René Kladzyk, known more commonly in the music world as Ziemba, just released the pop album made to cry and laugh with you. In an interview, the El Paso originated artist discussed the sincerity in the heartbreak pop trope her latest album exhibits, working as a journalist and covering a sexual assault scandal in her local music scene, and how the loss of her father affected True Romantic.
Ziemba’s True Romantic released into the world on September 25th via Sister Polygon Records. For the artist, the album was made in a transitionary period in her life, moving across the country and she toured for a previous album.
But the biggest changes really came after the final touches had been made on the album.
The world was hit by a pandemic. She started a full-time job was the El Paso news publication El Paso Matters, which is run by award-winning journalist Bob Moore. And her father passed away.
But it is this album that highlights Ziemba’s persistence; it illustrates healing and humor that come from commiseration and a little bit of Celine Dion. And though the album is her way of getting over heartbreak, it’s a collection of songs listeners can dance and cry to together.
Antonio Villaseñor-Baca: How have you been during the quarantine? Obviously, you’r every busy, so how’s it been doing these last touches, getting ready for the album to come out and working and just doing everything under this “new normal”?
Ziemba: I mean, to be perfectly honest, not been awesome. I would not say that releasing an album during a pandemic is something I ever hoped for. And it’s pretty weird. I’m adapting to the new normal but it is definitely difficult and kind of alienating, and strange to release a record, when I’m not able to play shows in person. And so most of the ways that I’m engaging with people is through social media. It results come up on my phone a lot, a lot, which kind of sucks. I’ve been keeping busy. I just adopted a dog. That’s been really nice and she’s been forcing me to get outside a lot and stuff, which is good. It’s, you know, fall in El Paso. It’s starting to get like really perfect weather. We’re getting into that zone. So I’m trying to hike a lot. And I work full time for El Paso matters as a journalist, which that’s very new to me, like, having a full time job while releasing an album is really strange. And I feel really grateful for it. And I love the work. And honestly, because making music in 2020 is so financially precarious, I feel incredibly lucky that I have like a stable income source. So I don’t have everything, riding on whether or not this album’s profitable. Of course, I’d love for it to be profitable, but like, that’s unfortunately not possible for most.
Right. Definitely the journalism, El Paso Matters job, isn’t exactly a music job, but you’ve done a lot of music pieces, so I’m kind of wondering how you feel about one of the pieces you had done on one of the scandals in the city of El Paso. One of them was within like this emo/punk bar-scene in the city and you covered that. You were set to do a show around when the pandemic started at Love Buzz. What was it like covering that story? And did that show happen? And how does it feel like covering that and being a musician in El Paso all at the same time?
So you’re referring to the wave of sexual assault and sexual abuse allegations that came out about people in the El Paso music and art scene. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that I’ve been in a scene that has had a wave of sexual assault allegations come out during the #MeToo movement. In Brooklyn, several years ago, I also experienced something like that where lots of people that I knew had played shows with, book shows with, got called out– some of whom I had a sense of what they were doing some of whom I didn’t. I’m also just a working woman/musician. I understand. And I’m very aware of the ways that sexism kind of permeates almost every corner of this industry. So in terms of El Paso, there were some things that I wasn’t surprised about, I had already heard rumors about David from Part Time, and I’ve played shows with Part Time, I’m not innocent. And it’s like all of us participated in that scene. And I’m glad that, that kind of awakening has happened, even though it’s really difficult. Like there are people in Burger (Record) bands that I had long term friendships with, and even though they shut down, I think there are a lot of really predatory people who are actually taking steps toward accountability because that happened. But there are also lots of bands who didn’t do anything who don’t have a platform anymore. So it’s hard. These are just really complicated issues. And there are all sorts of different types of experiences that get lumped under the banner of it. There is like an actual culture of abuse that exists and enables abusers. For El Paso, I’m glad that that conversation is happening, because I always saw the scene here as being very male-dominated, pretty macho, just in terms of who was booking shows, who was running venues, and which bands did really well here. So I’m really happy to hear more women and non-binary voices being amplified in the creative community of El Paso. As someone who relatively recently moved back to El Paso, this is a scene I want to be a part of. So of course, if I have a show here, I want it to be a safe space where people don’t have to worry coming to my show that they might get assaulted, and no one will be looking out for them or protecting them, or call out the person if they know that that’s happening. It’s been a pretty pervasive problem in the music industry, partly because that’s kind of been like the culture of rock and roll that like, one of the perks of rock and roll as a dude, is that you get to be gross for girls. Like that’s just like, been an ideal of it. Like, I love David Bowie. We have to grapple with the fact that a lot of our rock and roll heroes were having sex with like 14-15 year olds, because that was fully normalized in the 70’s. Nobody saw that as creepy or wrong. Now, through a contemporary lens, we’re like, “jeez. Can you imagine be like in your 30’s and trying to have sex with a 14 year old? Like that’s so clearly wrong?” It requires a lot of deprogramming and reprogramming to create a culture of safety and inclusivity and accountability. It’s going to take work. And I’m glad that that conversation is happening here. Sorry, it was kind of long winded, but I have a lot of have thoughts on that topic.
No. Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely no limit. I appreciate your candor. And more on a microscopic level, was it strange, doing this reporting, talking to these people in this different context? You went from being part of the scene, someone who would attend these venues, and then reporting on it for these issues. Was it kind of ominous?
It was really painful. And a lot of the stories that I heard from people I interviewed, hit very close to home. And there’s kind of this idea in journalism, that as a journalist, you should always be, to some extent neutral. And I don’t really buy that in general. I don’t think anyone is capable of ever being neutral. But I think it’s important to acknowledge what your perspective is. And with reporting on something like this, of course I am a part of this community, I’m not outside of it looking in; I’ve worked with people who’ve been outed as abusers. And I’ve worked with people who’ve come forward with stories of abuse. So it was very, very close to home, and really difficult to report on. And there were times when I was working on it that I really did not want to, but I also felt kind of an obligation to report on it, because I felt I had a unique window into the many dynamics at play within it. I did my best to do a good job of kind of capturing what was going on in a way that I thought was fair to everybody involved. It’s deep wounds. So I think there’s a lot of pain.
Right. And it happened so quickly; there was the case with the photographers on Instagram in El Paso, and then the music scene, and then the story at UTEP and it all happened so quickly.
There’s more too and that’s another part of it. I only have so much time and these things are difficult to report on. There’s a lot of abuse that has not yet been called out in El Paso, that is pretty pervasive in a lot of different industries, not just the music industry, not just photography, so we’re not done and I think that’s important to remember. I think with social media, these things often come in waves; the same thing with talking about like BLM. This is not like an isolated battle. This is an ongoing work we need to be doing to repair our culture to not make space for abuse, for racism, for sexism, for no hostile power dynamic allowed to exist.
Can you tell me a little bit about when you left El Paso, coming back, working on this album, where you’ve been? I mean, even just like the singles for the album, like I saw the one song was it recorded or inspired by the Allen Ginsberg dinner at that ship like in Southern California. If you could tell me about where you’ve been and how this album formulated?
Sure. In 2019 I was a really a crazy person. I worked so hard. I was looking back because I was like looking through my phone this morning for clips from the recording process for this album and, I’m just realizing how much I did in 2019. It’s really loco. In spring of 2019, I was releasing my last album, Ardis, which I did a pretty ambitious release schedule for that album. And at the same time that I was releasing it, I was writing and recording this album. And that partly was because it started in large part because I had an artist residency last March, at Pioneer Works, which is like a museum, cultural institution in Brooklyn, but they have a music residency where you get a free recording studio for a month. And so I had this recording studio for a month. So I was like, “well I have to write some music.” Or else it would be a wasted opportunity. So that’s how it started. I wasn’t necessarily setting out to write an album while releasing an album. I started recording demos and writing songs. Then that residency ended, but already I had all these things in motion, had kind of an idea. I was going through some tumultuous shit in my personal life and it felt really good to write heartbroken love songs. I was grappling with the end of this very long, very volatile relationship. Then I worked on the album on and off through the spring, but I was also touring my last album. So I kept working on this album; it kept being something that I would like to pick up when I had time, but then have to put it down for a while, because I was doing other stuff. After touring a whole bunch in kind of April through June, I then went on another artist residency in California on the S.S. Vallejo, which is the boat that you mentioned that has like all the Timothy Leary/Ginsberg connections and stuff. I lived on that boat for two months. And that’s where I finished a good chunk of the album, like a lot of loose strings, a lot of the overdubs I needed to do to figure out how to put it all together. I was recording there. And then I went back to Brooklyn in the Fall and started to work on mixing the album and I also had a couple more songs that I wanted to record; ended up changing course with where I was working with on mixing the album and starting to work at a studio in D.C. and so I recorded the last two songs for the album there, like “Harbor Me”, which I wrote on the boat. “Mama”, that song I recorded at my sister’s house in California that’s just like a very DIY recording setup, not a studio recording and you can hear it. That song is the only time I’ve ever released a song where there’s literally no vocal treatment; there’s nothing on the vocals, so totally naked. But it felt kind of appropriate and nice to do that for that song. So the whole album was done before COVID started so it’s funny putting it out now because it’s like zero percent a commentary on this world. Like it was made in a completely different world, a different reality.
And has that kind of changed the meaning or the interpretation for you, personally on any songs? I know that your father passed away as well; has that had a significant impact?
Yeah, absolutely. My relationship with my dad, music was something that we bonded really strongly over. And so really seeing this album, with him being gone, has felt very connected to my grief. The way I hear the songs is definitely different. Now, in so many ways to go. Even the person that I wrote a lot of the love songs about, I don’t speak to anymore, but when I was writing them, we were still trying to make it work. I think in every regard, I really love the album, and I’m really proud of it., but I also feel like I’m a totally different person, from the person who wrote these songs. You know, I think that happens, though. Even even if there wasn’t a pandemic, even if my dad didn’t die. Your relationship to your music is always changing. My relationship to anything I’ve made in the past is always changing and my perception of it, and sometimes I go through periods where I really hate something I made. And then like, five years later, I’ll hear it and think, “oh, my God, this is so good. How did I make this?” That’s, that’s kind of a treat about making music, is that once you make it and put it out, you can’t control it anymore. And you can like leave it and then return to it and have totally fresh ears because the song doesn’t change once you put it out. It’s like this frozen capsule of a moment. But you change. So then the way you hear it is different all the time.
I also have the question of how it came to be that you would share this album on Sister Polygon. Does that have to do with your time in D.C.?
No, my time in D.C. has to do with signing to Sister Polygon. Because I met the Sister Polygon people because I opened for Priests at a show in Brooklyn. And I loved them. They loved me. And it was destiny. After we played the first show together, we stayed in touch a little bit, just because we liked each other’s music. And the band Priests runs this record label Sister Polygon Records. And then I ended up opening for them a couple more times. And the last time I opened for them was in the Bay Area this past summer (of 2019), which was when we started talking about them putting out my next record because they were trying they liked my last record. I was like “well actually, I already have another record. It’s almost done”. So they ended up hooking me up with a studio in D.C. and connecting me with all of those people who were kind of the D.C. band for this album, which was really amazing. Yeah, I mean, Sister Polygon’s been great. Like, really a full godsend. I released my last album myself. So getting to have a team and not just any team, but like a team where they’re all musicians, so they get it, it’s been so nice.
Yeah, that’s super cool. I mean, that’s huge. Like, that’s no small feat. I do want to talk about the music specifically. I was very interested in your post on Instagram. The phrasing that you used was you let yourself be “embarrassing, pathetic and uncool”. What do you mean by that?
I mean, “my life is empty and without meaning, I can’t move on and I don’t want to try”. Those are lyrics on this album. Literally, the lyrics of the “Power of Love” are a letter that I wrote to someone and then never sent. There’s so many things. There’s another lyric that’s like, “once I grew tired of crying, I fell asleep”. Like, it is embarrassing and pathetic. But when I think about what I want in a pop song when I’m like in the throes of heartache, it’s to know that other people feel that way. It’s not a good feeling. But it’s also commiseration; that’s part of what you need in music.
I feel like if I’m in those like throes of heartache, that’s the time when I need music most. So I think for most of my like musical career, I’ve been afraid to be that real in songs, and I’ve been afraid to be that vulnerable. A lot of the time I’ve used language to cloak myself behind symbol and poetic filters. But to be that real. “I can’t move on. I don’t want to try”. It’s like a five year olds like throwing a tantrum. I feel that way sometimes with these songs. I’ve been there, obviously. But like, I also have the perspective that some of the moments in these songs are like sonic tantrums. That’s what I want in pop music. I just do so I feel like other people probably do too. For me, this album was kind of a songwriting challenge because I think I’ve used language to mask my true feelings on past releases in order to be less vulnerable, and less open to ridicule or attack. And I just don’t give a fuck now. Being willing to be laughably pitiful, pitiful in your heart ache, that is kind of a liberating feeling to be like “I was going through…I was really going through it”. That’s part of why love is amazing. Like you have you have to access those really horrible lows, in order to have those really cathartic wonderful highs, maybe? I don’t know, maybe some people just like always have like, steady, balanced healthy romance, but not me, NOT me.
No, that’s funny. I think that definitely resonates in the album. Alright, this is my last question. I had to ask as soon as I heard the song, and you mentioned it: “Power of Love”. Can you talk about the Huey Lewis and the News connection there, too? Like you just said it was an unsent love letter. What’s the connection to Huey Lewis there?
It’s funny because I would say that the Celine Dion song, “The Power of Love” is more important to me than the Huey Lewis and the News song. Because Celine Dion was my first tape, my kind of introduction. I mean, for me, my first introduction to music was like Disney movies and Celine Dion. So they’re right there in the forefront for me. Huey Lewis, I mean, I heard that song growing up, everybody did because it was on the radio, but I didn’t seek it out. But it does seem like the ‘power of love’ as like a name of a song, it’s just such a like trope in and of itself. It has to have atmospheric lighting and lightning striking and thunder crashing. The thing is, though, that song is sincere, even though it’s totally over the top, it’s a real letter I wrote. I wasn’t joking. I didn’t send it you because I knew it it was doomed from the start. I feel like you can sense that in the song. But even I’m saying these things. It’s over the top. It’s super melodramatic, but sincere.
By Antonio Villaseñor-Baca