An Interview With

Isabel Of Pumarosa

Music | March 12 2017

Another International Women’s Day has come to pass, but the feelings of sisterhood, empowerment and gratitude for everything our foremothers have done for us will live on in our hearts and Instagram feeds for many moons to come. At The Ladies Network, we have the great fortune to constantly be surrounded by powerful, billion-dimensional women who are slaying it in their respective creative fields, and the latest lady we caught up with was the very talented Isabel of London-based five-piece Pumarosa.

Pumarosa recently popped by Australia to wow us with their new trance rock album, The Witch. While they were here, we nabbed some time with Isabel to chat about the cathartic powers of dance, their recent trip to Japan, and the importance of staying well-read, because “as a woman, you almost don’t know who you are… there’s this silent history of women.” As a result, our playlists have improved tenfold, our library cards have been maxed out, and we’ll probably have to tap out of life for a few weeks (/forever) to get caught up on the fresh stacks of books by our beds. You should definitely get to know her better below.

So you’ve never been to Australia before — did you have any preconceived ideas of what it would be like?

Not really. I mean, just that the nature is really intense and amazing. I didn’t really know that much about it. There are definitely lots of Australians in London, so I have a lot of Australian friends and stuff, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Spiders, snakes…

[Laughs] Exactly!

Can you tell us the backstory of how you guys came to meet?

I met Nicholas, our drummer, through a friend of ours. My friend had told me about this guy Nick who’d been away but was back, and just the way he was talking about him, I was like, “I really want to meet this guy, he sounds hot.” [Laughs]. And then he was organising a jam to maybe form a band, and I kind of invited myself, but when it came to it, me and Nick were the only ones who turned up on time and I was only able to go for an hour, so we just played for an hour and then I left, and everyone arrived after me. In the end, I think nothing came of it except that us two realised we liked to play music together and that was the start of it, really. We kept going and gradually met the other guys from the band over a period of time.

How was that dynamic starting out, in terms of playing with someone you didn’t really know?
I suppose that was why we kept doing it, because it felt great. And I think we also really liked each other. We’ve been going out since that moment, pretty much. It felt really easy. He’s incredible at drums; I’d never played with anyone that good. It was like, “Wow! You make everything sound so great! I can just scream and it sounds amazing!” It just felt easy and so I guess that’s why we kept going, and that’s how we met everybody else as well. A little while later we met Tomoya, who plays keys and the saxophone, and he’s an incredible musician and very easy and gentle, and again, playing with him felt easy. Same with Jamie, it was all quite organic.

Cool! Listening to your music, I find it quite hard to pinpoint one specific influence. Who would you say your biggest musical influences are?

Um, I think it’s different for each band member. Everyone has quite diverse influences. One thing that unites us is Radiohead; we all like Radiohead. Tomoya comes from Jazz and Classical and he still really appreciates them, and then Nicholas coming from more psychedelic stuff, he likes them. For me, I think Patti Smith is an incredible performer, writer, and artist. She’s amazing. PJ Harvey keeps producing really interesting stuff. And The Knife, I love their sound.

If you had to describe your musical output in five words how would you describe it?

Five words! Okay. I do still quite like our thing of industrial spiritual — that still seems to fit the bill. But then I suppose if I was trying to make a genre… It’s kind of like psychedelic, trance, rock [laughs]. Maybe? That’s not five words.

Industrial, spiritual…

Yes! So industrial, spiritual, psychedelic, trance rock. That’s the category! Okay great, thank you!

No worries! With International Women’s Day happening this week, I wanted to ask how’d you describe your personal feminism at the moment?

I suppose I’m really hot on it. I’ve been interviewed so much recently, especially having just come back from Japan. I’m just trying to say this thing, because I think it seems to pass so many people by and like feminism becomes almost fashionable, without people actually reading about it.

One thing for me, which was really influential, is this book called Caliban and the Witch. It’s an amazing book. It’s kind of showing the other side of history that we don’t get. As a woman, you almost don’t know who you are, because there are so few female figures in history. There’s almost none. There’s this silent history of women. It’s just like, “Oh yeah, they just laid down and let the guys get on with it.” Obviously we didn’t. It’s an amazing document, because it’s sort of the history of Western Civilisation from a thousand years ago, more or less, up until now, and our struggles throughout. It’s also, as the title suggests, about the witch-hunts and what they were and what they signified. The witch-hunts were a massive thing in female history, because it was an institutionalised shutting up of the woman. It’s amazing, and it worked. People are only now starting to find their voice. But we’re still so self-conscious and aware of what we look like and that, as a woman, takes up so much of my mind. I know it’s a waste of time, but I’m constantly wondering how appealing I am. And it’s like, “Ah shut up!”

It’s so deeply embedded in our psyche. I feel like even if I consciously try not to be bothered by it all, I am still aware of how I’m received based on how I look most days…

Yeah, you can’t help it. It’s a huge thing, because it’s a way of shutting up half of the population, and that was what the witch-hunt was. The witch trials came about because the government — or the kings, queens and church — were having trouble dealing with this very tempestuous population. People didn’t want that kind of civilisation. People were uprising, and they wanted more equality of power, and one way of dealing with that was to silence half the population, so they had these witch trials. If you were a woman and you had something to say, you were just branded a witch, so women shut up because they were afraid. We weren’t taught about any of that at school. All we were taught about was, like, kings. Maybe Elizabeth, one queen, and that’s it. It was really empowering to read it.

There’s also this book, The Beauty Myth, which is amazing. I think informing yourself is important, because no one else is going to. Society and education won’t give you that stuff. Another person I think is really interesting is Jill Soloway — I think she’s quite an interesting spokesperson. She’s going to do a televised version of I Love Dick. Have you read it?

I haven’t! I’ve actually got a copy at home that I’ve been meaning to read for months, but haven’t got around to it. It’s been recommended to me a lot!

Oh my god. Chris Kraus. I’ve read a load of her stuff, and again, I think it’s that thing where you read it and you’re like, “Oh yeah! This is an honest female voice talking about her own life really openly. I’ve never read anything like this before!” So, yeah, I think Jill Soloway is going to do a series version or a film of I Love Dick. I’m quite excited about that!

Do you think music has the power to help with social and cultural shifts?

I don’t think music could start a revolution, but I think that it just shows that people aren’t thinking in the mainstream way. It shows that people aren’t just regurgitating the stuff that they were taught at school. I think that it kind of opens your mind just knowing that. Or even just feeling like you have a friend, you know, if you listen to someone who is saying something and going, “Oh, I’ve felt like that.” It’s a really powerful thing feeling like you’re not alone, and that this is a movement. But at the same time, I don’t think you have to be political in art. I think as an artist, you should be able to do whatever you want, but I think at the moment, for me, that I need to be a little bit political with everything that is going on.

So you just got back from Japan, how did you find it?

Yeah, it was great. I thought Japan would be much more cold — not physically cold — but I thought because technology is so prevalent there, that it would make the whole experience a cold one. But actually, it’s so gentle. The atmosphere in the streets is very gentle and subdued — there’s no rushing, and no pushing, and there’s not much noise. The cars are quiet and people just talk gently. It was lovely. One day we went to this big shrine in this forest in the centre of the city, and suddenly you’re in these beautiful ancient trees, and it’s so sanctified and quiet, and then you go back out into this strange, modern landscape. I totally don’t understand it, but I’m in awe of it.

How was it playing to the crowds there?

It was good! For one thing, we were playing at 1:30pm in the afternoon, and I was like, “Great, we’ve come to the other side of the world and we’re going to play to like 50 people, this is shit!” But when we got onstage, it was full and they were really attentive, and then in between songs they clapped and then were totally silent, waiting for the next song. If you moved your foot on the stage, you could hear it. The respect is so massive — if someone is doing something there, they’re completely and utterly focused on it. I really liked that. I love a rowdy gig and I love a focused crowd. It was lovely.

Do you ever find you have weird fan bases in countries that you weren’t aware of?

One thing I’ve been told — but I don’t know if it’s true — is that Priestess is getting played a lot in Brazil, but as a club anthem. When we were playing in America, there were a few Brazilians at some of the gigs, and they were like, “Oh my god, we’ve heard you in Brazil, we’ve danced to you in the clubs!” We’ve never heard of that otherwise, maybe they were just being nice, but it would be quite a strange thing to invent. So hopefully it’s true. 

What was it like growing up in London, and how do you think that’s shaped you as both a person and a musician?

I was thinking about that recently. I grew up in London until I was 10 and then I moved away to Bath, which is like a really small, pretty town in the west country in Summerset. And then I moved back for University. So I think having the childhood in London was good, because everything is quite multicultural — the kids in your class are from all over the world, only half of you are white — I think that was really nice, and really good. You have the concept of the foreigner, and I suppose my dad’s a foreigner also, he’s Chilian, and I think that was all quite plural which is good. But then I think moving to Bath when I was 10 was nice, because I think in London you can get quite self-conscious. I think that thing of being pretty or fashionable is more amplified in cities, I think, and maybe even more so for women. Although if you had another identity evolving, I think being in the city could actually be helpful, because you won’t be penalised for being what you are. But I think as a little girl, I’m quite glad I grew up in a place that was a bit more naïve. People weren’t so cool — or our idea of cool was a lot easier to obtain than if you were in the city. I think that was nice. In a way it was weird, because we didn’t really engage so much with technology being out of London, which I am sort of glad about. But in another way I’m like, “Fuck!” because at that point the Internet would have been so wild. I wish I’d kind of got on board sooner.

Given that Priestess was such a big hit — being played in Brazilian clubs and the like — did you feel a lot of pressure to follow it up with an A+ album?

I suppose, yeah. It’s so dance-y and not all of our music is like that, so that was a bit of a pressure, especially because the label wanted us to keep releasing the dance-y ones as singles. And it was like, “But that’s not our whole sound?” People would get the album and they’d want a dance album, which it isn’t. I think it’s a good mix — kind of a rock, trance album. But also at the same, not really, because most of the songs had been written by the time we were deciding what to put out next. We were happy with them, and we loved them all.

And lastly, I really loved the inspiration behind ‘Priestess’ and the idea that dance can be really empowering and cathartic. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

My sister is a dancer and choreographer — she’s the figure in the video clip. Being with her is pretty amazing; she’s just so in her body, and so present. If you go out dancing with her, it’s just like the best thing. You can be with a group of people and Fernanda will have gone to the bar or something and you’ll be kind of dancing, and she’ll come back and start moving, and it makes everyone come out of themselves. Everyone starts moving in this different way, and you’ll dance all night.

When Fernie and I dance together, we’ll be the last ones on the dance floor like, “Don’t stop the music!” I think music and dancing really brings people together, you know. And you can dance for free. A street party or a march or something is an amazing thing — you’re dancing because you want to, and it doesn’t cost anything, and it makes you feel good. It’s a moment of freedom, and that can only be a good thing.

The Witch is due out on May 19 via Caroline Australia.

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