Pic by Liora Arianna Photography

INTERVIEW: Soulful Artist Lia Menaker

Hi Lia, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thanks for having me! I’ve been good…I mean – you know, things are a little overwhelming and emotional for a lot of people right now, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel that way too half of the time. But considering the current climate of things, I do feel pretty lucky. I’m definitely ready to see people though, and for the country to open up again. And for us to be able to talk about police brutality and injustice in person, versus solely on social media. I think our country desperately needs human contact right now. More than ever. But, you know…aside from all that, I’ve been hanging in there!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Imprinted”?

This was actually the last song I wrote for the EP. I loved it the most and felt it had a lot of punch and uniqueness, so I went ahead and released it as a single first.

It’s a song about the Self vs the ego, and how underneath our egos and self-perceptions, and the reality we’ve decided to create for ourselves, there is much more to who we are. Yet we constantly live in this purely egocentric state, where we identify with our habits, past experiences, emotions, etc. We think: I feel all these things, and these things happened to me, so it must really be this way. This must be who I am. The societal messages we’re constantly being fed don’t help. That life is about accomplishments and awards and money and recognition; that the bigger the size of your house or car, or the newer the iPhone, the happier you’ll be; that your experiences and successes define you for the rest of your life and measure your worth. And so between all that we’re being fed—and years of forming our realities around habits, emotions, etc.—we write the stories of our lives, and all the potential we didn’t reach, mistaking it all as the absolute truth of who we are and what the world is. And many us go years unconsciously living our lives in this ego-clinging state, thinking things just are the way they are, and that we have no say, and we’re just completely messed up and slaves to our habits. It becomes so deeply engrained in us – in our brains and our bodies and every fiber of what we think is true.When really, we are the authors and we can decide what our life is, what it isn’t, and how we want it to be.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I’d say it was a mix of things. The very beginnings of it started rather unexpectedly, on my weekly Twitch live stream. I often do a bit of improvisational looping on stream – I play around with a beat, and see where it takes me in the moment. I’ve been writing a lot this way actually, without any real plan or thought. I just try to tune into the sounds and the present moment. Then, if it turns out to be something I like, I’ll go back later and form the loops and ideas into a structured song. Here’s how the song originally started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xWjEAYAa7w. I fell in love with the feel of it and knew I wanted to play with it for the final track of the EP.

So the album is all about identity and the Self, and over the past 5 years, I’ve really delved into a lot of the spiritual teachings and lectures from Pema Chodron, Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Elena Brower, and others. It’s really helped me understand my own ego clinging and the things that trigger my habits, among other things. Of course, it’s a constant practice. But I realized I didn’t quite have a song yet that captured some of these teachings, about the ego and how much it drives us to cling to self-perceived identities and realities.So I knew I wanted the song to revolve around that. In fact, the speaking you hear in the background are the voices of both Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle.

Then, I was listening to an episode of Elena Brower’s “Practice You” podcast, and she was talking with Lisa Wimberger (Founder of the NeuroSculpting Institute) about how our experiences and mental beliefs actually wire our brains and nervous systems a certain way. It was fascinating to me that these beliefs are actually stored in our bodies, and so it inspired the initial lyric in the chorus for me: “What I say is what it is – sinks on in to be imprinted in my body.” The rest of the words poured out pretty naturally after that.

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

The filming process was… actually pretty funny and unglamorous. It was the ghetto-est setup you could imagine, ha! I literally taped together black towels and tarps and hung things over chairs to create a black screen behind me. Then I just stood behind my home studio mic and sang along to the song, recording it on my computer. I touched it up later and added the lyrics. Fancy, huh? #DIYMusician life. But it was fun nevertheless.

The single comes off your new album I Am Kyrøs – what’s the story behind the title?

Oh boy…that was a process. It was originally called “Stranger” (with that song on there being the title track). And I was releasing it under the name “kyrøs”. Kyrøs was the alter ego that formed back in November, when I was in the middle of producing the songs, and simultaneously starting to live stream on Twitch. Somewhere I saw the word “kairos” pop up. And so I started reading about it. It means the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune moment for words or action. And something clicked. The name change just felt like it completely encompassed the new music and musical approach. I changed the spelling and added the ø for legal reasons, since there were other Kyros’ out there. For months, I took on that name and it really felt like a part of me.

But as we got closer to releasing, I noticed people were having trouble finding me on Spotify, and just generally on the internet. Turns out there were more Kyros’ than I originally realized, and the ø didn’t help. And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much I should be releasing the music under my own name. I was exploring the Self and identity through all these songs, and realized how much the name change had been part of that exploration. Something about stepping out of all the years of thinking of myself as “Lia Menaker,” and becoming “kyrøs,” allowed me to drop all these perceptions and limitations I’d put on myself. It pushed me to produce these songs on my own, and helped me find a new sound and a new confidence. But ultimately, I will also always be Lia Menaker, and while there’s many Kyros’, there’s only one of me. So while I decided to release under my own name, I wanted to honor the entire kyrøs experience and side of me too, and the fact that I recorded and produced this album under that artist name. It felt like too much part of the record to not be on there. I also wanted it to represent the new style and approach to my writing – to really let it represent the rebirth of my sound.

How was the recording and writing process?

Extremely cathartic. I started writing these songs about four years ago. I didn’t set out to write an album. I just kept feeling frustrated, or lost, or unsure of who I was or what I wanted…unsure how to navigate the waters of my life. I just kept exploring it all through song. It was like therapy to me. It kept me moving forward with some purpose. It wasn’t until I wrote the first three that I realized they all revolved around identity. So I wrote “Some Kind” next, which allowed me to reflect on it all from this really quiet, peaceful place. That song gave me some closure and understanding around a lot of things I’d felt and suffered through. Then the last one I wrote, “Imprinted,” felt like a big culmination of all of the songs, feelings, exploration, etc. And then the recording and production stages, when I really brought them all to life, was when I could understand the place all these songs and experiences had on my life. It was like I could finally step back and look at them at a bird’s eye view, without being so stuck in them emotionally. That was a whole different kind of cathartic. It was the first time I recorded and produced on my own. And I just went for it. I did have some production assistance for sure, but it’s almost all me, and I never thought I could do this. And so recording and producing these really helped me burst through the identity barriers I’d placed on myself for so long. Which is so cool, because, well, that’s what the album is about!

What role does Philly play in your music?

I moved to Philly from Atlanta in 2017 after deciding I was going to pursue music more seriously, and more full-time. My boyfriend got a job here, and we both have family nearby, so it was the right move. It’s really been here that I’ve grown the most as a musician. It’s here that I built up my home studio, began recording and producing for the first time, and it’s the first time I’ve truly felt part of a music community. That’s a big one. Before this, I was moving around every 2-3 years. Now I feel like I’m growing roots, and that my music is too. I love the musicians here. Philly also has so much heart and soul, and the people tell it like it is; and they love pop and R&B and soulful music! There’s such a rich jazz history here…I love that. It adds to the soul of the city, and so it just feels like the right place for me and for my sound. I grew up in Jersey, closer to NYC, but it never felt like I fit in. In Philly, I feel like it’s still that East Coast-ness that feels familiar to me, but with more of the connection I was looking for. When I feel connected to my home, I feel more ready and willing to write and play and create.

How has Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse influenced your writing?

Oh gosh, I love both Nina and Amy in so many ways. But as far as what influences my own writing, I think ultimately it’s this soulful world they create that just draws you in. Though they do it in very different ways, they both carry this sense of authenticity, boldness, uniqueness, rawness, and soul that grabs you into their world. And it’s something I always strive to do with my own music – especially the vocals.

I remember being 14 or so, and my cousin gave me “The Essential Nina Simone” CD for my birthday. I hadn’t known much about her, but as soon as I started listening, I found her deep, imperfect voice so beautiful. I was so drawn in to what she had to say through her music…the words, the chord voicings, the mix of classical with jazz and pop thrown in…but especially her voice. And so I kept delving in. Her entire life story is fascinating and inspiring. She was such a brilliant musician and songwriter, and her struggles are so felt in her music. I love that. Her voice goes from raspy, to warm, to haunting, to angry. It feels like she pours her heart out every time, and it stops me in my tracks.

It actually wasn’t until about four years ago that I fell in love with Amy Winehouse. It wasn’t until that then I really delved into her music and that it clicked how incredible she really was. I started really listening to her vocals and her style, pinpointing what it was that I loved so much. There’s a mix of this warmth and authenticity, but with a modern edge that just hits you in all the right places. It’s sassy, and unapologetic, and just like Nina, it also feels like she’s pouring every ounce of herself out into a song. To me, Amy also represents that perfect mix of classic and modern, which is something I feel inspired to do when I write and product. She has this classic jazz voice reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but mixes her musical style with her own modern edge, attitude, and pop feel.

What were some of the dreams and struggles you got to explore on this record?

The record explores various aspects of identity and how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. It looks at everything from the unwavering (and at times obsessive?) pursuit of purpose, to how we often run away from the very things that make us whole; to navigating what it means to be human in a digital world, to living from the ego vs. the Self, to how we create stories and cling to identities throughout our lives that simultaneously free us yet also limit us.

It’s…a lot to unpack, ha! But I hope it feels like a real listening experience for people.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

The music and lyrics came from so many different places, over a period of about four years. But to give you an idea, “Stranger” was the first song I wrote. I was living in Atlanta and was working for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Performing was really all I knew at the time, but I was in my early 30s, feeling like I had to be “smart” about my life path. And so I landed at the CDC. But pretty soon, nothing about my life looked like I’d pictured. I was depressed a lot and noticed others my age going through a similar struggle in their own lives. It felt kind of surreal… like I was living someone else’s dream path/life, and not at all mine, because I thought I was supposed to. I sort of stopped at one point, looked around and thought: “How on earth did I end up here?” I felt like such a stranger to my own self. It was so, so weird. This is how the chorus came about “I’m a stranger in my own skin. I’m a stranger; I’m a – strange…” The song incorporates this helpless feeling of seeing so clearly what we love and want but somehow feeling unable to go after it. And the tendency to instead keep pushing ourselves farther away from those things that make us feel whole. This is what I felt at the time, hence the lyrics:

“Daily grind…

Music, please.

Easy, you and I –

But somehow I find

This pretty predicament every time”

And…

“Somehow I find,

I keep running and running and running away from the things that make me come alive.”

For “All My Life” and “ To Be Human”, they were actually written when I bought a vocal effect processor and started experimenting with different effects and loops and creating and growing entire songs using just vocals. The looping was cool and fun and unique, but it was really more of a visual experience. And it was ultimately limiting with only the looper. So I eventually restructured them to have more layers and texture, and to have a fuller, more complete sound.

Any plans to hit the road?

To be honest, it’s a little tough to plan now, given the pandemic and the uncertainty of when things will return to normal. I’m not sure how venues will overall be affected by all this, and what gigging will look like. So for now, I’ve just been doing a lot of live streaming on Twitch and Facebook. Occasionally on Instagram. But I’m sure I’ll be on the road again eventually. In fact, I’ve been slowly growing a fan base in France and Sweden and a couple other countries, and would love to plan out a tour around some of those places. But for now, I feel like I’m in a writing stage, with all these song ideas and collaborations going on. So I want to keep focusing on creating the content – write, record, release; write, record, release. We’ll see how long that lasts, and where it takes me next!

What else is happening next in Lia Menaker’s world?

Speaking of collaborations and song ideas, I’ve been writing snippets of songs over the past 6 months that I’m really excited to go back and complete. Most of them started as improvisational loops on Twitch (just like “Imprinted”). As far as collaborations, I’m working on something with a jazz funk band in Paris, and have been cooking up some ideas with friends on the East Coast for other projects. I’m singing on a couple tracks for friends and also looking at producing a song for a local singer here in Philly. It’s been one highlight of the pandemic for me, connecting with other musicians around the world who are eager to create and collaborate. It’s really creatively fulfilling, but also feels like a great way to connect with people through this isolating time.

I’m also working with some incredible choreographer/dancers to create music videos for 2-3 of the songs on “I Am Kyrøs.” The goal is for each one to feature a different choreographer/dancer, expressing their unique connections/take on the music. There’s a lot to unpack in these songs, and I felt like they really needed to be explored further physically and visually, through movement. I’m still in the beginning stages of planning the videos, but I’m already really excited. Some of their ideas have been really amazing!

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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