Artist Spotlight: allie

    allie is the moniker of Nashville-based musician Allie Cuva. After spending time in various musical projects and being recruited as the touring/session drummer for Cavetown, Cuva (who uses they/them pronouns) returned from touring with a sense of creative restlessness that inspired the 2020 EP Junior Coder’s Experiment, a collection of stripped-back but not quite lo-fi singer-songwriter music. Last Friday, allie followed it up with their remarkable full-length debut, Maybe Next Time, which was mostly written in the summer of 2020 and recorded in the spare bedroom of their home – Cuva jokingly calls it a “guest bedroom pop” record, but the vibrancy and dynamism of the record speaks for itself. Spanning 16 tracks that showcase just how well-versed the musician is in various strains of indie rock, the album documents the dissolution of a romantic relationship between two people and manages to balance its overwhelming density – of emotions, of textures, of earwormy melodies – with the warm intimacy that blankets even its most devastating, distortion-heavy moments. Having your debut album clock in at just over an hour is a bold choice, but allie doesn’t waste a second of it. Maybe Next Time serves as both a snapshot in time and a promise for the future, but when you put it on, it feels like the full picture.

    We caught up with Allie Cuva for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about opening up through songwriting, the process of making Maybe Next Time, the importance of self-love, and more.

    How do you think the musical projects you’ve been involved in over the years have shaped you as an artist?

    I don’t think about it a lot, but I think one of the main things that’s helped about playing with people and being a collaborator is that it’s a bit of a necessity to be aware of what’s happening around you. And so even though I have been making more solo stuff recently, especially with this project, it’s given me a sense for giving attention to all the little elements and noticing how that assembly of each singular element can create something greater than the sum of its parts, if done with enough intention. I never used to give thought to, like, basslines [laughs] – you know, I’m like, the bass plays the roots. But the ways that the instruments interact with one another can create a sort of harmonious existence or a dissonace. And either of those can contribute to form an emotional palette that can communicate something indirectly, and then you throw lyrics on top of that and it can be a lot more direct, if you want, or abstract.

    How did you decide to focus more on this project?

    I think the isolation of the pandemic just sort of allowed me to do what I was already naturally leaning into. I probably would have had a hard time just being like, “Alright, everyone, I need to set aside time for my solo project  and step away from the bands a little bit.” I had been doing so much of that for so many years. [laughs] As if I’m like 50. But the more I was really confronted with a lot of psychological turmoil centered around my gender identity and things like that, and therefore my intimate relationships with other people, there was just a lot that I felt like I had to get out and express and externalize, because it was just accumulating to kind of a stifling degree. I could recognize that music was one avenue that I had to be able to go and get it flowing and be able to communicate with myself better, and so I just recognized that that had to be something I was going to prioritize if I was gonna [laughs] just keep being a person, kind of? It was just too much to hold in otherwise. So yeah, there was never any point where I recognized that I was going to shift as much, but it just came from impulsively just making stuff and realizing that I’m carrying these songs from beginning to end.

    On the title track of your debut EP, Junior Coder’s Experiment, there’s the line, “I hope there’s a secret lesson in every experience.” Did you know at the time that you were writing that song what the secret lesson of the EP would be?

    No, but I love that question. I think I had a sense that maybe something was coming towards the end of making it, but I was actually largely oblivious to what was [clicks fingers] about to happen. I was really in the throes of just being depressed and having sorts of gender dysphoria and body dysphoria that I didn’t quite have a vocabulary for. And maybe I wasn’t willing or aware enough to look at that more directly, so a lot of the EP centres around what had just happened in my life before this next chapter. So I was like, “I need to first look at the last few months and report on that in order to have any sense of orientation about where I’m going.” And then this new record is like, “Oh, shit, okay, here’s where I’m going. [laughs] And here’s what this all means.”

    Did songwriting play a significant role in this process of externalising what was so internal?

    Yeah, it did. Especially with matters of the romantic relationship that I was in. It was a pretty long-term relationship; I basically had been with this person for like six years, just over that, and so being like 25 at the time, that was a majority of my adult life, having known this one person very closely. And that was incredibly disorienting, to sense that fundamental shift in our relationship as I learned how to actually love my deepest self and acknowledge that I needed to make changes and prioritize my own self. So the relationship started to fundamentally shift and evolve, and I think songwriting was absolutely a means of making sense of it all. Because it was very, very scary, just the notion of, you know, potentially not being able to be partners with this person who I had planned on staying together with. As scary as that all was, just being able to grieve and cry about that via singing [laughs] showed me certain things that I didn’t maybe know that I thought or felt about the relationship. It just allowed me an avenue to express some of those harder meditations on what the relationship has all meant to me, and just grappling with that huge shift in going from, like, dating someone to being like, “I guess we can be friends now?”

    There’s obviously that conflict of “Do I want to open up about this in my songwriting?” and then there’s the conflict that comes with essentially making these thoughts available to the public. Was that something you were especially conscious of, and did it ever make you want to hold back in what you wanted to share?

    I think that’s a really, really good question. I really didn’t think about it much at the time, because making music in general for me has always been a very personal process and something that’s cathartic and allows me to get in touch with how I feel about things. So that had to exist first as an outlet for me to process what was going on. I didn’t plan on necessarily releasing anything in particular, and it only came became clear as the months went on and I started to see a collection of songs that could be assembled as a record that I started to realize, like, if I’m going to share any of this and put this out, I want to be very intentional in how I represent everything that I’m experiencing. Just because these are big themes that a lot of people experience in their own ways, I think, especially with breakups.

    I just wanted to make sure also that I represented my relationship with my partner fairly, and even though I was hurting so much, and sometimes that bias of pain can be super narrow – you know, maybe you’re angry with the other person, whatever it is, you want to lean into just the “What the fuck?” element of this all. I had basically unlimited time to say or make whatever I wanted in this pandemic, and so I definitely realized that I wanted to make it clear that, you know, I really care about this person. And even though we’re sort of parting ways, and it’s changing, that like, love is what enables this to happen, right? Because I love myself, we have to change the way our relationship is. And I wanted to build something that felt like it was acknowledging all the aspects of our relationship and the fact that this was all done out of love, even if there’s a lot of pain caused initially.

    In terms of sharing that, I didn’t really plan on that until a lot later. But now, since it’s all about to come out, there is definitely a bit of like, I know I don’t have to put it out, no one’s making me and I want to do it, but it is honestly a bit scary, just being that vulnerable with whoever comes across it.

    What is on the other side of that fear for you, that makes it worth it?

    One thing I come back to, which was what I realized as it started to become a collection, was that this is an opportunity for me in however small of a way to not only be honest about my own personal experience, but the highest goal for any of this stuff is that it could be helpful to someone else. And a lot of the stuff that I’ve been faced with, especially around my gender identity, comes from – at this stage of my life, being 26 now, it’s like, my life could have probably looked a lot differently if I had had a vocabulary around gender identity and gender variance, and just being aware of any of that. And I had no education about any of that stuff when I was growing up. And so, if this could be helpful to younger people or people my age or any age, especially in that regard, that makes all the vulnerability and the scariness for me personally worth it. Because I just don’t want anyone to have to kind of do it the way I did it, in some ways, you know?

    I think the ways in which all this comes through lyrically are pretty clear, but I was also curious about the musical side of it, or the musical vocabulary that you use to evoke that experience. For example, there are references to feeling strange or like your body belongs to a stranger, and I was wondering how much you wanted the sound of the record specifically to reflect that feeling.

    I think sonically, I veered into whatever it was that causing me to – whether it was angst or confusion, or just a general dissonance with what’s going on in my body and in my mind – it kind of just furthered my desire to have things sound dissonant at times and to create sonic tension. So, like in that song where that lyric resides [‘quinn’], there’s this fucked-up synth line that is kind of pitchy and not very pretty. And I feel like elements like that throughout the record helped me feel comfortable in some of that – well, it’s a discomfort, but it felt like an honest representation of the experience. And then also just through distortion and the rock element of things – whenever that does shine through, that also is meant to be a cathartic sort of release. I feel like rock in general has given me an outlet just to let your soul scream a little bit, even if you’re not literally doing it. It’s like, there’s so much shit in everyone’s life and collectively and it can be really overwhelming, and it probably is productive in just a primitive sense to let it go. And sometimes that looks like an exclamation mark in the sonic format.

    ‘ghosts’ is the song that comes to mind, because it is one of the heavier moments on the album. Was that song specifically cathartic for you to record?

    Yeah, I think so. Just a big yes. I was like, this needs a huge sound because it’s a tidal wave of emotion for me. That’s an instance where I leaned more on the instrumentation standpoint than maybe a lyrical one.

    I actually did want to dig into the lyrics of the song a bit. I apologize that this is going to be a long-winded question, but in a statement about the song, you said that writing ‘ghosts’ came with the realization that you are and will always be enough, even though the lyrics suggest that you feel the opposite. And the track ends with line “You’re treading water, staring back at me,” which made me think of a song called ‘I Tread Water’ by an artist called Fell From the Tree, from their album ENOUGH, which is about transitioning during the pandemic. One part of that song goes, “Tread water haven’t thought about tomorrow/ I’ve tried but I won’t be enough.” And so, making that connection had me wondering how much, for you, realising that you are enough was a result of seeing outside of yourself and seeing how many people share those feelings – and also seeing outside the future or the past to focus on the present, if that makes sense.

    Yeah, absolutely. A willingness to look at what’s going on now and realise that that’s worthy of attention.

    First of all, this song, I’ve never heard of or seen this, but I just saved it to my monthly playlist so I’ll definitely listen to it. That’s fascinating – those parallels are really interesting. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

    That sentiment [of being enough] even is one that I learned from the outside world, and then was like, “Oh, what if this is true for me?” [laughs] And honestly, just having it not mean anything or just be too confusing to understand, which is sad, because it shouldn’t be a difficult thing to understand. But from where I was at, it really was hard to believe that about myself. I’m still working towards internalizing that sentiment in a really deep, foundational way. And I think I’ve come a long way in even the last year in doing that, but I have a long way to go. And that reminder, being able to see that in the external world and see people lead from a place of self-love, and how further-reaching that can be in terms of the impact that you can have with another person, how connected your relationships can be – that’s been pretty eye-opening. It’s like, I thought I knew and understood a lot before this last year and a half, but since then I feel like one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you have to start with yourself first. It still feels counterintuitive, especially if your goal is to connect with other people, serve others, be there for others. But truly, you cannot show up for others in the fullest sense without having a deep understanding and relationship with yourself, and that sense that you are worthy of being here just as much as everyone else. These things are very new to me [laughs].

    It’s been inspiring to connect myself with people – whether I’ve been lucky enough for that to come in my life directly or I’ve sought out queer communities especially, where there is a priority on having a relationship with oneself as a starting point to be able to connect with others. I’ve identified as queer for over 10 years, but I didn’t realize there was such a community in the external world for that sort of philosophy and way of living. That’s just been my take on a lot of queer philosophy and activism especially, is like, it has to start at the individual level – the attention, the care, the concern, the maintenance – and that’s something I’ve absolutely learned from other people who have come before me.

    And that philosophy, I think, also makes its way into the album. I’m thinking, for example, of the line “Love is not a question/ It’s the answer that’s keeping us alive,” which relates to a specific situation but also feels part of a universal framework. Were you thinking about those things when writing that song, ‘first time’?

    Yeah. That’s such a good pull, too, that you just thought up. [laughs] I think I recognized that going through this inquiry of self, in terms of my gender identity, was from a place of actually wanting to have a deeper relationship with myself for the first time ever. And there’s different kinds of suppression and self-denial before that point, where I wasn’t even willing to ask the question – it’s not like I’d figured a lot out and been like, “I don’t like the results, so I’m not going to go with this.” It’s like, I wouldn’t even spend the time to ask myself what I wanted for myself. Because I guess it just conflicted with certain ideals, cultural and societal, that I’d sort of just absorbed. And when I realised that core elements of my identity were not actually in line with what I had maybe envisioned for myself, and especially what the outside world was telling me and messaging to me that my role was – largely as just a cis person, based on my appearance – realising that that actually was not consistent with how I felt at a deepest level about who I am, was something to really reckon with.

    But over the course of the record and making all these decisions based out of self-love, I recognized that like, “Wow, this is a lot of shit to blow up in your personal life and change and I don’t want to lose this relationship and I don’t want people to have to adjust and address me differently and it’s gonna be harder for them.” But all of that, all of those asks and those modulations of my reality were coming out of a place of finally just being willing to give myself the attention and love that I had been also giving to the people I loved the closest for years. So I think I definitely was realizing like, oh, this is what self-love looks like. And this pain that’s caused from this relationship ending, it really could not be coming from a better place. And that song was especially meant to remind myself and my ex-partner of that. It’s kind of like a thank you, and like, “I love you. I will always love you. I love you, and this is what it looks like now.”

    Do you feel like self-love has kind of been the lesson of this whole experience, or do you think that there’s also a secret lesson that hasn’t maybe hit you yet?

    I think that the latter is entirely possible. Sometimes it can be really hard for me to make sense of everything that’s happened, and I’m still totally processing, healing, and grieving from that relationship ending, all the while I’m learning how to exist in the world now as a more authentic version of myself. So maybe the secret lesson lies somewhere in how to most authentically keep growing, because I feel like I’m just on the start.

    Is that something that you relate to the album title, Maybe Next Time?

    Yeah, absolutely. I like that title because it was something my ex-partner actually caught in my lyric and was like, “That’s what you have to name the record.” I liked it because it can be interpreted in multiple ways and it just feels so evocative to me emotionally, but now that I’m out of it a little bit and I have a better understanding of what it all meant, I think the most important interpretation that I have of that phrase is that, now that I get this is all based on self-love and pursuing a deeper relationship with myself, I have good reason – and I’m not naturally optimistic, but I have good reason to think that this is a fundamentally good way to be operating in the world and interacting with other people. And so therefore, I have good reason to believe that relationships that I make in the future, and just connections and experiences I have, will be as full as they could possibly be. It’s like, we never hit that enlightenment point, but it’s all in pursuit of that.

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

    allie’s Maybe Next Time is out now via Other People Records.

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