Revered for her enchanting vocals, atmospheric compositions, compelling songwriting, and alternative R&B / indie-pop sensibilities, which have already caught the attention of NPR, SXSW, RFB Magazine, and New York Foundation for the Arts among others, and led to over half a million streams on Spotify alone, multimedia artist and songwriter Isa Reyes makes music that connects, heals and empowers others.
The 22-year old New York City native has recently released her long-awaited debut EP titled BELS in October, ‘SANTIAGO’ as the second single of the project, following last autumn’s ‘Whistles’.
What inspired you to begin a career in music?
I don’t think there is one singular starting point and what I’ve grown to be passionate about has never been linear, so forgive me for the longwinded response.
Music has always been a part of my life. Aside from the soundtrack of the city, I grew up surrounded by music. I was a pretty quiet kid and music in all its forms helped me contextualize my own emotions and still does.
Before recording music, I was introduced to poetry in elementary school and haven’t stopped writing it since. My real introduction to working up the nerve to write and perform what I made was through poetry and poetry slams. I had started performing before that cause I started busking at 13 after my Aunt gifted me a ukulele, but there’s something less vulnerable and scary about singing covers for me. Once I taught myself how to play I would sing more often and my grandma and sister were encouraging of it.
By 15 I was writing my own songs and started to experiment with recording on my headphone mic and producing in GarageBand. I learned how to play drums at a Daycamp called Willie Mae Rock Camp for girls, then eventually out of that was in a band called BADMOUTH in high school. I think in dealing with depression and loneliness from a young age, making music started to feel like a place where I could make space for myself with others. I made music with friends throughout high school and was putting semblances of songs and recordings out on Soundcloud.
Once I graduated from high school I was on my way to college for photography, for a multitude of reasons I left. A few weeks before resigning I was recording under my blanket and felt like I had come to terms with the fact that I wanted to pursue music for real. That looks different for everyone. The risk of pursuing music with all my being was one I wasn’t ready to take before but in that moment I knew it was time and have been trying ever since.
What differs you and your sound from other upcoming artists in the music industry?
I think everyone has something that makes them unique. When people ask what type of music I make, although I throw it into the category of alternative R&B, I know it’s a fusion of genres, influences, and sounds. I don’t make music for the purpose of it existing within one realm because I also create to immerse myself and others in atmospheres outside of our day-to-day existence- at least that’s something I hope my music does for others. In the way that music is a reason I’m still around, I want it to exist in the same way for others as well.
Art is inherently selfish. Although it’s self-serving I’m not solely creating for myself. In performing I like to try to bring people closer together or closer to themselves. I would say some of my music has done that for some people, and hopefully, I can reach more people over time. There are a lot of amazing artists in New York. I think most artists make work that at least one person can resonate with, even if it’s just themselves. I’ve found that my work resonates with people across ages and experiences. I also don’t just do one medium. I also make jewelry, paint, draw, do photos, and video!
Your new single ‘Santiago’ is out now. Can you please describe the creative process and inspiration behind the track and video?
Prior to making Santiago, I was deep in a mental and creative block. I revisited some of my poetry to try to spark something and a bassline came to my head. I started to play it on my mom’s guitar and freestyle melody while including some semblances of words based off the poetry. I took out my phone for voice memos and kept the recording going. I was taking a lot of inspiration from Willow at the time and knew I wanted the song to be folky and have a storyteller vibe to it. Once I built somewhat of a skeleton for the song I took it to the co-producers of the final track, Gamal Abdu and Caine Casket. At that point, the song was about a journey of self-discovery but also one of love.
I shared the idea and some inspirations both musical and visual, and after going through some samples Gamal picked up his guitar and started to play a melody. I started to continue writing from the space Gamal was making sonically and Caine helped guide the production and restructure what came forward from that session. In the EP, each song has a destination and Santiago’s in the desert. The engineer on the EP, Kenneth Pineda aka Ezra OST, helped build the atmosphere with additional production and his own mastering. Then eventually my friend and incredible bassist/artist 13th Law came in and laid out some bass and that’s how Santiago came to be.
As for the video, it was made by the artists of 90 Degree Collective, a really unique creative agency here in NYC. The overall inspirations were The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Salvador Dali, the works of Leo and Diane Dillion, and Holes by Louis Sachar. I knew I wanted it to be in the desert because it’s a special place to me.
I wanted it to have a level of mysticism and fantasy to it but also communicate some more interpersonal things in a subtle way. In the video I am packing and burying a time capsule with mementos I’ve actually collected over time. I am gathering these elements of my past, honoring them, but also walking away from them to be able to move to the next chapter of lessons in my journey. It is impossible to move on from all we’ve faced, I think it makes more sense to learn to live with our trials and tribulations, embrace them, learn and grow from them because they’ve made us who we are.
The director, Sandy Ismail, is a really talented, empathetic and personable being, and with the creative direction of Caine Casket, they were able to further develop the concept and communicate the message with me while leaving room for ambiguity in the video. The video was just supposed to be a live performance out in the desert, and we did incorporate some live audio footage we took, but ended up going to more narrative in the end.
Everyone experiences good days and bad days, as an artist. When you have a bad day, what motivates you to keep moving and look ahead to the future?
I have found a somewhat of a home within myself, and art has helped me find that place. Honestly, the “bad days” are really hard but having a creative outlet in some form is what keeps me going, even when I can’t appreciate it at the moment.
In your own opinion, what is the most meaningful song you wrote? What makes you say that one?
It’s between two. The first song is Bels, the first track off the EP. It’s an homage to my parents but also sonically, it encapsulates the feeling I’ve felt often of looking back on your childhood and just feeling like it was one big nostalgic dream that never happened, but mourning it in a way. I’m processing a lot in the song but it still remained relatively simple which was a significant step for me as a writer.
The second one is “I’m sick (u only like me cause I’m light skin)”. It was a freestyle I made with my loop pedal. I had a really bad cold and was in my bag trying to figure out if I was going to make it to a show at Wesleyan or not. I just started messing around with my loop pedal and decided to pull out my phone and record it. My vocal performance isn’t crazy anything but I just spoke my truth unfiltered and
What personal advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue this career?
This is coming from someone who would lose feeling in their legs when I had to speak in class many times: Play shows. Book yourself, reach out to people, go to open mics. Shows have been a great way for me to get to know other people who love music and might find space within what you have to offer or do. It’s also just good practice. In that same way though, there have been times I played so many shows but didn’t record new ideas.
Finding a balance is key but you have to accept that as you change, so will your common ground. It’s important to be patient with yourself, your balance can be the opposite of someone elses and that is okay! You are your own person, comparing yourself to others is a grand waste of time. I’m really hard on myself and think a lot of artists are but you can’t wait for other people to open doors for you, you have to keep pushing, keep creating, and make them yourself rather than putting up walls around you.
Making art is a super power, embrace it and empower yourself and others along the way. It’s weird we live in a world where art is commodified- don’t forget to put your passion first otherwise you’ll burn out trying to make things you think others will like. You can’t please everyone, make sure you take care of yourself.
What does the foreseeable future hold for you as an artist?
I’ve already been working on new music I’m excited about. I also hope to do more shows that incorporate the other mediums I enjoy doing. There’s a lot of people I want to collaborate with as well. But for now, trust I will be touring with new music, soon enough, and expect a comic book in the next few years.
Anything else you would like to add?
Support black artists, stop sleeping. Support black queer artists, support black trans artists. So much of music as we know it and performance as we know it would be nothing with the contributions of black artists. Here are some recommendations I have: Ocean Kelly, MATTMATT, Cleo Reed, and Yesterdayneverhappened.
Taken from the new debut EP ‘BELS’, ‘Santiago’ is available now via all major platforms.
Connect with Isa Reyes
Credits: All photography by Sandy Ismail