INTERVIEW: Carlos Vara Emerges a Superstar on Debut EP

Carlos Vara is living his best life.

He’s unapologetically queer, and as you’ll witness in his “Confident” music video, he commands the room. His presence is both imposing and inviting. He slinks through the crowd, drawing admiration and awe-struck swoons, and the hazy reds soak his senses nearly as much as the liquor and weed. “Puff, puff, pass,” he sends up his words as smoke rings in the dark.

Such confidence was hard to come by, however. His song “Impossible,” another cut from his debut EP, Have You Ever Seen a Boy Break Down?, perches on the other end of the spectrum. Backed by a rich gospel choir, he drowns beneath his depression, and the lilting edge of the song deceives the deep-rooted anguish. “It doesn’t have a happy ending,” he says on a call from his newly-minted Los Angeles residence.

“I want people to listen to it and allow themselves to feel that emotion and be like, ‘It’s OK to feel sad sometimes.’ I go through phases. Some days, I’m like, ‘I’m the baddest bitch.’ Other days, I’m like, ‘I suck. No one loves me.’ Instead of running from that and allowing myself to think I’m crazy, that is me,” he confides. “I’m an extreme person. I feel every emotion very strongly, and I can’t allow myself to feel ashamed about that. I’m going to allow myself to bask in both emotions and explore them and make songs about that.”

The title song, which displays Vara in his most vulnerable state, combs his conservative upbringing in small town America. “Do I want attention / Do I want affection / Do I just want something / ‘Cause everyone has it,” he sings. He wrestles with not only his identity but attempts to reconcile what he was taught to believe and the man into whom he’s blossomed. “Everybody loves to watch a tragedy,” he later admits. He paints the brutal weight of feeling unloved with a remarkable poeticism.

His voice immerses you in all of it, every ripple of sadness washing over your skin. “Growing up, I never felt understood. I was always different,” he says. Out of South Carolina, his father once owned a string of very ritzy nightclubs, and a wide-eyed little boy was first exposed to plenty of punk and dance music, from Whitney Houston to Britney Spears, styles that are generously embedded into other moments like “Looking for Love.” When he was seven, things took an unexpectedly religious turn when his father pulled out a bottle of holy water and vowed to live an austere, God-fearing lifestyle.

Vara was left hanging in the balance. “It’s been a battle, and it’s taken me years to decipher all of that. Coming out, I had to reevaluate a lot of my life and who I was,” he says. A cultural makeup of Latin and Greek (his father’s from El Salvador, while his mother is of Greek heritage), he also grappled with masculinity and a fear of sharing emotions. “I’ve always been emotional. It’s definitely something I’ve always been ridiculed for. I never want to hide my emotions. I always want to say how I feel and unapologetically feel every emotion. I hope other males can listen to [this EP] and be like, ‘Yeah, it’s OK for me to feel that, too.’”

“I think it’s fucked up that there’s this unspoken thing that men aren’t allowed to be emotional or insecure. I think that’s stupid. It’s a real thing. I’ve gone to therapy because I’m so anxious about things – who I am and the way I look,” he says. “It’s important to speak out about it. We all feel emotions and should be allowed to cry and have a little break down.”

Despite everything, Vara remains thankful he was “raised in an environment where music was something that was really revered. My mom can sing, and she’s honestly one of my biggest inspirations. I love that woman. She’d always sing in church, and even before church, she would always sing.”

“The intent of music was always to awake emotions in people. It was a very spiritual. I’ve been able to carry that into my life now,” he says.

He stops for a moment to collect himself. While his mother is still his biggest fan, his father remains a bit detached. “I don’t think my dad has heard any of the music. So. I don’t know what he thinks about it. It is what it is,” he says, his curt response speaking volumes. He quickly adds, “My mom thinks it’s good.”

Amidst such upheaval, Vara’s health also went into swift decline. At 15, he was officially diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and was removed from a normal high school life. “I felt betrayed by myself. I didn’t know if I’d ever get better. It was a dark time. I felt alone. I remember my mom would be just sobbing,” he remembers. He spent the next year locked away in his room, and music became his only way to cope and process what was happening to him. “It made me feel understood. It was a painful era of my life, but the blessing out of that is music is my medicine.”

He soon flicked through the catalogs of such music icons as Queen, Janis Joplin and Beach Boys. Even now, his work feels both throwback and contemporary, covered in a thick layer of charm that only Vara possesses. Musically, much of his debut, including third single “Want Me To,” thrills the eardrums with a breathtaking splendor and could very well fit among such Queen classics as “Somebody to Love” and “The Show Must Go On.”

After saving up a month’s rent, the burgeoning songwriter relocated to Nashville to not only cut his small-town ties but to fulfill an unexplainable hunger in his core. Still in high school, the then-18-year-old felt the buzz of Nashville’s dazzling neon lights and the promise of superstardom. He took online classes and worked a full-time serving gig at Chili’s. “I was hustling, poor as fuck and very emotional. I had no backup plan and no connection there. I was also in the closet. So, I was going through all these emotions, all at once,” he recalls.

“I think everybody thought I’d be back after a month. I refuse. I would have been living on the streets before I went back. Failure was not an option,” he reflects. “Sometimes in life, you have to put yourself in a situation where you’re either going to sink or swim with nobody else to hold on to. I had to learn how to swim. I almost drowned a few times, but I survived.”

“Have You Ever Seen a Boy Break Down?” is stars colliding, a cosmic summation of his entire journey so far. It’s emotional. It’s angry. It’s liberating. Meanwhile, during the song’s inception, he was negotiating his contract with Warner Records. “I had this moment one day when I was in a session, and I was feeling heavy. Now, people want me and think I have something to say,” says Vara, who moved to sunny LA earlier this year. “But the only reason was because I was so depressed and hated myself. I made art because I hated myself. It took me hating myself for people to appreciate me. That had this weird affect on me.”

He adds, “I remember writing it and having this vision in my head of me in a circus rink sobbing and seeing this crowd of kids and families around me clapping and cheering.”

Vara’s Have You Ever Seen a Boy Break Down? is an exuberant display of a singer and songwriter finally coming into his own. Everyone will most certainly be clapping and cheering soon enough, but it’ll be because a superstar has emerged right before their very eyes.

Follow Carlos Vara on Facebook for ongoing updates.

EP REVIEW: Lee Triffon “Different Sun”


Welp, 2016 has been hellish, and we officially all need 200 percent more chill in our lives. And Tel Aviv-born, LA-based Lee Triffon is here to bring us those much-needed laid-back vibes in the form of her new EP Different Sun.

The album begins with Triffon’s wispy vocals projecting an ominous and slightly mysterious energy in her titular opening track. The music ebbs and flows with her airy voice, carrying you on a cushy cloud of low-key electronica. It transitions into her popular single “Mirrors in the Sand” from there. In this track, the songstress stretches her range a bit more, telling a heartfelt tale using raspy vocals alongside a slow synthy backing. The midpoint of the EP sees “Silver Bullet Gun,” which is a more unique style from the previous two tracks, deviating into a more pronounced and ambitious song than her other two–it reaches out and grabs you, holding you captive to its enchanting sound. Although slow, it’s repetitive tracking makes it so the song reverberates around your head. The next song, “Caves,” is a bit faster than the others at times, and has an urgent yet unsettled feel to it. It further complements Triffon’s mysteriousness, a quality which is palpable in all the songs on Different Sun. “Caves” is the last glimpse of sunlight on a particularly brisk winter evening, making it seasonally appropriate, but also a great way to end out an album. The last track is an orchestral version of “Mirrors in the Sand,” which is a more magical and theatrical spin on the original single.

Take a listen to Different Sun below, and maybe it’ll help you feel a bit more reinvigorated for the coming year.



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Photo by Ty Watkins

Following the release of last year’s energetic single “Silver Streets”,  Thomas Killian McPhillips VII, Derek Tramont, and Ryan Colt Levy of BRAEVES zealously uprooted themselves from the familiarity of New York to explore how the band could flourish with a little change in scenery.

“When the prospect of moving to LA came up,” said Tramont, “It was a lightning bolt that hit us so hard, we just picked up and drove across the country together, practically no questions asked.”

And “Bitter Sea” makes it clear: California sun sure suits them well.

Equal parts love letter and break-up song, the track illustrates a bittersweet goodbye to a personified New York City.

“We were kind of at odds with the New York music scene, partly because we have been living and playing in New York all our lives,” recounts Tramont. “It could have been Chicago, London, or Portland.  I’m sure you would grow tired of your hometown; that’s just natural.  But we felt a bit of a disconnect. Whether it was some of the bands we played with, the venues, or the real lack of a music ‘scene,’ something just felt like it was holding us back from truly expressing ourselves.”

It’s a new kind of relationship they’re developing with LA, as the band “really needed something that would make us feel like we were growing and not just stagnating…something drastic needed to change to get us to the place we want to be.” But while BRAEVES may be based on the West Coast now, lyrics such as, “And the more my body tells me I’m entranced/The deeper in your quicksand I’ll descend” show that even if you leave New York, it never quite leaves you.

Recorded at Red Rockets Glare with Raymond Richards (known for his work with Local Natives, whom the band often cite as a key influence), “Bitter Sea” illustrates a fresh vivacity and prowess that were never lacking in older songs, but rather, have been elegantly refined. It has BRAEVES sounding refreshed without straying from the soulful and shimmering echoes that define their ethereal sound, and it has us eager for their forthcoming sophomore EP.

Stream the track below, and if you’re on the West Coast, catch them live, where you certainly won’t be disappointed.  Plus, you might just be lucky enough to hear even more new songs:

July 16 – Chinatown Summer Nights – LA
July 21 – Molly Malone’s – LA[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


BRAEVES Chat-1Having a chat with Derek Tramont (left) and Ryan Levy (right) of BRAEVES. Photo by Tim Toda.

Late Friday night at The West, my good friend Tim and I sat waiting  for Ryan Levy and Derek Tramont of BRAEVES to show up for our interview. When they walked in, I realized I’d missed the leather jacket memo this time around, reminding me of the first interview I ever did with them where we all happened to be wearing them.  This time, though, it was maybe less of an interview, and more like old friends catching up over drinks in the patio — enjoying the fresh air and not minding so much that our butts were getting wet from the freshly rained-on benches.

 The band’s third member, drummer Tom, was supposed to be there too.  “Tommy has a good reason,” said Derek. “Maybe we’ll tell you guys later.” For the record, they didn’t.

I first met the guys almost a year ago to this day at Baby’s All Right, which Derek said was only their fourth show as a band.  Tim filmed our interview before the show, and since meeting them a year ago — “It was October 12th,” Ryan reminded us.  “I was gonna bring a bottle of champagne!” — it’s been so much fun keeping in touch and seeing them play show after show, moving forward and growing as a band.

By the time this article goes up, they’ll be on their cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, where they’ll be moving out this month to establish themselves in the music scene there and get working on their first full-length record, their follow up to Drifting by Design.

Derek Tramont:  Essentially, we have a bunch of places we’re looking at.  It’s very hard when you’re in New York, looking at property in LA.  My girlfriend lives in North Hollywood, and she kinda knows the areas where we can move into that are more set up for arts and music, like Silver Lake or Echo Park, stuff like that. So we found a place that’s in Sherman Oaks, like right next door, two miles from where she is. We basically spoke to the person, we’re ready to lock it in, but I’m just like, covering the bases.

Ryan Levy:  I think we just need to assimilate as soon as possible, you know, like we just need to get there and get comfortable in a space. It doesn’t have to be the greatest space in the world, but, this place is actually really nice.

DT:  It’s a friend who lives there now, and he’s leaving, so we have an in there.

RL:  And we have other friends who live there, so if we have to crash for a few days, we can then physically find a place.

Ysabella Monton for AudioFemme:  Ah, that’s really good then.

DT:  Yeah, it’s funny, his friend Adam lives over there who’s into film, who’s a writer, who plays in a band also with Christopher Mintz-Plasse, it’s like his best friend.  Plays bass in his band, which is great.  My best friend from school, John, who’s a cinematographer, lives right in North Hollywood, my girlfriend lives in North Hollywood.  We got a couple of things already that we can kinda go to and people we can talk to and network with and see where we’re at, a little quicker than being like, “What do we do, who do we talk to?”

YM:  So you’re not blindly diving in.  But you kind of already have a feel for what the scene is like there?

DT:  Yeah, I’ve been visiting her periodically.  It’s fucking awesome.  I mean, I love it.  We went to Satellite, I’ve heard about like, Hotel Cafe and The Viper Room, places like that.  Silver Lake Lounge.

RL:  All of our friends also seem to tell us that they think it’s just a good place for us to be for what we’re doing.  They say it’s where we should be right now, not as a suggestion, but more as a response to us letting them know it’s where we’re going.  They’re like, “Oh, okay, that actually makes a lot of sense.”  Positive reinforcement, instead of being like “Oh, shit, that’s what you wanna do?”

DT:  Yeah, I mean, if we were moving to North Dakota, like outside of Fargo, what’s the point?

RL:  Long Johns!  It’s fashionable to be freezing.

LA does seem to make a lot of sense for the band.  As influences, Derek throws out Silver Lakes’s own Local Natives, or bands like Incan Abraham, who are also from California.  In LA, the sort of atmospheric indie rock sound seems to flourish a bit more than it does here.  Derek mentions that Austin Mendenhall of Snowmine, who the band will continue to play with, said “When Snowmine went to LA, San Diego, shows were sold out, pre-sale.  More energetic, more enthusiastic, he’s like, ‘[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Snowmine] did better there.  No question.'”

“It seems like that’s a place that people will take to us maybe quicker than Brooklyn, in the sea of ten thousand bands and four million venues.  Hopefully it’s not as tough a transition as it was in New York.”

RL:  I’m really excited because we always end up recording anything in the winter.  No matter how much we plan or talk about doing stuff, we’re always in the freezing, kind of angry, claustrophobic environment, just frustrated with everything. It’s gonna be really interesting to go to a place where we don’t really feel that tension, and during those months, get to really have mental ease, and I think it’s gonna make a huge difference in how we approach the record. It will make the whole experience so much more spiritual.  It makes it less like a process and more like an experience.

DT:  It did feel a little like it was a procedure.  Okay, we gotta go to the studio, we gotta stay, it’s snowing, it’s fucking ten degrees outside, it’s like, we bring our slippers, we stay the night.  It’s tough. It’s good to be in the studio and work on stuff with each other and all that, but it’s gonna be like a breath of fresh air to be out there and take a second, realize what we’re working on conceptually.  I think it’ll come out a lot better in every way.  A little freeing for us to be in a different place, a different studio, with different people.

YM: Are you jumping right into the studio when you get there?

R: Basically, we’re gonna jump in and do our round of demos and everything as we go.  We’ve been writing stuff a lot, the trip itself is gonna give us a lot of material, so by the time we get there, we’ll probably just have a process of just throwing up every idea that we’ve got and trying to sort it all out for a few weeks.  While we do that, we’re gonna be talking to all our friends out there, whether they’re in the studio or not.  We wanna make the record different this time too.  We keep talking about different ways of actually recording it than just doing the whole thing in the same place.  We wanna see how we can actually give ourselves more freedom, headspace, maybe do different parts in different environments and see what that gives us…

D: To give us more time to work on it together.  You know, if we record drums at the studio it’ll give us the opportunity to take as many vocal takes as we want, take as many bass takes as we want.  In the studio, you’re thrown into a situation where it’s like, “Put your bass down, we’re by the hour, by the day.  Okay, well that’s what we’re gonna go with.”  I look at it now and I’m like, specifically with “While Your Body Sleeps,” on the first EP, I’m not in love with all my parts, and I would’ve loved to have gone back there and play the parts that I’m playing now, because they’re all different.  But I didn’t have the headspace or enough time, and it could give us more time and space to work it out for ourselves.

And a lot of burritos, a lot of palm trees…

RL:  When we were in bands when we were like 13, 14 and stuff, we were doing the bulk of our recordings on our own.  We would buy random different recording gear, we kept doing things on our own.  It was that process of getting to spend however many hours on a song, completely getting lost in it, it’s like playing with play-doh again or playing with action figures like a little kid instead of it being surgical.  It brings back that magical feeling of being a kid again. I really want to incorporate that in how we make the record instead of it just feeling like a job.  It’s gotta be fun, it’s gotta be free, and it’s gotta sound really good.  We’re not gonna compromise for it to sound like shit.  And I think we like bands that have dimension in their sound.  I mean, Wilco is one of our favorite bands ever, whether it’s record to record they sound different, they sound, or literally how they approach making it, there’s never one way to do something. You just find out more options or more ways to make weird sounds and records are supposed to be their own idea.  You figure out the live version later.  The recorded version is the one that’s gonna be that way forever, so make it the way that you really want it to be represented.

DT:  If that means 20, 30,000 didgeridoos, if that means ukelele, if that means a choir, that’s what we’ll do.

RL:  We’ll fly in 30,000 didgeridoos.

DT:  We’ll spend all the money we have on a backing track that we won’t end up using.

RL:  We’re just gonna buy a loin cloth and just stand with the speakers playing.  It’ll turn into an elaborate Cirque du Soleil act without actually playing instruments.

YM: No music.

RL:  For the next record, we’re just trapeze artists.

DT:  That transitions us into concept and theme…

RL:  It’s called Ballet and the album cover is gonna be all of us sharing one codpiece.

And while Derek mentioned that he’s playing different bass parts in some tracks now, the band has no plans to use anything off the EP on the album.

Says Ryan, “It was something that we made for all those reasons, whether it was the time, the budget, whatever.  And it was part of the experience…To compare it to something not to really be compared to, it’s like Star Wars…

“Always goes back to Star Wars,” Derek interjects.

“The idea of anybody just going back and changing something, those changes were unnecessary.  They didn’t make it better or worse.  Well, they definitely made it worse.  They definitely didn’t contribute to anything.”

You might see a dance remix of the EP, though.  “While Your Body Sleeps” becomes, according to Ryan, “While Your Bodies Drop” — “Let the bodies hit the floor,” says Derek.

If that’s where LA takes them, so be it.  The biggest challenge to overcome in the transition though, is the quality of pizza on the west coast.

“If you look at pizza in LA, it’s a joke,” says Derek.  “I don’t know what they’re doing.”

So I’m now obligated to ship frozen dough over to them in their “time of darkness,” in Ryan’s words.

DT: We played at awesome venues, we’ve had a great string of shows at Rough Trade or Le Poisson Rouge or Baby’s All Right, Glasslands, you know, a lot of good stuff.

RL:  I thought you were gonna rattle off all of them casually.

DT:  You want me to?  Rockwood Stage 2, The Knitting Factory…I’m not gonna go into dates, because I’d do that.

RL:  But we never really assimilated here to Brooklyn or the city.  It’s been such a weird thing to have basically done everything we’ve done off of coming here and playing a show and Derek being the best e-mail person in the world, basically…

DT:  That’s on the record.

Being from Long Island is horrible. We travel like an hour plus to get to a show, then we gotta truck back, you know what I mean.  We’re not part of it here, we’ve never been.  In a way, it feels like we’re leaving Long Island.

RL: It’s funny because I’m really really happy with everything we’ve accomplished, but I’m also amazed because we’re like writing long distance love letters to Brooklyn and the city and we’re here.  It’s gonna be interesting when we’re actually living in the thick of it.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]