On the second-to-last day of 2020, I had the immense pleasure of speaking to Senseless Optimism, or SO. She was funny, incisive, and patient with me despite my plainly amateur interviewing skills. Throughout the six songs that comprise Dreamland Demos, SO crystallizes the mundanity of pain and the immense courage it takes for every person to stay alive in a world that is not dreamland. As our conversation unfolded, I felt so grateful to gain specific insights into these songs and the care that went into them. Care is one of the first words I associate with Senseless Optimism. She is so careful in both her production and vocal performance, the gravity of her care ensuring that her sonic and lyrical worlds are built with extraordinary emotional specificity.
As I transcribed our conversation, I reflected on SO’s moniker and how grateful I felt for her music and presence as the year came to a close. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that people can care for one another and put others’ needs before their own. It could be especially difficult to believe this as systemic, colonial, and imperial evils were made more conspicuous in 2020. I truly want to believe that we can care for each other out of an innate recognition of humanity and dignity, but sometimes this belief feels like senseless optimism.
The belief is indelible nonetheless.
Music like Dreamland Demos is not only bursting with care, but can be used as a form of care for the self. As SO discussed her use of music as self-medication, I felt a profound gratitude that she chose to share this personal and earnest collection of songs with us so that we, too, can care for ourselves and envision a dreamland wherein we truly feel looked after in the ways that we need.
Headlight Spirits: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this; it’s such an honor to get to speak with you.
Senseless Optimism: Thanks for offering.
I wanted to start on a fun question, but please let me know if this is not fun. If Senseless Optimism could score a film by any director, living or dead, who would it be?
Martin Scorsese; I just like his films. I watch more TV shows, but the films I’ve seen that he directed I really like. I’d work with anyone who’s talented; I’m not picky like that.
What are some of the TV shows that you’ve been watching over the past few months?
I’m horrible with names! But I’ve been rewatching Ozark. I work a lot, mostly. I watch TV shows when I eat. Big Mouth is another one I really like, and I really like Rick and Morty. The last couple of months has been more… wanting to take a break. There’s this really good movie, though, called Hillbilly Elegy.
Thanks for sharing! So, what’s a band or an artist with a very different style to Senseless Optimism who you’d like to collaborate with?
That’s a good one… Molchat Doma? I’m obsessed with them. They probably don’t speak English. They’re Belarusian and they speak Russian in their music, but they’re, like, their 808s– I use actual drums, like I use acoustic– and these 808s, they’re a lot more heavy. But if I get to work with Molchat Doma, I will be the happiest person on earth.
Dreamland Demos is one of my favorite EPs of the year. You are such a visionary performer and writer, and something I really gravitated toward was the refrains that you’d repeat throughout the tracks, like “medicate my way to love” from “Self Medicate.” I was wondering, how do you come up with these lines that end up becoming so important throughout the record?
It’s funny, because the way that I write is through emotion, and I pull from personal experience. And I’m a very sensitive person, so it’s very difficult for me to put myself out there in that way, unless I’m, like, high. So it was that line especially when it comes to “Self Medicate.” I mean, self-medicating is prominent throughout the EP because I am bipolar and I don’t take medication for it because it stopped me from being able to write. So I get that through songs, and I kind of use that as a way to understand myself better as a person; I’m dealing with better understanding the feelings that I have. So when I say that I came out with a love and kind of am moving in that direction, it’s like using my forms of self medication in order to create a lasting bond with somebody, even though it’s never lasting. But, you know, the idea of potentially creating a lasting bond through songs and understanding myself better. And weed
Thank you for sharing that. I guess on the topic of self-medication, I was really struck by the recurring image of “Dreamland.” On Bandcamp, you wrote, “I want you to know that there is someone out here like you, that you’re not alone, and that we can all find our Dreamland.” What does this concept of Dreamland mean to you?
Dreamland, to me, is solace. Just happiness. And being in a place where you’re content, not totally dissatisfied, where I really don’t have to worry about anything. And, emotionally, I would say I’m relatively emotionally stable, but also not. So just kind of like, the place where you’re satisfied with your life, you’re happy. You know you’re moving in the right direction. And kind of emotional stability where you believe in yourself, you believe in the person you want to be or the person you’re becoming, and you know how to get there. Because a lot of themes I have, in general, are of being lost. And I would like to be in a place where I’m not lost. As I get older, I realize that the feeling of being lost is always going to be there. But Dreamland, to me, is kind of a place where that’s no longer an issue. Just being happy. I mean, it’s up and downs, but generally.
Something that kind of surprised me about the EP is how it’s called Dreamland Demos, and the songs sound so clean and produced and perfect to me. Why did you choose to label them demos?
I started mixing at the beginning of quarantine, so I did not know what I was doing. I’ve gotten better. But it’s not necessarily the same as, you know, going into an actual sound engineer. And I was also kind of inspired by Dominic Fike. His first album, even though it was pretty well-produced, when he put it out originally, not when he re-released it through a label, he called it “demos.” It’s just because, if there ever came a time when I would go that route, and a label would suggest to re-record the first few takes– you know, that kind of idea. It’s more of just an industry thing. I was mainly inspired by Dominic Fike and the way that he did it. But I wanted them to be the best sounding demos that I’ve ever made. At the time, anyway.
Could you tell me more about production and tracking for the EP?
Sure! So 2021, I’m taking a different route. But all of 2020, the way that I would do it, and the EP was no different, was… I write pretty quickly, and so once I start mixing a batch of songs, and I finish it, it takes about two to three weeks to put them on the distributor and things like that. So once I finish and put it on the distributor, then I start the next one, and so on, and so forth. But when it came to Dreamland Demos, it was definitely a challenge. Because it was more songs than I’ve ever done. And so there was a longer time period, and so it was just a lot of… I mean, I’m generally obsessed, and I recorded everything but bass on the songs. I’ve since picked up bass, but at the time I didn’t play bass. I go to school and work part-time as well, so I find time maybe listening to an online class to record the drums. My recording process in general is guitar first, then scratch vocals and the main vocals, and then keys and drums. So I record everything. Once I finish work, I’d probably smoke, get a couple hits, and start working on recording and mixing from about nine PM to, depending on the night, sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes eight in the morning. I get up at noon, so the next day I have class and work and do it all over again.
I did go kind of crazy with (Dreamland Demos) because it was, at the time, my goal. My goal is for every release to be exponentially better than the last, and in order for that to happen, you have to spend a lot of time on it. There’s a saying, “you know you have a really good song when it’s not mixed yet and it still sounds good.” Some songs have that, so I didn’t have to work on them as much, but other songs, like “Overthinker…” It was difficult to get the feeling when playing it live compared to in a recorded setting. So I had to work on that one more. Generally, it wasn’t too difficult to mix. Vocals, of course, are always the worst part, but I like mixing. I like the challenge of mixing, and generally when I mix I don’t have any expectations as to what I want it to sound like at the end. So every single time I come to a song, I see what I’m working with, and then kind of try and make it better or clean up the rough edges, because I’m trying to reach more of a mass audience. Generally, I didn’t do one song at a time; I did all six songs simultaneously.
Oh my gosh.
“Self Medicate” was the first one to be the most finished, but “Self Medicate” was not originally going to be on the EP; that was a last minute decision, which I was surprised by because, when promoting the EP, that one had the most success. The reason why I wasn’t gonna put “Self Medicate” on there was just because the drums for that were very difficult to figure out, and so the original drums I have for the song are not the ones that I have now. But it didn’t click. So I was like, “oh, put it on the back-burner and release it another time.” But whenever I put things on the back-burner they never get released, because I’m like, “the song isn’t as great as I thought it was, so I’m just not gonna release it.” So I just re-recorded the drums again, and it clicked. And there we are. Six months.
I’m so glad it made it on the EP; that’s one of my favorite tracks.
Yeah, exactly. It was not supposed to make the EP whatsoever. “Dreamland,” I knew was probably going to. I thought “Dreamland” was the best one. And I have my brother here who is super supportive, coming down every night, like, “okay, so what are you working on now?” But yeah, “Dreamland,” to me, was the best. So “Dreamland” was easy. Except for when figuring the lyrics for it. They’re the worst thing for me, but generally it was, it was tough. It drove me insane. But it was well worth it. And, you know, it was definitely a good start for moving forward in my career.
On the topic of “Dreamland,” your vocals are so rich throughout the record, and at times, they would become almost theatrical, like on the line, “and every single time I sleep…” You do that super cool modulation. Do you have a background in performance?
My new manager got me vocal lessons recently, but up until two weeks ago, I learned on YouTube.
That’s so sick.
Yeah, I learned completely on YouTube. My story with music is interesting. I know, we’re talking about vocals, but it’s a whole encompassing thing with the way I started. Originally, I started on drums– and really I started on boxes and pillows in my room. I had a kick pedal, I would hit my bed frame. And I would listen to Black Sabbath, and hit the boxes. I had a deflated basketball, which I used as a snare. And so that’s kind of how I learned to play drums. And then, eventually, I realized that, you know, as a drummer, you only can do so much.
I started picking up vocals– and I’ve really been singing since I was a child, you know, listening to the radio. I wouldn’t copy it, exactly. I’d just try to make it my own. Then I started actually learning how to breathe and kind of figuring it out– finding YouTubers who walked me through the exercises, because it’s very difficult to find. And I found one who I ended up loving and still use this day, occasionally, although funny enough, I stopped practicing maybe about a year ago because I fell in love with Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and they… They couldn’t sing. So, I was like, alright, I want more of that rougher edge. But that kind of tone you talked about came from those YouTube exercises and kind of what I was born with– just kind of the emotions I felt from the song. The way that I write is I feel an emotion; most of my songs were written at three in the morning. I feel an emotion at three in the morning, I can’t sleep. I am a night owl-insomniac. I’ll write a song and whatever I’m feeling at the time will lead the vocal melody, so I don’t really know where it comes from, necessarily.
A couple weeks ago, maybe a month ago, I was on YouTube, and I have two YouTube channels– one is Senseless Optimism, but also, my personal YouTube channel. And when I was in high school, I posted videos of me. This is before I could play guitar or anything, I just could sing and then play drums on boxes. So I was listening to myself, me four years ago, like singing and making lyrics and a backing track, all the time. I wanted to be in the band more than anything.
I can totally relate to that. Moving from the EP to more general questions, what’s a quality in people that you think is overrated?
I think this is gonna be a little bit controversial.
That’s the best type of answer.
I think being smart is overrated. Because being smart is important. But if you don’t work hard, then you being smart doesn’t matter. One thing about the education system– well there’s many things I don’t like about school. But one thing about the education system I don’t like is that they try to glorify people who make good grades– which, is good, go make great grades and get those awards and everything. But the schools I grew up in kind of made it seem like, oh, if you don’t get good grades, you’re dumb. And if you’re dumb, then you’re kind of worthless. I don’t think I’m dumb. It’s just, there’s more to life than being smart.
What about an underrated quality?
I would say being sensitive– and not just because I’m sensitive. I’m strange in the sense that I, and I’ve found this to be the case with a lot of people I’ve met, where you’re sensitive, but you don’t come off as sensitive. Most people would think I’m an extrovert, which, I’ll tell you, no. Definitely not. But because if somebody’s sensitive then they get perceived as weak. And I think weakness is more of a momentary thing, less of a general personality trait. But most people I’ve met or spoken to or have seen on the web kind of identify being sensitive as being weak. Another thing is, when being sensitive, because many perceive it as weak, you work hard to come off as strong. It’s just about the way that people treat you.
That is such a thoughtful answer. Thank you. What’s your favorite album of 2020?
It’d be horrible if I said Whole Lotta Red, because that’s been… That’s been the thing these days. Playboi Carti put out this album. It’s Christmas Day. I don’t listen to rap very much, but I do try and keep tabs. There was so much heat from this, I was like, alright, I’mma give it a listen.
My entire Twitter timeline was either people being like, “this album is amazing” or being like, “I hate this album” and there was no in-between.
The consensus I’ve gotten is, if you’re a huge Carti fan, then you’re gonna love this album, but if you’re not a Carti fan, or you’re just a passive listener, then you’re not gonna like it. Which is fair. I will say that album, though. But the artist I’ve liked and found in 2020 or started in 2020, they haven’t been around. They put out a string of singles.
Oh, who’s that?
strongboi. Have you heard of them?
Maybe I’ve listened to a couple songs? I will after this.
They only have three out, but I listen to those three on repeat. They’re really good. Huge, huge influence on me lately. I’m trying to think of the albums I’ve listened to the most, and they’re all older than 2020. Mild High Club, which I also love, another big influence. Cosmo Pyke put out a single, finally, after three years.
Oh, I’ll check them out. Okay, finally, where should people look for you like on the internet?
I started Twitter, but I don’t really know what to tweet.
Yeah, it takes a while to kind of wrap your head around.
Yeah, I don’t want to just go and rant on there. And I’m also kind of a private person, so I mean, I won’t just, like, air everything out on Twitter or Instagram. Instagram is my main platform, and I also have a Facebook page.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Headlight Spirits! This has been a huge honor.