A Conversation with Deja Carr / Mal Devisa

In an interview with Unique Noir, Deja Carr says she’s “inspired by that weird feeling you get before the bass comes into a song.” She played the Crafts Haus at Tufts last weekend, and the room was silent as she quietly walked on stage. An eagerness hung in the audience as they waited for her first song. She started by playing thick and electrified melodies on her keyboard, layering them against each other with her loop pedal. Then with a step to end the loop, she started “Daisy” with a thudding kick drum and slick bass line.

Deja was still in high school when she formed her first band Who’da Funk It? with four other girls she met at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, MA. Knowing that the band wouldn’t be around forever, Deja started playing under moniker Mal Devisa in 2013. In the following year, she released her first EP, For Daisy With Honey and her debut album 4U. Since then, she has all-at-once brought the northeastern DIY music scene to its knees. Deja pulls her audience into well-crafted, poignant yet sweet atmospheres with only her bass, a loop pedal, and sometimes a keyboard and drums. She opens For Daisy With Honey with a cover of Feist’s “Honey Honey,” and it introduces fittingly the nature of Deja’s solo work. Her voice hums sweet like honey, but then moves to roar in waves of power and sometimes rage. She swirls the gravity of her voice, constantly changing its consistency in sweetness, severity, and emotion. Against the formidable range of her voice, she grounds most of her songs in powerful bass parts, whether they come heavy and thudding (in“Daisy”) or gently strummed and fingerpicked like a folk song (in “Live Again”).

In this past month, she has released her second album Kiid, and I can say without hesitation that if you listen to this album your heart will ache in new and unchartered ways. The album delves deeper into the world Deja has created with Mal Devisa, forging an artillery of courageously affecting songs. Her voice in this album has a delicate yet fierce grip on the listener; her sentiment is both accessible and commanding. To listen to Kiid is to understand better Deja Carr as an artist. This 10-track album feels like new prophecies fulfilled as Deja moves continuously toward showing more and more the full-range of power in Mal Devisa. The themes of her work are further developed in this album as it strains more on where she finds herself as an artist. She gestures to the points of vulnerability and the points of empowerment in her life and in her life in relation to the society we live in today. In talking about what inspires her, she continues in her interview with Unique Noir saying she’s inspired by “the music people forget to pay attention to unless there’s a white boy singing it.” And in an interview with Cyper League, we’re shown both the empowering mentality of her work as well as the dynamic nature of her improvisation with what I think is my favorite anecdote thus far, “Sometimes I’ll be happy and the music will be really happy. Sometimes I’ll be pissed, and the improv will be about being pissed. I’ve done shows where the band before me would be really sexist or something like that, and basically half the show would be about them. They would know, but it’s fine.”

Deja was born into the colorful DIY Western Mass music scene (which fostered artists like Speedy Ortiz, the Pixies, And The Kids and many more) and speaks thankfully of the time she spent in that space. A space she describes as being open to new ideas and experimentation. She found power in having a space to be free like that in her life; “I love feeling like anything can happen,” she says to me about seeing new artists for the first time. We talk about how incredible and necessary it is to have such a space “made for something that isn’t normally acknowledged” between people in day-to-day lives. As she says this to me, I think immediately of how open her work is about expressing nuanced struggles and the heartbreak that comes with living. A worldly heartbreak that’s elusive to definition, but very emotionally accessible in her work. A heartbreak that comes with woe and rage and even bliss, where your heart aches equally for all the beauty and all the anguish of the world.  I think of how present she is in her work, and how fiercely beautiful that is for an artist to do. In her work, intimacy and vulnerability are so present; it feels palpable. Her work is a babel of existential ache, self-reflection, and sociopolitical rage. So as she sings, she gently sways her audiences into a dizzying mess of anger, of sweetness, and of empowerment.

I got the chance to talk to a currently pretty overworked Deja Carr about inspiration, vulnerability, and what it means to experiment in a space where the artist feels comfortable being open. And a little bit on musical inspirations and how she’s looking to start an all WOC punk band (I would be so stoked if this happens). This was the night before her Tufts’ show, and she spoke to me as she was making a birthday card for her friend.

 

I read that before Mal Devisa you were in Who’da Funk It? After that band, what inspired you to do solo work?

Deja: I think a lot of it was in the process of being in that band. There were a lot of parts that would take too long to go into, but I knew Who’da Funk It? wasn’t going to be around forever, and I knew that I needed to keep playing. I started, actually, at the house we had band practice in. I sat at my friend’s drum set with the bass, and started playing and wrote some songs.

You do a lot of different types of creative work—from different genres of music to different types of art. And I’ve heard you write poetry too?

D: I used to. I’m not doing it as much as I used to.

C: It’s mostly Mal Devisa work right now?

D: Yeah, and homework.

(Laughing)

C: Yeah, that’s fair. I feel that. I can’t imagine balancing the two.

D: It’s like, mostly homework.

(Laughing)

D: This [Tufts’ show] is actually the first one I’ll be playing since New Year’s. I have not been touring. I haven’t even been playing shows, I’ve just been doing homework.

C: It really is a feat! Between school work and playing shows, I can’t imagine. Can I ask what your major is?

D: Right now I’m thinking about switching, so I’m not sure at the moment. It’s been a weird process trying to nail something down. I feel like I really want to study music. But I also am scared of the theory, and that whole part of it. It’s a huge work-load so I might go into something a little different that still has to do with music. But—I’m still working it out.

D: I’m making this really weird birthday card right now… And I’m pretty much sitting in the dark.

(Laughing)

When you sit down to do any creative work, what do you tune into for inspiration?

D: It depends—It always depends. I guess it always changes depending on so many things. Depending on where I am and whether or not I feel comfortable to be loud. A lot of times, I will be hanging out with someone else and we’ll get inspired to do something. I’ll leave for a little while, record it, and come back. I’ll listen to it later when I’m by myself and keep going. Other times, it will just be: sitting down to write a song. The weird thing is that now that I have school, I don’t have that much time to [sit down to write] anymore. So, a lot of times, I’ll just end up improvising because I didn’t have time to write. It’s still just a process, and I’m still kind of figuring out how to do school and still have enough time… But it’ll be all right.

You came out with Enough Apologies a couple months ago, and it has a whole different vibe from your music on bandcamp. What was the thought behind that?

D: Me and Marco were kind of just like, “Let’s just make a song.” And then we made it at his house. It was so fun, the whole process was fun. Our friend Elliot Russell helped us film the video and we edited it, together.

C: Your video is so dope.

D: Thank you. It was funny, [in the video] we were just going to a bunch of places in Western Mass. Marco had made this beat, and I was like “This beat is so… I love it. A lot.” And I started to write. “Enough Apologies” was mostly what we had written that day, and then we came back to it, edited it, and recorded it.

I can imagine it feels different doing Enough Apologies compared to your album 4U. How does it feel having different spheres as an artist to go into when you’re performing? And especially since you do improvise a lot, I can imagine it’s different for you going on stage and having any genre or form of music/art be possible.

D: I feel like an element of shows that have always been fun for me is not knowing what to expect. I’ve loved going to shows and seeing live music my whole life. I felt like, [back] then, all the possibilities I had to stay afloat were different. But shows—I could go and not know who’s playing, and be completely blown away. And feel, just like, so much better. Really. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and then something great happened! So, it was like, “Oh, I’m kind of nervous, I don’t know what this band is gonna sound like?” And, it’s almost always something great. I don’t know, it’s so hard to put all this into words!

C: No, of course! It’s hard, I know.

D: I grew up going to shows, and so shows are a big part of my life. I like playing shows, mostly because that’s the one space in my life where I feel like I can do pretty much anything and not feel like, “oops!” Y’know? Because there are very little mistakes you could make. Just be there to have conversations and learn things. I love feeling like anything can happen.

You talk about how you respond to shows as a member of the audience. Before shows, do you ever see your audience having a specific emotional response to what you’re about to perform?

D: I feel like before shows I’m usually thinking about so many other things. I also get too nervous if I look out too much before.

I feel like different genres of music and different types of art forms, they all make artists vulnerable, but they all do so in different ways. For you, where do you find yourself in terms of art and vulnerability?

D: It is everywhere. I feel like vulnerability permeates art in a way that’s—so crazy. If we think of art as people sharing stories, as I often do, and then think of the concept of sharing a personal story, like a personal narrative, as a vulnerable act. To even publicly acknowledge that—specifically in this country which has an incredibly individualistic state of mind—is to recognize that someone is doing something hard.

C: Definitely.

D: And [the artist] trusts you to some extent to do it in front of you.

C: I completely agree. In different art forms, it’s like a search to find these connections between the artist and the audience, and I can imagine it’s kind of like shedding a protective layer of your being as an artist. So the artist has to do this grand vulnerable act in front all of these people. And I guess you have to trust your audience for the sake of having these connections persevere. I can’t imagine.

D: Yes!

Would you ever say you’re fearful?

D: Yeah, definitely. And it’s not exactly stage fright. It feels similar, but more like that feeling where you don’t know someone very well. And you’re trying to… I don’t know… Other times, I’ll just play the songs the way they were written. It’s definitely less scary that way.

On the themes of your music, a lot of publications talk about how they’re mature for your age, where would you say this comes from for you?

D: Having a weird life. (Laughing) Probably. That’s a long answer, I’ll just skip that.

Who are your major musical influences?

D: Oooh.. Right now…Thundercat. Definitely number one will always be Nina Simone. [Charles] Mingus. DEATH, for sure. And The Kids are one of my favorite bands, too. I think they are so incredible and exemplify a lot of what I wish and hope for in terms of music, art, and sharing stories. I’ve been able to watch them and have this intense appreciation grow for their songwriting and arranging. They have really really cool approaches to harmonies and rhythms. And Becca is such a killer on drums. It’s really unreal sometimes. Also, some other bands from like Western Mass. There are just so many. There’s just never enough time, y’know?

What was it like being a part of the Western Mass music scene?

D: I’m so thankful all the time for all the shows. I definitely wouldn’t be doing Mal Devisa if I wasn’t in a place where I didn’t feel comfortable going on stage and experimenting with friends… I feel like Western Mass has been a huge part of realizing what music I love and also lot of the lessons I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned from participating in DIY. That also being a really problematic and complicated thing as well. But just to have space to engage with and feel connected to people my age who are also just figuring it out… is pretty cool.

Do you have a particular memory of a show you played in Western Mass or a show you’ve seen in Western Mass that’s affected what you’re doing now with Mal Devisa?

D: A lot of them have. I definitely couldn’t name them all. A show I saw recently that was really incredible was a band called, Blessed State. I also put on a small festival last year called Strange Noir for a tour that me and BLKBX were fundraising. And I just basically asked my friends who played music and who identify as artists of color in Western Mass to come and perform. I cried through like so many different sets, it was so incredible. There have definitely been a lot of times where I’ve gone to see a show and been like: this show is incredible! But I’m more thankful for the fact that this space exists. Space was made for something that isn’t normally acknowledged. And that’s really powerful.

What are some of your influences outside of music?

D: Definitely comedy. My mom’s a stand-up comedian. It’s fun. I think that comedy and music go together.

D: I’m getting to this point with this drawing [the birthday card] where I’m not sure if it’s good. Or if I should have started over a long time ago? But I’m still gonna give it to him.

(Laughing)

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world in the world of music or outside the world of music, who would it be?

D: Maya Angelou. And I’d say maybe… Oh, this is a hard question. I like it.

(Laughing)

D: Maybe Kathleen Hanna? I think that would be so interesting. Definitely Vince Staples, for sure. I think he’s an absolute genius. Stevie Wonder, but I feel like I would probably just lose it. I don’t think I could sit in a room with him. Herbie Hancock! I would name other people… but I feel like [these collabs] would be fun, conceptually. But in reality, I’d probably completely lose it… and not be able to.

C: Those would all be awesome collabs though, damn.

D: Tracy Chapman! Oh my god Tracy Chapman. I feel like I would say I want to collaborate with Nina [Simone], but I think that she would just tear me a new one. I can be pretty spacey, sometimes and the queen can’t have that. I don’t know. She’s definitely the quintessential.

C: The first day I met my roommate, she was just like “pretty sure the only cool thing about Tufts is that Tracy Chapman went here.” And I was like, “yeah, basically!”

(Laughing)

D: What! I had no idea she went to Tufts.

You said Kathleen Hanna? Would you ever do a punk show?

D: I’ve been wanting to start a punk band for too many years.

C: That would be so cool.

D: If I was going to be in a punk band, I’d want it to be an all WOC band. There are a lot of reasons for that…But punk shows, my god. They kind of saved my life. With the discovery of really really incredible punk shows, I was like there is nothing else that feels like that! I mean, there is, but it’s like two different types of exhaling… I love how different genres give off different feelings but they’re all connected. And in the moment, we’re not really thinking about genre.

 

D: I’m going to Providence tonight to see Marco Benevento. He’s playing a Grateful Dead cover band show. I’m not sure what the band is called, but I am so excited!

C: That’s so cool!

D: I don’t think I have ever seen a Grateful Dead cover band.

(Laughing)

C: I don’t think I have either. You said it’s been a hectic week? Bummer.

D: It’s okay, it’s always like this.

(Laughing)

C: Yeah, school is such a killer sometimes. I can’t handle myself.

D: I literally cannot handle myself. I show up to class, and I’m just like tripping over stuff.

(Laughing)

C: Same though! Really.

“Honey-lover,
Keeper of the bees,
Soft-spoken,
Seldom-seen”
-Sea of Limbs

Featured image by Daniel Dorsa

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