Pandemic Prolificacy: Carleton musicians release new records
Carleton musicians Bryn Battani ’23 and Abdullah Siddiqui ’24 discuss their newly released music in this stand-alone podcast episode hosted by Greta Hardy-Mittell ’23.
Carleton may not be a school of music, but it is a school full of musicians. And for many of them, the pandemic year has turned out to be a prolific one. Two Carleton sophomores, Bryn Battani ’23 and Abdullah Siddiqui ’24, released new music in January 2021. Abdullah is an established pop artist in Pakistan, where he is currently studying remotely, and where he released “dead Beat poets,” the most recent of his three self-produced studio albums. For Bryn, a Texan who has often performed at Carleton before the pandemic, “All I Have to Offer You is Anything You Want” is her first EP. We chatted over three different time zones about their new music.
Greta Hardy-Mittell: So to start, I’d love if each of you could introduce yourself the way you would in a Carleton class.
Bryn Battani: I will start off. Hello, I’m Bryn Battani, I use she/her pronouns. I’m from Austin, Texas, and I’m a sophomore potential English and music major, soon to be decided.
Abdullah Siddiqui: I’m Abdullah Siddiqui, class of ’23, technically ’24, actually. I’m a CS major and I use he/him pronouns. Am I forgetting something?
GH: Sounds about right for Carleton class. Okay, so now, how would you introduce yourself before a performance or another music event?
AS: You know, I tend to not speak that much on stage, but usually I would talk about my music. It’s electro pop music, electronica, and I generally produce all of it myself. And that’s the general premise of what I do.
BB: I would say I write lyric-driven piano rock. And I always cite Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Regina Spektor as my primary influences.
GH: It sounds like you have your Carleton persona and then your music. How do you navigate those two identities? Do they conflict or work together?
AS: It can conflict in some interesting ways, purely on the basis of the fact that it’s two entirely different worlds for me. At home, there’s a constant workflow. It’s kind of a full-time job for me. I’m established as an artist here, while if I’m in the US on campus, it’s a lot more anonymity and also I’m away from the industry. So it’s not as much constant work.
BB: Yeah, Carleton persona versus artist persona. That’s a weird thing to navigate. I guess I’ve found it a little challenging to navigate an artist persona, or the speaker of the song, versus Bryn Battani. Especially when a lot of my songs are so autobiographical or referencing specific things, it can be an interesting situation. I see the speaker in a lot of my songs as an exaggeration of myself. Over-the-top performance and existing as a performance and doing things for performance is a theme of my EP. So, the speaker is sort of the performance version of myself, which is a really artist-y to say, but it’s myself at my best and worse.
AS: That’s interesting to hear you say that because something that I’ve always struggled with is having a performance persona. I’m kind of dead inside when I’m on stage because I have really awful stage fright. So I stay away from performing as long as I can help it, unless I absolutely have to do a show to promote something. And when I’m on stage, I feel like it is a struggle because I can’t banter and I don’t really have an engaging distinct personality, which can be tricky because then audiences don’t feel as engrossed.
BB: Yeah, that banter is something that I find really awkward and hard to get a handle on. I’m definitely still working on that, but I do think that for me, the performance is the part I love. I don’t do all the electronic stuff that you do, so in that way I don’t have the same access to all the different sounds and all the different ways of backing myself. I’m usually just writing and playing, just on the piano solo. And then if I get to perform with another musician or have a band for a little bit, that’s really great, and that’s what I was really wanting out of 2020. Which is really sad. It’s interesting that for you, 2020 sort of gave you an opportunity to have more time for what you wanted, but for me, the performance part of it is what I love specifically about music, so the pandemic affects all artists differently.
GH: Abdullah, if your favorite part of it is the production side and electronic side, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.
AS: Production for me is a super cathartic process. It wouldn’t seem like that when you look at it, because it is all software and programming, but I find that it’s such an intricate process because it requires a really intense attention to detail. So what that means for me is that I get to convey meaning through every facet of the production.
I did this thing where I spent all of 2020 promoting an album that came out in December. And then in January, I just went ahead and dropped another one. An entire album. And that album is definitely more lyric-centric. I really found the joy in songwriting in a very diaristic way.
BB: I’m interjecting that I just listened to that and I love it so much. It’s funny, because that’s the only one I’ve listened to in full, so if you were about to say anything like, oh lyrics aren’t my thing or whatever, I was gonna be like, no, no. But that makes sense that you say you think it’s more lyric-centric.
AS: Yeah, it definitely is. I was listening to a lot of Fiona Apple this last year, I just discovered her as well as Taylor Swift’s new albums, Phoebe Bridgers — there’s a lot of artists that I found in 2020 where it was just a new sort of songwriting that I’d never really indulged in before.
GH: I was gonna ask about Taylor Swift, your song “lament” especially has that sound.
BB: I was just thinking that, Greta! I was listening to that song this morning and I also thought that. That’s funny.
GH: I wanted to ask about lyrics, so it was great that you brought that up. I know personally that Abdullah is in creative writing because we’re in a class together right now, and I know that Bryn has also taken creative writing at Carleton. So I’d love to hear about writing and your creative process, how that ties into non-lyric writing and how it differs.
AS: Writing… I feel like I’ve found a method. It’s so rare to find a real structural method to doing something artistic, but I feel like I have. For songwriting, what I tend to do is whenever I feel something that is strong enough to warrant a song, I just start writing in loose prose. It’s almost like stream-of-consciousness free association, I just write everything that I’m thinking. It doesn’t have to be poetic, it just needs to be trying to describe the feeling as best as I can. It’s almost quantity over quality at that point. Once I have everything written down, I start picking and choosing phrases and words that seem interesting to me and then I start to work those into a larger metaphor or try to put them in a more poetic language.
I usually won’t even start writing until I have some semblance of a track ready, production-wise. So then I’ll start playing that and just humming and trying to see what melodies come up, and then trying to fit words in there. It becomes like a puzzle.
BB: That is so interesting. I really want to try that as an exercise now, because that is usually super not what I do.
AS: What is your process?
BB: I have always found lyrics and melody to be completely one and the same. I’ve never been able to write one without the other. If I’m writing lyrics, I have a melody that’s happening at the same time in my head and so I follow that. And then if I’m writing a melody, I’m like, this would depend on what words I’m putting here. A lot of times, the way I write songs is I’m just out in the world doing something and then have an idea for a lyric-melody combo that’s in my head. I’ll write it down on my notes app in my phone, which is a crazy place. Just random stuff.
Then when I get to the instrument, when I have access to a piano, I will sit down. I usually have an idea of what chords I’m hearing under it, but I’ll figure out what those are. Sometimes I’ll try to play with chords that I wouldn’t necessarily think of, like, are there alternate chords that would be more interesting?
That’s what I do a lot but it isn’t a great artistic practice, necessarily, because it’s kind of the waiting-for-inspiration method. So, I’ve been saying this for years, but I am trying to develop better habits and disciplines so I can write more, because that’s how you get better. But I find myself, especially at busy Carleton, just waiting until something strikes me.
AS: There kind of is no way around that, as far as I’m concerned. I find myself just getting into insane situations in my life because I feel like it’s gonna inspire me on some subconscious level.
BB: Oh, god. Last year this time was definitely that, which was really great for my poetry workshop. I have lots of interesting poems from last year, and sometimes I’m like, did my life peak in interestingness last year because of all this self created drama that I made? I got some good art out of it, should I do that again? But it was so emotional.
GH: So in terms of themes and inspirations, I noticed a couple that overlap between both of your music, and one of them is gender. In Abdullah’s most recent album, the songs “maestro” and “video game” have a theme of masculinity. And then for Bryn, her songs “Neutral, Baby” and “The Entourage” both include images about femininity. I’d love to hear if this is something that you strive for and think about actively, or just something that’s happening in both of your albums.
BB: I don’t necessarily strive for it other than, it’s a main concern of mine as a person and a fascination of mine in life, so of course it’s going to come through. Definitely with the songs on “All I Have to Offer You is Anything You Want,” femininity and intensity and gender dynamics are a main concern. The most obvious one is “The Entourage,” which is about a group of fantasy and real women in a guy’s head, and just being a woman under the male gaze. That’s definitely a song about performance, and performing femininity like for men. Neutral baby is a rejection of that, because the speaker is saying they don’t care that they’re too much for the male subject of the song. It’s definitely intentional, and it’s in pretty much everything I write, definitely on this EP.
AS: This album for me was very specifically an album about my friends. Somehow that proved to be a really inspiring thing for me because it led into so many other themes, and one of those themes was what masculinity means to me. My group of friends is all guys because I went to an all-boys school in Pakistan. What I’ve observed over the years is the distance I feel between my definition of masculinity and other people’s definition of masculinity, and how that can metastasize in weird ways.
The song “video game” for me is really just an expression of toxic masculinity. How I’ve dealt with it growing up, and how I’ve reacted to it and how I’ve found the wherewithal to reject it. It is a complex thing that I hadn’t really tackled before. I think it’s challenging to take that on as a guy because I feel like there’s not enough distance for there to be perspective sometimes. But I did really like getting into the nuances of that. It’s one of those things where I don’t like being conclusive. I don’t like presenting a hypothesis or a conclusion in my work. I just want to explore it from all the different angles and present it as something messy.
BB: That’s interesting that you talk about not wanting to present a conclusion or hypothesis. There are some songs that I write, like “The College Visit,” which is the third song on my EP, that already feel like a really long time ago and I’m a very different person now. That song is a classic exaggeration of real feelings that I was feeling. Obviously, I’m not planning on stalking someone at their college. I called this other woman a b*tch and I hate that now. But that was a real feeling, and it is something worth exploring. Sometimes I think it’s unclear whether my songs are jokes or not. I’m tongue-in-cheek with a lot of my writing and sometimes it’s like, is she joking here or is that how she feels? It’s kind of a weird line.
AS: I think in that way, your work becomes like a time capsule. If I listen back to my albums, I feel like I can see some trends. It’s only been like 16 months since I released my first album, and this is my third. I have been writing constantly. But if I go back to my earliest work and I look at where I am now, I can see like trends in not just my writing habits and creativity but my emotional development, you know, behaviorally and the way that I receive and process information. That’s really changed over the last few years, and I can see that in the work.
GH: I’d love to hear more about what messages you try and get across with your work, specifically with the album and EP you just released.
AS: So, this is where it gets kind of complicated, because you’re talking about an album released in Pakistan, right. So, it’s a very different culture. It’s a much more conservative culture. The way that my music reacts with the culture in which it is being released is a very different dynamic than, say, if I were releasing my work in the US. There’s just a lot more things to be mindful of, and a lot more things that you wouldn’t think are radical that kind of are radical. In particular in this album, just the level of personal detail and explicit reference to my own life is something that is really, really rare to see in Pakistani music, which is strange. There’s just a lot more fear about being open in that way in our industry. So that was one of the things that I was really stubborn about with this album because I wanted to make it known that it’s possible.
At the same time, just the fact that I released an album at all was something that I really wanted to do to make a statement. We have another thing in our industry which is that no one ever releases albums. Our biggest pop stars will release maybe one or two songs a year and that’s all they ever promote. But I really believe in the integrity of an album as a complete work of art. I feel like a song is like a scene from a movie; you need a complete work. I’ve done two albums before, but with this one, I didn’t even release singles. I just dropped it all at once, because I wanted people to consume it as one singular unit of art.
BB: That’s so neat. I did not know that that was how the industry was there. I know there’s a big push to singles in general, and that lots of artists have opted to release singles rather than albums and people don’t necessarily listen to albums in full or listen to them in order anymore, but I didn’t know that people just didn’t do that.
I feel like Bob Dylan in the 60s being hounded about like, what’s the message behind your music, and I’m gonna say something cryptic right now and refuse to answer. But “The College Visit” is from junior year of high school, “The Entourage” is from my senior year of high school, “Field Game” is from the summer before coming to Carleton, and then “Neutral, Baby” was from last winter. So they’re kind of spread out over the course of the last few years, and I think there’s lots that tie them together but I didn’t write them to be some sort of concept EP together.
I guess I would like people to listen to it and just rethink what femininity is, what intensity is, what competition is, performance, identity. It’s really an examination of my own identity. But I love it when people tell me that a certain song really resonates with them, or something I said is really relatable to them. In one of my classes here at Carleton, we were just reading an essay by Nabokov about how that’s not good. It’s about how to be a good reader and he’s like, art should not exist just to have people relate to it. Art should be an aesthetic experience. And I was like, oh shoot, I guess I’ve been doing art wrong for a long time.
I really do like Nabokov, but I do think it’s a cool thing when you hear something put in a certain line or in a musical context, that you feel a personal connection to. So that really excites me when people tell me that they feel that way.
AS: You know, I’ve heard some stories from people about the experience they’ve had with this album that just really kind of put it all into perspective for me. Like, oh, that’s why you do this. That’s kind of the whole point.
Thanks so much to Abdullah Siddiqui and Bryn Battani for chatting with me, and also for the use of their songs; “lowest common denominator,” “lament,” “maestro,” “video game,” “scars,” “Field Game,” “Neutral, Baby,” “The Entourage,” and “The College Visit,” respectively. You can check out Bryn’s EP, “All I Have To Offer You is Anything You Want,” and Abdullah’s album “dead Beat Poets” on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you get your music.