Totemo doesn't just break the rules of pop on her debut EP, "Heavy As My Dreams." She finds the line, crosses it, and then draws another one wherever she sees fit. Such is the nature of a progressive artist. What makes Totemo even more interesting is her diversity: The songs, in both composition and vocal performance, feel like they were written by separate people altogether.
Take the opening title track: The words slip from her mouth like glitches (the lyrics being very staccato at the start) making the song sound like its emanating from a gramophone that holds the memory of Totemo's existence. “Host" is a haunting, creaking and low rumbling terror of a track, all countered by her most intentional diction and off-beat delivery. And then there’s “Whois,” which sounds like Totemo flying through time and space without a care, wielding elongated notes that all string together into an echoing chorus.
Chatting with The Huffington Post, Totemo discussed how her name came to her in a dream, the importance of creating different characters within each of her songs and how a recently discovered medical issue has completely redefined the meaning and weight her EP's lyrics hold.
Why the name Totemo?
I dreamt it up. My birth name is Rotem, but while we were recording the EP I had a dream. In that dream, somebody, I’m not exactly sure who it was -- you know, how in a dream sometimes you see a figure -- but he addressed me as Totemo. I woke up with that name in my head. It really fit with the music and felt it was right. And then it turns it out it has a meaning in Japanese, “very,” which is nice. I like when things have meaning, but the meaning is not apparent.
What is the music scene in Tel Aviv and Israel at large like?
The music scene in Israel is concentrated within Tel Aviv. There’s definitely some music happening in Jerusalem and Haifa, but the core of it all is in Tel Aviv. An we’ve got it all; any genre you can think of, we probably have a scene for it. There’s this atmosphere of creating and community.
You worked with producer Roei Avital on the EP. What was it like collaborating with him and allowing someone else to add input into your music?
We took some time before we found Roei, and I’m glad we did because, as you said, it’s kind of weird to let someone into your creative process. With Roei, it was just very natural to me. I didn’t feel like he was taking over and I felt like we could create something together that was both me and him. And that’s a good collaboration in my opinion.
We found a balance. He did help me rearrange some of the songs, like in the structure. I think I have a tendency to be too progressive in my songwriting sometimes. Sometimes it’s a bit complex, and Roei has a very pop attitude toward songwriting, and together we found a good balance in that sense.
That reminds me a lot of my time with Polyenso in studio, whose producer balanced out their progressive nature by helping identify the chorus, or just helping to make it a little bit more catchy.
Exactly, and that’s not a bad word. Sometimes the more artsy attitude toward music would criticize that, but I think it’s really good. I think there’s a reason people are attracted to songs with choruses.
What does "Heavy As My Dreams" mean?
I feel like it’s about expectations, in a way. Expectations that you have for yourself, those that you receive from other people, and then how you deal with those expectations. (In general, I don’t like to interpret my own lyrics, but that’s vague enough.) I think it’s about coping with pressure that people put on you and you put on yourself.
What draws you to this progressive sound, and, if you would label it as such, trip-hop/trip-pop?
I really think that it has something darker about it. Dark, more interesting and less poppy, but still poppy. It’s very flow-y and airy; it’s not too condensed. You have room to breathe and everything is mysterious. That’s the music that I like to hear, so it’s the music I want to make.
Artists like to diversify their sound, but not only are your instrumentals varying, but your approach and tone to each song that almost creates these different people within yourself. What is it that pushes you to create such diversity in every bit of sound, even within an EP?
I fell like I get bored really easily. When I hear song, I like to hear things constantly happening and changing, and that includes my own vocals. One of my greatest influences, if not the greatest, is Kate Bush, and that is her speciality: creating a very large variety of characters within each song. And I love that.
What do you want people to take away from your EP?
I really care about aesthetics. The way things sound is the first impression, and the most immediate thing encountered when someone starts listening to anew artist. I also really like it when people dive in and listen to the lyrics, and read the lyrics and find layers that they haven’t noticed before. Take the time to interpret the lyrics because the combination between words and music does something to you, and it tells a story about your life, not just mine.
It’s really nice hearing that you are so open to that. I think it adds a lot of value to the music when someone releases it and others attach to it in their own way separate from the artist.
I gotta tell you, I wrote the lyrics a while back to some of these songs. Some five years ago, some three years ago and some from the time we started working on the EP. I’ve recently found out that I have a medical issue, and since then, every time I hear the lyrics or I need to sing them at shows, they kind of get this whole new meaning. I’m going to just tell you: I found out that I have breast cancer. I found out really early, it’s stage two, so I have like a 90 percent chance of getting out totally clean a year from now. It’s going to be a rough, tough, ugly year, but then I’m out. But the thing is I listen to the lyrics now, and it’s like somebody else wrote them for me. It’s creepy. I’m singing them and it’s like somebody else is singing them back at me with this whole new meaning bestowed upon them.
I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine how tough it must be at some times, but I’m so happy to hear you taking this positive, ready-to-kick-this-thing’s-ass attitude.
Yeah, I’m ready to fight this thing!
Hell yeah! So what made you sit on some of the songs for several years? Were you just saving some of those songs until you were in the right position?
Yeah, there was some of that, and also I felt like some of the songs, especially “Heavy As My Dreams” and “Host,” which are the older songs from the bunch, that they weren’t ready in their previous versions -- sound-wise and structure-wise. Things change, and sometimes songs are like people, they need time to blossom and evolve into themselves.
After concluding the interview, I asked Totemo if it was fine to include her breast cancer disclosure within the article. This was her response:
“You know what, I've decided I'm totally okay with that. I feel like there’s some secrecy when people have this disease. I think it’s really important that they don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to put it out there because it’s not their fault. They shouldn’t have to deal with the disease and hiding the disease as well. Especially with breast cancer, which it is so important that young women know to check themselves. I found out myself, and that could save lives."
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