Artist Spotlight: Pom Pom Squad

    Pom Pom Squad is the project led by Orlando-raised singer-songwriter Mia Berrin, who started using the moniker in high school at age fifteen. Now a four-piece featuring bassist Maria Alé Figeman, drummer Shelby Keller, and guitarist Alex Mercuri, the Brooklyn-based band have today released their debut full-length album, Death of a Cheerleader, following two riveting EPs, 2017’s Hate It Here and 2019’s Ow. Co-produced by Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, the record is Pom Pom Squad’s most dynamic and fully-realized effort to date, anchoring in and amplifying the vulnerability that marked Berrin’s previous efforts while pushing beyond it. Oscillating between nostalgic pop, lush orchestral arrangements, and unrelenting punk abrasion, the album evokes the chaotic thrill, endless frustration, and pure joy that comes with figuring out your identity, celebrating Berrin’s queerness in the process. Its cinematic scope has various reference points – Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides directly fuels highlight ‘Lux’, and the director’s ethereal aesthetic permeates much of the LP – and musically Berrin is clearly influenced by a wide range of styles. Yet by subverting expectations and using those touchstones to tell her own story, Berrin has delivered a vision that’s unique both for its hypnotic charm and powerful immediacy.

    We caught up with Pom Pom Squad’s Mia Berrin for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about watching The Virgin Suicides for the first time, the inspirations behind Death of a Cheerleader, and more.

    What do you remember about the first time you watched The Virgin Suicides?

    The first time I watched The Virgin Suicides was in high school, and the first time I watched it I actually did not get it. I didn’t really understand it, and I don’t think I liked it as my initial reaction. I feel like a lot of my favorite pieces of art ever, a lot of them I don’t understand the first time either, but it was just so pervasive and it really entered my mind. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to watch it again to get answers to these questions. And I think in a way that’s also the nature of the story, too; it’s a story about these boys who never know the truth about these girls they are so infatuated with. You know, I related to the sisters, and I think as I started to connect with them on the premise of being a young woman and the isolation that I felt, I just really fell in love with that story and it’s stuck with me for most of my life.

    What kind of questions were you trying to unpack?

    Initially, when I was looking at it on the surface level, I don’t and I didn’t fit into – when I was in high school, it was kind of pre-Kardashians and pre-people who look like me being considered attractive. My whole life I grew up really thinking I was ugly, you know, and being told I was ugly and attractive. I think in a way I felt envy for these girls being attractive enough to even maintain anybody’s attention, and I think there’s a jealousy there, and a resentment that I felt. This whole movie had been glamorized by so many of the white people around me.

    But I think what struck me and stuck with me was, one, just aesthetically it’s so beautiful and the imagery is really striking, and then, I’ve experienced depression since I was pretty young, but especially in high school it got pretty serious – it was my first time really grappling with mental illness in that way. And I think I wanted to understand why they behaved the way that they did, and when I finally came to that reckoning myself, I started to relate to it more and understand it better.

    Partly what struck me about the way you talked about the film in a statement for the song ‘Lux’, and that I think a lot of people miss, is how it captures this fear of male attention, and how the glamorization and idealization of these girls is really what contributes to their oppressive environment. When you revisit these kind of formative coming-of-age films now, what feelings do they elicit?

    I think with a movie like The Virgin Suicides, I’ve shown showed it to all the important people in my life who haven’t seen it, and it kind of has become a litmus test of who’s going to stick around. I think I’ve showed it to all of exes, and my partner currently is the only person who has liked the movie. [laughs] All my exes didn’t understand it.

    I feel a sense of nostalgia. In a way, I feel like I still draw on all the same influences I did when I was a teenager. I think there’s a part of me that really discovered something during that time that has affected so much of who I became and am becoming. So I feel grateful to have had those resources and those experiences; the experience of discovering these art forms and these pieces on my own. I also feel kind of wistful sometimes, knowing that the longer I’m alive, it’s always going to be different when I come back to the things that I love.

    ‘Lux’ is one of the first songs you wrote when you were around 17. How much have the lyrics changed, and what do you remember about writing it?

    Actually, the lyrics didn’t change at all, they’re exactly the same. So they’re really the most pure, distilled, teenage me song that I think I have at all. I published a couple songs on Bandcamp when I was a teenager, but ‘Lux’ is the one that really stuck around and grew with me. I do remember it was one of the first times I knew that songwriting was like a craft. It taught me that songwriting is something that you have to do actively, you know, like I remember starting to write that song and really sitting down and working on it and working through it, really bringing it into shape. Before I started writing songs I journaled literally every day – I had almost like an obsessive fixation on journaling, and this whole idea that if I didn’t write things down exactly as they were I’d forget them forever, and then life would be a sham or some kind of ridiculous idea. But it really was the catalyst for me becoming a songwriter, because songwriting is essentially just really being able to crystallize feelings and emotions into something palatable and consumable and shareable.

    And ‘Lux’ took work; I knew that I wanted to write a song, I knew I wanted to write a song about The Virgin Suicides, I knew that I wanted to write a song that reflected the experiences that I was having around that time – you know, my early experiences of sexuality. It took work, and it was really exciting to come out on the other side of that and know that I had created something. Like, it didn’t just fall out of me, it was an ability that I had.

    What was it like revisiting the song for the album, and also recreating shots from the film for the music video?

    I think the thing about ‘Lux’ as a song is it’s been a pretty constant force in my life, in a way. I wrote it at 17, I released it when I was 18, I started playing it live when I was 19, and never really stopped since. It’s taken on a couple different forms ever since the first show that I played as Pom Pom Squad. As I’ve grown and as the band has grown it’s changed in little ways, parts have been added and parts have been taken away, but the lyrics and the melody have stayed the same, and the heart of it has stayed the same. I think at a certain point you sing a song enough that it becomes part of your body. It’s not so much an experience anymore – it’s not that I don’t get emotional when I sing it, but it’s kind of like those emotions just live in me now, you know what I mean? It’s not like I have to recreate that feeling; it’s like you’ve practiced something enough and it’s just innate.

    Recreating shots for the music video, that was another thing that, ever since I wrote the song, I knew that I wanted to do a Virgin Suicides tribute video. It was very vulnerable; it was more vulnerable than I expected. Putting myself literally inside one of my favorite pieces of art, comparing myself to it, in a way. Touching back on myself as a person of color sort of having only white role models portray the things that I felt, there is a part of me that was like, “I can never be as beautiful,” or, “It can never be as good, putting myself in it, as it would be with a smaller, prettier, whiter face.” So it’s very, very vulnerable, and I was hyper-specific about what I wanted and how I wanted the shots to look and how I wanted it to feel. I really wanted it to maintain a feeling of aesthetic beauty and softness and honor for these young women and for myself as well. I’m proud that I could get through that mental block enough to make it happen.

    I think it definitely succeeds in doing that. To get to another track on the album, your cover of ‘Crimson & Clover’ – the original is something I actually feel like would neatly fit in The Virgin Suicides as something that would represent the point of view of the male narrators obsessing over the girls. But in your rendition, there’s almost a subversive element to it. What was the reason for including the cover?

    The thing I love about the original is just how creepy it is. It’s so unintentionally creepy and strange, and the sonic palette of it is just bizarre. I’ve always loved the original, and my partner really turned me on to Joan Jett’s cover of it, and I think having this combination of, you know, sort of borrowing from the queerness of Joan Jett’s version of it and infusing it with that kind of David Lynch-y, creepy saccharine aesthetic could evoke. I kept coming back to that song in a time in my life where I was learning a lot about my sexuality and about love as I was kind of going through my second adolescence.

    The album as a whole expands musically on your previous EPs, but also there’s also a musical and conceptual shift into something more cinematic and theatrical – you mentioned David Lynch, and obviously, there’s the Sofia Coppola connection. Why did you want those elements to be more prominent on Death of a Cheerleader?

    That’s a good question. I’ve always been attracted to arrangements like that; I think of some of my childhood interests in the Beatles and Motown and singer-songwriter tracks and Smiths. You know, things that really had an emotional core, some extremely minimalist and some extremely maximalist. I’ve always loved orchestral arrangements, but it never felt like something that fit in with rock music or grunge music. And I think also being a self-taught musician, it didn’t seem achievable for me to be able to write or create something like that, so it almost just never came to mind. But when we recorded violin for a couple songs on our Ow, that opened me up to the possibility a little bit more. And I think quarantine, being home, sort of pushed it over the edge, in that I wanted to escape from my reality. And listening to Motown and listening to The Beatles and returning to the sounds from when I was a kid, those arrangements feel like they couldn’t ever take place in a room, like they’re not grounded in reality.

    And being in quarantine and not being able to see my bandmates and really having myself and my laptop and guitar as my only resources for songwriting, I was just playing around with software instruments and other sounds that I can incorporate into what I do. I didn’t have to think about it in terms of like, “How would this work in a live show?” or “Would we be able to play this to a crowd?” I really just got to explore this world away from my world.

    And I was telling a love story, in a way, with this record. And that emotion feels so… I think anger feels very down to earth, it feels very grounded, it feels very immediate. And love just sits in such a different place. And coming at this record from a place of love, even in the angrier songs – love for teenage myself on a song like ‘Lux’, love for people that I was talking about on other songs – it just took me to a different place musically.

    I was reading an interview where you were talking about the previous EPs being kind of falsely perceived as diaristic, and how that was a reductive assessment. Was the shift to something more cinematic also a conscious move away from that perception, not just musically, but also conceptually and lyrically?

    It’s funny, because I’ve been reflecting on my resentment on being called a diarist lately, and I think that resentment came mostly from feeling belittled as a young woman doing this. And feeling like when people were telling me like, “Oh, it sounds like it’s pulled from your diary,” it often is used to mean, “This isn’t a skill.” I think there’s a way that women are written about in music that really frustrates me, which is like, “Men craft things.” I remember reading this article about a musician and it was like, “He crafts a brilliant narrative based on stories from his own life.” And when it’s a woman, it’s always like, “She is an emotionally distressed songstress.” It’s like, she is versus she makes. And I wanted people to know that songwriting is effortful and it’s an action, and I felt like I was being talked about like this little girl who’s shooting from the hip and it just so happens that I wrote a couple of good songs. I really wanted to establish myself – you know, I studied production, engineering, musicianship, and music history, and I really think a lot about what I do and what it means. And of course it’s personal; I think I became a skilled lyricist because of my journaling and diary writing growing up. But I think I wanted – maybe the difference here, I’m kind of realizing talking to you now, is exploring myself lyrically in a personal way, not shielded but uplifted by bigger production and more technical skillset, felt like a way to really show people what I’m made of, and also show myself what I’m made of and prove to myself the things that I’ve kind of been encouraged to doubt about myself.

    So lyrically, it feels like I’m in the same place as Ow in terms of what it means and where it lives with me emotionally. It was just exciting to push that to the fullest extent that it can go.

    In a statement about ‘Crying’, you talked about how part of making this album was realizing that no amount of songwriting can replace therapy when it comes to dealing with depression. Having come to that realization, what is it that you feel like you do ultimately get from making music?

    I think songwriting isn’t a substitute, but if I didn’t have it, I don’t know how I would process my life. I think part of being a creative person is [having] an internal instinct, and the second part of it is acting on it that instinct. It’s always felt like an extension of myself and a part of myself… [pauses] Let me think. What do I get out of it? I mean, I think it teaches me something. If I go into a song knowing what it’s gonna mean to other people, knowing what it’s gonna mean to me, then I wouldn’t have a reason to write. Writing for me is the process of exploring, and I’ve learned so much about myself in the creation of this project that I don’t know if would have had the bravery or the autonomy to give myself otherwise.

    In a few words, what do you feel this project has taught you?

    I think the lesson of my first EP was to learn how to be autonomous, to learn how to take care of myself. I think the lesson of Ow was to learn how to have confidence in and respect myself. And I think the lesson of Death of a Cheerleader is to enjoy and express myself, really live fully in my own life and be present.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Pom Pom Squad’s Death of a Cheerleader is out now via City Slang.

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