Photo Courtesy of ksrmr
By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor
Berklee College of Music student Maria-Elena Kaser, aka ksrmr, transformed the face of her project from sporadically uploaded ambient sounds to a full-fledged discography. After some intial apprehension to put a face to the name, Maria is now releasing more music that features her deep, rich vocals, while still creating "music for quiet moments." Before the release of her latest single, "blindspot," she spoke with WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin about the origins of her project and its evolution over time, as well as the current social climate and its affect on her music.
The first question I wanted to ask is how did this project come about, and what made you specifically want to start this project?
Maria-Elena Kaser: I started, actually a couple of years ago, producing on my own. And what that meant was my mom was like, “I know this person who wants to teach classes.” I was like, “That's fine, but let’s start off with some random software first; It's a little bit cheaper and then we can get started.” But then she was, like, really, really nice, and bought me Logic. I was like, “Oh, I guess I have to use this now! Because I have it.” (Laughs) I remember as soon as I kind of started playing around, I really fell in love with producing, so most of the stuff that you can find on Spotify and my SoundCloud used to be a lot denser with random things I'd post once a week – just some track that I made. But I fell in love with the idea of really, really pretty sounds, and I think I was really drawn to the idea of soundscapes. I’d always [wrote songs], so it was finding the mix between the two that I think kind of came about a little bit later. Yeah, I just started producing, and the whole like ksrmr thing was just my username at the time on Instagram; (Laughs) I was like, “Okay, so last name and the first half of my first name… no vowels, classic internet thing to do,” which is funny now because there's a pretty big DJ called KSHMR (laughs). It’s funny if you ever look it up on Youtube and stuff, his stuff will come up first, and I’m like, “Damn it. Should have thought that one through.”
(Laughs) Hey, at least maybe people will mistake you for him at some point, right?
MK: Hopefully, hopefully! That would be a really happy accident (laughs).
You talked about those pretty sounds – Looking at your Spotify bio and it just says “music for quiet moments.” Listening to your music, it's just these beautiful, pretty sounds that are just so serene. What inspires you and motivates you to produce and create music like that?
MK: I think it's usually what I'm just drawn to. I think any person who makes art has, like, their little spot of comfort, and with my personality and how I feel like I am as a person, I'm a pretty calm person. As much as I might be kind of jokey or sarcastic, I'm a very peaceful person and I find that's what will come out: kind of softer, quieter things, just because it's what brings me peace, in a sense.
You just released your latest single “Fire Escape,” which was so awesome to see. What was the inspiration and the process of writing and creating that song?
MK: Yeah, the story about that one is I was at a party of one of my friends and… I'm all right at parties, but sometimes in house party environments, I can get really kind of caught up in the reality of the situation, which is just a bunch of people standing around making small talk for a couple of hours. I've only recently started, like, drinking (laughs), but at that time, I would be stone-cold sober, in a room, and I would just feel this disconnect from everybody. I've always been a solitary person. So, any excuse to find an escape of some sort has always been really comforting for me. Whether it be just being like, “Oh, I gotta go to the bathroom.” I'm sure everyone's been there, not even needing to go to the bathroom but just needing a break. But the title I thought of when, at a certain point, my best friend and I, and his ex at the time, had snuck out to the fire escape at their apartment. And I was like, “This is so much better, and this feels like I don't want to be in there, ‘cause I don't know the people in there.” I don't want to be thinking about what I'm saying, and how I'm feeling, and have to really confirm that right now.
I think, at least in my case, it's like a metaphor for this disconnect, and this wanting to escape from any sort of social interaction [in which] you don't feel like you're living, like living up to anybody's expectations. You don't know what to say, you don't know how to feel, you don't know how to present yourself. You're just like, "I want peace right now." That's what I shot for.
And are you planning on doing anything else so far? I even wanted to ask you, what are you doing currently to sort of keep the light on, because I'm sure it's not easy being a musician during these crazy, wild, unfortunate times. Are you planning on releasing stuff in the future attached to this, or are you just sort of going with it?
MK: Yeah, I've been writing and producing songs for the batch of upcoming releases for, like, I don't know how long. It's one of those things where at first I was like, “I'm going to put out an EP,” and with the songs I was writing, it was getting to a point where it was like, “All right, this is not looking like an EP. This is looking more like an album.” Now, I'm at the point where I'm vetting songs. As much as you grow very attached to what you make, I'm thinking of instead of releasing like an album of stuff that I don't feel like I'd be the most, like, “This is my work, this is the collection of songs I'm most proud of,” for now, I'm acknowledging that I’m in a period of growth. My voice has gotten a lot better than it was nine months ago; A lot of the recordings we did were from nine months ago. I just want to give myself this space and time to put out, if there is anything that I feel the most confident in quality-wise – I do think there's definitely stuff coming – but I don't want to put anything out just because I've worked on it for a while.
During this whole quarantine period, though, I've been playing my guitar a lot more. In the past, I've kind of neglected it a little bit, but this semester, I took a class about [the] basics of guitar, and that's really helped. I feel like playing guitar was one of those things I was weakest at and that I really wanted to improve at. It's just been a good time for getting those fundamentals down, and besides that, getting more used to different types of software. The major that I'm doing is production-focused, so working with different plugins, working with different DAWs, and seeing which one works with my work style or workflow better. I think it's a good time to just mess around, and also decompress. I'm sure you feel it too, but in Boston, it's like a lot of crazy (laughs). I'm not gonna lie, I'm enjoying my 14 hour days, where two out of 14 hours, I'm just playing Animal Crossing. And I'm like, “All right, I'll make myself some breakfast and eat out on the lawn, and then I can try learning a song for a little bit. If I learn it today, cool. If I don't, I could work on it tomorrow.” Just focusing on academics, but besides that, talking to my friends, making sure that I'm okay, making sure that people that I care about are okay. That’s kind of my priority.
It is definitely a nice time to chill (laughs).
MK: I’m sure everyone is appreciating at least a little bit of breathing. Not as much. Like, I feel like right now there's too much breathing time we're given, but at least a little bit we can appreciate. You slow down, you're like, “I'm gonna listen to this album that I listened to when I was, like, 15 and see if I enjoy it.” (Laughs)
(Laughs) You talked briefly about the vetting process, and I always love hearing the nitty-gritty of people's different processes and ways that they choose songs. What is your process for, like you said, vetting, or not even vetting what you’re going to release, but what makes the song finished to you?
MK: In the simplest terms, it's a gut feeling. You're just like, “This feels right,” when you listen to it, or at least, this is as far as this can go. But with vetting songs, if I listen to it, and something is nagging me, and I'm like, “What is it?” You try everything that your brain can think of, but nothing really is clicking, and you read the lyrics and you’re like, “This just isn't as strong an idea,” or something that, at least in my case, I think is a big thing, especially for songwriters. One thing that I try not to do so much and try to be mindful of is, of course, expressing myself and feeling like, “Oh, if I have something to say or something that I feel like I need to say, then saying it,” but also looking back and being like, “Does this need to be said?” For example, songs that would be just relishing in my own misery, being like, “Oh, I’m so sad!” It’s getting into, like, at what point is this not maybe the healthiest thing for me? Or maybe, this is a weird point, but other people as well, just like, “Do I want to put out a song that's about how dark things can get mentally?”
Of course, that can be a really interesting topic. But, at a certain point, it kind of gets a little bit exploitative. For example, let's say you're writing a song about depression. What can I do instead of saying, “I'm so depressed, I'm really not doing well, maybe I feel this urge to do something that I'm really, really going to regret.” Instead of that, being like, “Okay, I'm currently really depressed, but I can recognize that this is maybe a really painful time that I'm currently in, but overall I'm doing better. This is just a hiccup in the road.” Just trying not to be a fatalist about things. I find that with songwriting for me sometimes, half the time, [I like the song] because I feel like, “Oh, it’s a really cool melody. I like how this sounds and I like this guitar part. I like this pad part. I like these keys.” But then sometimes it’s like, I haven't gone to therapy yet. I don't know why I haven't gone to therapy yet (laughs). I just need to get what's dogging my mind and memory out and saying it. But sometimes it doesn't really need to be heard.
I'm interested to know – not to make you pick your favorite child – but is there a song that you've released so far that not only is your favorite, or maybe isn't even your favorite, but a song that has taught you something either about yourself personally or about your songwriting process or creative process?
MK: I would probably say “Coward.” That song is interesting because it was originally supposed to serve as just a musical interlude between two kinds of ambient soundscapes, but I think it resonated with pretty much everybody. When I released the EP, everyone just seemed to really cling onto that, and I think it’s partially due to the fact that it had vocals on it. That's not really a surprising fact (laughs). Ambient kind of finishings are, you know, they're beautiful. They're mood setters, but at a certain point, I think for a lot of people, they also want to hear words and speech, because then it's easier to relate to. It's maybe just like a little bit more catching for the ear. But “Coward” was an interesting one because it was the first song that I put out with my voice which was incredibly scary because there's something very anonymous about releasing instrumental music. If you didn't know who I was personally and you just saw ksrmr, and you just heard an instrumental track, you would have no idea who I was. You have no idea where I came from, and what I'm feeling. But with my voice, you're like, “Oh, this is the face, this is the person, [these are] their thoughts, this is what they're thinking and feeling.”
With that song, I wrote it about a hypothetical date, or something that I would be having with somebody that I know in reality will just never happen because I'm too much of a coward. I'm afraid to say anything or make a move, or just be honest with the other person. So, it just exists in this weird fantasy space of “What if I was with this person?” And hypothetically, knowing myself, even if I was – that’s kind of what the song is about – I'd still be like really mulling over what I was saying, and being hyper-aware of what I was feeling. There’s this sense of acceptance of, “I'm never really going to have this.” Now I disagree; It's not the world's most uplifting message but it's just living a fantasy that I know I'll never have. Seeing how that related to people, especially with a lot of my queer friends, because the romantic interest in the song is a girl, and I'm just like, “You're gorgeous, you're beautiful, and I can't say anything!” (Laughs) Especially my queer friends were just like, “I feel this because there's an extra boundary: Not only am I just telling someone that I like [them], it’s someone who maybe is the same gender identity as me.” They're just like, “I am scared! I don’t want to be rejected. I don’t want to freak them out.” So you just bite your tongue and you don't say anything. Even though you might be thinking all about all these things, and no matter how nice they might be to you, you’re still thinking about that.
Also, production-wise, I think that song is just one of those that I worked on that I was like, “This feels right.” My gut was like, “This is good. This is where this is at.” Of course, you know, it's something I released a year ago, so there are little things I would nitpick. But, overall, I'm still incredibly proud of it. If all this [COVID stuff] hadn't happened, I was planning on actually starting performing, and that was one of the songs that I was going to start off with because it gets a lot of the mood or the general vibe that I go for. It’s very bittersweet, melancholy. It's not just depressed, or it's not just happy: It's this weird peace you get from acceptance, but it's a realization that you just know isn't really that great. If you didn’t, it would only bring you more pain, so you have to accept it. I feel like it gets tonally, what I want to get across more, so “Coward” is a big one for me. She's like my baby. (laughs)
What's been your take on the situation of the current events? How has it sort of influenced you, maybe either in your work or just in personal life?
MK: Watching either everything unfold has been really inspirational. It's been kind of a weird process, because it's taught everybody a lot, especially with regards to centering themselves. I've always considered myself very much a feminist, and [I am] trying to be as much of an intersectional feminist as possible. I felt this was a really good time to support and try to be that voice for people – or, it's actually the opposite: not be the voice for people, but instead amplify the voices that I felt needed to be supported and amplified. It's been interesting navigating this phase as an artist – and it's been funny watching other people deal with this as well – navigating the responsibilities of being an artist and the political climate.
The way that I’ve personally gone about it is I've essentially not been a musician, in a sense, like a public face, because it’s not felt like the time. Now that the protests are going on, you hear that someone's been seriously injured, or you hear another story, or you learn another new face gets added to the list, a new name. And not just within the Black Lives Matter movement, but within a lot of the continuation of the Me Too movements, you'll hear people coming out about musicians that are taken advantage of. That's like the circle, it’s predominantly musicians. You'll see everyone kind of dealing with their own personal things, so it just seems like it's been a very off-time. It’s like, “Hey, I know all this is going on, but listen to my song that came out!” It’s like, what? (Laughs) Personally, the route that I've decided to take is just to completely go ghost and be like, “Hey, these are organizations that I think are important.” But it's been interesting to watch, because you learn a lot, whether it be through your own actions or whether it be through watching how other people navigate because I personally chose to kind of keep myself out of it.
That’s sometimes the best course of action.
MK: Yeah, and of course being vocal about, like, “This is wrong,” but not making it about myself. What I've learned over the years – and this relates to music as well – I know that the predominant issue or the predominant focus right now is Black Lives Matter – I'm not someone who is black. There's no song that I could write that could provide any sort of new valuable perspective on the black experience, which sounds like it's a very obvious thing. But going to music school, there have been some really surreal moments where I found myself in classes where you learn about social justice movements, and then one of the assignments will be “Write a song about it, or make a presentation.” Usually, there’ll be multiple options, and one of the options would be writing a song. Obviously, most people there are musicians, or everyone there is a musician, so it's like, “What are we gonna do? Are we gonna make a PowerPoint, or...?” (Laughs) So, most people will go for songs, and it's amazing to me because I'll be sitting there and I'm like, “Oh my God. If I was a black man…” and then it’s like, “You're not a black man. What are you doing?” (Laughs) It'll also be so clear because then you'll have actual black people in the class that will make art and immediately the difference is so much more noticeable.
It's mostly just trying to be like, “Hey, these are places that you can donate to. If you're gonna be protesting, be safe.” That's personally the route that I have chosen. One very interesting thing is just watching how some people I know asked the question. It’s like, “I want to be active, but I need music. Music is a big part of my livelihood, a part of my persona, what I'm doing right now. When would it start being appropriate for me to start incorporating that?” It’s those kinds of tough questions that I think do need to be asked: not how much time should be allocated, that's not at all the question, but it's funny watching the process of people trying to start to, like, snap out of it. It’s a little bit unfortunate, but how do you – instead of reframing the question from “When is it okay for me to be an artist again?” reframe it into “How can I incorporate activism into everyday practice?”
And you now have this new single, “blindspot,” that you are releasing, which is super exciting. How did that song come about? Is this something that was written before all of these events, during all these events, and what was the process for creating this song?
MK: The story behind the song – it's not my, like, favorite, unfortunately – but as I mentioned before, it's been a journey. It is sort of inspired by some of the social movements. The song came as a result of dealing with becoming aware of something from someone that you really, really, really care deeply about. It's not a love song; It’s someone that you care really deeply about. If something comes up, it just hits you out of nowhere and immediately changes everything. I think the thing that's most compelling about it is almost the power; the power imbalance, and also managing your feelings in terms of hurt. Realizing, “I still care about this person – things may have gotten so weird out of nowhere, but I still care about you – What is going on?” So it came from a place of confusion – and this is an example of something that I actually do feel comfortable with talking about because this affected my experience. It's not like I'm making this up to capitalize off of someone else's suffering, or an injustice someone else has suffered through. That's not the case. This is something that I now actually have experience with, so now I feel comfortable sharing my perspective. You know, in a grander scope, it's mostly just about a close relationship that just kind of broke. As much as [it's] a weird thing to think about, at least the way that I've thought about friendships ending in the past as like very final, this is not one of those cases; This can't be one of those cases. It's navigating that weird limbo of, “You hurt me. This came completely out of nowhere. There's no way me or people that I care about could have seen this coming. But I still want to make sure you're okay. I still want you to be safe and healthy and happy to an extent.” So, that's where “blindspot” came from.
In terms of the music, I was going to come out with stuff, then I listened to it and I thought, “This just doesn't really represent where I'm at right now.” One pro of being locked in for months on end is that – I don’t I want to say that I’ve been more productive because that's a lie (laughs). I've been living, like, 70 consecutive Sundays in a row – the moments that I do have enough motivation to actually work on something, or the moments where I do feel like I need to get something out, I've been recording a lot myself and getting a lot more comfortable with recording. “Fire Escape” I recorded with one of my wonderful, wonderful best friends, Rowan Martin. He is great, super super cool. I said, "This is the perfect opportunity to practice." That’s what it originally was supposed to be, just getting a demo down, getting a scratch track. The funny thing is actually – I don't know how obvious it'll be – I think mostly the guitars and the vocals are the first take. Because I went into it like, “This is a demo.” (Laughs) And the more that I listened to it, I was like, “Oh, this actually may be one my favorite songs I've ever written. Okay, let's work with this.” It was definitely a learning process because this is the first song I've written, recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered all myself, so I'm praying that I didn't miss a detail. It's been a hilarious process, because the amount of times in one day I'll apologize to [Rowan] about this [is crazy]: With the so-called “final versions” of the song, I'll be like, “This is it! This is the last version of this song.” And then a day later I'm like, “Just kidding!” (Laughs) I think I did that like seven times.