Self-produced musician Torraine Futurum knows precisely what it means to write her own narrative. As a woman with many intersecting oppressed identities, society has systemic ways of often trying to write it for her, as a way to keep her small, to deprive her of hopes, of dreams, of joy.
But when she released last year's stirring post-punk anthem, "Unclaimed Perfection, Babygirl," Futurum reminded listeners, and herself, that she is worthy of it all, no matter what anyone else thinks. "You try not to lose your composure, holding on hoping," she sings, as a woman with faith in herself despite life's curveballs. By the song's hook, which morphs into a synth-rock space trip like Bowie's late '90s experimental electronic offerings, Futurum is meditative: "But I pray."
If Futurum was at peace with herself then, the prevailing theme of Miles from Heaven, her debut album out now a year later, is spiritual transcendence. The title suggests that Futurum is still in the early stages of her journey toward self-actualization, but the songs themselves present a portrait of an artist who is very clear about her increasingly more skyward direction. The project is a refreshing wash of atmospheric synths, pop songwriting, club-land instrumentals, and spoken-word interludes.
PAPER catches up with Futurum to talk about her path as a writer, death as a motivator for personal growth, and how Mariah Carey inspires her vision of success.
What moved you to create Miles from Heaven?
I had done a thing that I thought was an album that I got out in the beginning of 2017, and I was really learning how to make music as I was doing that. And I felt like I sort of rushed. When you learn something you should spend time learning how to do it well. I was still learning how to set up a mic, but I was itching to put a project out then regardless of how much or how little I knew, and so I did. I was trying to create some sort of emotional narrative through electronic and pop sounds. I love things that are beautiful in a modern way; I love sounds that remind me of cyborgs. I'm primarily a writer, so I figured I could insert my written perspective into something that can be seen as sort of frivolous.
You have some powerful vocal samples here, including Janet Mock, who is in the intro, stating that her Black trans womanhood is power.
It's a speech of hers from around [Trump's] presidential inauguration. And the spoken samples are throughout the album, because I do come from writing and storytelling, which I feel are probably stronger than my vocals, as Mock's speech and others give gravitas to the album.
"I love sounds that remind me of cyborgs."
In considering mid-album instrumental tracks like "Rough Club Sex," and "Missed Call from...," how did you know when a track really needed your voice?
I'm really interested in the ways you can tell stories through music and epiphany. In the past couple of years, music-making has become more about evoking a feeling in the listener, so this album is like a series of diary entries, with my voice or with others' voices. As far as the instrumentals, David Bowie is probably my first introduction into soundscapes without lyrics — going back to the Berlin Trilogy, Low, Heroes, and Lodger. It was all very visceral and emotional, without words. I learned then that I could do the same with my music, and it would sound like my voice, whether my voice was in the mix or not.
On this album, you explore everything from confidence to insecurity. In the song "Key Party," there are lines about being a living legend and being a source of inspiration for others. But in "Death Drop," you sing, "Make me over/ I don't want be the same."
We have that range as imperfect, fully rounded human beings. And I definitely wanted to have those strong, powerful moments. I think anyone who's an artist has some ideas of grandeur, and even though artists are incredibly insecure, they're also some of the most confident, even narcissistic people. And those things exist in all creatives. I'm trying to capture it all.
"I have to be confident in everything I do or I'm wasting my own time."
What helps you gain confidence as a performer?
My driving force in life for as long as I've been sentient, is death. It's a huge motivator if you let it be. In the context of space and time, all of human existence is 300,000 years compared to cockroaches, that are 100 million years old, you know what I mean? With that in mind, one person's life is a split-second along the time stream, and I want to feel as alive in that space as possible. I want to know that this little bit of time we have is worth something. And so I have to be confident in everything I do or I'm wasting my own time. I don't have the space to not go after what I want or to not ask for what I want. I speak very clearly to people because whenever you suppress your thoughts and your emotions, and you allow yourself to be pulled in different directions, it's like you're wasting your own time, when the truth is, in all of that time, you're marching towards death.
The album concludes with "Barbie Dream House," which has the lyric, "I found my place and I'm home." What does that mean to you?
There's double and triple meaning to everything, but especially in that song. I was inspired by this photo I found on Tumblr of Mariah Carey in a swimming pool in which I assume is her own house. There's a backdrop of California hills and she's in a gown in her own swimming pool, holding a glass of champagne. And I'm like, This is so Mariah Carey. She always says, "I don't have birthdays, I have anniversaries and I'm forever a teenager." She's created a world for herself where she can be a 14-year-old forever. I thought that image of her really encompassed the feeling of, I have really done life the way I wanted to and I control all of this. I started thinking about what that would feel like for me to be in my house in LA, and completely comfortable and sitting back and being like, Wow I really did all of this, I created my world for myself, instead of thinking back on all of the rough parts of life I've experienced. So it's supposed to be a song written to me, from me, 20 years from now.
How close do you feel you are to creating the world and the life you want to be in?
I have aggressively ambitious goals. So I'd say I'm just starting. I'm at the very early stages. I'm in my chapter one, where there's rising action. Even just to be here, where I am right now, I say it's chapter one, but there was a lot in the prologue. Every day I am working exponentially harder to close that gap of where I am now and where I see myself down the road. I have a ways to go, but I'm going to get that Barbie beach house.
Stream Torraine Futurum's Miles From Heaven, below.
Photography: Torraine Futurum