Really From’s ‘self-titled’ is an honest yet compassionate unpacking of inherited trauma
If you ask me where I’m from, I’ll say Alhambra. If you have the nerve to ask me where I’m really from, I’ll tell you, “I was born in Los Angeles. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines if that’s what you’re really asking.” The latter inquiry was a real question posed to me, and the following response was the actual answer I gave.
“Where are you really from” implies that someone’s different, that they don’t belong, and that wherever they’re “really from” is where they should be. Such a charged question can be condensed down to two essential words, Really From, which serves as the name for the Boston-based indie-jazz quartet. Their latest album, the self-titled Really From, answers the infamous question in deeply personal matters. The members–consisting of Chris Lee-Rodriguez (Vocals, Electric Guitar, Classical Guitar), Sander Bryce (Drum Set), Michi Tassey (Vocals, Piano, Keyboard, Synth Bass) and Matt Hull (Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Trombone)–dip into elements of math rock, emo, jazz and electronica to create a sound uniquely their own. As they reflect on experiences surrounding racism, intergenerational trauma, and complicated parental relationships, it becomes clear that they define a person as much as, if not, even more than ethnicity/location.
Really From’s sound is a distinct departure from familiar math rock tendencies heard on the band’s previous releases. Their heightened confidence in their math rock foundation lays the groundwork for the band to fearlessly approach outside genres with an inquisitive ear. They then pick at different elements of such seemingly disparate genres and use them to accentuate thematic weight and emotion.
A few notable examples come from “Yellow Fever,” “Try Lingual,” and “I Live Here Now” where chugging punk-rock strumming patterns express hardened frustration towards outside instigators including predatory fetishizers, disappointed relatives, and those who ask the “really from” question. Ambient/electronica sections featured in “Apartment Song,” “I Live Here Now,” and “In the Spaces” expand and elevate the album’s most important moments. “Last Kneeplay” and “The House” respectively serve as an interlude and epilogue, making the most of their minimal production to balance out the grandiose that preceded it.
A similar method applies to the vocals on this album. Lee-Rodrugiez and Tassey are the conventional voices in the project. While both have songs where they sing on their own, almost half the tracks see the two interchanging verses, as if they are warning each other of the impact their inherited traits will bring (“Quirk”), relating to the struggle of learning their mother’s tongues (“Try Lingual”), or identifying a universal, yet inexplicable feeling of otherness (“I Live Here Now”).
Their voices aren’t the only ones in the conversation. Matt Hull’s thoughtful brass section and Sander’s involved drums are equally important to the album. When Hull’s trumpet isn’t singing along with Lee-Rodriguez and Tassey, it takes center stage as the voice of Really From’s instrumental breaks, and even has a song of his own on “Last Kneeplay.” Math rock gives a melodic voice to a drum section and Bryce’s flurried fills masterfully embody feelings of anxiety and defiance while providing each song’s crucial pulsing heartbeat. It’s hard to pin down exactly what genre any one song is and who the primary voice is in this project. Perhaps it’s meant to be that way. This medley of genre and voice create a whole of different parts, just like Really From’s mixed race members.
Thematically speaking, subjects of place, self, and culture are not new to the band. In Really From, confronting these topics open up a myriad of questions that they actively seek to answer. Songs like “Quirk,” “I’m From Here,” “In The Spaces,” and “The House” explore a multifaceted relationship to familial history: particularly how that history influences one’s upbringing. How much of a parental figure’s traits are passed down? How much of these characteristics, good and bad, stick? Who or what is to blame for fundamental shortcomings? How much does blame influence a relationship between parent and child?
“Try Lingual” finds its narrator struggling to communicate in their mother tongue, albeit unsuccessfully. As one attempts to learn a “new” language, there’s an overbearing mindset that inflicts anxiety in its speaker, and the self-imposed shame in failing to do so perfectly. “Yellow Fever” unearths anxieties felt when handling a racist encounter. Is it morally correct to take the “high road” and use these moments to teach emboldened bigots? Is it safer to hold your tongue, even as it bleeds, to avoid escalating the situation? In holding your tongue, who are you really protecting? Are you shielding yourself from further, and potentially more dangerous harm? Or are you coddling their delusion of refinement and sophistication for merely indulging in a racist fetish?
Not all the aforementioned questions are answered, but a huge weight is lifted when one better understands and accepts everything they were born with, raised with, and will live with for the rest of their days.
Maybe it’s because I don’t see enough Asian musicians in the indie scene (and barely any in emo if at all), but Really From strikes a special nostalgic chord in me. Throughout its nine songs, I’m taken back to memories where I unsuccessfully tried to teach myself Tagalog in middle school (“Try Lingual”), had an “Asian wife guy” use his Filipina wife as a free pass to ask me where I’m really from (“Yellow Fever”), and contemplated how my life could have been if my parents were better adjusted (“Quirk,” “I’m From Here”). I also feel empowered seeing people who look like me unapologetically express feelings that we were conditioned our whole lives to suppress.
“[…] a lot of the process of writing songs is, not to be cliche, somewhat therapeutic,” Lee-Rodriguez admits in their Stereogum interview. With increasingly violent incidents against the Asian community occurring across the country, Really From comes at a crucial time. It’s a much needed act of catharsis from tension built up not just over the past year, but across cultures, lifetimes and generations.
Really From’s s/t album is out now via Topshelf Records.
Header photo by Nick Surette and Elle Dioguardi, art by Madison Arrichiello