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Local Feature: Floating Room

Local Feature: Floating Room

Listening to Floating Room’s new EP, Tired and True, for the first time: I was driving, smoke from the wildfires pressing down to the shoulders of the highway. It felt like the car was floating and I was floating in it, drifting between the memory of a fading past and the strange presence of my body there in the now of the drivers seat.

The project was a long time coming. We had set up an interview with bandleader Maya Stoner in late March for an April release, but quarantine put both the release and our publication schedule on hold. The murder of George Floyd set off a series of ongoing protests against racist police brutality in our community. Much of the West coast caught fire. Then, last month, a ray of hope: Stoner reached out to say that the EP was done, and sent over a copy.

Given the year we’ve had, releasing anything at all is a major accomplishment, but Stoner’s infectiously melancholic punk-inflected pop seems to make sense of our new world with an ease that suggests years of practice. Tired and True straddles what is already regarded as an historic schism, the kind of pre/post event that defines the trajectory of societies and the art they produce. At the same time, the EP is a testament to the uncomfortable reality that every event and conflict that has erupted in 2020 was always there, building pressure beneath a surface, stretched to bursting.

Stoner’s music has dealt for years with the themes of trauma and trust, vulnerability and strength, victimhood and power, but her current lineup and choice of songs demonstrates a maturity and focus that makes this new EP hit harder and more precisely than past projects. At five tracks and about 15 minutes, it’s also the kind of EP that you play two or three times in a row, listening close for the little jewels of clarity that keep floating down from between the chords.

We spoke over Zoom about Tired and True, the process, and the social responsibility of musicians today. Check it out below:

Photo by: Eirinn Lou Riggs

Eleven PDX: Maya Stoner, of Floating Room! We’re super excited to have this project, Tired and True, out in the world, and to talk to you about it. Maybe let’s just start off talking a bit about the history of the project—Floating Room—how it started and how it’s evolved. I know you’ve had some personnel changes throughout projects? If you wanted to talk about the project and how it came to be where it’s at.

Maya Stoner: I guess I’m the only consistent member of Floating Room, and it’s shaped around my songwriting. I often collaborate with different people. The first album is mainly mostly me.

11: Do you find it tough to maintain continuity with changes in personnel, or do you find that it brings out new ideas?

MS: I really love collaboration. I think maybe I even over-romanticise it in my head, but I think it’s really cool that everyone has this inherentthis sounds cheesy—but, like, flavor. And you can’t really predict how it will all combine. It gets harder the older I get to find people that want to do a band, or do someone else’s songwriting, or whatever. So I’ve learned to be really flexible. I’ve probably had like twelve different bandmates in the past.

11: With the new project, Tired and True, what’s the lineup, and how did you end up putting it together?

MS: The lineup is Mo Troper on bass, and he also produced the album. Jared Ridabock is on Drums, Jon Sheid on guitar, and Aaron Liu on piano. At the time, I wasn’t playing a lot of shows. I had spent like the last year of college wanting to focus on enjoying my last year. I wasn’t playing a lot of shows except for offers that were really hard to turn down. So I didn’t really have a lineup, but I asked these friends to play with me, and they’re some of the best musicians in town, and so talented. I knew that it would be easy to bring songs to them to learn. I guess I just ended up wanting to record, and they are all musicians I really respected. I was in a couple art shows as well, so it was kinda difficult to get the ball rolling. But now that I’m done with school and I don’t really have art shows going on, I’m really excited to write and record more as soon as possible!

11: I did actually want to ask about the art as well. I know you’ve done some visual art in the past on your covers, and Ona Greenburg did some amazing album art for the project. How did you link up with her? What’s your relationship to visual art?

MS: Something cool about the album art is it’s not something I commissioned. Ona is my best friend. She’s a tattoo artist and a painter and she does portraits. So that’s just a fine art painting she did, and she was super kind and let me use it. Obviously it’s me, but she really captured something that resonated with me, and it felt like a good fit for these songs.

11: Let’s get into the songs a little bit here. Your first single “Held Open Door” came out last month. It seems like that song, along with a lot of your songs, have to do with trust and vulnerability. Can you talk about that a little bit, how those themes play into the way you create?

MS: I guess, both with being a visual artist and a musician, vulnerability is something that I actively practice as a skill in my life. Bravery and being open are things I think about a lot and things I appreciate in others. I really think that being vulnerable is the easiest way to make friends and connect with people. It’s really important.

11: In addition to that personal vulnerability, there’s a kind of artistic vulnerability that needs to be there in any good art. Your second single, “Freakshow,” is maybe more about that artistic vulnerability, the act of being on stage and performing. “Dancer” as well. They’re both songs about the relationship between the performer and the viewer, the crowd. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with performance.

MS: With “Freakshow” I was thinking about a ton of different things, but part of that was my experience with music and other people’s experience with music. It does take a lot of vulnerability, and it’s really hard. When I was younger the music scene felt like this haven for me, because it felt like a place where I could feel accepted, and not not feel like a weirdo, but feel like a weirdo and be accepted. As I got older I started to feel like the music scene was actually super judgemental and very hypocritical, the way that everyone is so ready to attack anyone that’s even just messy, but if you actually look at people’s actions and think critically about them. It’s like, maybe their actions don’t follow through with what they’re saying in the way that they treat people of color, and neurodiverse people. That song is mainly about accepting all those sides of yourself, and accepting the duality of your nature, being a messy person and knowing that you’re worthy of love despite feeling judgement.

11: A lot of the topics you’ve just touched on in the music scene also exist in and are coming to the surface in the general culture right now, especially in Portland. How do you view the role of a musician in society at this moment, with so many of these social movements going on here in Portland?

MS: Yeah, let me think about that for a second. This is a complicated question. We should all use whatever platform we have to better the music scene and industry, because there is truly so much work to be done. I want to stress this goes beyond making a one time statement. Even Jimmy Johns has a stock statement these days. What’s more important is showing your commitment to these causes through continuous actions and also doing some serious self-reflection.

Everyone who isn’t Black needs to do self reflection, especially white people. The music scene in this town is racist. This brings me to why I feel this question is so complicated. I don’t believe musicians are the ones we should turn to for moral guidance because it’s been proven time and time again that you don’t need any moral integrity to be a musician— in fact by now, everyone’s been disgusted by the actions of at least one musician they previously adored. Sometimes artists seem suspicious like politicians and it’s confusing because they don’t practice what they preach. If everyone in the music scene was as woke as they make it seem right now, then music scenes and the industry simply would not look the way they look today. So, like I said, it’s obviously good to use your voice but also consider amplifying the voices of more marginalized musicians and using your privileges to bring the kinds of opportunities you get to others. 

Photo by: Eirinn Lou Riggs

11: Yeah. There’s something about the idea of actions being performative, and musicians literally being performers.

MS: Oh yeah, definitely. On one hand, I think a lot about responsibility for social causes, that’s super important to me. I’m Uchinanchu, so I try to talk about stuff relating to my people, but in regards to this idea of morality in the music scene, I feel kinda skeptical of some of the stuff that goes on. I think callout culture is overall good, but I’ve also seen it be really fucked up and weird, so I have a complex relationship with all that stuff.

11: But I think your music certainly does deal with a lot of that in a very intimate and thoughtful way, and in many ways I think the burden has to fall on the listener to make that distinction between the performer, and the performance as a product, and the people behind it.

MS: Totally, and the artist as a product.

11: Do you see yourself as a product?

MS: I mean, there is an aspect of that if you want to grow in your success. What’s that Purple Mountain’s lyric?  “When you’re a seller in commodity/you gotta sell yourself immodestly/turn your pedestal into a carving board/if that’s what the audience is starving for” I think those lyrics are amazing. They’re written by David Burman, who died I think last year? He was an amazing songwriter that I really look up to, he was also in Silver Jews. But yeah there’s a lot of selling yourself, and sometimes when you get the inside look, it’s really disillusioning.

11: Looking at what the music industry looks like now, or what the model is for profitability, especially for artists who are not signed to a major label, what do you think that looks like now? You’re releasing a vinyl?

MS: Well I’ll definitely play music no matter what, because it helps me. But I dunno. This is Floating Room’s first self-release, so I paid for everything myself. My goal for this is maybe, if possible, break even. But yeah, I would be into working with a label in the future. I wanted to try it myself because it’s been frustrating in the past. But I’d like to actually shop around to labels, and I want to tour. 

11: I’ve seen some people do virtual concerts and things right now that seem to be fairly successful. Would you consider doing something like that?

MS: I did have one funny idea. So, as a musician, usually when you do your album release there’s a part where you write something about your thing—you’re trying to promote your music. There’s this really masturbatory nature to it, talking about your own art like you’re a fucking art god, just wanking off about your process, and often times it’s the same with everyone. But I had this idea to premiere the songs where I’m literally masturbating to my own songs, and have it be a video premiere. I’ve done camming in the past, which is why I thought of this (laughs).

11: Going back to the recording and engineering of this project. It sounds like the cleanest album you’ve recorded to date, in comparison to some of your earlier stuff, which was literally bedroom recordings. But this new project was done in a studio?

MS: Yeah, the first album was recorded in my bedroom. The second was recorded in a studio. This one, if you listen to Mo Troper’s music, he does a lot of textural and clean sounding recordings. Also my old bandmate Kyle, he was a lot more into shoegaze and drone than me. I find that ok, but definitely without him in the mix it’s less droney. I feel like the sounds are different because these albums have all been spaced out a good amount of time apart. It’s just a reflection of how I feel. The first album is really dark and reverb-y, and that’s just how I felt in the moment. Now, maybe I have some more clarity, and I’m not in such a dark time in my life.

11: Well that’s good. You have that line on “Held Open Door,” “I know I am strong, but strength don’t get me high.” There is a strength to this project. Can you talk about that line, and what that strength looks or feels like to you?

MS: For sure! I’m 29 now, and my twenties, as I’m sure everyone’s are, were fucking crazy. But I feel like I’m a lot stronger as a person, and I trust myself. I’m less wild and shit, but, I dunno. There is always an inclination of wanting to fuck everything up. I have faith in myself, and I feel more wise now, but sometimes you can toss it all out the window ’cause you’re bored. That line—”strength don’t get me high”—That’s just another way of acknowledging that you’re accepting of yourself not being strong and perfect all the time, and presenting that image of being a non-messy person or whatever. Especially as a woman of color, everyone wants you to be this empowering thing one hundred percent of the time, but everyone deserves to be a complex person.

11: On “Gun,” one of the things that really struck me is that line, “I can’t drive without thinking of all the bad things that happened to me/I get to thinking evil is all around, I get to thinking that it’s all I see” I’ve had other artists talk about the headspace of being in a car, driving. Can you talk about what that means for you?

MS: Yeah, I actually wrote that one a while ago. That’s an older song that I finally got around to recording. I have CPTSD, so if I’m doing something like driving, or at work, in the past, all these bad memories would be coming back to me in that free time—all the unprocessed junk in that junk drawer would come out and reveal itself because it’s your mind’s way of trying to get you to process this shit so you can get it out, and that’s what I was experiencing at that time. But it’s kinda weird for me to put that song out now, because a lot of times writing is processing for me, like a journal, and I do feel like I’ve grown since I wrote that song. 

11: You said “Gun” was an older song. How do you go about putting a collection together? Did you have more material that you were picking from, or how did you pick these songs?

MS: A lot of it was circumstantial, because I’d disbanded my last lineup that knew a lot more songs. So there were a lot of songs that I couldn’t record. Basically I started playing with this new lineup when I had a show that I really wanted to play booked. So I taught them one set of songs, and then I just wanted to record while I was playing with them, because I really enjoyed playing music with them. So this record was the set of songs that I was most excited about recording, and was what the band knew.

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Photo by: Eirinn Gragson

11: Cool. Yeah, people have a lot of processes, but a lot of it is also just that practical aspect. I do think that these songs fit really cohesively into the project. Did you play around with the order of the songs?

MS: Yeah, I did enjoy thinking about the order. For instance, the first song, “Freak Show,” starts off with this lo-fi intro, so you might think that it’s gonna be that kinda sound throughout, that smaller lo-fi sound, and then it suddenly becomes big. And then the last song ends in a building yell.

11: The ending of “Gun” is really phenomenal and different from the endings of a lot of your songs. How did you write that?

MS: I guess a lot of my songs do have to do with wanting to be stronger, and that was an older song about wanting to be scary, so that nobody would fuck with me. Yelling is an auditory way of doing that, beyond lyrics. Also, I want to leave people wanting more, because I want to record more!

11: Do you have material put together for that, or anything lined up?

MS: Yeah, I do have more material. And I do want to start recording soon, and maybe not even waiting for an EP, just releasing stuff as singles when its done. But just in general, when I was writing this album I was working multiple jobs and working on art and school—and also my dog died—and there was all this stuff, but now I’m in a place where I can actually focus on music. So I don’t want there to be such a big gap between releases anymore.

11: Have you done visuals before, or do you have plans to do visuals for this project?

MS: Yeah, it’s something I’ve worked with. I have made a music video for this project. But yeah, my last art show was sound and video art mixed together. In a way it was a performance art piece, where I was doing different performances on Chaturbate, which is a camming website. I was recording what I was composing and it was made in this way were if I stacked all the recordings together, and edited the videos together, they would always be fitting together sonically, and each recording was a different length of time, so it was constantly regenerating different combinations of sounds. I have, with art, really tried to mix my identity as a musician and as a visual artist. I’d love to do that more with my band as well.

11: I always like to ask people who are musicians, or even artists in other mediums: who is inspiring you right now?

MS Ok, I’m blanking right now (laughs)… Let’s see. Well, just today I listened to Bartees Strange’s new album, Live Forever, and I really love the way that they mix genres and they have a strong voice no matter what genre they’re working in. They trust that, and it really works. To me it’s so much less formulaic than a lot of shit right now, and I’m really inspired by that. I really like the band Spirit of the Beehive.

Also ,my bandmates and their projects! Mo Troper, his music is just by his name, and John Sheid is with Dreamdecay, and Aaron’s old project was Two Moons, and let’s see. I’m really inspired by my friend Katherine, who’s Black Belt Eagle Scout—speaking of someone who does have a strong voice for a cause. As an Indigenous person, she’s a role model for me as someone who’s using that voice.

Lastly, two bands that really really inspired me while I was writing and recording this project were Sasami and Melody’s Echo Chamber.

11: Well thanks for talking to us, and for releasing this project after such a crazy year. I know we at Eleven had a similar situation, where everyone kinda had to re-figure out their lives and work around that.

MS: Yeah, everything has been put in perspective. It was really hard to think about, especially with Black Lives Matter. For a long period of time, I couldn’t focus on other things. 

11: Yeah, the though of “how trivial is whatever I’m doing, compared to people being murdered by the state?”

MS: Yeah, the idea of promoting my own music? I know that the cause is still really relevant and I don’t want to distract from that cause, but right when that was starting, self-promotion was the last thing I wanted to do. 

11: Certainly. As we’re coming back, we really want to center music by BIPOC that’s relevant to that cause of diversity and equity. But I do think it’s important for people to express their humanity. Like you were saying, music is a catharsis for a lot of people, so while it’s important to center these issues, nobody should stem that process of personal healing, or think that their own projects are not worthy compared to these huge problems in society and in the world.

Tired and True is out now, available for streaming on all major platforms. You can get a copy of the vinyl here.