Pop Culture

Artist Spotlight: Ekko Astral

Jael Holzman formed Ekko Astral in 2021 with her best friend, guitarist Liam Hughes, and the band eventually expanded to include drummer Miri Tyler, bassist Guinevere Tully, and guitarist Sam Elmore. Dubbing their style – an uncompromising mix of hardcore, noise punk, and no-wave – “mascara mosh pit” music, the Washington, DC-based outfit dropped their debut EP QUARTZ, featuring the singles ‘TRANSDEMIC, BABY’ and ‘EAT OFF MY CHEST (WHILE I STARE AT THE CAMERA)’, in October 2022. This week, they released their debut album, pink balloons, which was produced by Pure Adult’s Jeremy Snyder, via Topshelf. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the record is by turns galvanizing, raucous, and uneasy, but never totally dispiriting – confronting a world of suffering and disillusionment not only by pointing to it, but ceaselessly invoking and subverting what it feels like to inhabit it. As hyper-referential as they are exacting, Holzman’s lyrics are also as riveting as the music that drives them forward. “I can see you shifting in your seat,” she intones at the very beginning, but Ekko Astral ensure you remain strapped in.

We caught up with Ekko Astral’s Jael Holzman for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her songwriting approach, lyrical references, the goal of Ekko Astral, and more.

What’s your headspace like with the release of pink balloons? Do you feel about it differently than you did a couple of days ago?

We spent a lot of time building Ekko Astral. pink balloons itself is a record that has a lot of me in it, a lot of us in it. I got this question after the record came out of, “Is the voice on that record you, or is it some sort of character?” And I was like, “Well, actually, the character on pink balloons is a far more authentic me than  the me that people   probably see every day in my working life.” So it feels like a relief, an exhale; after a long time, it feels like I’m actually able to express myself through this record being out in a way that I personally have never been able to before. And seeing the reception so far has been a tearjerker of an experience.  I couldn’t imagine it resonating with so many people, and I can’t wait for it to help so many people and change people’s lives. I feel that in my bones.

Before going into the album itself, how has your own sense of purpose or awareness as a writer evolved since starting Ekko Astral?

My approach to writing is “show, don’t tell.” I also am a journalist, and I believe in not telling people how to feel. The evolution of Ekko has from the beginning been about consistently telling people how we feel as humans existing – I know it’s a cliche term, but in a society. The focus from a writer’s perspective, what I try and do as a writer, is bring people into a world that is shaped by my own experiences, but is profoundly universal and empathetic to people of all experiences, narratives, and scenes. There’s this band I love from New York, their name is Big Girl. The lead singer, Kait Pelkey, is a friend of mine and likes to describe their songs as scenes, like each song is a one-act play. I like to think about what we do on pink balloons as a similar endeavor. These songs are one-act plays. They are moments in time, sure – I mean, we experience music as a kind of temporal shift, but in that, you have the capacity to access the deepest stretches of who someone is.

There’s this book that I recommend to anyone every time I’m doing an interview called This Is Your Brain on Music. It’s written by a neuroscientist, so it goes through, in a scientific sense, why music is this incredibly potent human communication device. There’s nothing else that humans really do that is seen replicated in other species. Music is a deeply human thing; we don’t see anything else on Earth do it, at least not that we know. I feel like I’ve leaned into that purpose as much as possible, and I continue to lean into that. That’s what Ekko is all about: finding a way to communicate to people through song, as many people as possible. Because we need that right now. Nobody’s listening to each other.

Whenever we talk about experimental or hardcore music of any kind, we often start with this caveat that it’s not for everyone. But you’ve made it clear, with this and in other interviews, that Ekko Astral is very much intended for everyone. When making a song or constructing these scenes, are you ever conscious of there being a clash between those things – the intended universality of the music and the style or the language in which it’s presented? Do they ever feel at odds?

There’s beauty in contrast and in conflict. The goal is not to be everything for everyone at Ekko Headquarters. pink ballons is beautiful, to me at least, because it accurately represents something trying to make people uncomfortable. When the end goal is trying to make people uncomfortable and still want them to come back and feel that way again and again and again – maybe you’re not for everyone in the eyes of all, but in my opinion, the communication is for everyone. We’re putting this signal out and saying, “Let’s try and reach as many people as possible with this unfortunate truth.” And sure, there’s tension there, and you can hear it in the tunes. It’s there in the lyrics even, in the words I choose. But that’s the whole point of it. The whole world is in conflict right now, so why should our music not? Why should the music that’s for everyone not also represent that? I think we’re all getting kind of bored by the same things, right?

I don’t want to pick out too many individual references and decontextualize them, but I feel like the first one that jumps out – “Is it Bon Eye-ver or Bon Iver” – is indicative of their  role within the album; they can be overwhelming and almost distracting, just as they can be when you encounter them in real life or online. It’s part of the dissonance rather than always directing you to the point of the song.

Every word that I pick is intentional. I am a formalist. I have an English degree from the University of Vermont, frankly one of the best Liberal Arts institutions in the United States. It’s also where Liam Hughes, the lead guitarist who founded the band with me, and I met. I convinced him to be an English major, and he and I both learned how to write together. We both have a deep appreciation for writers who pick their words wisely. A few influences of mine from an authorial perspective – not songwriters, but just novelists – are Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. My favorite book is Sula by Toni Morrison, her second novel. What I love about their work, in particular, is you could probably teach a whole seminar on one chapter from one of their great books, because you could pick apart the differences in contrast between each individual word; there’s even beauty in the space between words.

So, how does that relate to Ekko’s pink balloons? You are correct that each reference is very, very intentional. But in that way, you’re picking up on – and I appreciate that people are noticing this – that these references do not exist to be coy or fucking funny. I’m not making pop culture references to grab a Google headline. The truth is that all of these characters are being sold to people to distract them from the violence and horror in their lives. Like, what the fuck is this Taylor Swift album? What the fuck is this Beyoncé album? Why are these the things that large companies are feeding people at a time of mass disillusionment and feelings of doom about the world? Not just the country, but the world. A lot of people are in a lot of pain right now, especially after the global pandemic began. We have been in a difficult place as a world, but we’re being served slop. So, instead of telling people that very direct statement, which is about as didactic and frustrating as you can be, what I try and do through lyric is give people the feeling, show it to them directly. Here’s a pop culture reference, and, by the way, I have stalkers outside.

The first lyric of ‘head empty blues’, “Bubblegum vodka/ I will carry a knife/ It’s my right/ Won’t cost ya,” is a reference to a story that a close friend of mine told me. Actually, it was our merch guy, Henry Carlson; after we first met in fall of 2022, he told me the story of a trans friend of his who had a nervous breakdown one night when they were younger and had a knife, just popped out a knife and was freaking out because they felt too uncomfortable and horrified by how difficult it had been to simply exist with all of their non-trans friends. And, like, how do you expand upon that? Well, there are a lot of people who feel marginalized right now who feel the same way. There’s a problem on the horizon all of the time; you’re being followed around in stores, you’re getting harassed online, you have people harassing you, assaulting you in all kinds of ways, in real life and outside. And if you take that and you put it next to Carly Rae Jepsen with a broadsword, you get Ekko Astral. [laughs]

The La Dispute reference on ‘somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market’ feels different in that provides a musical template more than an opportunity for wordplay, and it creates a lot of space that comes into contrast with the songs around it. What inspired you to pull from that at the center of the album?

The goal has always been disruption. We all loved the idea of giving you incredible bangers, and then suddenly, completely tossing you off-kilter, because that’s the way things are now. That’s it, plain and simple. I’ve been posting about this the last day – the author of the poem [Ari Drennen] at the beginning of that track you’re referencing has also been posting about it, I would recommend you read what she’s been writing. The whole concept that pink balloons is wrapped in is the inevitability of the popping of the balloons. I mean, what is a balloon? It’s air inside of material that ultimately does rupture, no matter what; you leave a balloon alone in a room, and it pops eventually. I love that idea of a cheap pink balloon. So, in the middle of the record, we kind of pop it for you. And then we go to ‘make me young’ and we contemplate the Real of it all – the Lacanian Real. I am not one to let a mystery lie unless it’s intentional. [laughs] Which is true, there are some mysteries on this record that I’m gonna let just sit. But I also think that the stories behind the songs are pretty powerful.

Did ‘make me young’ and its reflection on mortality grow out of the previous song?

‘make me young’ is written by Guinevere, our bassist. She showed me that song when we were still putting together the record, and it affected me because it’s so earnest and honest. The truth is that we’re all gonna die; that’s one of the simplest, broadest human qualities, that things end for all of us. Once again, we’re trying to put the signal out into the universe and have people understand the lives of others that they previously didn’t. It’s about empathy. And what can someone empathize more with than the fact that there’s an end to everything?

With the album being out, has anything new come to light that has changed your perception of it?

Are you familiar with the internet conspiracy theory that The Simpsons predicted 9/11? So, when we made this record, we all intentionally sat down before we went to the studio and thought, “What is the thing that we want to accomplish with this record? We know it’s gonna come out in a year, what is the thing that we want to make that makes the world a better place when it comes out?” And part of that genuinely involved predicting what the world would be in about a year, which I don’t think enough artists do, candidly. [laughs] It would probably help people with being more relevant with the times and with the culture in terms of its needs. But anyway, there happened to be a lot of coincidental predictions about this record, some funny and some very sad, that we that we coincidentally wound up predicting in this record. A funny one, I guess, is that a ton of people would just voraciously consume Beyoncé liberal bait; that Beyoncé would come out with more stuff that would placate to, like, people who just want to go to brunch. [laughs]

But we have an interlude on this track called ‘burning alive on k street’, and the protest by Aaron Bushnell – I mean, when that happened, the self-immolation, I genuinely was so disturbed by the fact that we had that interlude on our record. It wasn’t a reference to this person, and I’ve been asked many times, “Was this an Aaron Bushnell reference?” It was not, we put that there because I was genuinely predicting people would self-immolate in DC. People had self-immolated before in DC, there’s a history of self-immolation as protest. But I have been and will continue to be deeply disquieted by the culture of forgetfulness and of a lack of intellectual curiosity that I find sometimes in the city, amongst some of my peers. So I was just imagining you this thing, it has actually bothered me quite a bit that we put that on that record. I didn’t want to change it because now it’s there and people connect with it. But it definitely freaked me out.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention or add?

Jeremy Snyder, our producer, deserves as much praise as humanly possible.  We wrote these songs, and they’re beautiful, but Jeremy not only built the soundscape of this record, he also wrote multiple interludes and the entire instrumental in the middle of the record, with the poem and the recording of my grandfather and I. Jeremy is the most underrated musical producer in the United States, he should be producing the biggest rock bands in the world.  This man is a legend in the making. I feel honored to have been able to work with him and to continue to work with him. I don’t want to work with anyone else right now. [laughs] I’d take offers, but it would be hard to take me away from my communist wizard. I love that man to death. Jeremy heavily influenced our work through both his own music with Pure Adult as well as his influences. Jeremy is a student of modern no-wave, of modern noise rock; he and I have a similar taste and a similar vocabulary terms of what we like in our rock music, so he and I could just reference things and build things without really having to explain it to one another.  We were so in sync and so on the same page that it it just fell like the time that we spent together was this revolutionary experience. I will never forget the days that we spend talking about the world and drinking too much wine in North Carolina, making pink balloons, ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Ekko Astral’s pink balloons is out now via Topshelf Records.

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