Lyra Pramuk’s Surreal Songs of the Self
When Lyra Pramuk sits down at her computer to make music, it feels like she’s having a cosmic conversation with herself. On her astounding debut album, Fountain, composed entirely of her own vocals, the 29-year-old artist expands the limits of the human voice through vocal processing software, a method she compares to symbiosis. “I trip out and something playful emerges,” she says, shifting in her chair as she conjures up the memory. “It’s almost like trying to make a mirage.”
When we connect via video in early spring, the multidisciplinary artist is quarantining in her new apartment in the center of Berlin, sipping a freshly brewed pot of tea. As the sunlight behind her wanes, Pramuk explains how harnessing the vast digital possibilities of her own voice has allowed her to push the boundaries of both artistry and identity. “There were some years when I felt like I wanted or needed to use my voice in a hyper-feminine way,” she says, taking her time between thoughts. “But it’s interesting to put the full range of my voice everywhere and treat it as a nongendered or nonbinary instrument.”
The sheer breadth of Pramuk’s vocal manipulation on Fountain is thrilling. But even as she adds countless technologic flourishes, organic traces of her sonorous voice bring the music back to Earth. “It’s a really vulnerable thing to put any music out,” she says. “But this music is super vulnerable—everything is me.”
Raised in the tiny town of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Pramuk grew up onstage in church choirs, orchestras, and musical theater groups. But as she became older and began to question her sexuality and gender identity, Pramuk found herself putting on an extroverted performance in her day-to-day life in order to cope emotionally. “On the outside, you would probably have thought I was pretty normal and happy, but I tried really hard to be that way,” she says of her teenage self. “I was extremely pensive and sensitive, and I built this really deep interior world.” Away from school, Pramuk plunged herself into the realm of online role-playing video games, a formative community that allowed her to slip easily into different avatars and costumes, experiencing firsthand the possibilities of a fluid identity.
Following her longtime dream of becoming a composer, Pramuk attended New York’s Eastman School of Music, joining a highly selective program in which she was drilled with vocal exercises in at least six different languages each day. “My job was memorization,” she explains, adding that throwing herself into the rigorous training gave her a sense of autonomy when it came to her own music. “As I’ve grown into my music practice, improvisation has become really important, because I want to be able to decide at any given moment what sound I want to make.”
Pramuk spent a few college summers in Berlin, where she grew close with local musicians and artists and became a club kid in the city’s techno-driven nightlife, finding euphoria on the dancefloor. “I would dance by myself for, like, four hours,” she says dreamily. “A lot of my fantasies about how my music would sound came out of having these ritualistic experiences with techno.”
She moved to Berlin after graduation in 2013 and slowly began releasing sparse vocal experiments on Bandcamp. At the same time, she pursued other endeavors, working as a model in friends’ art exhibitions, collaborating with fellow sound explorers like Holly Herndon and Colin Self, and traveling to artist residencies in Tokyo and Stockholm to hone her digital audio skills.
As she began to focus more seriously on her music, Pramuk also publicly came out as trans, a process she documented closely on Instagram. That experience is inextricably tied to her music, in which she explores the contours of her voice as a transfeminine person. “I’m realizing that I have the voice that I have,” she says. “Hormones aren’t gonna change my voice, which is a scientific fact, whereas for transmasculine people hormones do lower the voice. I was dealing with that, too. For me it was a really spiritual question of, OK, who am I? So I’m gonna figure it out.” She lets out a laugh. “I have to figure it out, because I have to feel 100-percent committed to what I’m doing, period.”
Building the meditative world of Fountain became a way to reckon with her identity head-on. She used vocal tracks she had recorded in a high-end studio in Stockholm as the album’s sampling bedrock, multiplying and stretching the recordings to their limits while mixing them in with lower-quality tracks, some of which dated back years. Album opener “Witness” began as an improvisation during a live performance that a fan caught on video, which Pramuk then re-recorded, re-sampled, and reassembled into a staggering hymn of the self. Another standout track, “Gossip,” splices a single vocal sample into a jittery bump that dangles a danceable rhythm just out of reach. The whole project served as a chronicle of liberation for Pramuk, translating ecstatic highs and moments of dark uncertainty through remarkable production techniques and an assured sense of humanity.
Sitting in her bedroom, Pramuk stares off into the distance as she recalls the few times she was able to perform songs from Fountain onstage, before the pandemic halted live music around the globe. “It’s like devotion to the unknown, to the universe, to the cosmos, to the shifting tectonic plates and all species of life,” she says of the shows, where she dresses in ornate gowns and attempts to enter a trance state while improvising looped vocals between songs. “When I’m performing, in the best case, there is energy working through me so that whatever rules or binaries or boundaries or shit that I ran into that day as Lyra, as me, as my ego, it’s all just wiped away. It doesn’t matter.”
Pramuk’s faith in music’s ability to nurture is Fountain’s wellspring, opening doors to more idyllic possibilities. She cites the veteran electronic artist Eris Drew’s theory of musicians and DJs as “ecstatic healers” acting in service to the community, capable of channeling music to bring people together in the same way doctors use sound therapy to reduce stress in patients with PTSD. “I hope there’s a place for thinking about music as an experience of connecting with each other,” Pramuk says. “I feel like that’s the trajectory: Everything’s organized and everyone has health care and everyone’s listening to each other and understanding each other and respectfully exchanging their cultures.” She munches on a small cookie as she mulls over the thought. “Hope is the only principle, right? If you can’t hope and you can’t imagine, then you can’t do shit.”
Pitchfork: You recorded Fountain by yourself using samples of your own voice. Was that process lonely at all?
Lyra Pramuk: It was lonely in the way that meditation or yoga can be lonely, in that I was trying to investigate who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I felt I could be as an artist. I have great friends and a great support system here, but at the end of the day, the kind of healing that it takes to deal with my personal traumas is something that I have to sit with by myself. I’m the only person who can be accountable for that journey of growth. Music has always been a really healing practice for me, listening and singing, so it’s something that I felt I needed to do to try to heal myself.
In your mind, is there a narrative to this album?
I was thinking a lot about water. Before I even decided to call it Fountain, I was looking up every possible kind of body of water and the way that water travels, and I wrote them all down in a notebook, drew pictures of them, and made a narrative. That helped me give it structure.
If you’re in an ocean nearly drowning, that’s really different from if you’re walking up to a bubbling brook in a forest; the feeling of rain is really different from the feeling of being taken down a waterfall. “Mirror,” for instance, I related to ice and being frozen. “Xeno” was about petrichor, the smell of rainfall after dry warm days, so that was like water being heated and turned into particles in the air.
You’ve been very candid on Instagram about transitioning. What role does social media play in your life?
When I first started transitioning and asserting an identity, I wanted to place myself and have an identity as a queer person and as a trans woman. And Instagram is a really important place for queer people to do that because you control the images—you can curate and deliver who you are to people. Instagram was always the center of that for me because it was not only reflecting a self-image to other people, but also to myself. It’s a visual feedback system to help you become who you want to become. For a lot of queer people, the issue is there’s no visual representation that directly aligns with how they’re feeling. Owning the image is a really vital process for agency-building and self-identification.
Are there any artists that have particularly influenced you?
One of the most famous Pakistani singers, Abida Parveen, has one of the most ferocious voices I’ve ever heard. She said in an interview once, “I’m not a man or a woman; I’m a vehicle for passion.” That’s something I really feel. It’s not important to me that I’m perceived as a person when you hear my voice, or what kind of person I’m perceived as if you do. I don’t want to be boxed into a certain mode of performance. There’s so much beauty and diversity in showing range and complexity within us as individuals. I want to feel like a wild animal when I’m writing music and singing. I don’t want to feel constrained by what humans think humans are, because we’re connected to all life anyway. To think that we’re different from the rest of nature is the biggest gag of the last 500 years or longer in Western civilization—we are nature.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork