“That’s what it feels like when I’m working with electronics — I feel like I’m creating a moment, a live moment for someone to listen to.” -Darlene Zarabozo
Darlene Zarabozo is a Cuban-American composer and artist currently based in San Francisco. Having an immense passion for collaboration with artists from a variety of different backgrounds, Darlene is on a constant endeavor to mold different perspectives together in her work. Darlene studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Linda Buckley, and her work has been premiered at PLUG Festival, Sound Scotland, and the University of St. Andrews, among others. Darlene spoke to PRXLUDES about her use of text and visual media in her work, her collaborative process, her approach to writing for electronics and theatre, and dealing with trauma and survivorship through her work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Darlene! Just wanted to start by saying how much I love your EP, Cheap Emotions; it’s such a gorgeously crafted record!
Darlene Zarabozo: Aw, thanks! It means a lot to hear. Honestly, sometimes you get to the end of things, and you want to forget about them. I don’t think the sentiments of this EP are ever gonna lose its value to me — it’s always evolving. I remember when I first made it I held onto it for me — I was just listening to it for me. I wanted, and in some ways, needed it for myself; it was a way of coping with and processing the ending of a connection I had, and when your feelings are all mixed and jumbled inside, I just had to let it go and process it from an outside point of view. To hear that, and then feel okay with it, and then let it go on to be its thing… I felt possessive about it. That’s the word. So I’m happy I’m sharing it now so people can also have their own little piece to feel possessive about…
I completely understand that. Especially when you make something that’s so personal to you, it can be intimidating getting it out into the world; but there’s also that element of universality to it, of helping people.
Yeah, I’d say that’s something I do a lot with my music, as well. I think elements of ourselves are inevitably gonna come out no matter what. So to let them breathe out for a bit, and to edit them, morph them, and sculpt them into something more [than] a blank canvas gives people the chance to find something familiar to attach themselves to. Otherwise, if it’s too recognisable to them, there’s no attraction to it, I guess. Humans tend to be both self-depreciative yet egotistical so to find a balance between the unfamiliar and the familiar is something I love experimenting with.
Yeah. Conversely, there’s those records that people are drawn to because they’re so raw, because they’re so personal…
Yeah, that’s like Bon Iver and For Emma, Forever Ago… I love that album. My favourite song in that album — which I listened to well over a decade ago when I was just frst starting to write my own songs in middle school — is ‘Creature Fear’. Something about how stripped down the album is yet still so full of emotions is something that lingers in the back of my head.
How did you tend to use words in Cheap Emotions?
For Cheap Emotions, a lot of the words [were] improvised, actually. The only words that weren’t improvised were the ones used in ‘The Inevitable Withdrawal’ yet even then the vocal lines in it and the placements of it were arguably improvised. One of my favourite moments of improvisation in the EP however is in ‘Do You Remember?’; that bit in the end when I just keep repeating the same question over and over again in the hopes that with each repetition it would lose its weight on me. It was a way of coping, I think; when you put so much meaning into something that you just need to get rid of it, as a sigh of relief, to get rid of a burden, almost… To get that out there, I think. That’s one way I use words; I go into the microphone, I create a loop, and I just start talking into it — and I pick the bits I like, or the bits that I think could mean something in the context. Other times I sit down and write — that’s actually the way I’m doing the project I’m working on now.
Tell me a bit more about this ongoing project; how are you approaching the use of words within this framework?
I’m writing poems first, and letting them do the storytelling for me. I did the first piece [for it] for Emma Lloyd — ‘are You there?’ — that was inspired by this text I wrote called ‘Me (You)’.
I read this book called ‘Agua Viva’ by Clarice Lispector, [and] that inspired me to start writing my own fragments; and those words started inspiring me to write my own music, and that music started inspiring me to do my own cello improvisations. So you see this little ball of things that are happening, that are inspiring each other; feeding into each other. I [also] started painting a lot around the time this graphic score started happening, and eventually I wanted to break that form [of] the composer versus the performer using a bit of color. It starts of a bit misleading in some ways, just a regular contemporary piece to the regular contemporary performer, and then it starts leading into a world of color and provocation. I like provoking performers, it’s usually a good way of weeding out the ones who get it and the ones who don’t. Emma Lloyd, who’s an extraordinary musician, immediately understood the headspace that this piece requires which isn’t easy; it really requires a specific type of person — a certain type of empathy — to understand the trauma that’s feeding this piece.
How did you culminate all of these ideas of painting, words, and form within this graphic score?
I like using words to break form. I think with music — especially for people that aren’t formally trained musically — they listen to it and they feel something, but unless they can hear something and recognise it, what are you gonna be drawn to? There’s also works that are completely abstract, and you have no idea what it means yet you still feel a pull to it… But I like the way that words pull you in because of your own experiences; maybe it’s some word that someone used to tell you a lot, for good or bad reasons, and then it sticks out like a sore thumb wherever you hear it in the track. It’s like hearing your name, I guess. So for me, it’s about pushing all of the things (that pull me) into one big blob and hope that it sticks.
So tell me a bit more about your compositional process. I noticed you wrote ‘The Inevitable Withdrawal’ with Phoebe McGowan?
I wrote ‘The Inevitable Withdrawal’ at the start of my second year; I wrote it for Sonic Nights, which is led by the amazing and lovely Alistair MacDonald at RCS. That was [in] 2018. It was this fun thing I wanted to do; I wanted an excuse to do something with Phoebe, and I was like “Hello, do you want to do something, I know you do words”… But she was also really shy — I think the most she’s done before that was open mic nights — so this was a great way for me to persuade her to be more [open], and she was like “let’s do it”. It was just one of things that worked out. I love it when things just work out.
How did you two manage to open up within the collaborative process?
Phoebe and I had this sixteen-page document [in which] we were sharing pieces that we liked, notes that we liked — and we would talk about it a lot in our free time. We had other essays that we needed to do, and this is what we were doing instead… we were writing about things we weren’t being graded for. I really enjoy that period of collaborations. I think it’s fundamental to know the person you’re working with; their interests, their mindsets, their philosophies, their ideas of art because it really informs the way you’re gonna approach creating with them. There are, of course, collaborations that don’t work out but that’s nothing to beat yourself up about; that’s something I’ve only just now started to fully learn and accept. It’s like getting to know a person — sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t click — and luckily for us, we clicked enough to write this [piece].
Do you tend to find that the collaborative process inspires the music?
I’d say that at least for this collaboration, the collaboration definitely inspired the music, first. I wanted to incorporate everything I felt, and everything I knew, for this person, and the message for them. It’s really confusing; sometimes [with] the collaborative process, you can’t really tell who it is for anymore, or who it is coming from. It just becomes so intermingled, this concoction of people.
After a while, your creative processes end up intertwining, right?
Sure. I guess it doesn’t matter, in some sense. Or maybe it matters too much, whichever way you look at it. -laughs- I still can’t make my mind up about it! I guess it depends on the person. I think the special ones end up being like that the most.
In terms of your textual inspiration, do you tend to write from a personal perspective?
I would say they’re definitely personal. When I’m writing words, it’s because I’m trying to get it out as fast as possible; if I want to compose something, it’s gonna take me a little bit longer, so words are the first thing that’s instinctual to me. It’s just putting it out [on paper], and then it’s a matter of editing for me — analysing, and processing, like “what did I mean when I wrote this?”, playing around with the order of words, playing around with double meanings… To sum it up I use writing (both textually and musically) to gain a perspective of myself I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I then use that perspective to inform my pieces. Our subconscious and our instincts are probably the most powerful tools we have as artists, as well as empathy (that includes being empathetic to ourselves).
Of course — the aesthetic of the text is just as important as what’s being communicated.
I love double meanings. I really love personal double meanings, and I love creating this play on words. Because double meanings can mean something to me, and can mean something [different] to someone else… I love the beauty of that. The changes of perspectives can make the same thing seem different.
I completely understand; I feel like in my own practice, I can pretty much apply the same techniques to text that I do to conventional notation.
That’s a great way to put it. I definitely have felt that, not just with words, but with colours and art in general. Art forms are much more similar than they are different. After a while, I just started treating everything the same — not that [that] takes the value out of their own ways, and their [own] origins — but after a while, people are just trying to come across [in] their own way. What difference does it make if it’s coming through music, or if it’s coming through film or text or visuals? The further you delve into something the less likely you are to see the boundaries around it.
There’s something very theatrical about the process. I’d be interested to know how that has impacted you’ve approached writing for theatre — if it has?
Fortunately for me, I didn’t feel like [The Bacchae] was that different from my compositional process; it [felt] like an enhanced form of it. It felt like this was gonna be a way for me to flesh it out even more. Because it was coming to stage, there was a physical aspect to it that I could play around with; and due to the fact it was the first production [we] did in RCS after the lockdown, there was a lot that we had to figure out. Eventually, it was inevitable that I was going to do most of it with electronics because practically speaking, it was gonna be really hard to record, and also bring in live musicians with the (much needed) social-distancing restrictions in place. It would’ve been too many people and for something that requires flexibility I just decided doing it myself would be the best way to go about it practically speaking.
Do you feel your solitary practice differs from your collaborative practice? Which one do you see yourself doing more of?
That’s how I do most of my music (especially the music I don’t publicly share); I do it by myself. I like doing things by myself as much as I like doing things with other people, actually — which I think might surprise other people. -laughs- I like recording by myself… I’m a very boring person. All I do is fidget around with music stuff, and see what happens, see what the sound does. That was kind of how I went about [composing] for this. But my absolute favourite thing was the Spotify playlist me and Finn [den Hertog] were doing — basically, I gave it a listen after he sent me a few tunes [like] Gazelle Twin’s ‘Belly of the Beast’, Jonny Greenwood’s ‘Trench’ and stuff like that — listening to these things daily, what he thought of as references, made me feel comfortable enough to try more electronic, glitchy stuff that most directors might have been opposed to, especially in something as classical and as traditional as a Greek play. So, I was really grateful for that space to experiment with.
It’s interesting how you’ve focused so much on electronics; what drives your approach to working with those forces?
What draws me to electronics is the physicalness of it. I don’t think most people think of physical stuff when they think of electronics, but all I think about when I hear electronics is how physical it is. For me, it’s just as physical as — and in some ways, it enhances more the physicalness of things than — live instruments. For instance, the way I like playing around with my voice in recordings, the cracking of it, hearing the breath sounds, making a show of the physical fort required to make that sound. I think that is what draws me to it, because it gives it a sense of realness — it’s a refection of me, but I can’t touch it, I can’t hear it. It lives in a time I can no longer touch. It happened already, and we still have it [and] it’s there somewhere in this space, but you can’t [relive it]. It’s the same way when you’re seeing a live performance; it lives in this moment. That’s what it feels like when I’m working with electronics — I feel like I’m creating a moment, a live moment for someone to listen to. I love the drama of it, the glamour of it, I love playing into it, leaning into it, and being unashamed to use it in a way that makes me come across more human. That’s important to connect with people.
You’ve talked about how a lot of your work tries to defy categorisation; how do you see yourself going about doing that within your process?
I think the category I like breaking the most is crossing the line between composer and audience. Sometimes, composers are known as “mysterious figures”… But some of the artists that have meant the most to me — Elisabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins, Jeff Buckley, Amy Winehouse — are people that unashamedly came out in their creative process. They didn’t feel like they had to hide. So when I use myself, when I’m performing my own pieces, that’s the one I like crossing the most; breaking that fourth wall. The equivalent of when you’re watching a movie and the main character starts talking to the audience — I love that. I love when it spins and plays with that idea, because it bleeds through; you can’t stop looking away from it, like a car crash, sometimes. -laughs- It’s someone that has something to say. When the composer is there, present, in the moment, that’s when you can’t look away. I like blurring that the most, in the creative process. I think that’s something I got from working with actors a lot.
Would you consider yourself a theatrical composer?
I’m not sure “theatrical” would be the word, as much as a drama queen. I love drama, I love glamour, I love the exaggeration of things. That’s also something that really draws me to electronics; you have so much room to exaggerate, not just sounds, but emotions, thoughts, and ideas. There’s a room to exaggerate things in a way you can’t really do live [in the same way]. I like narratives, I like stories. No one likes listening to a boring storyteller, no one wants to listen to a monotone story. You want someone that’s doing all the voices, you want to lean into the characters. I don’t understand why composition should be any different.
Exactly! Every form of art tells some sort of story…
Even by not telling a story, that’s choosing to tell a story. If you’re doing nothing, by doing nothing you’re doing something.
How does your work with visuals feed into this idea of narrative?
I’ve not completely figured this one out yet. I think the visuals right now that I’m working with are really colourful, things that are inspired by AI, playing around with how surreal technology can be. I really like interactive electronics; it’s something I really want to explore further, interactive audio and visuals. The stuff that Sonia Killmann does with electronics and visuals is amazing — ‘Them! There! Eyes!’ is [a] great piece that she did, I think Cryptic might have given it a shout-out a few months ago.
I think visually speaking, my favourite person I’ve worked with has been Zeo Fawcett. What he did for ‘The Typewriter Manifesto’ was something that blew my mind completely — the speed of it, the way it plays around with the rates. I love when images blur together because of how fast they’re going sometimes; you can’t even keep up, it’s whatever you see first. Kind of like a psychology test. Everyone sees something different [that] comes out first in the image. My favourite thing is the digital animal that’s typing in the video, and other people like the weird [chimera] that’s typing… I think the visuals capture the narrative in itself. They’re two completely different pieces layered together, in a way.
At least in your head — do you see the visuals or the music coming first? Or does it matter?
I’d say they come in tandem. What’s helping me answer that is Cheap Emotions; I kept thinking about trains, and I kept thinking about train stations, and I kept thinking of someone waiting, and what that person waiting would feel like. To be yearning for something so special, somewhere so common… Feeling so alone in a place that’s so filled up with people, coming in and out of trains. Kind of like a relationship. Sometimes, they come in and out, they dock for a bit, and they leave.
That’s my favourite thing — I like finding complex meaning in simple things. It’s really fun. I think of it like a little puzzle; if I were to look at things like the train station, or I think about waves, [or] nature. [It] all inspires me. I don’t consider myself a nature person — by that, I mean I don’t like bugs — but in some ways, nature does inspire me. Especially light; I really like light, and how it reflects different shades and colours, depending on the glass. Materials can inform us a lot more — especially visual materials — in subconscious ways. Visuals are something I use in my [practice] more subconsciously than intentionally.
Why do you think that is?
It’s something I think about a lot… I don’t know why. I think it’s the same reason why on social media, on Instagram, the stuff that’s gonna grab your attention the most are the visuals. Not a lot of people stop to listen to something, they stop to look at something. It’s quicker, it’s more consumable, it’s more innate; it’s more easily at hand. There’s an immediacy that comes with visuals.
And memories — when you think of memories, a lot of the time, you don’t think of memories through sound. At least for me, the way my memory works is [that] I think about the physicalness of it; I think of a sunny day, or [a] place… something very photographic in my head. But it’s because it’s the way I’m remembering it, it’s all morphed up. That translates into my music; you’re never gonna remember things [perfectly].
I also think that perhaps since I’m not trained in anything visually, I tend to have a more primitive approach to it. It’s something that’s still very internal and I’m still figuring out how to externalise it fully. To do that properly, I think you need to have a deep understanding of something and for me I still see visuals like a kid picking up a box of crayons. Though to be honest, I think there’s a freedom that comes with a lack of awareness which can be very cathartic at times.
What would be your ideal kind of project — if budget were literally no object, how would you combine all of your influences?
I guess with all the money in the world… I’d be quite overwhelmed, I think. For me, the more resources I have, the worse I do. I don’t know why, but it is a thing; I think I do the most with the least amount of resources. Even in parameters, the tighter the restrictions you give me, the more I’m gonna try and find a way to get a creative loop around it. Like a puzzle, almost. I love the challenge of trying to find innovative ways around annoying, bureaucratic restrictions. I love it! I don’t know. I feel like I’d let people down if I were to have a lot of money to do something. That’s too much pressure aha. It would be funny if I had all the money in the world and it would just be me, and a cat, on stage, jamming around… -laughs- I love cats.
I’ve noticed that with my own work, as well — the more restrictions I’m given, the more I feel like I can best take advantage of what I have.
The more you’re willing to fight for what you already have. Like, if this is what you’re gonna give me, I’m gonna fight everything I can using this, just to prove [to] you I don’t need [more]. I guess that’s also the way we’re being built as musicians, as freelance musicians especially — we’re reinforced to think that way, doing more with less. So it’s like, if we’re [being] given more, we’re not used to it! It’s like giving a kid a ton of candy, and they go on a sugar rush — they’re gonna crash.
When you’re not given any sort of limit, you become the limit.
It’s weird that you say that, that you become the limit. Because it is true; I’d never thought of it that way. I think that’s part of the reason why right now, I’ve been prioritising my mental health so much; when your limit is so low, what capacity do you have to work? I’ve been dealing with chronic depression and anxiety in the midst of processing sexual abuse trauma right now, and it’s something that overcomes my work sometimes, to the point where I need to give my full concentration to very fundamental day-to-day aspects like feeding myself. I guess prioritised my work, my music, so much that I didn’t consider my mental health for such a long time. I would use work as a distraction to pull me away. Which is ironic (and perhaps a bit hypocritical), because I appraise my work so much as this thing about being in touch with my feelings, and all I was doing with this work was avoiding my feelings. It’s hard to talk about sometimes, but I think it’s necessary to talk about, because a lot of people push themselves too hard, including myself. On that note, I wish there were more mental health resources for musicians and composers; it’s an epidemic right now and I don’t think our community is doing enough to help each other out. There’s not even a lot of research on it which is crazy if you think about it since this issue has been going on for decades, if not centuries depending on how you look at it! I think we need more artists like Rylan Gleave who looks after his communities just by being considerate of the people around him and using his platform to promote their voices as opposed to speaking for them. I’m hoping when I get better that I can begin investing more into my communities, especially the LGBTQ+ community and the survivor community.
I’ve definitely spent time focusing too much on my work, to the detriment of myself and the people around me. And a lot of people ended up getting hurt.
I know, exactly. The person who encouraged me to think more positively about my work is the lovely and talented Linda Buckley, my composition teacher. I remember there was one lesson I came in and was like “I don’t have anything for you” — and normally I always have something for her — and she was like “what did you do this week”… I was like “oh, I did a jam… I didn’t write anything, but jammed, I met up with people, I did a few improvs here and there” — and she was like “that’s fine too, that all feeds into your music”. I think people forget that having a life feeds into your work more than being in [work-mode] all the time. You become inhuman, you become a robot; if you’re not living experiences, what are you gonna write about? I think that evolving mentality gave me a lot of freedom and it’s something I think about a lot now. Linda is great and I’m incredibly grateful for everything she’s taught me, and her mentorship throughout my undergrad. My hope is to be someone as sensitive and as strong as her one day.
It’s very easy to dissociate. Quite often, there’s this romantic notion of the tortured artist… it’s so toxic.
It’s encouraged, sometimes, which blows my mind… You’re not being romantic, you’re sabotaging yourself. It burdens yourself; you’re limiting yourself through that. That mentality is put on a pedestal by the media, it’s ridiculous and harmful for young artists everywhere who aren’t fortunate enough to have Lindas around them to tell them “hey, try not to beat yourself up too much”. Because a lot of the time you don’t know any better (especially when you’re so young) and by the time you figure out the hole you dug yourself in it could possibly be too late. So hearing positive words from someone you respect is so important for young artists; it’s so important for their development. I know there’s a toxic side to too much positivity, but it really doesn’t hurt to just be kinder, especially to young artists. And I mean genuinely kinder. If you don’t feel it and don’t mean it then don’t work with younger artists… don’t work with anyone, to be honest, unless you know how to be kind.
Tell me about a project you’re working on that you’re particularly proud of…
Oh, my band! [My] band is called THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE. It’s been a really fun experience; it’s been something that’s completely new to me, because I’ve never been in a band, but I’ve always wanted to be in a band. It’s five of us; [there’s] me doing cello, voice, and electronics, Harry [Daniel] doing guitar, electronics, and voice as well, and Sonia [Killmann] doing sax, electronics, and voice, as well. -laughs- There’s also Finn McLean on bass (and literally anything you give him that boy is a genius), and Joe Doyle on drums and electronics! We’re not all singing all the time. What I love about this band is that we’re all bringing ideas; it’s kind of like a little playground, I feel like we’re little kids… We take it seriously, but we also like to not take it [too] seriously. I think that’s when you know you’re working with the right people — when you know when to take it seriously, [and] when to have fun, let loose, and let whatever the vibes are come out.
How’s the collaborative process within the songwriting of this band?
We basically get in a room [and] jam. We find a room, we jam for an hour or two, I record everything on my phone… we talk about [it], like, “okay, there was this bit you did that I really liked, do you remember what you did?”… and then we start piecing [together] the bits that we like, scrapping the bits [that] we don’t like. If there was any moment that really stood out to us, that’s gonna be the song that we would work on next. I think that’s what I like about it; we’re experimenting. When you go straight into the production, the experimentation of how it would be performed, or thought about live, goes away.
I get what you mean, completely. It’s so different physically being in a space with people.
You can’t write for an instrument you don’t know, and a band’s no different. [But] since my move back to San Francisco, we decided to turn into a digital audio-visual band (something very softly based on Gorillaz since that’s the best example I can come up with) and we’re currently in the midst of using AI and feeding it data to create our… PEOPLE.
Have you got any music coming out soon?
Maybe! -laughs- We’ve been planning an EP right now, I think you’ll like it. We have eight or ten songs we’ve already produced, it’s just a matter of selecting which ones come out [first]. It’s very rock, electronic, jazz-y… I like it, my dad likes it, I think people will like it too!
I should also mention that just because I’m working on a band right now doesn’t mean I’ve stopped working on my solo stuff hehe… Misread will be releasing an EP soon!
More of Darlene’s work can be found at: