It’s about 20 minutes before the show is supposed to start, and Maria DeHart, Lona Manik, Susan Grochmal and I are enthusiastically discussing milk and pickle juice. The table we’re sitting at in The Southern Café and Music Hall is strewn with fast food wrappers — the last hour or so has felt increasingly hectic, and I’ve practically inhaled a divinely greasy takeout burger and fries in the time it’s taken to watch the last piece of equipment get hauled into the venue. I’m vaguely aware that I probably should have started the interview 10 minutes ago, but the sheer earnestness of this conversation has made me suddenly invested in knowing what fluids to drink before a performance. I learn that Selena Gomez, of all people, swears by drinking pickle juice — additionally, Manik thinks there’s something inherently off-putting about milk’s slimy consistency, and I’m inclined to agree.
The bill is stacked with a stellar slate of local femme solo acts — also performing tonight is Paige Naylor, who provides vocals and plays the synthesizer for local band Sweet Tooth. DeHart, a fourth-year College student, tells me that this night came together fairly casually — she works at The Southern and wanted to put together a lineup that would showcase different kinds of solo music, merging University student musicians with the greater Charlottesville scene.
As seasoned performers, all of them have had time to reconcile the distance between their identities as students and artists. Grochmal, a third-year College student who studies poetry, thinks of herself primarily as an artist and tries to take art, music or writing courses that will help further her creative work — she’s the first to take the stage, performing under the moniker AUTODIVA, and her music lives up to that splendidly futuristic name. Right now, she has long, mermaid-straggly pink hair and is wearing a sheer floral top with a double-grommet leather belt that makes her resemble a more ethereal version of early-2000s Avril Lavigne. But the lyrics that do override the glitchy beat reveal a voice that, somewhat unexpectedly, sounds as delicate and exposed as that of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan.
Manik, a fourth-year in the College, suggests the difference feels more pronounced for her.
“I saw this meme the other day and it was like, ‘Some people say they don't like the sound of compressors and side tuning, but I don't like the sound of someone who sounds like they went to university.’ And I didn't understand it at first, but I kind of get it,” she explains. “I think one challenge is that when you're in an academic setting and the university that you go to has a really good music department — which our school does — there's a lot of pressure to fit into that mold.”
DeHart offers a slightly different perspective. “I haven't really thought about being in academia before as limiting, but that's interesting,” she says. “I only started taking music classes halfway through college, and I only really gained confidence through that and also through being in a band as a drummer, which is a very different experience. It's kind of scary to be different than most students running around U.Va — but it's also cool to be the — what is it called, subculture? There's places where we wouldn't be the subculture … ”
“Right,” I say, laughing slightly. I know what she means. “What’s normie at, I don’t know … ”
“Like, VCU. What would be normie at VCU is the subculture at U.Va.,” DeHart says.
When I suggest that there’s a significant gap between the artistic theory they learn in the classroom and the lived experience of being a performer, Manik emphatically agrees. “Yes! I think that's what that meme was referencing,” she says. “There is a gap between the theory and the practice — there’s that pressure. I took composition once, and I was like, ‘Oh, it's gonna be so cool, I'm gonna learn how to compose music’ — but no, I had to actually write music for an orchestra, which is kind of weird.”
While Manik’s compositions may not be informed by an academic background, they’re no less captivating for it. She’s performed under the names Shimmer and MANIIK, and her songs are filled with eerie, weighty beats that seem like a sort of conjuring. She has the slick, certain air of a lounge singer from an alien planet — one gets the sense that listening to her is like being privy to some esoteric knowledge that humans aren’t supposed to comprehend for another hundred years. Manik counts gong sounds and gamelan, a traditional Indonesian musical genre, as her biggest influences at the moment. “A lot of gamelan music is like folk — all the timbres are very similar and the scales are very similar — so that's where I build off of,” she adds.
Despite the obvious variations between their work, one element binding the three artists together is their common ability to create incredibly rich, atmospheric sonic landscapes. DeHart says her music and lyrics usually arrive in tandem, in contrast to songwriters who strictly write one or the other first. “I definitely never write the lyrics first, but maybe a chord progression. All my songs are based off pretty simple chord progressions and a melody over it,” she reveals.
Grochmal says her process is generally more spontaneous, perhaps because of her training as a poet, clarifying, “When I end up making a song, it's more of an experience — I'm just like, "This thing! This sound that I like! Add this sound and this one and these words that are right!"
When asked what they’re most excited to perform tonight, the three suggest that there’s a lot to look forward to. Grochmal promises a “breakthrough song” that’s grown significantly over time, while Manik mentions one song that differs from most of her beat-driven tracks. “It doesn't have a beat, it's all just gamelan samples and I'm singing it all in Indonesian,” she says. “That was sort of an intergenerational project for me because I worked with my mom to translate my stuff. I'm bilingual in a very low-key way — I only know informal Indonesian and I have trouble responding — I can't have very quick conversations. So I'll write a set of lyrics and then I'll get my mom to help me translate them but actually capture what each word really means.”
DeHart, in comparison, appreciates the chance to be a more singular performer, as she is also a vocalist and drummer for the band Sorority Boy, alongside third-year College student Brian Cameron. “I have a loop pedal, so I can be self-sufficient, which can be kind of exciting — I don't need anyone else to play with me. That’s something I'm trying to get more in the habit of —”
At this point, a friend of DeHart that’s sitting near us suddenly breaks into the conversation. “You mean you're a chick that can play drums?” she jokes in an exaggeratedly boorish voice. The table bursts into laughter.
“Like, what's it like being a woman in music?” I ask, caught up in the bit. “I hate that question. I’m so sorry.”
“I've literally been asked that,” DeHart adds. “Like, I don't know, my boobs are totally in the way?”
It’s a reductive, faintly insulting question that we’re all too familiar with as women in creative spaces. Admittedly, we all agree that identity can absolutely influence one’s art — yet that line of reasoning seems ultimately lazy, lumping the vast experiential spectrum of women in music, from trip-hop to acoustic indie rock, under the generic umbrella of simply “being female.” It’s a form of recognition that also feels frustratingly limiting in the way it assumes women are perpetually separated from an invariably male canon — rather than being vital, generative participants in that canon themselves. “One of my other pet peeves when you read reviews of female artists is when male writers have only one point of comparison,” I add. “Like, if it's a female vocalist, they'll just be like, ‘Oh, she’s very Frankie Cosmos.’"
“We're all the same,” Grochmal says, laughing.
“It's like—what's her name? Why am I blanking on it? Joni Mitchell!” DeHart adds.
“You kind of do look like Joni Mitchell,” Manik admits.
We all pause for a minute, flush with anticipation, as Manik pulls out her phone. A quick Google Images search reveals that DeHart admittedly bears a resemblance to the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter — sans hair, that is.
The brief Joni Mitchell debate ignites another question about the artists that have influenced their work. In addition to the plurality of Indonesian music, Manik also counts electronic musician Shlohmo and up-and-coming rapper Lord Narf among her influences. Grochmal cites an eclectic range of inspirations, from experimental electronic acts like Arca, Aphex Twin and Oneohtrix Point Never to pop music to Death Grips — the latter, specifically, is what she listens to to get hype before performing.
In contrast, DeHart claims the intimate, relatively simple sound of indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers as her main influence; she claims to have a “no-frills philosophy” in regards to her music and drumming that’s focused primarily on storytelling and lyricism. Her songs — such as “Fade,” the titular track from her latest EP, which contains the lines “I cried because you were too sweet / I took a pill and went to sleep / One night is not enough, I want to fall in love,” are spare, achingly earnest, and entirely her own. She crafts deceptively gentle melodies that land like gut punches, and when she finally comes onstage as the last performer, her voice seems capable of swelling to fill the entire room.
Upon graduation, DeHart will be relocating to Corvallis, Ore. and Manik will be moving up to Washington, D.C. Both intend to keep performing and establish themselves within their city’s respective DIY music scenes. Grochmal, despite still having a year left at the University, is similarly focused — she sees herself “focusing really hard on music forever.”
I jokingly warn them not to sell out, though I don’t think there’s any danger in that happening — not for lack of any commercial viability on their part, but because all three of them already seem like such sincere, self-assured artists.
“I don't think anyone would buy me,” DeHart confesses.
“If someone wanted to buy me, I would let them, honestly,” Manik counters, laughing. “I feel like selling out is okay if you're a cool girl. Like, no one's mad at Beyoncé for making a lot of money.”
“So that’s the goal,” I say, only half joking now.
“That's the goal. Beyoncé. That's where I see myself,” DeHart says, laughing. If you could hear her, you’d believe it could happen.