Artist Spotlight: Pictoria Vark

    Pictoria Vark is the moniker of singer-songwriter and bassist Victoria Park, who is currently based in Iowa City but grew up in northern New Jersey. She began immersing herself in the DIY world early on, going on her first tour with Squirrel Flower when she was 19 after she and Ella Williams met at Grinnell College; she’s now also the touring bassist for Pinkshift and works at the Cleveland indie label Refresh Records. With her solo project, she started gaining traction with a promising self-titled EP released in 2018, before signing with the queer-run label Get Better Records and dropping her debut full-length, The Parts I Dread, earlier this month.

    Park wrote much of the record following the unexpected announcement that her parents were moving from her childhood home to Wyoming, which proved to be the catalyst for facing a lot of her own anxieties around change and personal identity. There’s more here than what’s on the surface – the songs can be unsettling even at their most easygoing, while her lyrics are often piercingly introspective and revelatory even when they’re not strictly autobiographical. Co-producing the album with Gavin Caine, Park isn’t afraid to make bold decisions, whether articulating universal emotions with stark directness or taking ambitious musical turns. For an album largely about feeling small and isolated, it finds surprising ways to cut through the chaotic mundanity of life: “There’s more to you than the parts I dread,” she sings on ‘Demarest’, “More to live for than I know yet.”

    We caught up with Victoria Park for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about growing up in New Jersey, the origins of her solo project, her debut album, and more.

    You recently shared your thoughts about the state of DIY touring, around the time that the Stereogum feature about Wednesday’s viral tweet was published. As the touring bassist for Squirrel Flower, who was interviewed for the article, as well as Pinkshift, do you feel that there’s an aspect of the discussion that you wish more people talked about?

    I want to start by saying I’m really proud of Ella and what she said in that article. I think she has a lot of really valuable insight on touring and is someone who I’ve learned a lot from being on the road with and being able to transition from DIY touring to the level of touring she’s at now. There’s been so many opinions out there, but I think the way that the industry, the big corporate agencies think about markets and routing oftentimes sets up bands to not succeed in the long term. My main point is, they would rather do something at a real venue so that they have that for touring history, even if no one shows up, than engage with the community and do these things that are outside of the traditional venue setting that people might actually show up to and there is more community engagement. And I think that disconnect can hurt artists who are in this middle zone of being able to sell out like 300-cap venues in New York but have seven people come to the show in Boise or Salt Lake City. And that, in terms of finances, is just really difficult, because of venues seeking a cut from merch, the gas to drive through all the cities with like six to eight-hour drives in between them and not playing anywhere in between Salt Lake City and Denver. It’s little things like that really add up in terms of not working for a lot of bands that are kind of in the middle.

    With those considerations in mind, what do you personally like about touring?

    I genuinely love being on tour. [laughs] I’m kind of an escapist in my actual life, which the album is about – just moving around so much that it feels like I don’t have a lot of stability. But if you’re on tour, you’re at least never really alone. I hate living alone. I can’t do it. So if you lean towards that, like myself, it’s a good environment for that. And being able to stay really present and living day to day instead of worrying about the future very randomly and despairingly. And I really love playing bass, especially for other people. It’s truly my favourite thing to do in music, sometimes even more so than my own project. [laughs] It’s where I feel happiest and most at home. I just love touring, which is good, because from February through the end of this tour [with Pinkshift], it’s like three and a half months straight. I haven’t felt this big compulsion to go home or leave or anything. It’s the longest run I’ve ever done consecutively.

    What made you realize music was something you wanted to pursue?

    When I was at the end of high school and deciding whether or not I wanted to go to music school or go to a small liberal arts college, I just didn’t know – I was kind of stuck at these crossroads of like, I don’t know if I’m ready to fully commit to one thing or the other. So I was like, I’m just gonna go to the school where I’m not fully committed to music, where if I want to do something else that’s more of a possibility. One of my big questions in choosing schools was: Can I see myself continuing to play music here? And I ended up choosing [Grinnell College] because I got a good feeling about the music community there. I didn’t want to be at a school like Oberlin that also has a conservatory and a lot of people assume that because of that, and because of its reputation, there’s a lot of people who play music. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond rather than other way around. Having the opportunity to play music in that way kind of set me up really well, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I’m so lucky to have met Ella there and play music with her for so long and be really invested in music there. It made me less afraid because I have had other options and still, I found my way back there.

    Do you mind sharing some of your earliest musical memories?

    I started taking piano lessons when I was four – my mom’s side of the family is very musical. But I remember with my piano teacher – or I guess I don’t remember, but other people who were around at the time can remember for me, that I was not super interested in the repertoire. And I would make up little songs with my piano teacher about, like, my stuffed animals that I would bring to lessons and stuff. And I ended up apparently making a lot of them and they ended up becoming a little book that my piano teacher also sometimes uses. [laughs] But I think that’s just funny looking back on as these little moments earlier in my life that have been this interest in songwriting. Even though for a lot high school and early college, I was just like, “I am doing this for fun, it’s not really anything, I’m mostly a bass player.” And to have it become something else and really lean into it with this solo project has been really special. 

    What caught my attention about the opening track on the album, ‘Twin’, is how it talks about having “dead punk rock dreams” and references The Mountains Goats’ ’The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’. But it strikes me as more like a dream than a reflection on reality. What made you want to open with a song about a fictional situation?

    I’m glad you have picked up on that. Some people are just like “It’s about her twin!” and I’m like, “I don’t have one, that’s just incorrect.” [laughs] I wanted to open with it and have it act almost as a prologue to the rest of the album because it does touch on these different themes of like, moving away, a complicated family relationship, which are two of the themes that interweave throughout the rest of the record. So even though it’s kind of a self-enclosed story on its own, it still sets a preface and a tone for the main narrative of the record.

    Is the idea of growing up and having those dreams of making it in music something that resonated with you?

    Oh, definitely. And I think with this project particularly, I just felt like it wasn’t going anywhere for a while. It felt slow, but looking back on it, it’s like, things take time. And just feeling kind of a little despairing about it, like, “Why is music working out for somebody else but not me?” kind of thing. And that song deals with that feeling from that wiser, external perspective, where it’s like: even if things are exactly the same, sometimes it’s just luck, or sometimes it’s just one thing that could make or break something and it has nothing to do with you. So that’s why I chose to write about twins in that way, just two people who have similar origins. And a little spoiler – I wrote a sequel song to it from the perspective of the other twin that I’ve started playing live at shows, but I’m hoping to record it soon because I think it’ll be special in companionship to it.

    What prompted you to start your solo project?

    I started it because I wanted to just be able to play shows. When I got to college, I was like, I don’t want to be annoying and ask everyone if I could play bass in their bands, I guess the easiest way for me to continue playing shows was to play as myself. I wasn’t a very good singer, and I don’t think I still am – I’ve gotten better, but not the best vocalist on the planet. But I just really wanted to write songs and had finished writing two songs, which are ‘Losing’ and ‘I Can’t Bike’, my first year, and I was really proud of them. And then it was like, what if I wrote a few more and what if we recorded them? And what if we did that again and wrote more songs and recorded them? What if I tried putting them out on a label? It’s just been that kind of thing, so truly, everything that has happened with this release has far exceeded my expectations. And I’m trying not to move the goalpost too much and trying to treat everything as like, this all just icing on top of the cake. It’s already so much more than I could have dreamed of.

    To the extent that you’re comfortable sharing, can you talk about your relationship with growing up and your upbringing in general?  

    Good question. [laughs] That’s tough because I’m 23, so you know, that’s also been most of my life thus far. I guess in high school I was kind of a loner. I was really into music, and there’s a funny video of me on VH1 and they asked me what my favourite band is, and I’m like, Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m 12 years old. I always have been just fucking weird, and it felt like I was waiting to have the space and to become the person that I already was. It’s been funny having people from high school who never really hung out with me be like, “Congrats on the record!” or come to shows and invite me to jam with them. And I’m like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” It’s just weird and funny – it’s just that meme where it’s like “Have I always been a cool person?” and it’s like, “Always have been” with the astronaut from behind. [laughs] That’s kind of how I feel about it now. But also, I’m trying to have a better relationship with my parents, and I think I do, than times growing up, which I’m very grateful for.

    What are the first things that come to mind when you think about your childhood home?

    It’s New Jersey, just where I grew up. I was living in one house until I was 16 and then on my 16th birthday we moved – across town, but the chaos of not being able to have a good birthday because our house was a mess and we were moving boxes as I was trying to leave for school. That’s a memory I have. I think it also ties into maybe why moving in general is just tough – I hate moving so much. And just the amount of it has just been a mindfuck. I guess in my first house that I remember in New Jersey, we lived by a creek and we would go out and play in the rocks and the water and then watched a bridge be built over it instead of climbing across or swimming across it. Those were some good times.

    The title of the LP comes from the song ‘Demarest’, where you sing, “There’s more to you than the parts I dread.” When you wrote the track, did you realize the significance that it would have for the album, everything that the “you” encapsulated?

    I remember writing it, it was fall 2019 and I was in Paris when I finished it. And I remember being like, “This line is so good. I’ve never more succinctly captured an idea.” It just encapsulates this whole feeling in a way that is exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. And then, I didn’t have a title for the record, but I was like, what if I call it this? Because in the line, it’s about emotional territory that you’re afraid of dealing with –parts of other people that you’re afraid of dealing with, but also if you think about Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, it’s about geographic place. So using “parts” in both of those senses I think really fit the record.

    You mentioned moving early on, but when you found out about your parents relocating to Wyoming, was that a similar feeling in the way that it affected you?

    Oh, absolutely. Growing up in New Jersey, the other thing is that a lot of people don’t stay there for that long. It’s good if you have kids that are going to school, but the taxes are so exorbitant that a lot of people, once their kids graduate from high school or college, move away. So I already knew I had a limited amount of time left with my friends who were living there, like my bandmates, and wanted to make the most of it. And then having my parents being like “Sorry, we’re actually moving to Wyoming” in the middle of that and cutting that even shorter was just a lot. I was like, “I can’t be a musician if I live in Wyoming. That’s just not going to happen for me.” And also, we had never been there, we didn’t know anybody in Wyoming before moving. I remember crying on the phone when they told me, and I think that definitely boils down and maybe connects to that moment when I was 16 and it was my birthday and we were moving – just being maladaptive to change. Wanting things to be the same but having to adapt to change and figuring out ways to do that.

    How does making a permanent change like that compare to moving around a lot while being on tour? What’s the distinction there in your mind?

    I feel like when you’re on tour and you want to go home, there’s a specific place that one would envision, if that makes sense. Or I would go home from college to Wyoming, it didn’t feel like home because I didn’t know anyone there. It didn’t feel like home because I hadn’t lived there. It just felt like a place I was going, and I think that distinction is really important. Especially if you are someone who is traveling a lot for work, it’s really important to have that place to go back to, which is why I’m glad I live in one place more or less now. I have a home base in Iowa City and a room that I envision and it feels like home. But not having that and then being in Paris and then being in school and then moving all my stuff from the East Coast to the middle of the country – it felt like I didn’t have any roots anywhere.

    I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Out’, which is a big turning point on the album. When it was done, were you taken aback by how dark it was?

    I don’t know if I was surprised per se, as I wrote it pretty intentionally to be that way. I wrote it a little differently than a lot of songs, focusing on structure and dynamics and the progressions first, compared to writing lyrics and writing a bass part and then mixing them together, which is how most of the other songs on the record came about. In that way, being able to strip it down to something super bare-bones felt subversive to the way that I wrote the rest of the record. Writing in minor, all these different things were meant to push me as a songwriter, and I think they paid off really well. And my band really killed it with the outro.

    Considering how much the record revolves around home, it’s kind of jarring to hear the word “house” in that context.

    Yeah, that’s not something I thought about explicitly in that song, but it definitely serves that purpose really well. And even the expletive and being so direct about it, “I wanted out this fucking house,” I think is a big tonal shift. It catches you off guard because so much of the record is hidden in poetry and is more polite about it.

    It also comes into contrast with ‘Friend Song’, which is definitely a wholesome closer. And it’s on the other side of what we were talking about with ‘Twin’, because it’s very much about real people. What do your friends think of the song?

    My friends have definitely had really nice things to say about the record, I just have to message them and be like, “You guys need to listen to this.” Because we kept it a secret that we used audio of us hanging out for it. All the voices in the middle, those are just videos from life through many years in the past, just everyone hanging out and all of those memories kind of swirling together as one. I think they would find it very touching.

    Why was it important for you to end on that note?

    I think the sentiment of the song is like: it doesn’t matter where you live, you can find home in other people. And those connections you have with people still remain no matter where you are, because you’re always connected to each other. And I think that was a really sweet way to end with that sense of acceptance. Like, truly deep acceptance, and just shedding all of the heaviness of everything else. We just wanted to make it sound real and grounded in a place. So, the city sounds, noises of actual people, these road sounds that are meant to sound like a music box – we miked them from really far away. And I think it just comes together to make this, almost like a snow globe moment. [laughs]

    Aside from your relationship with other people and places, can you share some things that make you feel grounded?

    What makes me feel grounded… Routine, having some form of routine, whether it’s stretching a lot in the morning and at night. I brought a pillow on tour so you can have one pillow, I have this lavender scent in my room, which I wish I brought on tour. But just having consistency and repetition and routine is really important to feeling grounded. I’ve gotten two stuffed animal goats, one is named Craig and the other one is named Greg, and they’re very good. [laughs] I got them after I’d gotten in two car accidents last year, and they’re very grounding. And a good, home-cooked meal.

    You said the first songs you wrote were about stuffed animals. Are Craig and Greg getting their own songs?

    Maybe, we’ll have to see in the future if it happens. Part of me has a vision for whatever release I have next as having a photo portrait or an oil painting or something, Renaissance-style, and I’m holding one of the goats like people hold dogs in paintings. I don’t know if I will be writing a song for Craig or Greg, but you never know.

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

    Pictoria Vark’s The Parts I Dread is out now via Get Better Records.

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