous album explodes the superficial subtext and opts for the broadest and most introspective interpretation. It’s a rebuttal to the more cocky version of the question, but it also offers Lee-Rodriguez and Tassey’s deeply personal reflections on how culture, family, trauma, and other people’s expectations come together to shape identity. The songs are anchored by ideas of physical place (“Apartment Song”, “The House”, “I Live Here Now”), but they are more concerned with the mapping of precise emotions.

The most direct answer might come in the form of “I’m From Here”, a track that continually reinvents itself with rock beats, horns and synths. Tassey’s voice runs through the second verse, recounting her upbringing (“I was raised by the shoes left at the door / I was raised like my mother was before”) and what could be the climax. from the album, Lee-Rodriguez sings: “I come from a bunch of different parts / I come from tired souls and broken hearts”, and later, “If you ask me where I come from / I will say the rage, the lights of the sea / I ‘I will say that the pain has been passed on to me / And when you say it’s not enough / I will pretend it doesn’t get to me. They don’t try instead, the songs weave together two deeply personal narratives, sometimes echoing, sometimes divergent, existing in a delicate balancing act.

Really From one-man-brass-band Matt Hull.  (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)
Really From one-man-brass-band Matt Hull. (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)

“We make a lot of jokes that some of our songs on this album sound a lot like ska,” Hull said. It’s a bit of a stretch, but he and Lee-Rodriguez have bonded through their love of the genre, and the world of adjacent rock bands that incorporate top brass is relatively small. “There isn’t much of a benchmark in writing trumpet or trombone parts for music like this. You just have to feel what works and what doesn’t, ”he says.

During various Zoom calls, the band make it clear that the album’s impressive cohesion has been hard earned. “There were definitely some difficulties along the way,” says Bryce. The ideas for songs had to be sacrificed to make everything flow together, which sometimes created moments of tension. Tassey had just released her own solo album and started a new job as a music therapist, which required her to learn decades of music from the early to mid 1900s. By the time she tried to start working on songs for “Really From”, she felt exhausted.

“During this time, I was mad at the music, frankly. I felt like it got tired,” she says. There were limits to what they could accomplish by working together, in some cases. On songs like “Yellow Fever,” which she wrote about dealing with fetishization as an Asian woman, the subject matter was too specific and personal for other band members to jump in directly. consisted of asking the right questions.

“The way I think of writing with Chris is like asking a friend for a walk. You know, you’re like ‘hey I’m stuck and need to go somewhere’, and he’s like ‘I got you. Where do you want to go?’ “, she says.

Really from drummer Sander Bryce.  (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)
Really from drummer Sander Bryce. (JO Slaughtering for WBUR)

Bryce notes: “We have learned to communicate a lot better and to be more open to each other and to understand where we are all coming from.”

Right now, due to the pandemic, it is difficult for the group to plan too far in advance. Right now there’s the album release, and the start of the “Really From” interview podcast Lee-Rodriguez worked on, and then hopefully the vaccines and tours before too long. And there’s hope they’ll see plenty of new faces in the crowd at upcoming concerts: In January, an endorsement from the popular ska-centric TikTok account Skatune Network sent tens of thousands of new listeners to the group. . But for now, they’re just trying to enjoy the downtime and rest for whatever comes next.

“This year it was all about slowing down and sometimes taking that backseat and leaning on your team, your group mates, and helping them make their visions a reality,” Tassey said. “As creators, we feel a pressure to constantly produce material, and sometimes there is nothing to produce. You need to be still and silent as your body, brain, and mind recharge. “

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Henry R. Wright