The singer-songwriter Sophie Villy has proven herself to be one of FFM's artists most likely to operate internationally. Blessed with manifest expertise in a range of languages - English, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian - she has just returned to Kiev following a number of concerts in the US. Several of those events overlapped with the damage done by Hurricane Sandy. The first order of business since her homecoming has been the publication of a single, "Position." Despite her recent travels, it refers not to her geographic location, but to a moral, even political stance.
In the name of clarity, Sophie sent us a note (in Russian). "I wrote this track a couple of years ago - while I was watching [political and military] events unfold in my native Georgia. There comes a moment in everybody's life when they feel a real need to establish a[n ethical] position vis a vis the surrounding world. This song is dedicated to all people seeking freedom and independence."
Written as events unfolded in Georgia...
"In writing this track I discovered it's possible to express forms of protest peacefully - without any aggression. The main thing is to let your audience know what concerns you. These realizations also led me towards a new [more dramatic] tone in my performance."
Given that these romantically civic notions are designed to operate across national borders, it's understandable that Sophie would look for a kindred spirit in another, distant tradition of songwriting. She finds that second, sympathetic voice in the words of John Lennon. "I think if you get down to basics, whatever the problem is [in world affairs], it's usually to do with love... [We should, however, remember that love] is not just something you stick on posters or stick on the back of your car, or on the back of your jacket or on a badge… Love is appreciation of other people and allowing them to be. Love is allowing somebody to be themselves and that's what we do need."
It's telling to take that extremely optimistic, sweeping view of lyrical relevance and apply it to a few other releases this week from Russian performers. It's hard to imagine a more positive, purposeful voice than Villy's on this occasion: a direct line is drawn between self-expression and social resonance. She dedicates a private song to individuals in search of liberty, no matter their location. Does that same hope transfer to some northern neighbors?
Let's begin with Saint Petersburg's DIY hip-hop ensemble SBPCh, whose name - once unpacked from the Russian - can be translated as "The Biggest Prime Number." This wonderfully witty, literary foursome has just released a new album entitled "Lesnoi Orakul" (Forest Oracle). In the band's most recent PR materials, designed to frame this publication in particular, they've reduced their names to the smallest, friendliest forms: Alexandra, Ilya, Sasha, and Kirill. There's neither time nor room for formality. Grandeur looks unlikely.
There are - at least - a million people who can write better lyrics than me
An interview last week with Russia's edition of Vice certainly helps to flesh out the general context, specifically through the words and confessions of vocalist Kirill Ivanov. From the outset a spirit of understatement, even self-deprecation is evident. Ivanov begins by explaining that - for him - self-expression emerges from the daily struggle with a lack of confidence. "Every morning I wake up knowing that worldwide there are - at the very least - a million people who write better lyrics than me. They compose and play music better than me, too. Everything's just fine in their world." Committing oneself - and one's statements - to tape requires a sobering admission that those words and melodies will henceforth be subject to timeless public scrutiny and critique. The world is not necessarily a welcoming place.
At some distance from both calm and comfort, Ivanov feels that the lo-fi, naive songs of SBPCh always reflect a contemporary - digital - reality. He even speaks of the band's catalog as a "sponge," absorbing whatever the surrounding world happens to produce. Put differently, the songs on "Lesnoi Orakul" are designed not to stand confidently above the world's clamor; instead they struggle to be heard within countless multimedia projects - many of which display dubious taste.
"There's always a great deal of nonsense within digital culture. Swirling around any online phenomenon you'll find all manner of things that are spoken off-the-cuff or purely by chance.... After all, the age we're living in moves very quickly: it's as if the internet is a kind of beast, something that needs to be fed regularly with 20,000 'likes.' If, previously, that beast only needed feeding once a month, then now it needs sustenance once a week. Eventually the web will be demanding new music and artists every day. We've never wanted to be food for that monster..."
The issue is no longer how a love song might enter - and educate - the world, as we hear from Sophie Villy; instead there's a clear need to save private experience from a dizzyingly public storm.
Once I imagined a party in the forest: all the animals came to dance
The best songs, we're informed, are those that hide from any desire for majesty. They're simple and innocent, even wantonly minimalist. And those tiny tunes, say SBPCh, may not have much influence on the present moment - but they can create happier memories.
"It's a real shame when people look back on their lives and recall everything through the prism of grim or miserable songs. That's why we wanted to write the kind of lyrics that would give people hope." That leads to plenty of material from SBPCh and "Lesnoi Orakul" about children or anthropomorphized animals. Those toytown values are nurtured at home. Ivanov adds: "I have a good family [being a new father myself] - and I'm from a good family, too. There are some things especially dear to me - the things I understand best. Once, for example, I imagined a party in the forest: all the animals had come together to dance. I don't think there's anything infantile in those notions."
People behave better in children's books.
He then turns to love. Once more, the tone is different to that of Villy. "I'd say that most of our songs are about love. It's the kind of sensation where you feel really unsure of yourself - it's not at all a constructive state of affairs! When you first fall in love, you really have to force yourself to get [useful] things done. Romance may be really beneficial for you and the person you adore - but it can be super-destructive for everything else around you [i.e., everything outside that relationship]." Private affection serves no clear public purpose.
Ivanov then speaks of moments when, for example, his young son might run into the road by mistake - leading to some paternal yelling and then to apologies. He admits, rather touchingly, that those fleeting (and sidestepped!) dangers to one's family are the only instances of worthwhile significance in his life. Soon to be thirty years old, he makes the almost startling observation that: "I see no other meaning in reality than those moments."
Against that backdrop of simple, sometimes frantically treasured feelings, love becomes the protection of basic virtues within an increasingly vacuous civic sphere.
Memories of Soviet pop
A different form of affection emerges in some equally new recordings from the Novosibirsk project, Siba.Pro. Having begun as the work of two brothers, this outfit was designed from the outset to "merge European electronica with wholly Russian traditions - in terms of both style and sound. You'll find memories of Soviet pop, richly embellished with digital elements. In the background you may sense a blossoming bird cherry, maybe a riverbank or seaside view. You envision a big city romance... something lost long ago. It leaves you feeling both sadness and the joy of nostalgia."
Founding member Aleksandr Solov'ev was recently interviewed by the Siberian press on these issues of love, loss, and remembrance. He, just as Kirill Ivanov, begins by tying some ideal experiences to childhood. "Even when I was a young boy I loved to compose music. That enthusiasm continued into my student years - and then into my studies at theatrical institute." Here he began to work with his current colleagues, Anna Karmakova and Aleksandr Kalinichenko: Solov'ev's brother has moved to the United States. Together these three individuals create what they refer to simply as "downtempo recordings."
The perfect sounds of recollection are not hurried.
When asked how Siba.Pro can foster such love for Soviet culture, having not experienced it first hand, Solov'ev says: "Our teacher at the institute instilled in us a love for all things good, lofty, and sincere within Russian art." And where might those values be found? "We used to watch Soviet cartoons, movies, and listen to old records. That heartwarming age is deep within us." He then goes on to claim that Siba.Pro views itself as a celebration of all things "open-hearted, sentimental, and full of dreams." Reverie is best developed through hope or retrospection. Its operations in the present seem vague.
For that reason, perhaps, the live shows of Siba.Pro - as we see - involve antique film of Novosibirsk in the Soviet period and, on a national scale, footage from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The past looks better than the present day.
The album expresses a desire to breathe
Operating on an even smaller scale is the St. Petersburg project Lytte, sometimes known as Mew19. Behind both stage-names stands a figure who is part of the larger Outronaut collective. The portal used to house some of his 2012 recordings - specifically the "Swan EP" - led us to a small number of linked pages at various social networks. It was hard to compose a single portrait. On one Russian venue we fond Mew19/Lytte's worldview distilled as a quote (originally from Einstein): "The only source of knowledge is experience." Taken as true, new information will only come from new, future experiences - and the loss of familiarity. Hence, it seems, the celebration in Lytte's catalog of oceanic depth, disorienting Siberian forests, and the promise of "how things could be." It's a vaguely discerned hope.
The efforts of this young man continue in virtual silence. This time around we're at least treated to a less mysterious stage-name or alter ego, "Edik Myu" - and told that he's currently living in Tallinn. "Mew19 continues to write music that operates somewhere between abstract hip-hop, downbeat, and idm."
These miniature instances of a minor love now appear as a brand-new album through the Free Crates label, called "June." It comes with a very brief text in Russian. "The album expresses a desire to breathe, constructed in audible forms. It maps the movement from hiding something to revealing it - from silence to disclosure... It's a solitary walk through a repellent[!] city, a lonely gallop through the summer season." A chance to express oneself - to "exhale" - does not come easily; it's attempted in the middle of some very antagonistic realm. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that dancing forest animals and fatherhood look much more appealing than international politics.