In Indigo De Souza’s music, everything can take the form of a revelation. Nihilistic thoughts can become mantras; songs about the darkest of subjects can become sing-along anthems. On her new album Any Shape You Take, the Asheville, North Carolina-based songwriter expands on the introspective, idiosyncratic qualities of her 2018 debut I Love My Mom, amplifying the sense of confidence and collective catharsis that her music exudes at its brightest and most direct. Out today via Saddle Creek and co-produced with Bon Iver and Big Thief collaborator Brad Cook alongside Alex Farrar and Adam McDaniel, the record overflows with honesty and dynamism as it careens from the AutoTuned vocals of ‘17’ to the heartfelt bedroom pop of ‘Pretty Pictures’, to the harrowing shrieks on centrepiece ‘Real Pain’ and the infectious, groovy single ‘Hold U’. Repetition is one of De Souza’s strongest tools – “I’d rather die before you die/ Before you die, before you die,” she chants on highlight ‘Die/Cry’ – but she also gives her songs the space to mutate into bigger or smaller ideas, simultaneously holding them and allowing them to spread. For an album so fixated on death, Any Shape You Take feels viscerally, overwhelmingly alive.
We caught up with Indigo De Souza for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her first attempts at songwriting, her new album Any Shape You Take, living existentially, and more.
When did music enter your life in a significant way?
I’d like to think that music was present in my life from the time that I was born. There was a lot of music around me because my dad was a musician, and I’ve seen videos of him playing music to me when I was a little infant. My mom really likes music, and I think that she brought us to a lot of music festivals, me and my sisters; I remember dancing on the grass at reggae festivals and such. When I was nine, I started taking guitar lessons, and my mom got me a 4-track tape recorder, and I would record little songs I was writing onto that. I started writing songs as soon as I knew how to play chords on the guitar; I had a little keyboard, too. And then, when I was 11, I started to play music publicly for people in cafés and on the street. And the reaction was always so sweet. Often, people would cry or seemed very touched by what I was doing, so I think it just became a really special thing for me. I felt like it was a way to connect with people, which I had kind of had a hard time doing in my life, like in school and stuff.
Do you remember a specific instance of someone being moved by one of your very early performances? Do you think it had to do with the content of the songs?
I remember a specific thing, because even when I was really young, I wrote songs about how much I loved my mom. Like, that was always a theme. I have a recording of this one song that I was singing about her, where it was just about how much I love my mom and how sad it would be to lose her. [laughs] Which is so weird to be writing about when you’re a child.
That was when you were around 11?
It was probably around then. And I remember singing that song one time, it was near her birthday or something, and I remember everyone crying so much and giving me hugs. And I was so confused.
What else do you remember writing about?
So, I have all these recordings – I’m hoping to put them out someday because they’re so funny. There’s another song that’s about global warming and people dying and the earth catching on fire, and some of the lyrics are about families saying I love you for the last time. I think maybe I was more emo as a child than I am now.
You started writing songs before you moved to Asheville at the age of 16. How did moving to a more diverse and accepting community affect your songwriting? Especially since you said music was already kind of an escape for you.
I think that when I lived in Spruce Pine, I was mostly aware of country music and bluegrass, which is what I grew up around the most. And when I moved to Asheville, my idea of music became much broader, starting with the local downtown Asheville music scene, and then I also later became friends with people who lived on the outskirts of Asheville, like in West Asheville, in the parts of Asheville that are still very original and aren’t as developed. Those people kind of branched out into a more underground part of the music world, and I was introduced to artists that became really important in my development as a writer.
I just realised that there was no particular structure that songs had to take, that there was a never-ending world of possibilities within songwriting. And also, I think I learned that I could be more abstract with my words, and I didn’t have to worlds that were so easy for people to digest. I could just say very honestly how I feel in whatever way that feels good for me, and that people will find something to relate to within that. Before I left Spruce Pine, once I became like, “I’m a songwriter,” I was writing songs for people to kind of easily understand, and sometimes I would write songs that were specifically very cute or funny or just lighter. And then when I moved to Asheville, I came back into this awareness that I could just express my actual feelings very starkly. And that that kind of energetic field of my songs would help other people come into their own emotions and process their own world.
I wanted to ask you about the cover artwork for the new album, Any Shape You Take, because it’s once again a painting by your mother.
What’s funny is that both of these album covers were visions that came to me as I was just going about my life, and I just thought of the imagery. It was really funny because I thought of this imagery and asked mom to do like an apocalyptic grocery store aisle scene, and for the child to be in the car and the mom to be pushing the cart. And then COVID happened a little while after she finished the painting and I remember feeling so deeply spooked, like I had caused the panic. It just reminded me so much of the way that the grocery store aisles looked at the beginning of the pandemic.
Did you have any conversations with her about the songs during that process?
My mom’s not a musician, and she’s not musically inclined. And it’s funny how if you’re not a person who makes me music or a person who listens to a lot of music, you kind of don’t even think about all the work that goes into making music. Or like, it’s just hard to fathom where the music is coming from. But I remember, just recently she texted me that she listened to I Love My Mom all the way through on her speakers, and she was like, “I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t done this ever.” She had never listened to it all the way through, which is what it’s intended for, you know. But no, she hadn’t heard any of the music from either albums before she painted the covers. I just kind of explained to her the imagery and she created it as best as she could. It was cool, because the first cover, when I told her what to paint I had an idea of it in my mind and I really thought of the skeletons as bones, and then she created them with bodies and I thought that was a cool iteration of that thought that I had. I just love how original the paintings are.
Did she tell you what she thought of the album?
Yeah, she loved it. [laughs] She really, really loved it.
When you asked her to paint the cover for I Love My Mom, did she know the title yet?
No, I don’t think she did. Because both of these titles I kind of chose at the last minute. I kind of can’t push myself to come up with a title, it just comes at some point.
You’ve talked about how the screams on ‘Real Pain’ came together, but I wanted to ask you about the last section of the song. Did you always know that it would go on like that?
I always knew that it was going to go on. I think the structural idea for that song came before the melodic version, so it was almost like I was thinking of the song in shapes, where it would like, be at this level space and then it would dip down into a cavernous space, and then explode into a very euphoric space. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, and then it was just about forming those spaces.
Do you often think of songwriting in that sort of spatial way?
I think I do, yeah. It’s kind of like, I think about it in many different ways all at the same time, but I definitely think about them kind of structurally when I start writing.
The crowdsourced screams obviously come partly from a desire to connect with your audience in this deep, meaningful way. In what other ways do you think you might try to do that in the future?
I’m not sure, it’ll probably never happen in the same way ever again. Especially since those recordings were from such a specific time in the pandemic, and it reached for people that were all experiencing something collectively. But I like to find ways to involve people if I can. It was just so special to do that, and I hope that I hear from more people who had their screams in the song to see if they like the song or not. I was worried about that, hoping that people would like it.
How many were there?
Probably about like, almost 60 recordings. And I used every single one of them. If you were listening for years, you probably couldn’t really pick them out because there’s so many stacked on each other. But they’re all in there.
What have you heard from the people who have reached out to you?
Oh, it’s such a funny world. Like, so far I’ve just had people tag me in an Instagram story where they’re like, haha, my thing is in this song. [laughs] Nothing incredibly deep yet.
Something that comes up in a lot of your interviews is the word “existential.” I was wondering what the implications of that word are for you – like, for you, what does it mean to think existentially, or to live existentially?
For me, it’s just about being aware of existence. Being aware of being a human and not feeling as if I’m above that, or at the top of some kind of food chain in the world. And it’s simultaneously the heaviest part of my personality and also the most light-giving part of my personality, because it allows me to see everyone in their humanity and have compassion for them. And forgiveness for them, and also forgiveness for myself. Because it’s just really important to feel grounded and to remember that I’m very small and I have no idea what’s going on, because things can feel very large and scary and out of my control. I think if anything, I’m just focused on that kind of energetic wavelength because it just saves me from the world. And it makes me really sad to see other people who don’t connect with each other more deeply and just kind of living on the surface-level space always, not even seeing themselves as a deeper personality in the world.
How do you think people can connect more deeply?
I don’t know. I think that everyone has to come to that on their own, but I think it just starts from learning about yourself and centering and finding self-love. I think once you find ultimate self-love and forgiveness, then you’re able to manifest the love that you deserve from other people. And yeah, I don’t know, I wish everyone could just wake up and realise that we’re all dying and that it’s a very strange situation we’re in and that we should make the best of it. But I know that that will never happen in any kind of grand scheme way. There’s too many people and too many people are completely asleep.
I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Way Out’. I didn’t have the lyrics for that one, so I wasn’t sure if it’s “I want to be a light?” that you’re singing at the end, or is it “alive”?
Yeah, it is “I want to be a light.” [laughs] When we’re playing it live, this is really goofy, but sometimes I’ll say, “I want a beer, I want a Bud Light.” But no, I’m saying, “I want to be a, I want to be a light.” I think one of the ways to help people open up and to share themselves in a more full-spectrum kind of way and to feel accepted as themselves is to give them space to do that. So I think that it kind of feels like my place in the world is to just give people the freedom to express themselves fully in my presence and really be honest with me and really show them themselves. I do that by just doing that myself and showing that it’s okay and that you don’t have to be afraid to do that.
Were you ever surprised during the making of the songs by how honest you were?
No, I’m never surprised. It’s taken me a while to get to the amount of stability that I have now and the amount of clarity that I have now, but I’ve always been an oversharer. I’ve always wanted to express my feelings to people. If anything, I’m just excited about the language that I use now, because I feel I have a broader idea of emotional language and how to express myself emotionally.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.