I don’t think I have interviewed…
an artist from Baltimore – none that I can think of right now! Yes Selma talks to me about his latest album, Songs of Happiness, and what sort of themes inspired the songs; why the tracks are punchy and precise; the impact of Drag City musicians; how music affects and guides him – whether we will see him in the U.K. this year.
I ask the U.S. artist why he takes a D.I.Y. approach and what the scene is like in Baltimore; which new artists we should check out; if he has any advice for new artists coming through; whether he is influenced by the music from the 1980s and 1990s – the talented young artist finishes the piece by choosing a rather good song.
Hi, Yes Selma. How are you? How has your week been?
I'm Ok. My week's been Ok.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
I write songs and make sound experiments in my bedroom. Sometimes, I record them and put them out under the name ‘Yes Selma’ which, at this point, is just a brand name. I do other things, too - but they're menial and not worth talking about.
Tell me about Songs of Happiness – released late last year. What sort of themes and stories inspired the songs on the album?
I tried to make a different kind of album. I wanted it to be chaotic and off-putting and ugly because that's how I see the world. I wanted to capture desperation, mental instability and depression. But, I also wanted to make a comedy record. It's a messy album. There's a lot of mistakes I didn't bother fixing. I wanted to make an album that no one would like.
The songs are quite short and direct. Was it important creating punchy and precise music?
I often write songs really, really fast, then I record them immediately. Because, if I take time to think about a song, I just dwell about trying to make it perfect or I'll get hung up about a particular line - and I'll always end up becoming uninterested and moving onto something else. The entire goal for me when recording is to not think. I think all the time - and it's never gotten me anywhere. But, the process of creating something allows me to free my mind.
So no; it's not important. It's just how it happens.
How important, in terms of influence, are the Drag City musicians? Do you take a lot from lo-fi artists of the 1980s and 1990s?
Yeah. Drag City is huge for me. It was such a revelation to find a label that actually focused on releasing more introspective, rawer songwriters - as well as experimental noise and so forth. D.C. really has no limits, which is really lovely for folks like me who have pretty well-rounded tastes and open minds. I am influenced by a lot of lo-fi artists around that time. I get kinda bored by high-end production. It's more interesting to hear chair creaks, breathing noises; microphone pops etc.
Is there going to be more music this year? What are you working on right now?
I just finished recording an album called Denial of Death, but I'm not sure if it'll ever be released. It's all finished though. It's mixed and everything. Maybe some label will put it out, but who knows? The title is based off a book of the same name. It's about being alive, trying to deal with being a human, I guess - in a world that's pretty much against you…
Learning to appreciate the given moment.
Which musicians did you connect with growing up? Can you remember when music came into your life?
My first true connection with music was with Hip-Hop.
My cousin got me into MF Doom, J Dilla; Tribe, Big L. - stuff like that. That was when my interests began to develop. Then, I discovered music that spoke to my identity. All those Elephant 6 bands; The Microphones and stuff like that. But, the album that changed everything was Figure 8 by Elliott Smith. I listened to it over and over. It was like I had figured out what to do with my life. Listening to that record, in particular, took me from being a music listener to a musician. I began writing songs…
Baltimore is your base. Is there quite a varied music scene there? What is the local market like?
I started going to Baltimore shows when Wham City artists (Dan Deacon, Future Islands; Ed Schrader, etc.) were becoming more well-known and less of an underground secret. It was this weird purgatory period of D.I.Y. insanity. I saw some of the craziest shows I'll ever see. The Bank was a venue in West Baltimore that was just insane. Only those who have been there can truly understand.
There's still a scene, but it's different. There are still amazing artists living here and inventive stuff happening all over the place. It's cool for me because I'm good friends with many artists I admire.
You are a D.I.Y. artist who tackled everything. Do you think it is important having that autonomy and self-sufficiency?
It's important for me. I prefer doing everything myself because I trust myself in the artistic sense. I know how I want my music to sound. I know what I want the album artwork to look like. But, of course, no one can do everything themselves. I've had a lot of help along the way that I'm very thankful for; the most helpful being Moe Hammond, who started his own label to release my records - which I can certainly say no one else in the world would have done.
There is a growing wave of do-it-yourself musicians. Do you think more popular artists need to take a D.I.Y. approach?
I don't think there's a right or wrong way to approach it. Whatever you feel comfortable doing is probably best. If you feel you can do everything yourself and it makes you happy, then I don't see any reason why you shouldn't. If you need help from a label or a promoter, that's cool too. I guess, ultimately, it's good that the bigwig music business is dying and artists have more control over their work. I certainly respect the artists that have a D.I.Y. approach because I know they're doing it for the right reasons.
There are still a lot of good labels that exist who value and respect the artist's integrity. Friends Records and EHSE are two labels in Baltimore who have helped many artists. Feeding Tube in Western Massachusetts is another example.
Do you have any gigs booked at the moment? Where can we see you play?
I don't have any Yes Selma shows booked at the moment. Baltimore is the best place to see me for now. I just put together a band with my friend Corey (Gordy Manny) who plays drums and has helped give life to songs that I don't feel confident singing on my own. It's way more fun to play with Corey, because he's a great drummer and a great artist. We plan to do an East Coast tour this summer.
Have you ever played in Britain? Are you a fan of the music that has come from this country?
I have not and I don't have any official plans to come; but, if I'm ever invited to play, I'd bootleg a plane ticket A.S.A.P. The best artist I discovered recently is Richard Dawson. His music has such an eerie strangeness to it. It sounds sinister at times. Ghoulish.
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
I don't like to make goals because, once I make one, I suddenly become uninterested in achieving it. I prefer to live spontaneously, without any expectations for myself. Though, I do make short-term goals. Like, whenever I merge onto a busy highway, my goal is to not die. Every month I have a goal to make rent on time...
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Listening to my music on vinyl was a pretty cool feeling. Also, playing shows with artists I admire. My first show was with Bryan Lewis Saunders, who's just the greatest. I was really nervous to play because I often have horrible stage fright and I don't really think I played that well - but he was really kind and encouraging to me. We've kept in touch. His artwork is truly one of a kind.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Just make whatever you want whenever you want to for the sake of expressing yourself - and never care what other people think of it. Make stuff that you like and feel positive about existing in the world.
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
The fact is that I don't chill away from music because that is how I unwind. Life is short and fragile and pointless and can be taken away so easily. Sometimes, it's hard to find things to be happy about. Music is a good way to express yourself, particularly when you're feeling low.
I read, in Art Pepper's autobiography, that he was once put in solitary confinement - so he found a way to create pitches with a plastic cup by blowing in it at certain angles. So, he started blowing away and other inmates in neighboring cells would clap their hands or provide vocal rhythms.
I believe, if you love music, you'll be able to find it in one way or another.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Let's do an olde classic: Cruel and Thin by Sun City Girls. The masters.
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