Seducing the world with their 2017 debut 'The Witch', it's safe to say that Pumarosa have always had Dork under their spell. We don't just chuck five-star reviews around for the hell of it, y' know? So, like most of the rest of the music world, we held our breath as we watched from afar the seismic events that threatened far more than only their musical existence. But now, happily, they have returned with a record even richer, even more sensual, even more ambitious and (whisper it) maybe even better…
It was during the release week of 'The Witch' that Isabel Muñoz-Newsome received the news that she had cervical cancer. Though the surgery was quick and effective, the removal of her entire cervix understandably, and inevitably, changed everything. This sense of change runs through all of 'Devastation', the album title aptly reflecting the new landscapes that surrounded Isabel in the aftermath - for aside from her own situation, the band was also undergoing a transformation too with the departure of bassist Henry Brown. And yet, somehow, the results are stunning. In many ways guided by the events that preceded it, 'Devastation' is a record from a band that have shed their old skin and evolved once more into something altogether new. Catching up over the phone, Isabel brings Dork quickly up to speed.
"It is a new direction, yeah. And I suppose, that's part of what the feeling of this album is [about]," she explains. "It was in this sonic world, and the lyrics are about that sort of necessary transformation where stuff happens, and you have to transform. You have to change, or you'll DIE!"
Quick to laugh, Isabel is on fine form today as she explains the background to 'Devastation' in that blunt matter-of-fact manner that is often common with people who have been through the very worst of times. "I was ill in 2017 and was in recovery by the end of the summer after the operation was successful. They took out all the cancer, and then we played Glastonbury like, three weeks afterwards?"
Able to laugh now with distance, she continues. "That was kind of a stupid decision, I was not okay. But I just REALLY wanted to play Glastonbury. Really, really dumb and I had to lay down for three days afterwards."
By the time winter arrived, Isabel's recovery was positive enough for writing on a follow-up to 'The Witch' to begin. Pretty soon, however, strong after-effects to both her illness and the operation started to seep through into her writing - not that she knew it at first.
"Something like this, it really does change your relationship to your body when you have something from your anatomy taken out," she explains haltingly. "You know, you're like in some weird way …something's missing, you're incomplete, and your brain knows that and freaks out about it. So it puts you in a very strange headspace, but one that's also kind of interesting."
Slowly, Isabel began to feel the effects. "It makes you go a bit mad, so you find yourself doing all kinds of wonderful things. But then you're also doing quite destructive things that you wouldn't normally have done when you are your usual self. It's like your body and mind have to re-arrange its nerve endings because something's been cut off, and it has to then re-contextualise who you are. And that gives you a LOT of songwriting material!" she dissolves into laughter at this truth.
This transformation is what gives 'Devastation' both its power and magic - the album title not just designed to carry a purely negative meaning. "It's not meant as in an 'ending', it's kind of a devastation as in everything's been laid to waste, and it forces an adaption."
Speaking clearly about potentially painful topics, she continues. "I hadn't really consciously thought that hard about what had happened to me, I was just getting on with being 'well'. But it's all in there, especially since I look at the songs subsequently. It's quite scary and weird! I was subconsciously singing about all of these things that then came to pass. I think you know, and your body knows sometimes, and then it takes your mind a little while to catch up."
Exact details about what did come to pass are not forthcoming, and Dork isn't the type to pry. What is obvious though is that seismic changes to Isabel's private life occured. The poignantly honest 'Lose Control', one of many emotional strands to 'Devastation', embraces the turmoil.
"It's about being in that very difficult and painful state where you really want and love somebody, but you've come apart and have to follow that course. You have to let go and have to let things kind of destroy themselves and each other. Because you can't pull those reins back, it won't stop. You have to just ride it out and see where the pieces fall."
Admitting that the song is about being a mess emotionally, Isabel also confides that "some part of you is also enjoying that sense of being out of control." Threads of embracing that loss of control constantly run through the record, influencing and touching upon every aspect of her life.
"I definitely think that the operation threw me into this state of not really knowing what or who I was for a while, so maybe being in that fluid state did allow me to do some quite destructive things with my relationship." She pauses and considers before continuing, "I definitely regret that, I wasn't behaving in a very sensitive way. But yeah, I definitely wouldn't be where I am now if it hadn't happened. Because if life doesn't get shaken up, then you just continue [in the same way]. Which isn't a bad thing, of course. But when a crisis happens, your needs emerge. You can't just keep going then, because now something has changed."
As conversation turns to what the body needs, one aspect, in particular, is inescapable on tracks like 'Adam's Song' and 'Lost In Her'. Seriously sexy and sensual, these visceral moments explore another side to Isabel. "Hahaha, yeah I guess 'Adam's Song' is definitely a very sexy one," she laughs. "It's based on a friend of mine called Adam Christiansen, he is a performance artist and singer and performs in drag. He has this incredibly sizzling presence, like quite frightening and incredibly alluring and sooo sexual.
"I saw him perform one evening, I've seen him many times, but that night I was in this kind of post-coital state. Feeling like that, when all your boundaries have blurred, and then you see someone doing the same thing… I wrote it the next morning."
With 'Lost In Her' meanwhile, it was even more explicit. "With that, I was trying to put the sensations of really good sex into words. Which is obviously quite hard because sex is like this non-verbal activity and that's partly why it's so deep…"
Open about her bisexuality, she explains her views simply. "Sex with women is not like with a man, it's a different sensual experience. But then yeah, trying to write a song about it is a nice exercise, even though you're ultimately probably gonna fail."
With her unerring honesty looking inwards, there is also a new confidence about Isabel as she holds her gaze on another important aspect of modern life. On the scathing and unblinking 'I See You', the gloves come off on the #metoo generation, though she still finds it tough to talk about it today. "It's weird because I feel like the lyrics are so clear, but then I find talking about it quite hard. It's hard to be assertive, and it's hard to be confident."
Inspired by her experiences in a patriarchal society, as well as what she describes as "more acute" situations that she and her friends have gone through, it's clear that time is very much up for some. "It's about saying to the guy that's talking you down, or the person that's taking up the space, that you're not gonna make yourself small any more. That you can see what they're doing and that you're not gonna look away. Because there are so many day-to-day occurrences when you find that you're making yourself small just to make it easy for the other person. And I don't want to do that any more."
Bringing that mixture of emotions and situations to life during a tumultuous period for the band could have been a challenge too far. But Pumarosa rose to the challenge, moving to Los Angeles to work with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton. Drafting in Tool bassist Justin Chancellor to replace the now-departed Brown during the recording process ("I offered him a crumpet, and that was it," she giggles), it made for an exciting and exhilarating period. As with their first record, improvisation was key once more. Encouraging each other to come up with ever more intricate rhythms and movements, the band revelled in the different aesthetic and change of space.
It is that intricacy that allows 'Devastation' to be both immediate and yet still carry hidden depths that only reveal themselves over time. With Tomoya, Nick and Jamie also at the top of their respective games, new dimensions and possibilities appeared on the horizon. The opening 'Fall Apart' sets the tone, a drum and bass infused track that feels nervous and skittering. Elsewhere, dark hints of trip-hop and surging house trickle through while the amped-up highlight 'Into The Woods' is all muscle and intensity. Taking their inspiration largely from 90s electronica, it is a relentlessly ambitious and breathtaking collection of songs that feels exactly like the new chapter that the band aspired to create.
While admitting that she still felt blown away on listening to the record again recently, Isabel promises enticingly that some tracks are already evolving when performed live. Talk turns to the next steps. "I feel much more stable now, and yeah, really proud of us and really proud with what we managed to do here, despite everything that was happening within the band."
With that same subtle yet undeniable strength that has personified the entire interview, she continues, still able to laugh in the face of everything that has transpired. "It's amazing that we were able to make an album with all that shit going on, but I'm glad in a way that we bottled that time. We've got a record of it. Literally, haha!"
As the dust settles on the scenes of devastation and the metaphorical rebuilding is well underway, what comes next is anybody's guess. We cannot wait to find out.
Taken from the November issue of Dork. Pumarosa's album 'Devastation' is out 15th November.
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