Ziemba Grieves For Her Father On Christmas-Tinged LP Unsubtle Magic

Photo Credit: Ian Torres

“Destabilizing.” That’s the single word René Kladzyk says best encompasses her experience after the death of her father and through rising flood waters of grief. The singer-songwriter, best known under her musical pseudonym Ziemba, lost her father in early 2020 after he spent two weeks in the hospital over the Christmas season.

Her life all but burned to the ground — and with her brand new record, Unsubtle Magic, she sifts through the ash, both literally and figuratively. When her father’s health took a turn for the worse in late 2019, everything began to shift dramatically, even her relationship to holiday-themed music. “Losing a loved one over the holidays made all Christmas music take on a new tinge to me,” Kladzyk tells Audiofemme.

Admittedly, she never intended to make a record stitched with references to such classic Christmas songs as “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” but perhaps it was a necessary conduit of catharsis to confront her pain so boldly and brutally as possible. “I just kept writing songs that had this holiday frame or holiday lens. That was the context of my dad’s death,” she recognizes.

Beyond her father’s death, Kladzyk also experienced the loss of an aunt, uncle, and good friend. “My experience is not all that unique. A lot of people have really had to grapple with mortality and loss. It’s like the ground falls out from underneath you, and you have to relearn how to stand,” she says. “I wonder about all the different ways that people are going to be struggling this holiday season.”

In the weeks and months immediately following her father’s death, Kladzyk scrawled out the stray lyric and melody, but it wasn’t until late 2020 that she finished the first song. “Sandia Crest” finds her wondering, “Are we truly gone when we go?” over a bedrock of wind instruments and piano, making a lyrical reference to scattering her aunt’s ashes, which she says was “kind of a complicated process.”

“She died tragically, too,” Kladzyk recalls. “She had been a really bad alcoholic for many years, and I had stopped talking to her. She was a big part of my childhood, but in adulthood, I ended up stopping talking to her, as most of my family did. We all were estranged from her, which is really sad. She had very serious mental health issues — and she was alone when she died.”

As a result, the performance is sullen and weighted down, like shoving a boulder into the ocean. All the sorrow and the heartache bubbles around her as she sings, “The last time I heard her voice before she lost her soul/A goodbye to the swirling skies, swallowed by the stars,” bathing in the moment, simply existing without any concrete answers.

Kladzyk prompts another investigation into the afterlife with “Will You Haunt Me?” in which she retraces the moment when it “hit me that [my father] was actually going to die. We had to make the decision to take him off life support, and it was very fraught and confusing,” she recalls. “At first, they were really optimistic, but it quickly changed when he didn’t wake up. I remember walking down the hospital hallway and feeling my head hanging low in a way that it never had before. I don’t even know how to describe it. But it was like this utterly defeated feeling of helplessness that there’s nothing I can do.”

Meanwhile, the world around her continued to flicker right, as there were “literally babies being born. Every time a baby was born, they would play a little melody from ‘Rockabye Baby’ throughout the entire hospital. So you could always hear when a baby was born,” she says.

As her father died, the song’s sweet, bright melody washed over her. “It was a reminder that everybody’s just going about life,” she reflects. “Life is happening all around me, and my life had totally collapsed.”

The album cover, designed by Robert Beatty with art created by Dian Liang, frames her father’s final moments with a glimpse into the sun’s glaring, hopeful rays. “It’s this moment of looking out the hospital window to watch the sunrise on Christmas morning and trying to feel some amount of hope in it,” she explain.

Unsubtle Magic, co-produced with Don Godwin, relies heartily on “devastating defeat and overwhelming sadness” but filters the experiences through twinges of “sweetness and a feeling of home,” she explains. With “A Nightmare,” for example, Kladzyk observes the literal caving in of her childhood home, which her father bought in the ’70s. In 2020, she and her sister “had this incredibly painful problem of trying to deal with this property,” she says. In the song’s most incisive depiction of her ongoing struggle to cope, she sings with a quivering lip, “Part of me might die here.”

It’s a nail in the coffin, to say the least. “It felt like a whole new way of losing him,” she adds. “It was like losing the metaphysical home and physical home.”

She remembers the moment like it was yesterday. Kladzyk returned to Michigan to attend to things while her uncle was dying, so not only did she say final goodbyes but she closed an important chapter of her life. It was 17 degrees out, and snow capped decayed architecture and rotting beams offered a sobering depiction of everything in her life. “The second floor was caving into the first floor and I was running down the stairs as I heard the floor starting to cave in. I ran out of the house in a panic, and that’s the last time I ever went inside that house,” she recalls. “I was actually in the house, and the feeling was like it was falling in. My dog got loose in the yard, and it was really scary and overwhelming and sad.”

“Time doesn’t freeze just ’cause you want it to,” Kladzyk sings on “Time Doesn’t Freeze,” the exact phrase her sister said to her when dealing with the ramshackle homestead. “My dad just kind of left it as though it would stay how it was. He often wouldn’t deal with things, and he would just put it off as though you could keep putting it off forever. If we hadn’t sold it, the town was about to condemn it. It was a huge burden to put on us, because my dad hadn’t maintained it and hadn’t cleaned it out. Then, it was this emotional burden of not knowing if dad had things in there that were of value to him or would be of value to us.”

Furthermore, the piano-laced song grabbles with “the nature of change and entropy, and just how there’s no way to argue with it — and all the ways that silly humans try to pretend we can. We can try to hold onto a moment forever, but we just can’t. And then we’ll forget.”

“That’s another thing with death; you start really grappling with your own memory. You immediately start realizing all the things that you are slowly forgetting, like what it was like to hug that person,” she continues. “It’s a gradual process of going from being a very clear image in your mind’s eye to being a fuzzy image. That’s a horrible feeling. But it’s unavoidable. You can do things to improve your memory, like learning language or whatever, but you can’t bring that person back. You can’t feel the feeling again, except maybe in a dream, if you’re lucky.”

Kladzyk keeps her father’s memory alive through using the same family piano, now residing in her El Paso home, that she played growing up and her father used in his own musical career. “When my mom got pregnant, he just quit playing music entirely. He was operating at a time when the financial hurdles to record were much greater. So, even though he wrote and did demo recordings of tons and tons of songs, he only captured recordings with maybe four songs. During his 12-year musical career, he was a touring musician and had a circuit that he played and made a good living.”

Now, in possession of a collection of tapes, only four of which were complete, basic recordings, she found herself drawn to “Set In Ice,” which her father wrote in 1974. “I tried out a number of songs with the idea of covering them for this album. I really liked where [this song] sat in my voice. I didn’t change the key for that one, and I really liked how, thematically, it fit in the album,” she says.

One particular lyric struck her most. “Living by myself for so very long/Get up every morning just to sing these songs,” she sings amidst a flurry of percussion and guitar. Surprisingly, the visual brought her great comfort, “to imagine my dad in the ‘70s having those same feelings that I was having now. It felt like a way to connect to him, and it feels that way playing his songs, like a new way to get to know him and expand my relationship to a version of him that I never knew.”

Her father never spoke much about his musical days, except to “drop a crazy bomb” like the time he said he “went over to Tom Waits’ apartment, and the whole floor was covered in Burger King wrappers,” she shares with a laugh.

Unsubtle Magic is fraught with emotional tension. Kladzyk both surrenders to her grief and pushes to extricate herself from it. It’s that vital tug of war that acts as a heavy duty glue to keep her from falling apart, shockwaves vibrating through songs like “Only Lonely Christmas,” “Fear,” and a driving performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

The holidays are in full swing, and a lyric in “Sandia Crest” ensnares these complicated strands of her emotional state. “I hope to someday love Christmas,” she sings, the phrase nearly swallowing her whole. It’s hopeful but doesn’t skirt the pain.

In our conversation, she admits to feeling like “I am doing a great job of forcing myself to get over wanting to cry every time I heard a Christmas song. While it was all happening, that first holiday season, literally hearing any Christmas song made me feel this pain in my stomach, a sadness like everything that was gone would never be again — that sort of thing. I think I’ve done a good job of reminding myself all of what I love about this time of year and the magic I’m still working on.”

Raised Catholic, Kladzyk doesn’t gravitate to the religious iconography or gift-giving aspects of the season. Rather, it’s about “believing in impossible things or believing in mysterious, beyond the realm of the material things in some ways. It’s been more like smelling pine in the air and the winter experience. It has always held this magic for me.”

Unsubtle Magic is Kladzyk’s lifeline. It’s a fearless, imposing, and visceral snapshot of her life in the throes of inevitable tragedy. It’s not the sort of record you’d expect in the Christmas season, but it’s one with unfortunate universal appeal — and one the entire world needs to witness.

Follow Ziemba on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Brooklyn Supergroup Rhinestone Mine Campy But Heartfelt Country Aesthetic on Debut EP

Photo Credit: Elizabeth LoPiccolo

René Kladzyk says she’s always been drawn to melodrama – but some of the songs she found herself writing were almost “too embarrassing” to record, at least for her more esoteric, conceptually-driven musical project Ziemba. As she developed a taste for the oft-maligned country and western genre – particularly outlaw country courtesy of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, or the folk-adjacent Americana of Bobbie Gentry and Townes Van Zandt – she realized that its heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism lent itself perfectly to sitting with those uncomfortable emotions. The only problem was, she was living in Brooklyn, where the prospect of finding like-minded musicians to start up a country band seemed a bit like finding needles in a haystack.

While this pitiful position could’ve inspired another lonesome country-tinged tune, Kladzyk didn’t wallow; she turned to Facebook. “[My post] was like, ‘Who wants to join my weirdo country band?!’ and all these people reached out – none of whom I actually knew, we all just had mutual friends,” she remembers. From the first practice it was clear that the sort of people who would immediately respond to a post like that – and actually follow through – did so for the sheer love of playing music, and though the lineup changed slightly from those first practices, it solidified around an unlikely group of dedicated musicians, well-known in the Brooklyn scene for their involvement in rather disparate projects. These included: Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk alum Oscar Allen; Death By Audio’s Jay Heiselmann, who’s played in Grooms and Roya; and documentary photographer Samuel Budin. The EP also features John Bohannon (Torres, Ancient Ocean) on pedal steel, Casey Kreher on drums, and backing vocals from Jess Healy, the newest official band member.

Though Brooklyn might seem an unwelcoming place for a country band to flourish, the eclectic crew had a built-in audience. “Between our collective members, we already had kind of a musical following, so it was never as hard for us to bring out a crowd as it was for me when I was starting out with Ziemba,” says Kladzyk. “Because we have members with other active projects we’ve never played a ton. We’ve only played outside of Brooklyn once I think. We’ve never done a full tour. But within Brooklyn we’ve been able to play a lot of really cool shows over the years with really great bands. We’ve been lucky to have really great crowds who dance a lot, have fun, and rage.”

Rhinestone, in many ways, represents the growing appeal of country music well outside the genre’s typical demographic – whether that’s Kacey Musgraves’ critical acclaim, Orville Peck’s anonymous rise to indie stardom, the revelation of gender-flipping songwriting ensemble The Highwomen, crossover stars like Colbie Caillat making forays into country… the list goes on. Like Kladzyk, the members of Rhinestone were relatively late to the party, but they took that fateful Facebook post as a literal invitation.

“I had less than no interest in country music for most of my life. Right before I started high school, my family moved to Missouri, where I quickly fell in with a narrow vesica piscis of Nirvana obsessives, Lilith Fair attendees, and Toad the Wet Sprocket fans. My teenage filter regarded the slick insincerity of the exaggerated redneck accents leaking from passing pickups as a tool of the enemy,” admits guitarist Oscar Allen, who wrote the EP’s second track, “Maze of Love” and takes lead vocals on it. “Over time I realized that my beloved Roy Orbison, Breeders, and Leadbelly records hinted at an alternate history and deeper peeks behind that curtain revealed songs by Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, and Neko Case more powerful than my prejudice against the label. Still, I went into that first Rhinestone practice with a bit of bemusement – I had to move to New York to finally be in a country band?!”

Healy came to classic country in the early 2000s via alt-country artists like Clem Snide. “I don’t think I would have sought out a country band to join prior to Rhinestone because I don’t identify with the idea I have of the culture of country being like, white dudes in cowboy hats kicking the tires of their Trump-stickered pickup, chewing snuff, and whining. I am not a huge fan of the shiny new country radiosound,” she says. “But Rhinestone feels more like campy traditional country – we put on costumes and personas and sing the shit out of the songs and it’s a joyful rollicking good time with some heartbreak thrown in. Rhinestone’s songs seem to extract the elements of country I like – the soulfulness and universality of heartbreak, straightforward melodies – while bringing in just enough Brooklyn weirdness to turn me on.”

Named for a film that sees Dolly Parton attempting to turn NYC cabbie Sylvester Stallone into Nashville’s next big star, the campy aesthetic is certainly integral to Rhinestone’s identity. Partly, it’s about world-building, creating an immersive experience. But beyond that, it’s pointing out an interesting irony specific to a genre that “often inhabits that space where it’s simultaneously really showy and flamboyant and campy but it’s also totally earnest and heartfelt,” Kladzyk says. “And that’s something that I really like about it. Some people think if you’re wearing sparkly or shimmery clothing then you can’t be sincere. I would be so angry at myself if I didn’t take advantage of this fashion opportunity. It’s like, why not go all the way there?”

“Very early on, René laid down a clear earnestness-over-irony mission statement and that, more than anything else, made me go all in,” Allen says. “It’s been fascinating to discover how this deceptively simple genre, with song forms older than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, holds a strange resonant complexity. You’re not solely bound to tropes and cosplay, but certain chord changes, word choices, guitar phrasing, and production moves will instantly announce themselves as unworthy.”

The four-track EP came out of an upstate recording session where the band set an album and a half’s worth of material to tape, on a machine they bought with licensing fees from a Sophie Tucker cover they recorded for FUSION TV’s Shade: Queens of NYC. “Among the songs we recorded, there’s four different songwriters and four different lead vocalists,” Kladzyk says. “Mixing and mastering the songs has been kind of a drawn out process but right now we have a whole additional album done. As Rhinestone releases more music, there’s a lot of different styles that we play even though we’re kind of framing it as country – country is a term that means a million things to different people.” Allen, for his part, refers to it as “David Lynch country.”

With an extensive playlist of references, Rhinestone hopes that their homage to music’s most misunderstood format might lead people down a rabbit hole of discovery. “If, through this project, that older-and-weirder world becomes even slightly more visible to people with the same preconceptions I used to carry, I’ll feel lucky and grateful,” says Allen. Budin, the band’s bassist, adds, “It’s solid pop music, and always has been. I hope [the EP] will inspire people to delve into the rich history of country music, which, among other things, is an integral part of the story of the American recording industry.”

Kladzyk says it’s also a transgressive history, despite its current-day association with a more conservative viewpoint. She points out that a lot of country music, particularly alt and outlaw country, was “responding to corporatized, highly commercial music and feeling resistant to that, so there’s a counterculture element that’s like, almost punk. There’s no straight lines and there’s no ideas that exist in silos. It’s all interconnected.”

“I guess I hope that Rhinestone can show others, as it has shown me, that there’s a flavor of country for everyone, and that beyond the stereotype are some deep roots to draw on and be inspired by,” says Healy, who credits joining the band with opening up her guitar-playing.

“If somebody likes Rhinestone, they should keep digging,” Kladzyk agrees. “I hope that if somebody listens to what we’ve made and likes it, that they feel motivated to deepen their relationship with the music in their life, cause it’s really fun. It’s like, a really nice way to live.”

Rhinestone’s debut EP is out tomorrow, 6/30. 100% of sales from the first week of the EP release (plus pre-sales) will be split 50/50 between Movement for Black Lives and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Follow Rhinestone on Instagram for ongoing updates.

AUDIOFEMME PRESENTS: Backstage Pass with Ziemba

On International Women’s Day this year, Audiofemme curated a showcase of talented musicians to play the opening of For The Record, a portrait series showcasing women in the music industry shot by Ebru Yildiz, at Ridgewood venue TV Eye. Our videographer Molly Mary O’Brien shot a candid interview with Ziemba’s René Kladzyk before her performance, as well as the intimate sing-along version of “All Doors Have Keys,” from Part 3 of last year’s concept LP Ardis.

In a previous interview with Audiofemme, Kladzyk told me that she often incorporates co-operative harmonizing into her shows. “Creating spontaneous choirs reminds people of how joyous it is to sing with other people,” she explained. “I think there’s a lot of people who really long to sing but don’t, because maybe they fear judgement that their voice isn’t good enough or they can’t sing perfectly. But if you’re singing in a group of people, something happens. I don’t even know exactly how to name it. It forces you to be openhearted. You have to be vulnerable and you have to listen and respond and communicate in this way that’s not necessarily linguistic. Non-linguistic forms of communication are very helpful for enhancing empathy and being better humans.” This is reflected not only in Ziemba’s live appearances, but in the work Kladzyk does with Colin Self’s XOIR.

Now that live performance is momentarily side-lined, we hope you’ll enjoy this powerful moment from our IWD showcase. Tomorrow, Ziemba launches her Ampled page – Ampled is a new artist-owned cooperative music platform, where people can support artists directly (similar to Patreon, but specifically for musicians; the revenue goes to the musicians, not venture capitalists). Be sure to check that out as a means of keeping in touch with and supporting artists like Ziemba – you can also follow Ziemba on Facebook for ongoing updates.

INTERVIEW: Ziemba Extends an Invite to Parallel World of Ardis with “Veritas in Terra”

all photos by Megan Mack

René Kladzyk has made it her artistic purpose to merge various media since the very beginning of her musical project Ziemba; her debut LP came with an incense made from flowers in and around her childhood home, and her live shows frequently feature the diffusion of scents she’s created to go along with the specific experience. Now, inspired by singing collectively with Colin Self’s XHOIR, feminist science fiction, Nabokov’s treatise on time, and the neofuturistic architecture of John Portman, Kladzyk has launched the first phase of Ardis, a high-concept three-part album that explores utopia from a human perspective.

Essentially, Ardis is a parallel version of Earth, with “necessary changes” having been made. Its creation was a direct response to Trump’s election, Kladzyk explains. “I felt really devastated by a lot of what I was seeing in America and I wanted to talk about it but in a way that didn’t just perpetuate me feeling devastated by it,” she says. “How can I talk about this in a way that’s not just dwelling on how upsetting it is, but instead thinking about possible alternatives and mobilizing in a way that’s fantastical and fun and uplifting? If you believe that cultural change is fueled by art and creative work, which I do, then people who are making work that envisions possible alternative futures can have a real material impact on the world we live in here.”

The first five songs from the LP, which comprise Part One, were released in February, along with a video for “Veritas in Terra” that brings Kladzyk’s concepts into the real world via John Portman’s architecture. His buildings have served as the inspiration for Delta City in Robocop, and appeared in sci-fi classics and recent blockbusters alike, from John Carpenter’s Escape From LA to the Divergent series. Kladzyk first encountered his work on a trip to New York City (which she now calls home) during her teens, when she ventured into the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. “Veritas in Terra” was shot in three Atlanta hotels; Portman’s architectural thumbprint is everywhere in his home city, characterized by the multi-storied arrangement of floors overlooking a towering atrium, often with a glass elevator that traverses it like a an electrical impulse running up a human spine. Indeed, this is the intended visual allusion, one which Kladzyk mirrors in relating humanity to the sprawling scale of a futuristic cityscape. “It’s an inter-scalar thing – it’s like, if you look at a building like a body, and a body like a song, you find the commonalities in the way we structure ideas to the way we structure our world on the macro level,” she explains.

The video was co-directed by Kladzyk, Megan Mack, and Allison Halter, and it wasn’t an easy shoot, considering they were forcibly removed from the Portman-designed Hyatt, Westin, and Marriott hotels. “We filmed in [the Hyatt] and almost immediately got in trouble… then I was like, okay, we have to be a little bit more careful. And then we got kicked out of another place,” she says with a laugh. “We were very cautious with the Marriott Marquis. We mostly filmed from like 4-6 in the morning. We got kicked out while shooting the last shot; I knew we would because it was right in front of the concierge desk.”

That shot became one of the opening scenes in “Veritas” – Kladzyk looks up through the atrium, wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. Throughout the video she’s “simultaneously exploring but also a little hunted, but then also realizing that there are all these different versions of me.” She says that Portman’s buildings support an almost voyeuristic tendency that she wanted to highlight: “[The atrium] changes how you look at other humans – you can see people so far away and they look so tiny. They often aren’t aware that you’re looking at them, but you can’t help [it] because the nature of the space encourages you to look.” Overall, it was the fact that Portman’s buildings are like parallel universes unto themselves that attracted Kladzyk to his work, which has been both credited with revitalizing formerly desolate downtown areas as well as criticized for being too insular.

The two remaining segments of Ardis will appear in April and June, each with their own specific fragrance accompaniment. This March, Kladzyk begins a month-long residency at Red Hook artspace Pioneer Works, which will culminate in a musical version of Ardis on April 14. It will expand upon the excerpt she performed at MoMA Ps1 at the end of 2017, which featured herself and her sister Anna discovering, then destroying, a fragrant utopia before rebuilding it. “One of the narrative arcs [of the project] is me as a human, trying to open doorways to Ardis, failing and trying again, and in the process finding it in all these different places,” she says. The Pioneer Works performance, she adds, will feature “a number of other performers, there’ll be a large choir, and other musicians… I’m working with a really incredible set designer, and there’ll be wild costumes, but it will largely be the music interacting with visual signifiers of the world.”

Ziemba will also perform a handful of more straightfoward shows on the West Coast with Teeny Lieberson’s solo endeavor Lou Tides in the coming months, as well as some dates throughout the Mid- and Southwest. She’s performed some of the songs from Ardis in a live setting before – “Ugly Ambitious Women,” in particular, appeared on a 2015 EP, and Kladzyk says she has more material she’s interested in reimagining – and will do so again at Secret Project Robot next week. Ever prolific, she’s currently writing songs that are a little more grounded and personal, but whether she revisits Ardis in the future remains to be seen. “We’ll see what path it follows. Some of that may depend on how people respond to it, and the way that I learn from it after touring it,” she says. Though she hesitates to say that she makes therapeutic music, she does hope Ardis will offer others some catharsis, as it has for her to imagine such a place.

“[Someone asked] ‘What does Ardis look like? What’s it like there?'” recalls Kladzyk. “In short, I don’t exactly know. I’m still looking for it and I’m still learning from it. But that’s kind of the idea – maybe we need to reject this idea that we as humans can be certain, and instead focus on expansiveness, and listening and connection.”