Mental strength and resilience have been two traits that can be said of all of us during this time – finding their place rooted deep within us. Performed, written and produced by Astræa, her new EP ‘Looking Up’ takes its place within the confidence found within us to drive ourselves forward. Inspired by Prince, Mad Men and Robyn to name a few, ‘Looking Up’ derives its essence from Astræa’s creative core. From its outer shell, the 4-track journey asks us to look within to find inner strength, but through its positive lyrical content Astræa has discovered that it’s been there all along.
How are you since the lockdown has been lifted?
I’m doing really well thank you 🙂 Grateful to be able to travel and see family again with lockdown lifting. This Christmas will be my first back in Minnesota with my family since 2018 so I’m really looking forward to that. We certainly aren’t completely out of the woods yet but it does feel some sense of normality has returned and it’s made me feel hope again for the first time in a long while.
Creatively it must’ve been tough?
Weirdly I think I actually thrived creatively, during the first two lockdowns at least. I’m the type of creative that kind of enjoys hiding myself away from the world for periods of time while I work. My music can be so personal that writing alone allows me to get really deep into my process and emotions. I’ve also always had a pretty DIY mentality so even before the pandemic hit, I was producing most of my music and making most of my videos from home. I was lucky to be able to continue doing that during the lockdowns as it really helped to distract me from the scariness and uncertainty of Covid. Lockdown part three was another story though. I think for the majority of people it was the hardest. We started mixing the Looking Up EP during that period of time and found it difficult to finish the mixes and not obsess over every little tiny detail. I think my mental state at that time in the pandemic really did not help as I was feeling pretty low and burnt out.
Congratulations on the new EP! With ‘Looking Up’, was the name symbolic of your mindset at the time?
Thank you! I’m so happy to finally see it out in the world. I would say ‘Looking Up’ was symbolic of the mindset that I was striving to have. I wrote the title track during lockdown two when things were feeling pretty bleak. There was no news of vaccines yet or how much longer we’d have lockdowns and restrictions. I wanted to create something uplifting to hold on to during that dark time that would remind me that this wouldn’t last forever.
The EP artwork appears as fractures or parts of yourself. What was the thinking around the creative direction for the record both prior to starting it and has this developed post-release?
I didn’t necessarily have a set-out plan for how the record would sound but I did know it would be a poppier record than my previous as I’d been listening to a lot of synth-pop during the first two lockdowns, artists like Robyn and Little Boots. I was also delving into Prince’s catalogue and found myself fascinated by the drum-machine sounds of the 80s. All of these influences ended up inspiring ‘Stranger’ and ‘Looking Up’ in particular. It’s interesting you say the artwork appears as parts of myself as there’s several different sonic textures on this EP that I think each represent a piece of who I am as a creator.
Did you take any unexpected risks with this EP? In reference to sonically, lyrically or otherwise?
‘Stranger’ was an unexpected risk, something completely different to anything I’d created before. I’d been listening a lot to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ and loved the LinnDrum sounds that he was known for. The 80s were also known for synthesisers like the Juno-60 which I became obsessed with. I began experimenting with beats and sounds I’d never worked with before and it formed the sonic backdrop to Stranger. Lyrically I was quite inspired by Robyn at the time, who has a talent for writing pop songs that you can cry to on the dance floor. I really wanted to push myself as a producer and have fun with this record, exploring genres and sounds that were new to me.
As you write, record and produce all your work (and everything inbetween), doing all this alongside the pandemic – did it feel more of a closed/isolated process?
I often create on my own, so it was kind of business as usual and not necessarily different from how I normally work. I can be a pretty introverted person when I’m creating so having that space to myself without distraction is really freeing. However, when it came to recording other musicians like string players and a guitarist, it was a very different experience to have them record their parts at home and then send them to me. I normally like to work with and direct musicians in the room when recording as it allows me to get really deep into the nitty-gritty of the performance. But luckily I worked with some class musicians who are very talented and adapted really well to the limitations of lockdown.
For each song on this record, you’ve been releasing a live performance on YouTube. Is performing these songs live and showing fans important to you, for further connection? It must add a different dimension to the lyrics.
No matter how big I’ve made the production or what direction I’ve taken it, for me, a song always starts at the piano. I like to be able to show my tunes from that same intimate setting where it was first created. It definitely does add a different dimension to the lyrics, it can take it to a whole new universe which is why I love acoustic versions of songs so much. A song can feel more emotional or serious when it’s all stripped back for the world to see. It can also be a more vulnerable experience because you have nothing to hide behind when it’s just you and the piano. Live music is so different too from the perfection and glossy nature of commercially released music. It’s real and it’s raw. During this period of time when we didn’t have live music and I couldn’t play any gigs, I wanted to be able to continue to do something live for my audience.
In the song ‘Stranger’ you sing, “You wanted sunlight but I was a cloud burst.” Was this referencing your energy, physically or mentally? Or the feeling of not matching up to expectations?
It’s a bit of both. That lyric is referencing the fact that I’m not a sunny, happy person all of the time. I certainly am sometimes, but I can be really moody and melancholic too, it’s part of who I am. There’ve been people who’ve expected me to never show negative emotions and it’s an impossible and unhealthy standard to hold. The modern expectations of social media also feed into this and it’s something I struggle with sometimes. There’s a pressure to portray our lives as being perfect and happy but in reality, no one’s life is picture-perfect. Every person has struggles at one point or another and I think we’d really feel less alone in our difficulties if we were all a bit more honest with each other.
With the music video for ‘Stranger’ it shows the home life we were accustomed to at the time (other than the 50’s vibe), but has more serious connotations. Can you talk through the contrast between the comedic/positive nature of your acting vs the break-up lyrics?
‘Stranger’ is about trying to live up to someone else’s idea of perfection. I wanted to portray a tongue in cheek, plastic 1950s housewife who starts unravelling as her “picture perfect” life crumbles around her. I’ve been obsessed with the TV series Mad Men for years so the character is inspired by Betty Draper and the movie Stepford Wives. The beat and vibe, as well as the music video, feels more uptempo and fun than the serious nature of the lyrics. I’ve been pretty inspired by Robyn’s ‘Body Talk’ lately, full of sad pop bangers that you can simultaneously dance and cry to. That was a big influence on Stranger.
In ‘Take Me Away’ you sing, “Pick my mind up off the ground,” was this a song which was a means of escapism for your mind?
‘Take Me Away’ was actually written a few months before the pandemic was ever a thing, but its lyrics really resonated with me during the various lockdowns. I wrote it during one of those periods where I was holed up in my studio, writing all day and night. It did start to wear me down and drive me a little crazy after a while, constantly working and never leaving the studio. That’s when I wrote ‘Take Me Away’ because I just wanted to get out and see the world again. I was banging my head against the wall, trying to be creative but not realising that to write about life, you actually have to go out and live it. That’s where that line came from, “pick my mind up off the ground” because I felt I’d lost my mind for a little bit there.
It’s a much more demanding track vs the others on the EP due to the high notes. When creating it, did you experiment more with pacing to help those high notes reach a different meaning?
Yeah it certainly is a wider vocal range than the others on the EP. I come from a classically trained background as a soprano and was feeling like I didn’t use my upper range enough in my music so I made an objective with this one to write higher than I normally would. Interestingly it’s easier for me to sing those higher notes in ‘Take Me Away’ than it is for me to belt in my chest voice in other songs because of my classical background. I think you’ll be hearing more of that range in future music now!
In the song ‘Scars’ you reminisce a lot through lyrics, speaking about a grandparent and accidents such as the bike. By bringing this honesty across in your work do you feel others will connect more?
It’s always been really important to me to be honest in my lyrics. The artists that I’ve always admired the most are the ones who’ve been brave enough to be vulnerable in their music. Those artists and those songs are ones that have helped me through some pretty tough times in the past. Because of this, honesty has become part of the bedrock of who I am as a songwriter and creator. My ultimate aim has always been to create music that can be there for people when they’re struggling. It can be a really powerful experience hearing someone sing about something that you’re also going through. It makes you feel so much less alone in the world.
These memories and singing about them must be a sort of therapy for you?
Absolutely. Songwriting has always been a form of therapy for me. I’ve been writing songs since I was 8 but when I was a teenager, I discovered that putting my struggles and experiences into song really helped me process and cope with turbulent times. Knowing how cathartic and healing music can be later inspired me to study for my MA in music therapy.
What does being a human really mean?
Being human can mean so many different things as we are all such multifaceted and complicated creatures. But to me, it means being raw and imperfect. It means struggling and failing, but also learning and growing at the same time. It means succeeding and thriving, experiencing and loving. At the end of the day, we all just want to live our lives as best as we can, and to love and be loved. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, how we’re all so much more similar to each other than we are different.
The ‘Looking Up’ video must’ve also been a great experience – in the wild with your dog. Did you feel that travelling, being free, matched strongly with the message of the track?
Definitely. Looking Up is all about that moment of being free and hopeful again after going through darkness and isolation. I’m an outdoorsy person and love camping and hiking. Throughout the lockdowns, I kept thinking of all the camping road trips I’d done in the USA and how badly I couldn’t wait to be driving through the countryside again, my hand out the window and the sun on my face, just totally in the moment. I couldn’t yet travel to the USA at that time but it gave me the opportunity to finally explore Scotland, a country I have now totally fallen head over heels for. My dog Zeppelin was a lockdown puppy so I was so excited to finally bring him on his first big trip too and he had the time of his life camping with us in the mountains.
No doubt your dog Zeppelin has become a firm fan favourite. What can fans expect next?
He certainly has haha and boy does he love the attention!! At the moment I’m producing a few really exciting tracks for other artists and a big sample pack project that I can’t wait to share more about. I’m also beginning production on my next release, my debut album 🙂