Meet Pronoun, The Queer Emo-Indie Rocker Mixing Old and New

Meet Pronoun, The Queer Emo-Indie Rocker Mixing Old and New

Alyse Vellturo is a 30-year-old lesbian who runs her own record label, when she's not putting out devastatingly raw indie rock under the name Pronoun. She's not nonbinary but chose the name for her project when her label told her she couldn't call herself "monachopsis," a term for "the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place."

She's just an album or so late to the indie rock revolution but finding her niche in it alongside the women she calls influences like Julien Baker, Soccer Mommy and Illuminati Hotties, who are also translating the out-of-placeness of being alive into poignant guitar music. Her debut album I'll Show You Stronger orbits contemporary female-driven rock, 90s alt-rock (its ancestor), and 00s Death Cab-style emo (she describes her influences as anything that'd be on the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack). Her voice is hoarse and hazy like a dream-pop shoegazer, while her instrumentals are often bombastic. In the grand tradition of singer-songwriters, her lyrics reveal the meticulous details of heartbreak, no matter how ugly, petty or unflattering. There's no radical elements in the recipe, but Pronoun's combination sounds both retro and modern in a way that sets her apart.

Her familiar but different sound makes sense based on Vellturo's pedigree. She arrives in today's indie rock moment from an unusual entry-point. Starting out a bit older than those it'd make sense to call her peers (a fact she annoys her label by constantly reminding everyone of, she says), Vellturo is a Berklee College of Music grad who was certain she'd never make it in music. She went straight into the industry after college, working in management and distribution. She'd settled into a career on the business side of music, until a breakup that felt like being run over by an 18-wheeler (as she describes on "Stay"), involving her girlfriend leaving her to marry and have a child with a 45-year-old man, forced her to reconsider.

I'll Show YouStronger will make you glad she did. The album's from-the-hip honesty and timeless sound are a comfort and a joy — imbued with the relief and vitality of someone who's finally figured out how to share what she has to say with the world.

PAPER chatted with Vellturo about the limbo between business and music, the indie rock revolution, and her approach to Pride month.

You were in the industry before starting Pronoun, and still run a label. What was it like going in with that background, and how do you balance music and industry stuff now?

There's two sides of it. On one hand, when I was managing I thought, "This is great. I love music and I get to work in it and get paid, and watch other bands grow and help other bands grow." But I let the ugly side seep into my own career where I'm like, "Oh I should be doing this. I don't have these numbers, thus I am a failure." Which is not true, but it's just what I tell myself. Watching my project grow is like actually living what you're working on. So, it cuts both ways. Sometimes I feel like it makes me insane. As far as my time, I also have Sleep Well Records and a day job in music distribution. I just work from the road. I just have a hotspot on in my car and just answer emails and take phone calls. It's pretty manageable for the most part, once you get used to it. Other days, I'm in this great space where I am able to do and love doing both. Some days it's like "Oh, you've got this." And then other days I fall off [laughs].

You're not interested in being seen as an indie rock 'girl boss', I take it.

[Laughs] People are like, "How do you do it all?" And I'm like, "I don't! I really don't."

Tell me a little bit about the process of writing this record.

I went through a really bad — to me, it was bad — breakup. That's when I first started making the There's No One New Around You EP. I had never really written or produced or recorded my own songs before, and they were all coming out really quickly. I would just go home after work and have a couple beers and go do that. A lot of these songs on I'll Show You Stronger, I wrote in that time when I was making what eventually became There's No One New Around You. All of them were in different stages, half-finished, whether it's production work and there was a verse or there was two verses or there was a chorus but no verses. Coming back to finish the album was really hard. I had never had to go out of my way to make music. I got to that phase where I was like, "Oh my God, I have to sit down and actually think about how I want to finish this and make it say what I want to say, even though we're two years after the fact and I feel completely differently."

This breakup was several years ago now. Are you tired of talking about it?

Kind of. When I was finishing the album, it was like, "I don't even feel this way anymore." But when the album wrapped up and it started being called I'll Show You Stronger, I started realizing it was more than just a breakup. It was about trying to figure out who you are without another person or anything tying you down. Asking, "How do you distance yourself from it and how do you find your own self-worth? And if you don't find your own self-worth, how do you start finding it?" That kind of made it easier. At the end of the day, a lot of them are just about pain and frustration. Now I can relate it back to anything. I'm frustrated with tons of stuff. Everyone is. Like, whether it be your job, the way certain industries work, or who is in White House.

How do you negotiate between specificity and universality?

I don't. I just write it. I'm just straight up saying exactly what I'm feeling at the time. Then I go back and I'm like, "Yeah, you can't say that." And then I'm like, "Wait, why not? You meant it when you wrote it, why don't you just keep it?" I very rarely change things. Sometimes I try because I think that they're too specific. I'm actually surprised at how many people relate to it given how specific it is. Like the album is so blatant [laughs]. It's like, "Someone left me, got married to a 45-year-old, got engaged two months later, and then had a baby." That's just in the lyrics, so when people ask me to explain what songs about, I'm like "I don't know how to put this more frankly than just sending the lyrics over."

"You have all these bands doing something that before, a bunch of dudes were doing. And they're doing it better. "

People tag your music with a slew of different genres. Why do you think people have so much trouble identifying your sound?

I have trouble figuring that out. It seems so generic to me because like, "Oh this sounds like what I like." I would say… early on, I really thought it was indie bedroom pop-rock. Not like like, you know, Clairo and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of like the Day Wave stuff. I have been so into emo since I was like thirteen. I kind of stopped listening to it for the most part when I was like 20, but —

Emo, like Sum 41 and Blink 182?

I feel like Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World is a huge one for me, Death Cab for Cutie. Kind of like those blurred lines… I feel like Death Cab is at the core, really just like indie alternative emo. And then you have Taking Back Sunday that's emo rock, and then Jimmy Eat World that's like alternative emo, all the different subforms. I listened to that so much when I was younger, and then the people that were working with me realized and I was like, "Oh, wait. This is very influenced by all that stuff. At the core, it is emo music. It is overlapping lyrics and layers, and very specific things, and very blunt and candid. What's another word for blatant? I'm candid, I guess? So I guess, at the end, I would say emo, and alternative 90s rock. That's what I still love the most. The new artists that are coming out that are influenced by that, those are still my favorite artists. Anything that sounds like it would be in the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack but, I am so here for it. And there's so much good music that's coming out in that realm.

I feel like we're kind of in a renaissance of guitar music, mostly by women. What is it like to be a part of that?

I don't know how to answer that, because I wouldn't even say that I'm a part of it. But that's so cool to be seen that way.All the women that are coming out right now are so fucking cool. You have like illuminati hotties, Soccer Mommy, Pom Pom Squad. You have all these bands doing something that before a bunch of dudes were doing. And they're doing it better. And they're having more fun. It's really fun to watch. I wish I was part of that. That's so cool that you think I'm part of that. [Laughs]. All the stuff those bands are doing is so interesting. Because I remember four or five years ago, I was like, "Damn, women are about to own pop, again."

Well, that happened.

And then they did! There were many new pop artists like Charlie XCX and Grimes, THG, Verité. We're so in a moment of pop right now where these girls are just killing it, and it was very fun to watch. And then it started happening with rock. I think it started with Julien Baker. That's where the line was set. It all started from there. I saw Phoebe Bridgers and Petal open for Julien Baker like three or four years ago. Now they've all created this huge community of awesome music that is… it's just something else.

When I think about the revolution, I think of Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion as the first album that people were like, "Holy shit." Maybe Julien Baker was like the Carly Rae Jepsen of indie rock.

Totally! I can totally see that. She was someone that inspired me to start the entire project, too, at the beginning. I was like if that tiny, 20-year-old girl can get up there and literally be like, "Hey, I'm a drug addict. I'm depressed. And I'm at my rock bottom. So I wrote this album." Alone on stage. On an electric guitar with a bunch of lightning pedals. To a thousand people. Anything is possible.

I read in another interview that you were told not to talk about your age by your management?

[Laughing] I joke with them about that. I'm always bringing it up and they're like, "Can you stop?" They're like, "Oh my God, it doesn't matter to us." I think they more say it in the way like, "Why do you have to bring up your age all the time?" Not like, "Don't bring it up." Because I am blatantly all the time like, "I'm thirty." Whenever a label reaches out and they're like, "Oh we're interested in signing you." I'm like, "Do they know that I'm a 30-year-old lesbian that works in the music industry?"

"Whenever a label reaches out...I'm like, 'Do they know that I'm a 30-year-old lesbian that works in the music industry?'"

A lot of people putting out their first record are younger than you. Do you feel like your age gives you a different perspective?

I don't think so. I got to Berklee and I was like, "I'm going to be a rockstar," and I sat next to a girl in the guitar lab and I was like, "Oh my God, there's another girl! Look at us! Girls on guitar!" Usually it's all guys at Berklee on guitar stuff. And she just shredded. And I was just like, "Oh my God, I am so in over my head. Like, I am not talented. I am not as good as as I thought I was." But I didn't let that make me feel horrible. I was like, "It doesn't look like you're actually that great at being a performer, or a player, or songwriting at all. What do you want to do next?" If you're 18, you can very easily go into a hole of like, "I'm talentless, what was I even thinking?" I was just like, "Alright, well what else do I like? I like making music. I like doing all the parts for my songs." That's when I got into production. And I think that was very helpful. I think going through my first semester in college, especially at a creative college, a little older, helped a ton. In general though, probably not. I'm just tired more often than they probably are. [Laughs]

As a queer artist, what's your approach to Pride month?

I use Pride as time to reflect, and think about sexuality more, about what it means and how far we've come, because honestly, I don't think about it a lot. When I came out, it was like 2007. It wasn't scary, but it wasn't a thing the general public was cool with or even aware of. When I was growing up, I didn't even know what gay was. I thought it was a thing in books. Some girl would be walking around our high school who looked like a boy and everyone would be like, "Ha ha, that girl looks like a boy." It was not like, "What a lesbian. What a dyke." It just didn't exist. When I realized I was gay, it was so relieving, like, "Wait, I don't have to hook up with boys anymore?" I didn't know that was an option. I was like, "Wait, I don't even have to have a baby!" I was so stressed about both of those things. So I use Pride to reflect on how powerful the community has become, how far we've come, but how much further it has to go anyway. We've made so much headway for cis queer men and women. But justice for trans and gender nonconforming people is next.

We're in this moment where fans want their favorite artists to champion their identities, but marginalized artists are pushing back. Artists are in the middle all these different expectations. Do you feel like you've experienced those competing pressures as you've started your solo project?

I've not shying away from talking about sexuality and gender, I just truly don't think about it that much. I know that's not what you want to hear. Like you were saying, you want to hear loud and proud and aggressive opinions. But I know the people that are reading these queer blogs and following these artists are probably younger kids that don't know what to do, they don't live in cities and this is their only access to it. I don't want to be the voice that's like "Oh, I don't really think about it." That's the line I'm teetering on. I don't want to be that asshole that's like, "It doesn't really affect anything in my daily life." How lucky am I? That is so cool that that doesn't have to cross your mind or affect anything that you're doing. That affects almost most queer people every second of their day. Doing stuff like this reminds me how lucky I am to be like, "Oh whatever, I live in Brooklyn," and no one gives a shit if I'm gay. They don't even care what I am. They're like, "Are you gonna pay for your drink or not?" [Laughs].

Yeah, it's so complicated. Being dishonest about or exaggerating your experience doesn't serve any gay kid in the Midwest either.

Yeah. Someone came up to me once and was like, "Oh my God, you should make pins that say like, 'Ask me about Pronoun.'" And I'm like, "That's so offensive." I'm not making a commercial pin about my band and selling it for money. I'm still figuring out to navigate it all. But this conversation is helping a lot, so thank you for walking me through my thoughts.

Photo: Shervin Lainez