Photography by Suzy Poling | Words by Danianl Dylan Wray
Group Rhoda is the one-women project of San Francisco’s Mara Barenbaum. Her debut album, ‘Out of Time, Out Of Touch’, is out now on Night School Records and has proven to be one of 2012’s beautiful, creeping underdogs; a glorious jarring of Suicide-like industrialism and Lee “Scratch” Perry dub-pop, the sort that made Peaking Lights ‘936’ such a delight in 2011. Although, speaking with Mara, she tells me it wasn’t a simple record to make. “This album was a bit of a struggle,” she says. “I did not have the skills or resources to feel comfortable taking on the challenge entirely on my own… I went back to working with Brian Hock, who had initially helped me with my EP that I never released.”
The result is a dichotomous affair, a record that is at times dark, uncanny and elegiac, and at others bright, effervescent and sapid. “That is me!” says Mara. “Dark and light.”
Mara is also both loquacious and deeply thoughtful when responding to questions.
“I think it has to do with my kind of Scorpio polar mood shifts,” she ponders. “I want to be strong and self sufficient, but I also want to be sensitive and compassionate. Just because something seems dark and aggressive does not necessarily mean it is. Metal, for instance, can sound hard, but be really whiny. On the other hand there can be a stripped down quieted folk song with some of the darkest lyrical content possible. There is no reason to corner sounds or words into rigid meaning, it’s just not that black or white.”
Quite. It would be both redundant and difficult to paint ‘Out of Time, Out of Touch’ with such simple brush strokes and colours. The album is varied, textural and densely produced and layered, something seemingly mirrored in Mara’s choice for inspiration. “My influences are really erratic,” she tells me. “I have been noting Cabaret Voltaire as my favourite. It has sort of resonated with me the longest. Some other more referential influences include Alan Vega, TG, F242, Chrome, Anne Clark, Selda, Aaliyah, Burzum, 2Pac, Legowelt. What do these acts share? They are all remarkably strong visionaries in both song writing and production; the 2D work of the songs becomes 3D through the production.
Mara, rather interestingly and in her own words via her website, describes the project as “an attempt at dealing with opposition, sharpening intuition, following instincts and turning ideas into actions. It exists under the influence of repetition, bad habits, fear, machines of decades past, the tropics, transient sounds, hazy recollections, light, colour, the desolate worlds around me and the spaces that are quieted from social noise. It is an effort to negate the sound of safety, control, wastefulness, weak mirroring, transparent shadowing and follow a path reflective of my own fabricated inner environment and imagination.”
I ask whether this was something of a mission statement or a conclusion of your own, finished work.
“I think that statement on the website has always been a part of me,” she says. “There, it is just slightly more poetic and articulate. It feels necessary and natural. I want to do anything I can to fight against control and complacency and I think that this medium is the best way I can do that. To me, fear is debilitating, so I told myself to fight those kind of instincts.”
Mara, it appears, is a rapid worker too, whose plans for albums two and three are already well under way. As she plunges deep into explanation, she says, “The lyrical content of the new work, my forthcoming album and third album, is political. It’s varied and subtle, and often-through metaphor, but it is definitely there. Themes include female independence via space travel, delayed maturity and the inability to leave home, the disempowered people that work as bearers of bad news for government and municipal authorities, homelessness and addiction, puzzlement towards excessive gentrification, 2Pac and his universal influence, the flow of wealth in America described through the water cycle that is increasingly more toxic, faith in love, people who cannot see or care, the burden of difficult responsibilities – especially those in positions of conflict and power – children and their initial freedom from the oppressive awareness of gender roles and social conditioning. I can write about anything,” she happily finishes. “These themes are not harsh and conclusive, but generally exploratory, aware and imaginative. I hope to continue that way.”
As Group Rhoda isn’t a group at all, but rather the sole work of Mara, freedom, as if the above list of topics didn’t make it clear enough, is at the heart of the project, on stage as well as in the studio.
“One of my favourite things about this project is that I am not locked into the song,” says Mara. “There are no backing tracks on stage, no song sequences I have to be in time with. I am free to play with the form and due to the analogue synths the tone as well. It feels more adventurous and reactive. For my set up, I have main keys, a bass synth above and drum machines, fx and a mixer by my side. It is often surprising for people to see me interface with all the components in real time and I like that…
“The recordings differ from the live show, in that they are a bit more polished and they have some additional overdub work. I had to make this consideration and thought the recordings might benefit from some additional layers. Still, I do not think that the live act suffers; I feel, and others support this supposition, that the live act has some real tonal grit and personal character.”
Us Brits will sadly have to wait until 2013 to find this out for ourselves, by which time Group Rhoda hopes to have a second album of material releases. “I plan to be in the UK late April or May,” says Mara. “I waiting for the weather to become nice so I can really enjoy my time there.” Hmm, could be a long wait…
Originally published in Loud And Quiet 42. Read the issue in full here.