If Sur Back were to introduce herself to the world, she would take the route of beauty and simplicity. “I think the only genuine introduction I could give would be through a show,” she admits, “and I’m fascinated by the total accessibility and transparency that live streaming has brought to live performance. If money is no factor than I would love to live stream a big show somewhere an audience couldn’t really go—maybe like a boat in the middle of Lake Retba when it turns pink, or in the mountains somewhere with tall trees and snow.”
And that about sums it up. Speaking with her is like pure poetry. She’s embraced a life of the arts, and has excelled well for many years. She’s eloquent in her presentation and personality, and there is no question that she is far beyond her years in knowledge and grace.
Sur Back’s debut EP Kitsch comes out today, so we caught up with her to discuss her foray into the arts, and her transition from ballet into music. World, meet Sur Back.
You are a classically trained ballerina, and have been dancing since the tender age of three. Tell us what that was like, and what issues you may have had to overcome as a result of the rigorous lifestyle of a ballerina.
It was a passion of mine for many years, so any of the blisters, early mornings or sore muscles were nothing compared to how much I wanted to get better at it. When you’re a little girl, it feels like ages before you’re finally allowed to go “on pointe,” and the day I got permission was a gigantic milestone for me. I remember my parents and teacher taking me to the Cheesecake Factory to tell me—it was almost like a proposal of sorts! I’m really lucky to have had supportive parents. One summer they used our vacation money so they could afford to take me to a summer intensive. But they were also really clear that I should stop as soon as I didn’t enjoy it anymore. That seemed like a ridiculous sentiment to me at the time, but as I was going into high school I started developing panic disorder and that changed a lot of things for me. I also was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, but I think people get the two mixed up a lot. Panic disorder was and is exponentially more debilitating because unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks don’t have identifiable triggers—it’s just something that sits inside you waiting to pop up and terrify you at your happiest, calmest moments. So around that time I suddenly felt a huge urge to sing over the music I was supposed to be dancing to, and that’s when ballet ceased to be my art and started to inform it. When my anxiety was at its worst, hearing music playing in a store or a clock ticking in a doctor’s office would immediately bring on an attack, and the only way I could understand that irrational fear was that I feared sound when I wasn’t in control of it. By learning how to make music, I essentially learned how to dominate noise, and I think I speak for a lot of people who suffer from similar disorders that you can do anything once you force yourself to manipulate a fear.
You are a completely self taught, DIY musician. Kudos! When did you decide to pursue music as a career, and what made you decide to tackle it on your own?
Thank you! I think my move away from the dance world was rooted in the catharsis of using my voice and my hands—I was definitely no stranger to the stage, and I didn’t want that to change, I just wanted to start making noise on it. In hindsight, I feel like that was my coming-of-age moment where, symbolically, I craved this agency that you can only get through the freedom of making music. Ballet continues to captivate me, but performing doesn’t offer the same satisfaction when you’re being told how to move and not to speak. There’s this breath of self-evaluation that you take once you leave the stage, and after dance, it’s all about, “How did I perform? Did I meet expectations? Did I move beautifully?” But after playing music it’s not so much a question, it’s an affirmation of a successful communication—and that’s worth way more than poise.
Please, tell us about the moniker “Sur Back” and what inspired it.
I knew from the get-go that I wanted a name I could sort of step into, like a costume, when performing, and I didn’t want it to be arbitrary in the least! So I spent over a year really looking into every reference that sounded interesting, but I ended up landing on something that was explained to me when I took a graduation trip to visit some family on Oahu. One of my relatives asked me if I’d ever seen the “green flash” and I remember looking for it over the ocean that evening with no luck. About a year later I started watching a lot of French New Wave films and stumbled across Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert, which translates as “The Green Ray” and is based on a 1882 sci-fi novel by Jules Verne. I researched the movie a lot and found so many similarities between myself and the main character, Delphine, but most important to me was that she also hears about the green flash through an older woman, while on vacation overlooking the ocean, and is also on the same homesick, yet vagrant search for meaning that I felt when I learned about it. In the film, she overhears that this atmospheric phenomenon also coincides with the legend that if you see the flash, you have this powerful moment of epiphany where your thoughts, and the thoughts of those around you are perfectly understand. That idea of individual understanding and collective empathy sounded like the ideal thing for music to aspire to! But I was frustrated because “the green flash” sounded way too much like a cheesy comic book. So I went back to the drawing board and found out that the first person to ever record a sighting of the green ray was an Arctic explorer named Sir George Back. All of his scientific journals are online, so I scoured them until I found this chapter called “Curious Meteor.” He writes about their ship being trapped in this desolate, icy environment and feeling incredibly isolated from the world, and then about a tragic night where they have to bury a crew member in the surrounding ice because they can’t move. He ends up staying up through the night because of it, but as the sun comes up, he sees this “brilliant emerald colour” on the “upper limb of the sun” and suddenly all of the existential anxiety fades away and he’s enamored with the world despite it all. His story brought the entire narrative together, and the chapter stuck with me for small superstitious reasons as well (he mentions standing on a hammock that’s 17 feet high, which is my lucky number) so I tried to play with different interpretations of his name. My sister found out that “sur” means “steer” in Turkish, and so I changed it to “Sur Back” in the hopes that my music would “steer back” its listeners to transformative moments of their own.
You’ve already had comparisons drawn to St. Vincent and Caroline Polachek. What’s that like for you?
Super flattering! I have a lot of admiration for their versatility and being anywhere close to their level of creative decision-making would be a giant accomplishment. I have yet to see Caroline Polachek perform, but I really relate to the contrast between Chairlift’s recent music and her Ramona Lisa work. I love them both equally. I saw St. Vincent play in Atlanta and have to admit I cried after meeting her!
If you could describe your own sound, how would you?
That’s really hard for me! I’ve been told that my vocal phrasing is kind of jazz-like, and I definitely think Billie Holiday has been a huge influence there. The first song I ever learned on guitar was “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and I always looked to gentle, jazz instrumentations from Chet Baker or Miles Davis’ “It Never Entered My Mind” when I started playing guitar. I started to move past jazz and blues stuff and got into more of the experimental rock stuff, like Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics, and then that led into the electronic stuff which I supplemented with 80s and 90s pop music.
What do you mean when you say you “fell out of hate with pop”?
I started making music as a freshman in an arts high school—it was that really cheesy teenage phase where people described themselves as “nonconformist”, and it wasn’t cool to like anything remotely superficial. In that phase the redeeming quality of art wasn’t the image being presented, it was more worried with the meaning implied by the sounds. As time moved on that started to seem masturbatory to some degree, and an over-emphasis on the “meaning” behind art began to look stale. To some degree, Modernist art aligned with my first explorations of what “pop” looked like in that it disregarded the naiveté of “meaning” in every piece, and focused on making a statement on the surface instead.
That initial conceptual, anti-pop idea of teenage art is like imagining two people sitting in a car and studying where they’re going and why, trying to grasp at the meaning behind their motion even though you’re excluded from it —it’s inaccessible. Exploring “pop” in a modernist sense serves as a revelation that the purpose of the car’s movement is pointless when you can simply zoom in and study the paint job—that’s an experience that anyone can take part in. At this perspective, the necessity for meaning is gone and the surface itself is a world worth exploring. I think that inclusiveness and accessibility is the coolest thing music is capable of. Now, I’m most interested in reversing that simplification by breaking down the surface study of the figurative paint job and taking a microscope to it. I want to distance myself even further from the “meaning” behind the car, yet I’m complicating the superficial surface study by exploring it at a molecular level. So I fell out of hate with the pop perspective in order to deconstruct it!
How do you find yourself blending that classical ballet background into the art of your music?
All of my modern influences are set against a really vivid background of classical music. I’m not experimental at all when it comes to that, my favorites are always sappy adagios that you can dance with, like Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir De Florence in D Minor, Op. 70: II Adagio Cantabile” which James Kudelka choreographed the “Cruel World” pas de deux to. I really really love using strings and other orchestral instruments in my music, and I want to stay as far away from the “less is more” pop mentality as possible. If anything I’d like my music to be maximalist, because I work really hard to make it sound as full as possible and still maintain a cohesive theme. Some of songs have upwards of 100 tracks and the moment I fit them all together I feel unstoppable! Aside from sounds though, the biggest thing I take from classical music is the movement from part to part—especially with the EP’s title track, I wanted there to be melodic returns that you only come to expect after repeated listens, so there’s no clear verses or choruses, just movements. I think there’s something really cool about playing with expectation and emotion in a way that only classical music can do. When it comes to the movement itself, a huge goal of mine is to score and choreograph a ballet one day.
The new music video for “Trophy Daughter” is enrapturing. What was the process in creating it, and what made you choose those specific visuals?
Thank you! I’d kind of steered clear from references to Florida in the past, and I wanted to involve it in this song since its laid-back sound was the most representative of my hometown so far. I don’t know much about making videos, and all I used was a camcorder and iMovie ’11. I just hoped to make something that would accompany the feel of the song and maybe attach a face to a name for people just listening in.
What–if you don’t mind disclosing–inspired that song? (It’s got a sentiment I’m sure a lot of people can relate to.)
I wanted it to be a celebration of personal femininity on the surface, and I think aspiring to this idea of a “reformative trophy daughter”, a success in your own weird way, is something a lot of people could enjoy on the first listen. But underneath that is something I spend a lot of time trying to define, which is, what am I capable of doing as a cis, white feminist? I don’t think my self love is enough.
You are a force to be reckoned with! So we’re curious… what’s your take on modern day feminism?
I’ve been really lucky to have an incredibly supportive, caring and innovative mother, so it was a shock of sorts to grow up and realize that women aren’t valued as much as I believed they should be. Of course I’ve dealt with little issues over the years—guys inviting themselves up to my apartment during our first conversation, people asking my boyfriend how he managed to produce the songs after several shows when he came on tour with me—but I also have the ability to realize that the sexist issues I face are relatively small compared to the discrimination faced by other social groups. Sexism is apparent, but for all the obstacles we face, feminism in our country is gaining more support everyday. I feel like the best way for me to use that growing support is to harness that feminine power and single out that sexist expectation that women are socially required to have children and be this overarching caregiver. If we rebrand this expectation as a superpower of sorts, I think we can use that caring, maternal archetype to offer inclusion and protection to groups that don’t have as much support. I think women can do anything, and part of realizing that power should be taking advantage of our ability to stick up for even more oppressed people. I also think it needs to be said that any social revolution is like a wire, you have to bend it past the point you want it to end up at—cis men have to be willing to implement a bit of radicalism and put others on a pedestal for a bit.
What gives you the energy to keep creating? (Coffee? Yoga? A punching bag?)
Americanos are definitely my lifeblood! I need at least one or two a day. But artistically, I feel like the desire to create something I’ll never get tired of listening to is the driving force behind producing and songwriting. The biggest accomplishment would be creating something that never goes out of style.
What can we look forward to from Sur Back?
I’m working on another EP, and planning another tour!