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Synthgirl I-rena – When Synthwave meets Art Pop

As a music genre based on a retro-aesthetic and generational nostalgia, there are several options at hand for Synthwave regarding its future in the next coming decade. In many respects, the growing Nineties trend very much feels like Y2K all over again for the Retrowave

As a music genre based on a retro-aesthetic and generational nostalgia, there are several options at hand for Synthwave regarding its future in the next coming decade. In many respects, the growing Nineties trend very much feels like Y2K all over again for the Retrowave crowd. What will happen? For some, Synthwave and its scene may represent a haven, an idyllic place of wonder in which the Eighties may live on forever and remain forever intact, much like Black Mirror’s San Junipero. To this first category of fans, Synthwave may remain as is, with all of its clichés and gimmicks, in the same way Rockabilly and Elvis impersonators serve to perpetuate the legacy of blessed times past. To those who believe in Retrowave’s potential beyond the generational trend, there comes the question of how to innovate within a style based on an imitation of past musical trends. The complex, speculative nature of such a question may stifle many, but one can begin to find acts that shed light on new ways to articulate the sounds of Synthwave and push the genre beyond its classic tropes.  Hailing from Lithuania, Synthgirl I-rena (aka Irena Upė) caught our attention with her freshly released debut album 8, Vol.1, a brief introduction to Synthwave of a different kind. Mixing the likes of post-rock and traditional Lithuanian folk songs with retrofuturistic synth sounds, the self-produced singer-songwriter has achieved nothing short of a breakthrough by shaping an introspective Retrowave-influenced record that is both cinematic and deeply poetic. Awe-struck, we made haste in reaching out to Irena, who was kind enough to grant us an exclusive interview and tell us a little more about the ideas behind this first record.

First off, can you tell us a little bit about your musical background?
I went to a music school when I was a kid. I played the violin and piano but I hated it [Laughs]. I was avoiding the lessons and I didn’t listen to my teachers. When I finished with the music school, I was in seventh grade and I felt so free and turned the page on it. I was done playing and thinking about music. It was towards the end of school that I eventually started thinking about music again. When I was studying political science at university I felt the urge to sing, so I started writing songs. I also had some requirements for myself: I wanted to create songs that could sound like ancient Lithuanian songs, so I started learning how to do this. I made a lot of … shit things [Laughs], but they were my first steps. Later on, I met up with my old friends and we started a rock band which lasted seven years. We had a great time and we played a lot of gigs, and the experience of playing in a band gave me the basic background on how to feel the stage, how to prepare myself, how to perform live and how to create songs that “flow”.

Did you have any formal training as a singer?
No, I’ve always been self-taught. I was so eager to sing by the end of High School, yet everyone at my University would tell me that I was a terrible singer. I was too loud and off-pitch. The band allowed me to find myself and develop my own sound. That was the start of my musical journey.

Your vocals sound more “classical” that “rock” oriented. Did you have any particular role models or references whilst learning how to sing?
I think my biggest influence as a singer was Amy Lee from Evanescence. She was my idol. I’ve also always been in love with Broadway Musical songs. There’s also Lisa Gerrard. I discovered her through the Gladiator movie soundtrack and then through her Dead Can Dance project. She definitely helped a lot in shaping my vocals.

Photo by Eimantas Žeimys

You also mentioned that you wanted your music to draw influence from ancient Lithuanian music. Did you grow up listening to Lithuanian folk songs or is this a more recent interest of yours?
We have a very strong ethnic background in Lithuania. I’m not even sure we even realize how strong those roots are. We have a very colourful music background ranging across many different styles. Everyone, whether young or old, is very much aware of these different pieces of music. We’ve preserved this traditional background. My idea was to mix these musical traditions with modern technology and more modern sounds to create something different, something new. You can’t just disregard your roots. You can travel, you can move somewhere else and learn another language, but your roots will always be with you. You can’t change your core, but today you’re able to change your appearance. You can become anybody. You can change your face. If you lose a hand or a leg, you can get a biomechanical replacement limb. The biggest meaning always lies in your consciousness. I don’t think you change that. That is why it was important for me to acknowledge this background. In my performances, I sometimes sing some old traditional songs in their original form, other times I reinterpret them in my own way.

How did you eventually get into Synthesizers?
That happened three years ago. Everything related to composition, mixing and mastering with a DAW is totally new for me. Three years ago, my son was born and it changed me a lot. We stopped playing as a band because everyone was starting a family and we just couldn’t find the time to rehearse and play. I couldn’t just take a break, though, so I thought about starting my own project. So I started composing from scratch. I had a free Cubase trial with only a couple of tools, and a pair of headphones that was only working on one side of the Stereo. I was basically listening and composing with one ear. [Laughs] Eventually, I started talking with a friend of mine who owns a professional studio and I told him that I wanted to make music inspired by Eighties movies. My friend told me that I didn’t need to buy all of the synthesizers, I just needed to get the Arturia Analog Lab. So I gave it a try and I’m still working with it to this day.

Can you give us English listeners a few insights as to what your lyrics are about?
The album is about the meeting of two worlds. On one hand, there is the “Ancient”, the “Soul” world and the “technological” world. One day, I was reading some posts on Instagram about the Cyberpunk world and the robotic world and I thought to myself “If I were to come into this dystopian world where there’s no foreseeable bright future and no way to distinguish technology from human consciousness, what would I be thinking? What would I know? Would I remember the name of my land or the name of its ancient melodies?”. This album my way to reflect on these questions. I had this vision of this Cyberpunk woman lying on the ground with a light shining from her neck, as you see on the cover. You can’t say if she’s sleeping or if she’s dead. I was able to find this great British Artist Noel Guard to paint the scene and he made this amazing cover art that perfectly encapsulates what the album is about.

Do you see harmony or conflict between Nature and Technology?
I think that conflict is everywhere. Wherever two opposites meet, there will always be conflict, but I’m always positive about finding a way through these conflicts. I’ve always been met with closed doors in life. It’s never been as simple as “Yes, we can do this! Go ahead! We’ll support you!”. I only get no’s, but I’ve realized that just because these people aren’t with me doesn’t mean that they are against me. They’re just not with me. It’s the same in this case. It may seem as though these two opposite elements are in conflict, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot coexist alongside one another.

The Cyberpunk aesthetic usually portrays technology through a dystopian lens. The outlook is usually pretty bleak and pessimistic.
You’re right, and I agree with that. We can see all around us that this is the case. We develop new technology and we’re moving forward without even reflecting on their impact. It’s true that people are selfish and mostly think on the short-term, but I think that if you’re true to yourself you can find the way. We mustn’t give up. I think that some cyberpunk fans want to give up though! [Laugh] It’s such a beautiful aesthetic; the neon lights, the flying cars… They want it to turn out that way. I think this wave of Eighties fashion came because we’re standing on the edge of human knowledge. Twenty or thirty years ago, people didn’t know as much as we do now. We know a lot, and that’s why we like to turn back and remember a more “innocent” time. Everyone says that the girls looked better back then, and it’s because they looked more natural. I also think that everyone tends to look back and say that things were better before. [Laughs]

So what is the meaning of the Number 8? The album is titled 8 Vol.1. Does that mean there is a second volume awaiting release?
Yes, I was actually working on Vol. 2 this morning. I have a lot of songs, but I’m doing everything by myself, from start to finish, so it’s not easy. I live in a small city and there aren’t too many venues for artists or much of a “scene”. If you want to create art, you need to rely on yourself as much as you can, so it takes a lot of time for me to release new music. We’ll see what will happen. Regarding the title 8, I’m not sure why I picked the title [Laugh]. I’m a visionary person, and the eight symbol just appeared to me. I think 8 is a symbol for immortality. You can say that the positive scenario we were discussing earlier lies in the immortality of the spirit. I believe that death is not the end. Your body dies, but your energy lives on and finds new life to inhabit, whether it be in the universe or in a new body. A body is basically a vessel for this energy that is life. It’s a cycle. The energy comes and goes. The immortality of the energy can be the key to this positive scenario. The 8 symbolizes this undying energy. Machines can be turned off, but the soul can never be turned off.

Do you think there will come a point where this energy will be able to be hosted by technology, like in Ghost in the Shell?
With nature’s creations, the whole body starts out with a single cell. Nature is creating the body and hosting this energy. The body is alive but without conscience. It takes conscience from the universe.  All cells in the body have a memory and fulfil their functions. It means that all of this memory is in the energy. The machine taking this energy will also take this consciousness. It will allow it to think and memorize.

It seems like dance and movement plays an important role in your performances. Do you have a background in contemporary dancing?
Again, I was self-taught. I don’t like coming on stage and standing still in front of a microphone stand. I like to express my ideas in a lot of different ways. I started performing last year and for my first show, I asked a contemporary dancer to come onstage with me. I wanted to see how he would interpret my music through dance and he did great. It gave me a totally different outlook on things. I understood that I can’t just stand and sing. There needs to be some dancing, there needs to be movement. People were surprised by the show, and I wonder at which point we lost the physical movement that goes into performing. Somebody wrote to me on Instagram saying “Thank you for bringing back motion onstage!”.
Nowadays, I’m trying to interpret different aspects of the performance. From the very first note down to the last second of the show, everything links together into one whole performance. I interact with the crowd if the audience is small, but if the crowd is too big I try and stitch the songs together as one piece, as one single performance. Movement plays a big part in that.

Do you follow some examples or references?
I do watch videos of other dancers. One of my idols is Sevdaliza. She’s really great. She creates electronic music and has an incredible voice and dances all throughout her shows. It’s incredible to see this kind of thing live. The motion really adds to the experience. I need to learn a lot and I know that every time I step onstage, I do something different and I’m constantly learning.

Most of us know very little about the music of Lithuania. Is there a “scene” for Synthwave or / Synth music?
The Eighties trend is everywhere, really, and Lithuania is no exception. Some rock artists are switching over to Electro-pop, and even in my small city, we have some Electro-pop and Synthpop composers. Lithuania is too small though and our music scene isn’t so good. We have venues in Vilnius for any genre but you have to live there to take advantage of them. If you live in a smaller town, those venues will not invite you because they won’t have the money nor the interest to bring you over. It’s always a struggle. That’s how it is.

Photo by Eimantas Žeimys

Do you plan on doing some tours abroad?
I was in Switzerland a month ago, actually. I hope I’ll be able to play in more countries in Europe. I want to come to France. I have a lot of supporters there that ask me to come. I also want to go back to Switzerland. I definitely want to play in London. Before being able to play these places I needed to release this album and I need to show my performance in video format so that people can see how I perform. We’ll see how it goes, but I hope I’ll be able to tour Europe soon.

Closing off: can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
There are a lot of movies that I love, like Inception, Interstellar, Alien, The Andromeda Strain, the original Star Trek TV series… But I’ll have to go with the first Terminator film. Everything is in the concept. It was a pioneering film with its concept revolving around cyborgs and time-travel. The film also proved that the hero can be a totally simple person. In the second film, she becomes a much more complicated character. It shows the nature of the human being. It doesn’t show the perfect story that we like to see these days.
I have two favourite albums. The first one is Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the second one is Slor by Eivor. She’s a great singer that mixes ethnic tribal sounds with electrical sounds.
The book I’ll name is Women Who Run with Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. It’s a book about Women and Human psychology. It talks about Archetypes that I use in my songs, but that’s a whole different story. We’ll be here another hour if I get into it [Laugh].
The second book is Vytaute Zilinskaite’s  The Robot and the butterfly. It’s about a robot who is visited every day by a butterfly, who tells him about this thing called “feelings”. The robot doesn’t understand what it means to “feel” until, one day, the butterfly disappears. The robot then understands what it means to feel because he misses the butterfly. This book is my childhood and I still have it in my studio.


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