Flesh and Blood: Pumarosa interview

We speak to Pumarosa frontwoman Isabel Munoz-Newsome about touring, history, spirituality, and the release of their debut album, The Witch

Feature by Chris Ogden | 12 May 2017
  • Pumarosa

Isabel Munoz-Newsome is extremely people-focused. When we call the lead singer and guitarist of London-based ‘industrial-spiritual’ five-piece Pumarosa, she is out and about in central London, having popped out for essentials after a day of song-writing at home. Friendly and thoughtful, she works hard to find a quiet place to chat with us ahead of the band’s upcoming UK and European tour and the release of their debut LP The Witch on 19 May via Fiction Records.

Pumarosa have already made a strong start to 2017, having finished a whistle-stop tour of Australia and Japan in late February and early March. As it was the band’s first visit to Australia, they were made to do as much as possible in two days by their Australian imprint: shuttling around to meet industry figures, being interviewed by reputable alternative radio DJs.

“It was like being in a proper band for a few days… [Or being] treated like one anyway,” Munoz-Newsome laughs in her light-hearted tone.

While Munoz-Newsome heralds the wonders of Australia, which she found to be "saturated in colour" – the turquoise sky, the verdant splendour of high-rises next to parks and tropical trees – it sounds as though Pumarosa are still adjusting to the industry machine, still feeling as green as the plants they found down under. Does she feel comfortable being part of it yet?

“I don’t know really… When we’re doing all that kind of stuff, I do. Sometimes I enjoy it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is great! They’re buying us things!’ and sometimes I really resent it and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to meet another person!’ Luckily, because we’re not hugely popular, we don’t have to do too much of that.”

It’s just as well that Pumarosa are enjoying discovering the right people and publications, as with the release of The Witch, one can’t imagine that they will remain unknown for much longer. Since their first songs dropped in late 2015, the five-piece have met comparison with indie’s big-hitters, their sound combining the ominous rock of PJ Harvey with the nocturnal grooves and electronics of Björk or Warpaint. It’s a comparison justified by The Witch’s hard-hitting lead single Dragonfly, on which we hear the band slowly casting off its moody synth skin to land a haunting chorus built around crashing guitar and Munoz-Newsome’s soaring vocals.

Fascinated as she is by the logistical lull period between The Witch’s completion and its release, Munoz-Newsome admits being simultaneously nervous and excited about people hearing the LP for the first time. She is particularly interested in how fans will respond to The Witch’s title track, which she teases as a "lyrically intense" unusual song on the album. While stressing that the song doesn’t define the record ideologically or tonally, she says that the track does quietly inform The Witch with thoughts swirling her mind for the past few years concerning the control of history and womanhood.

“We don’t know our history,” she explains. “It’s not taught to us really. If you want to know it you have to really dig, because what we’re taught in school is essentially the Second World War, the First World War, and maybe some stuff about the kings and queens from before then.

“We take it as read that this is just the natural way things have evolved, whereas actually it’s this long history of quite violent repression. It’s only when you start really researching where you come from – not specifically [your] ancestors, but how Europe and America have been shaped – that [you start] to work out a lot of these tensions and suddenly it’s like ‘Ah, but of course!’”

However, Munoz-Newsome’s instinctive empathy with those separate from aristocracy, church and nobility, particularly women, is not based in anger. Instead, she stresses that she feels enlightened and grateful to have learned more about them, leading us to ask more about her newfound wisdom.

“I don’t know if I’m someone who has wisdom,” she laughs. “Maybe call me back in 25 years! But awareness, I suppose. I’m not just singing about reaching the stars; I’m singing about people I know in general and people I haven’t met 200 years ago. It’s very much rooted in people: flesh and blood.”

Continuing the theme of mystical women, in the run-up to the release of The Witch Pumarosa have released a remix of their first ever single Priestess, cutting it down from the meandering seven-minute form in which it appeared in 2015 into a more radio-friendly four minutes. While standing firm that the original is the "definitive version" of the track, Munoz-Newsome says that the remix stemmed from the band’s desire to re-release the song in a more “edible” form.

Pumarosa seem acutely aware of how they will be perceived right now, begging the question of whether this has been a change in their mindset since they formed. While Munoz-Newsome admits admiring the talent of being able to reach more people with a brilliantly succinct pop song, and has accidentally written something like one recently, we shouldn’t expect an all-out pop turn from Pumarosa just yet.

“I think a song should be as long or short as it needs to be,” she says. “With the songs of ours that [came] from jams initially – something like Snake on the album, or Cecile, [or] Red – they’re really long because that’s how those sessions unfolded. Who knows? Maybe we will release an album with those golden digits but definitely not on this album.”

With The Witch released this month, Pumarosa are now embarking on their UK and European tour, refining the order and flow of their live sets now they have twice as much time on stage, and the performance of them too. Munoz-Newsome relates how her sister, a choreographer, helped prepare her for the video for Dragonfly by making her do different exercises, making her more aware of the body’s connection to the mind.

While acknowledging the difficulty she still has in being totally present and free, Munoz-Newsome emphasises the stabilising comfort of knowing every note completely inside out with every concert constantly changing in mood and location.

“The last tour we did, some [gigs] were sold out; some were ill-attended but they were all brilliant and they were all completely different,” she says. “Actors say when you perform on stage they’ll do a run for however many nights but it’s different every time. It’s the same thing when you’re doing gigs… Every night’s really different. You kind of have to approach it [differently] each time.”

Once the tour is over Pumarosa will spend this summer continually dipping into the festival bubble, with their destinations including Glastonbury, Green Man, and Reading and Leeds: “I just hope we don’t have cans of beer thrown at us!” she jokes. Although looking at the calendar makes Munoz-Newsome stressed and horrified right now, she's confident that the band will adjust to the flow, helped by the relative comfort they will encounter at festivals in Europe.

“One thing is that when you go abroad, the way you get looked after is on another level: you get a table with bottles of rosé and knives and forks made of what looks like silver. It’s quite pleasant,” she jokes. “[Here], they put you in a sort of shipping container with one packet of crisps!”

All this discussion of playing in front of others leads us back to our previous discussion about The Witch and Pumarosa’s ‘spiritual’ tag. Is Pumarosa’s motivation in making music the act of trying to inspire that attachment: in the hour they spend jamming together in rehearsals, in the communal experience of concerts? At this point this becomes clear: the East London five-piece attempt to tap into the transcendental while remaining attentive to the real world at the same time.

“I suppose that sense of communality or spirituality without a specific doctrine or church is something you can find in music,” Munoz-Newsome concludes. “That’s something that everyone’s a bit like ‘Ugh, embarrassing! Ugh, gross!’, but why bother existing if you’re just doing general day-to-day things all the time when you can find beauty and something mysterious in existence? That can only be good.”

The Witch is released on 19 May via Fiction Records. Pumarosa play Liverpool Sound City, Liverpool, 25 May https://www.facebook.com/pumarosamusic/