Floating Room is the musical project led by Maya Stoner, an Uchinanchu American artist based in Portland, Oregon. Over the years, her music has hovered between styles united by a DIY ethos: her debut release, 2016’s Sunless, was recorded entirely in her bedroom, and subsequent releases have been markedly less lo-fi and more sonically diverse. The 2018 LP False Baptism, recorded at the famed Anacortes studio, The Unknown, folded in ethereal synths, haunting melodies, and reverb-soaked distortion to capture a more refined and immersive version of the band’s sound, while last year’s Tired and True EP leaned on Stoner’s pop sensibilities with lush, artful production. Now, Stoner has returned with a new EP, Shima – released in conjunction with the band’s ongoing tour alongside Citizen, Drug Church, and Glitterer – which finds her channeling her punk roots to underscore some of her most direct, energetic, and potent songs to date. Produced by Stoner’s partner and acclaimed power pop musician Mo Troper, the EP offers plenty of astounding moments in just over ten minutes, with Stoner trying something new on each of its four tracks: whether addressing her Uchinanchu heritage on the captivating ‘Shimanchu’ or her inner child on ‘I Wrote This Song for You’, she does it like there’s a fire inside her that can no longer be ignored.
We caught up with Floating Room’s Maya Stoner for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the making of her new EP Shima, and more.
You just released the latest single from your EP, ‘Firetruck’. How are you feeling about the response off that as we’re getting closer to the release date?
In general, I’m feeling really good. It’s almost embarrassing how much my self-esteem fluctuates based on if I’m playing shows or releasing something. I feel like it’s always a really positive experience to release music. Besides that, I’m getting ready for tour, and I’m a little tired because I decided last minute that I want to make all the merch and silk screen it myself, which I haven’t done in the past, so it’s kind of overwhelming. Especially because I don’t really have money, it just makes me feel like maybe I’m crazy.
Do you mean that it’s always validating to put out music?
I mean, how could it not be validating? It’s validating that anyone would even listen to a single song, because there’s so much music out there. There’s so much battling for attention, that someone just giving like two minutes to listen to one song means so much. I also have this other thing where it almost feels like maybe people that are drawn to playing music and stuff are, like, mentally ill or had not enough attention in their childhood or something. [laughs] Sometimes I wonder about that, like there’s some deep-seated issue where I’m trying to prove myself, and music is a way to do that.
I wanted to start by asking you about ‘Firetruck’. It’s the most upbeat track on the EP, and in a statement about it, you said that the older you get, the more pop music you listen to, because you’re tired of being sad. I thought it was interesting considering the EP is a more straightforward rock release than anything you’ve put out before.
I feel like oftentimes, music really dictates my mood. And maybe when I was younger, I could romanticize feeling depressed and shitty more, but now I just want good mental health and to feel better. I mean, you can’t be happy all the time, but I use music as a tool to feel better. But with this EP, with the more rock sound, I kind of wanted to do something that felt really empowering to play and to write. Like, ‘I Wrote This Song for You’, that is earnestly trying to be self-affirming and it almost feels embarrassing and hard, but I think it was a good challenge for me.
I guess now, a lot of especially left-field pop music tries to be ironic, but I feel like it’s often more challenging to make something earnest, let alone earnestly self-affirming, in any genre.
Yeah. I mean, when I was a teenager, I would yell or scream while playing music, but I haven’t done that in so long. And it’s really hard to try to do yelling or screaming vocals half-assed or ironically.
You do quite a bit of screaming on this EP.
Yes, I was excited to do that. At first, it was hard when I was showing people these songs to learn to practice as a band; it was hard for me to get the yelling and the screaming out. But it’s gotten a lot easier.
What pushed you back in that direction originally? Because it’s quite a departure from last year’s Tired and True EP.
With Tired and True, it’s in the name – I was really just so tired. But then there was a lot during these last couple of years that made me really angry. At first, I thought I could maybe use the internet as an outlet to express my outrage over certain things that were happening, but I realized that that wasn’t really doing it for me. And it also just made me feel worse. It made me feel worse to express my anger about something and feel like everyone was ignoring it. So yeah, I’ve kind of transitioned to not using the internet for that, and music just felt like a way better outlet for those feelings.
One thing I was really angry about was seeing these elderly Asian people getting stabbed and beat up because of Trump calling coronavirus the “China flu” and “kung flu” and shit. And there’s always really horrible stuff happening in Okinawa, where my mom’s from, which is colonized by Japan and occupied by the US. And that stuff can be hard to find an outlet for because, at least in Portland, I barely know that many other Shimanchu people, so I can try to talk about it to people, but they don’t understand, you know.
What about this kind of music in particular helped you channel that anger, especially on songs like ‘Shimanchu’?
Because I started out playing music in bands that were more, like, yelling-type vocals when I was a teenager – the age that I am, I’m 30 now, it just feels like this loop where sometimes I feel similar to being a teenager again. I don’t know if that’s what Mitski was referring to as second puberty or whatever, but I just find myself in general – maybe it’s all the solitude – I just feel like I’m reconnecting to this inner child and the younger version of me.
Well, for one, I’ve been going to therapy for like the last three years, and it’s definitely felt more intense over the last couple of years. I’ve been doing a lot of, I think it’s called child work, and just thinking about how issues from my youth affect me as an adult. It’s almost embarrassing to use this word, “isolation”, because everyone is writing songs about isolation, but it’s inevitable. I felt incredibly isolated in my youth and it was painful how alone I felt, and there was a time during the pandemic where I was feeling that again, when I was super angry and sad. With that song, ‘I Wrote This Song for You’, it’s like, it’s easier to feel compassion when you think of the younger version of you, and if you can offer that person some compassion and acceptance, it becomes easier to offer that to yourself now.
Was it hard to make that song feel earnest and cathartic?
Writing the song, it felt cathartic from the get-go. But then, when I thought about releasing it, that’s when it felt scary. It just feels very vulnerable, that song, and there’s this part of me that’s like, “Please don’t laugh at me.” I also kind of hope that it sounds like a love song to someone else, instead of a song to my inner child.
I think it can definitely be heard that way. And I assume recording the last part of the song must have been especially cathartic.
Oh yeah, it was. It sounds really egotistical, but I got goosebumps listening to that part, because it’s saying “you” over and over, but it’s a song I wrote to myself. But I also feel like, singing about self-esteem or feeling isolated, there’s this worry that only a teenager should feel that kind of emotion. An adult like me shouldn’t struggle with that stuff, so it should be embarrassing to talk about, but I think a lot of people do feel isolated and insecure as an adult. You don’t just become super confident because you’re an adult.
It can feel embarrassing as a teenager too, though, right? I mean, maybe we get more self-conscious over time or we romanticize it less, but it’s definitely there.
There’s so much media, though, targeted towards teens – sometimes it appears like every movie targeted towards teen girls is about someone trying to become popular or fit in, you know. Or all the shows for kids or teens, there’s always some weird moral message about believing in yourself. I was nervous that that song sounded cheesy like that stuff.
Were you affected by those kinds of movies in any specific way?
Yeah, I mean, when I was younger, I felt like it was really hard to relate to women characters or girl characters because they used to be written so one-dimensionally. It always felt like there were layers to men’s characters and the women just were, “Oh, she’s good,” and there’s no bad side of her or whatever. And their friendships and relationships seemed so shallow. I thought a lot of shit targeted towards youth when I was a young person was pretty cheesy and unrelatable. But yeah, I definitely noticed. It’s like, “Why is every movie about, like, trying to become popular or something?”
Is that kind of why you gravitated more towards music, and the specific kind of music that we’re talking about, like the riot grrrl and emo influences that are present in your music?
That’s so funny you said that, because that is exactly the pipeline I went through – I don’t think it’s actually a pipeline, because I don’t know that many people that went through exactly that. But yeah, I started off really into riot grrrl music – Sleater-Kinney was so important to me as a teenager. And then after that, like the first half of my 20s, I got more into the local emo music scene. I feel like I was drawn to music in the kind of stereotypical way where you feel isolated and you feel like a freak, but then you feel like with music you can be yourself and there’s other freaks here.
Could you share an early memory of feeling connected to music in that way?
My first experience with riot grrrl music was cool, because I was in a band where everyone was under 16 and we played punk music. There were just so many supportive people, and we got to play Lady Fest in Olympia, which was a really classic riot grrrl thing. There was all these older bands that would let us play with them and it felt really empowering. And then when I got more into the local DIY scene, which was very emo and hardcore-leaning at the time, it’s like, I felt isolated and quiet at school – I basically had one friend at school – but then when I would go to shows, I felt like I belonged or something.
What were your first attempts at songwriting like?
I started writing my own songs in middle school, and I recorded myself just very lo-fi. I was lucky because I grew up here in Portland and I had mentors, like there’s like this camp called the Girls Rock Camp, and women that would show me music, and there’s a lot of cool labels around the Pacific Northwest at the time. So I was listening to a lot of like, the Microphones and Kimya Dawson and stuff. When I first started making music, I didn’t think about sharing it with people at all really, and it was just a tool for self-reflection and kind of therapeutic – I would just go in my room and do it.
Do you still see that way, more or less?
Yeah, definitely. Writing music is just like journaling, it helps you get in touch with yourself and how you’re feeling. Mostly when I’m writing the songs, I’m not thinking about, like, a product. And for someone else, it’s just a cathartic experience.
What was the original inspiration for Floating Room?
I guess originally, it was just gonna be like this solo thing. On the first album, I did record most of the instruments myself, but someone else was teaching me how to use Ableton and they played here and there on that. But I actually really enjoy playing with other people, and for me, it’s a lot easier because – well, for one, I have ADD, so it’s easy for me to start projects and not finish them, so I’ll just write like a shit ton of songs but never finish them. But if I have a band, it somehow helps me to follow through on them. Sometimes when I wouldn’t finish a song it’d be because I can’t decide if it’s good or not, but when I play with other people, there’s more to be objective about and it’s easier to decide that you like it or not. Anything I could say about collaborating would probably be cliché [laughs], but it’s just become something where it’s like, I’ve worked with so many different people and it’s never been the same lineup for albums. Except for Mo [Troper] – Mo’s played on the last two EPs.
Is that partly why you’ve gravitated towards the EP format for the past two releases, because it helps you stay focused?
Yeah, definitely. I really have loved putting out EPs these last two times. It’s easier for the songs to all come from one specific point of time and it feels just more cohesive. I guess it just takes me longer to write, and by the time I would have a full length ready, I might be already tired of the old songs. Everyone’s always asking like, “Oh, when’s the full-length coming,” but it just feels so much easier to put up short releases.
I won’t be asking that, then, if you’re tired of hearing it.
[laughs] Thank you.
I was reading about “floating world,” which I found out is this term used to describe the hedonistic lifestyle of Edo period Japan, and I was curious about how you decided to take this idea and apply it to your recording project, this sort of insular world that you created alone in your bedroom.
For me, it was like, on one hand, the feeling I’ve always felt writing music, which is just that: the flow and escapism of playing or writing music by myself or listening to music even or playing with other people. But then also, at the time when I started the project, I was doing a lot more hedonistic and outwardly escapist [things]. I was younger when I first started this band, I hadn’t gone to therapy, and I was definitely running away from a lot of problems. I would love to, like, do drugs and drink so that I didn’t have to think about the future or the past. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately is my youth and my teenage years, and when I think about those times, so much of it is just me being alone in my bedroom at my parents’ house and listening to music and playing music until I could feel like myself again. So it feels still relevant to me.
How do you relate to it now, this idea of the floating room?
Now it’s kind of like, floating duplex. [laughs] Honestly, even though we can go out more and most people are vaccinated, I’ve become so antisocial that my home is my floating room, and I just love to hang out here by myself or with my partner.
What do you like about being alone and staying inside?
Well, I’m not entirely sure if it’s super healthy because I think a lot of it is avoidant behaviour. The unhealthy part that I worry about sometimes is that – I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I think that there’s this avoidant symptom where you don’t want to leave the house because you don’t want to have like, a panic attack or anxiety or whatever. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s like, when I am at home alone, I can feel like myself and I feel in my body and present. When I feel like myself, I can love myself. But the more I’m forced to be out with other people, sometimes I feel like I just get more and more out of touch with myself. It’s like you’re just giving parts of yourself and your energy, and I feel like I’ve got to protect my energy. It’s like everyone you deal with, you’re giving a part of yourself until there’s nothing left for yourself.
Can you give me a general timeline of how the EP came together?
I don’t really have a good timeframe in my head, but we got offered to do this tour with Glitterer and Citizen and Drug Church, and that was really exciting for me because I’ve only done small tours that have been DIY. So it felt really exciting to get to join what felt like a real tour. And then a week or two later, this label, Famous Class, emailed me and they said that they would be interested in doing a 7-inch. So I was like, “Oh, it would be cool if we had something to sell on tour, do you think somehow we could press it before I leave for tour?” And miraculously, it was possible. Basically, he was like, “Yeah, if you record it by next weekend.” It just felt so serendipitous. Cyrus [Lubin] at Famous Class, he makes all the vinyl himself, he goes into the factory and he puts all the colours and everything is done by him by hand. And it’s like, other people have been waiting for a long time for these records that should have been in their hands, but somehow it was just really lucky that we were working with someone that would make it happen on time. Just a lot of things I felt were falling into place in this way that it’s kind of pushing me to go harder right now, because it’s like, if all these things are coming together really nicely, it’s a sign that I should go hard. And if I don’t do it now with all this nice stuff happening, would I ever do it?
What was it like to then go out and record the songs? How do you remember that day in the studio?
What I do mainly with Floating Room is write the vocals and guitar and the song myself and then collaborate with other people for the other parts. Obviously, we hadn’t been practicing as a band during the pandemic, and I didn’t really even have a lineup. So I showed these songs to my partner right before recording when we had that opportunity, and he can play the drums and bass and guitar, so he played all the other instruments besides my own guitar and singing. And we went to our friend Ian [Watts]’s house, he has a studio in his garage and he’s super nice and chill. That was one of the first times seeing other people, too, because of the pandemic. And it just felt so nice, like he had all these little chickens and his wife made us lentils. It was just was a really positive experience.
To bring things back to ‘I Wrote This Song for You’, is there anything that you feel like you maybe couldn’t articulate in that song specifically that you wish you could say to your younger self, to yourself now, or to anyone who relates to those feelings of isolation?
I guess I would tell my younger self or other people to find strength in their isolation, and maybe the fact that they’re isolated is a positive reflection of them, because… Maybe they’re not good at the social scripts that people use to fit in or whatever, but maybe that makes them better at going inward and thinking creatively. Also, when you’re worrying about what you’re saying and stuff, like, “Oh, is this gonna please everyone?” It’s like, fuck them. Who fucking cares what these people think? You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone’s full of bullshit anyways. [laughs] I don’t know, maybe that’s the negative side of it, but isolation is like a gift, it’s not a negative thing, and you don’t have to spend – maybe I would just tell myself not to try so hard not to be alone and to spend more time just by myself.
Is there anything you’d like to share in terms of future plans or anything that we didn’t talk about?
I’m actually really excited about the future right now, and I do really feel motivated to work on a full-length. I have a ton of songs that I need to flesh out more, but I feel each time I’m getting closer to the sound – there’s like a feeling inside that I want to put to sound, and each time it feels like it’s getting closer. And I don’t know if it’s chipping away at something or adding stuff, but I just have a feeling the next one is going to be really good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.