Words by Luke LaBenne
Imagine the effect of a multi-year journey of self-discovery spanning continents; exploring locations like Northern Ireland, Montenegro, Turkey and Korea. This experience informs CYRRCA’s debut album. From his writings and journal entries, an album surprisingly emerged. CYRRCA makes the listener his travel companion with each new song bringing a unique vignette and perspective, evoking the locations that inspired the songs themselves. The album stylistically shifts in unexpected ways. His free-flowing poetry covers lyrical territory as vast as the landscapes captured in the footage of the accompanying visual album. The listener leaves feeling like they’ve awoken from a dream or a past life, having followed a path not knowing where it would lead.
Off Shelf: Your lyrics feel so poetic and personal, did you do much editing of your writing to put it into album form or did you mostly preserve the writings as they were?
Cyrrca: At the start of the journey my plan was to explore what it means to be alive on this planet and write a book in the process. But those writings never really felt complete and it wasn’t until later through making this album that the project came to form. My ritual for writing the lyrics was to lay out my travel writings in a big messy spread of moleskine journals, handwritten manuscripts and unorganized poems. I usually begin in free form/stream of consciousness with my old writings there in the periphery when I was stuck or searching for something that had a sense of immediacy to it. Sometimes I’d just open a journal at random and discover sections that somehow magically fit, little fragments and moments. Those solitary discoveries are some of my favorite memories of making the album.
OS: Each song ofeels like a new scene in a movie; from the party pop of “Temple Charm” to the hard-hitting Hip Hop of “Namsan” and “Apocalypse Tao” to the atmospheric anthemic swell of “Beograd.” What was the process of making this album so stylistically varied while keeping it a cohesive piece?
C: This was a tough decision at first because in general I’m a fan of albums that have one unified musical mood and production style. But one of the benefits of being stylistically varied was that it allowed me to explore the breadth of experiences that led up to this project. I began to see the album as a unified whole; not so much production-wise but rather in terms of narrative. Also, my sound engineer B.A. Wheeler put a lot of love into the mix and that helped keep the sonics cohesive.
OS: I feel like the listener can feel the meaning of these songs and picture these scenes just by listening to the music and the mood of the song. How did you go about capturing the message and emotion of the lyrics in the music itself?
C: Over twenty producers and musicians ended up contributing to the album and many of the tracks were highly collaborative. On the flipside, sometimes the lyrics found their musical form in a more simple way. Pyrrhic Victories, for example, was a track I discovered through conversation with a random stranger at an LP bar in Incheon. He passed me his headphones and played a song that eventually became “Pyrrhic Victories”. He’d made the track years ago but never released it; he didn’t even have the project files anymore. I loved the emotion of the song though – it transported me immediately to Montenegro. Basically that track stands as is, just an mp3 with my vocals and a couple ambient samples from my travels.
OS: You cover so many aspects of human existence: travel, food, freedom, growth, self-discovery, love, heartbreak, addiction, regret, rebirth, spirituality. Do you feel like you successfully captured the many facets of the human condition through sharing your own experiences?
C: My aim for the lyrics was to make them both intimate and mythic. Motifs of self-discovery and transformation run throughout the work and I think that is what it means to be human. I came across the monomyth storytelling archetype and that became my starting point for sequencing these tracks as a spiritual progression. The songs were released individually on each of the thirteen full moons of 2020 through an exhibition series called “13 Moons Ritual Gathering”. Over fifty Seoul-based artists contributed to the exhibitions which expanded upon the spiritual themes of each track, with interactive elements so that guests could create their own rituals of transformation.
OS: You mention interactions with monks and visits to temples. What were some of the most spiritually awakening places that you visited?
C: One of the most memorable was staying at a South Korean temple where the monks teach a zen martial art called Sunmudo. It was my first experience with active meditation and the lessons I learned there changed my approach to movement, breath and in some ways, life. I’m often brought back to a couple nights spent at a Bulgarian Orthodox monastery with this atmosphere of seriousness and purpose within its walls; centuries of intention. These kinds of places left long lasting impressions.
But more than anything it was the people I met along the way that taught me the most. One of the most influential was Neshet, a fifty-something Turkish man. He didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Turkish. Still, we spent every evening for a few weeks together, drinking tea on a small side street in Beyazit, only a few blocks from the Grand Bazaar, which still carried the aura of Istanbul of years past. After a few days, he began to introduce me to his honest, devout and even humble life. He did so by sharing with me his favorite meals and the local ways to enjoy them. He introduced me to the mosque. I washed my feet and prayed with his friend, Davud. They asked me questions: why are you travelling? What are you writing?
In these introductions to his life, and our succinct communication – assisted by his old English-Turkish dictionary – I began to discover another way to live. There’s a line in the song “Istanbul” that says, “My Name is Red, I’m on my quest streetside, new guest of an old soul named Neshet, He teaches me to drink tea, and not flee into the sea of liquor and pills…”
It’s easy to lose yourself on the path towards finding yourself. Especially when traveling, the familiar beckons: habits, thought patterns. Neshet became the first of many teachers I would meet who inspired me to an alternative.
OS: Did you try to include sounds, samples and/or instruments specific to the areas you visited or did you just try to capture the mood and feeling of those places?
C: Sometimes I collaborated on musical genres specific to location, like Hyojin Park’s pansori vocals on the track “Namsan”. In other cases I went with sounds that were evocative of the mood of certain landscapes or places. A lot of the songs also have elements of ambient sounds I recorded along the way. There’s a sample I recorded of monks chanting that bridges the transition from “Qufu Interlude” into “Apocalypse Tao”. A lot of snippets of sounds I recorded – beaches, train stations, conversations – are sprinkled throughout the album. These Easter eggs are usually pretty subtle in the mix and each of them have stories behind them; secret memories for myself.
OS: Are you transported back to certain places and experiences when you listen back to these songs?
C: It’s impossible to disconnect from the experiences that led to the music when I listen back – I really can’t hear the record any other way. “North Sea” transports me to Kinbane Castle on the cliffs of Northern Ireland, “Nothing” is a very distinct three days spent in Tokyo,“Temple Charm” is inseparable from memories at an undisclosed beach in Thailand. All the songs are like this for me.
OS: When I first started listening to new music, the people making the music were often a mystery to me. Now, in an age where artists are more accessible, do you think there is value in an artist maintaining their anonymity?
C: I chose anonymity in order to place focus on content and emphasize humanity instead of celebrating ego. In doing so I never fully disclose my physical identity. I’ve always been enchanted with how words can spark the imagination and I love classic literature and poetry, so for me message is paramount and image is secondary. We live in a super visual era and there is definitely a tendency to expose. But I think there’s something special in not disclosing everything; it does give the listener a bit more freedom to make the music their own.
OS: On “Namsan” you say, “travel around the world and you’ll find the glitter’s mixed in with the grime.” What were some of the experiences in your travels that brought you to that realization?
C: Ah yes … those lyrics were sparked from a conversation shared with a very business-minded Buddhist monk. We had some pretty intense back and forths and at the time it felt like the scales fell from my eyes. Interestingly I was jolted back to experiences I had with a high school basketball coach. I noticed some parallels: sometimes the things we love the most, or principles we yearn for the most, can result in disillusionment. That’s why I came up with the yin yang basketball as the symbol for “Namsan”.
This was also a common theme along my travels, because nothing is ever what you naively expect it to be. But often the greatest wonders and realizations pop up in the most unexpected places and this helps us grow and to see things in a new light. This magical world arises in that way, the glitter’s mixed in with the grime. The next song on the track list after “Namsan” is “Temple Charm”, which is about discovery. So disillusionment yes, but also always a new discovery around the corner. Life unfolds, we grow and know. Unlearn. Reapproach. Discover. And then on down the tracklist haha.
OS: What do you hope people take away from your debut album?
C: I hope people take away a wonder for life and perhaps go on their own voyage of self-discovery, whatever that may entail. Each of us is living a unique human story on this mysterious planet: your life is your mythology to actively create. The process of doing so is in and of itself a tribute to life. It doesn’t matter where the experience, relationship, conversation or creative process leads because life has a way of transforming you in ways you’d never expect when you give yourself the inner freedom to listen to the flow of intuition.