ALBUM PREMIERE: The Rosie Varela Project Deliver Bold and Textural Art-rock on ‘What Remains’

Photo credit: Joe Nuñez

The Rosie Varela Project’s debut album dives head-first into the topics of love, childhood trauma, and all the bittersweet experiences in between. The end result is raw, zen, and ultimately liberating.

Rosie Varela is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based out of El Paso, Texas. She is also the current frontwoman of the internationally-recognized shoegaze band, EEP. What Remains (Released on June 3rd) tells the story of Varela’s own life experiences as a woman.

The group itself consists of the 5 band members currently in EEP (Rosie Varela, Ross Ingram, Sebastian Estrada, Serge Carrasco, and Lawrence Brown III), as well as keyboardist and guitarist Aldo Portillo.

Today Glide is excited to premiere the band’s latest album What Remains, which freed Varela to dive deeply into the emotional stories of her life. Musically, the album showcases this talented group’s expansive and textural indie rock that also veers into shoegaze, art-pop, and post-rock to make for a compelling listen. What Remains is the first of five albums The Rosie Varela Project plans to record.

As we crack open the book of Varela’s life, we hear haunting vocals paired with a jazzy waltz in the lead-off, “Louise”. The words ‘You made me do it, you looked right through it’ are contrasted by a pleasant and forward-placed drum groove. The combination of psychedelic rock, jazz, and spacey vocals crescendo into dissonant held winds, symbolizing what seems to be the downfall of a relationship. This bleeds into the end of the tune, where a wash of new percussion sounds rise and fall like a wave, a trippy fade-out where the left and right channels phase out of time with each other.

The Rosie Varela Project seamlessly transitions from micro to macro scale experiences, from breakups to America as a whole. The next track, “Wound” opens with stacked acapella vocals, and focuses on heavy social dilemmas. It is a somber anthem to those who feel “Held hostage” by the system, a plea for help. Dark chord planing leads up to a flute solo in the B section. Just when we think it’s time to give up, the last set of lyrics offers us a touch of hope.

This music collective paints not only with sound, but with the color palette of life experience itself. “Night Sky”, for example, showcases a blossoming of feelings, and speaks of a gratitude for life. It is a song that you love on first listen, an exploration of warm textures paired with expertly panned call and response between instruments.

So many of the tunes on What Remains feel cosmic – calling toward something much larger than ourselves. Speaking of, the cosmic title track, “What Remains” begins its life with celestial synths, organ and a mellow bass. It has a slow feeling in 2, almost like trudging through the thick mud of life.

“You’re told to just be quiet, let the men talk. Let the men talk”

The voices crescendo and transform into a wall of overlapping vocals, trumpets, and flutes that phase out like an old record – a nod to the dizzying reality of old memories that come back to haunt us. We are left wondering ‘Is this an anthem, or a dirge? A mourning of a childhood lost?’ It is a beautiful and heart-wrenching sonic representation of the chaotic feeling of helplessness for children in need, those victims of unspeakable abuse.

As we wind down this sonic path, the group transports us through a rich palette of charged emotions, moving freely through genres and styles to carry their message. “Leave Me Alone” explores southern-feeling folk with peppy bossa-nova bop, whereas “Fault Line” compares an unstable relationship to a geographic weak point.

This fusion project is a pure expression of heart and art that will take you on both a winding musical and emotional journey. So travel with us, step into the shoes of this woman. Your heart will ache, break, and then it will blossom.

Listen to the album and read our chat with Rosie Varela below…

What do you think are the most universal female experiences? What does it mean to you, to be a woman, and how did you integrate this personal truth into this album?

In reviewing the hundreds of songs in my demo backlog, I noticed certain themes that kept popping up for me. Songwriting has been my therapy for quite a while, so it felt like it was time to record these moments through music.

I think women go through some similar experiences as girls, depending on their generation, where they live, their family and their community’s dynamics. In the title track “What Remains,” I write in very simple terms of the experiences of being censored as a girl in order to let the boys be the leaders, being encouraged to smile no matter what, being told to be quiet and docile, and being told to keep abuses secret. The “veils” that are lifted lyrically in that song is about realizing as a girl that not everything and everyone is sugar and spice and everything nice or has your best interests in mind. And those kinds of formative experiences often bleed into the way we live our lives as grown women.

“Leave Me Alone” was written about the times in which we enter into relationships with confused, sometimes broken men. We often fall into strange co-dependencies in our trying to “fix” them or their lives. It is such an unconscious dynamic that women who are nurturers may find themselves in.

Conversely, “My Sunshine” is about the conundrum of being a strong, capable independent woman in a relationship with someone who wants to be “the knight in shining armor” who saves her when she doesn’t really need to be saved.

So there are definitely ways in which women are conditioned, but have to watch out for themselves. To be strong (but not too strong lest you bruise male egos and put yourself in danger), nurturing (but not be a doormat), and pleasant (yet call out abuse).

It’s interesting to be my age and be able to reflect on these gender and relationship dynamics through music, especially when I was younger and actually living in these situations. I could not see the dysfunction within them at the time, but the painful lessons have become steel in my spine in some ways and have made me more and more aware of them.

What Remains” feels timeless. What was the seed of this title track – Did you begin writing with guitar, lyrics, vocals?

Sometimes in songwriting you construct, then listen to what your song is trying to tell you, and absolutely must deconstruct.

This song was built on a fun day in the studio with my co-producer, engineer, and bandmate Ross Ingram. I was playing with a new pedal, the Ravish Sitar, and we created some wonderful guitar drones that we manipulated through the outboard equipment, and another pedal, the Dweller. Very layered, electric sitar sounds.

Listening to it, I realized this was going to be the song where in which I was going to address some painful things. And as I started working on lyrics and a vocal melody line, we both realized the song needed to be pared down. It reminded me of peeling back an artichoke, to get to the heart of it. We wound up with a much sparser arrangement. And for some reason I felt it was asking for soulfulness and a bluesy Rhodes keyboard part felt right, as did a few sparse acoustic notes in the lead up to the final refrain. This song really taught me the joy and yes, the power of editing, letting a song breathe and then listening for what it’s really asking from you.

What does the page turn sound effect represent in the first track “Louise”?

“Louise” is a strange story I built around an overheard conversation in a grocery store. “You made me do it Louise.” In the actual story, it was a man complaining to his wife in the produce aisle about bringing the wrong thing to their cart.

The story I built was of a man who enters into a marriage with a very strong professional woman at the height of her abilities, who gives up her dreams to be a “good wife.” He sees that she’s languishing in her life as a “good wife” and deliberately sets out to sabotage their marriage so that she’ll leave him and resume working on her greater dreams. Writing this just now makes me realize, “wow, that’s effed up!” Haha. So the paper sound is his turning the pages, crumpling the pages, and burning the pages on this love for the sake of her greater good. I think back and now I wonder if someone didn’t do that to me at some point.

What is your process of “painting with sound”? How does this type of writing differ from how you’d write for EEP?

With EEP, I’d either generally bring in a finished song to my bandmates and ask them to create their parts according to what they think it needs, or we’d write together in the studio in a structured manner – here’s the verse, here’s the pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc. And because EEP is made up of 5 amazing songwriters, musicians and vocalists, we all know how to write in a very focused way.

In the RVP sessions, I’d bring in a song and we’d kind of intuitively record every idea we had – from a simple rhythmic texture, to a pulsating atmospheric “cloud” using synths and effects, to blowing into a Topo Chico bottle for rhythm. Nothing was off limits.

So, my band for RVP (essentially EEP plus one – my co-producer Ross Ingram, Serge Carrasco, Sebastián Estrada, Lawrence Brown III, and Aldo Portillo) knew we could try anything, such as huge tympani rolls and kalimba on “Louise,” fun, weird synth accents, and weird throat noises on “Wound.” It was like slapping sounds on a canvas of silence.

Sometimes I would ask for sounds I didn’t know how to make by using description – “Can you find a sound that sounds like a phone call going through to a phone booth in heaven?” My bandmates know by now I’m going to always ask for crazy shit like that.

The textures of instruments you chose for this album are so lush and unique, and, at times, almost orchestral. How did you choose the instrumentation for each individual song?

The beautiful, intuitive thing was we just kind of recorded the orchestral strings as any other part, that same “painting with sound” before we thought of how it would be arranged. For most of this album, the editing and mixing are where the parts are really brought together, sequenced and given the aural treatments to tell a sonic and emotional story.

I was blessed to collaborate with Ross throughout this process. We know each other’s influences, references and taste so well that we’re able to arrange together very quickly. At this point, we’re getting to where we can read each other’s minds! So on “Louise,” it was one take run-throughs laying down the synth strings, and the crazy reverse guitar layers and vocals on “Fault Line.” I love that we can rely on our shared knowledge base and our ease of communication to make our intuitive musical ideas come to life in this way.

What is the meaning behind this line-art style album cover?

I was taking art lessons to learn how to sketch better. One of my exercises was to draw a line drawing, and I drew it like I write music – I asked the pencil and paper to show me what it wanted to be. And this woman with bat-like wings started appearing as I drew. She was fierce looking, but vulnerable, she had wings, but they weren’t delicate, beautiful wings. These were wings made to get the hell out of harm’s way. It wasn’t until the album was halfway finished that I realized she matched the spirit of this collection of songs. Our graphic designer, Nathan McGehee, really solidified this theme by creating more amazing line drawings of all the band members and other line accents for the entire album.

According to your artist bio, this project is a fusion of not only your experiences but also life experiences. Do you have any sense about your message for music of the future? What’s next for The Rosie Varela Project?

You know what’s cool about releasing your first solo project album at 54? It’s that no one really knows what to expect from a first-time, older female artist. Especially one who finally, after dreaming of this all her life, co-owns her own label and studio (with much gratitude to my Brainville studio partners and Hogar Records partners!).

So, having the methods and means for unhinged, joyful, intuitive song crafting and collaboration, I think I’m at a Star Trek moment in my creative life – to go where we’ve never gone before.

Part of this project is also releasing singles – collaborating with musicians who are doing really interesting work in many different genres. This summer we’re releasing some interesting singles that blur genre lines and I love it.

This project is infused with a wildness to it and a commitment to dive deeper – into the music and into life.

The last song of the album, “Surrender,” is about surrendering to our own love, to the freedom we can find in our own soulfulness, to the moments of grace, gratitude and honesty that make life meaningful.

And so when I dream of the future of music, it’s filled with honesty, emotion, yeah a little weirdness and experimentation, and a polite but mischievous disregard for a song’s “commercial viability.” To me, that feels like creative freedom, and that’s a place in which I’d love to see us all living.

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