“Do you know how embarrassing it is to be this emotional in front of people?” asked Thomas Arsenault from the stage. Mouthing along to his every personal detail, the people didn’t seem to. And bounding happily by himself under psychedelic stained-glass lights, behind an electronic rig and in front of a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right Monday night, he really didn’t seem so bashful about it. It was the record release show for Seraph, the Canadian producer’s first full-length record as Mas Ysa, and a moment he’d been been building to for years.
Earlier that afternoon, Arsenault gulped lemon tea to counteract the effects of his backslide into smoking. The habit’s bad for his booming voice, but a balm for frayed nerves. Performing, he says, is “like living this emotionally unreasonable state of mind, constantly.” He longs to lead a band like Van Morrison or some other old pro would, a gang with which to share the highs and lows of performance. But in 2015, the financial reality of making experimental, emotive synth-pop leaves him lonely. “It’s an unreasonable thing for an adult to be doing by themselves,” he says. “Let alone being like, ‘Hey, you, other adult! You come do this with me! Leave your partner or your child and come out.’”
In performance, the solitude suits him. The live wire act of triggering his dance beats and electronic samples in real time is the only way he’s found to accurately recreate the volatility in the recorded versions of open-hearted anthems like his first track, “Shame.” “I really need the sense of risk and impending, “Oh, I’m going to fuck up. Oh, I’m going to fuck up. Oh, I fucked up! Fix it!” To that end, he records his music live, on the same rig he plays out. Though made electronically more than acoustically, he calls it “folk.” He can’t recreate a feeling by pressing a few preset buttons. A show leaves him, “overwhelmed in one way or another,” he says. “Sometimes I feel really intense and powerful and sometimes I feel exhausted and embarrassed, or something. Which has no correlation to if the show went well or not.”
“A good show costs me, and a bad show costs me.”
Monday’s gig was a rare return to the neighborhood that nursed his artistic ambition. Arsenault moved to Williamsburg after studying composition at Oberlin, and spent his Brooklyn years living in a non-residential Kent Avenue studio space. It was in that same famous building that once housed 285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death by Audio. The city’s zoning authorities caught on in 2013, forcing him to migrate to a house upstate. It was a preview in miniature of what would happen to the neighborhood at large.
“This record is very much a result of me being plugged into a music community,” he says. “I’ve never really written without the well of the experience of having lived here. It’ll be different after this record cycle, when I’ve really been up there, and now my clock is set back and that wellspring has run dry.” Still, Arsenault resists the pat Bon Iver-y narrative of a songwriter retreating to country quiet as the magic key to deeper artistic breakthrough. “My Brooklyn experience was very isolated, too,” he notes. “It was in that building, on that block, going to Zebulon, going to 285 Kent.”
Arsenault seems to write almost entirely from internal stimuli, anyway, and makes little effort to camouflage his songs’ biographical starting point. He says the album closing ballad “Don’t Make” was written about a college sweetheart, who now dates a close friend of his, one Arsenault not-coincidentally brought in to play acoustic guitar on the track. “If you find someone you really love, never let them go,” he advises in an intense, trembling whisper. Knowing the backstory, it’s hard to say if that’s extremely well-adjusted or sort of melodramatically creepy.
On Seraph’s lead single “Margarita,” he literally cries out to his mother. Her name gives the track its title and her image adorns both the single and album art. “Oh Margarita, don’t you leave us too young!” he shouts, completely unafraid that such transparent parental need might make him seem somehow weak or uncool. For the record, his mom loves it. The impracticality of her flying over 24 hours from Uruguay to Brooklyn for the release show was something he had to convince her of. “She called me crying yesterday, “My bag’s packed, I’m coming.” She’d be getting here like four hours, from now. She’s like, “I’m coming, I’m coming.” I had to talk her down.” (His brother did make it, receiving a sweet shout-out from the stage.)
Raised partially in Brazil, his grandparents played castanets and pan-flutes, filled the house with classical and religious music. Arsenault didn’t identify the source of the synth flutes, castanet clicks, and chorale sweeps that sometime seep into his music until friends pointed them out. It makes total sense to him now, not as an overt statement on cultural identity, but a natural extension of it.
“That stuff is not an aesthetic choice,” he says. “It’s 100 percent what sounds like me, to me.”