Up Next with BLUEM

The Sardinian-born, London-based artist takes us inside the ethereal atmospheres of ‘nou’, her latest album, for Re-Edition’s music column

Looking for the soundtrack for your next adventure? Be wary of the algorithm and let yourself be guided by the entrancing vibrations of Up Next – Re-Edition’s long-awaited music column – where arts and culture writer Gilda Bruno sits down with some of the most inspiring names on the up-and-coming and established music scene to delve into the inspirations, sounds and dreams of a new avant-garde of musical talents.

Today Bruno speaks with Italian artist Chiara Floris, aka BLUEM, to tap into the otherworldly frequencies brought together in her latest album, nou, and unpack the manifold influences, experiences and mythologies unfolding through its 10 tracks.

Listening to BLUEM’s newest project, nou, feels like entering a parallel dimension where dreams of a utopian future explosively collide with the artist’s surreal reinterpretation of folkloristic tales and traditions from her native Sardinia. Launched on May 12, the album sees Oristano-born Chiara Floris unleash melodies which, skilfully crafted by the synthesisers of the music artist and producer, despite their largely electronic feel, sound like a song from within the bowels of the Earth.

Fusing the London-based creative’s long-term fascination with the ancestral energy of her beloved region with her urge to constantly reinvent herself across different music genres, instruments and vocals, nou offers a glimpse into the vibrant, imaginative universe providing the backdrop for BLUEM’s spellbinding musical practice. Here, violinist and composer Adele Madau and emerging music artists Yasmina and Milo Merah – featuring on Adele, moonlight and gold, respectively – contribute to the rich exploration of belonging, self-growth, identity, and femininity echoing in the creative’s latest release.

Landed two years after the success of her debut album, NOTTE (2021), nou confirms BLUEM’s unconditional dedication to her multi-layered craft while simultaneously serving as a reminder of her intention to create tracks that stem directly from her experiences as both a woman and a music artist. As stressed by its title, which translates to “new” in Sardinian language, this second project faces the audience with a more self-aware BLUEM intent on rewriting the mainstream understanding of pop music by taking the experimental sounds of the underground to the forefront in her work.

Below, we speak with the artist about how she grew to love her time in London, the reality of emerging as a female artist and producer in an industry traditionally ruled by men, and the fable-like Sardinian stories, costumes and traditions woven together in her newly released album, nou.

Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist
Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist

Re-Edition Magazine: When exactly, and how, did music come into the frame for you, and what led you to it?

BLUEM: It all started when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I tried a guitar course at elementary school and the teacher I was doing it with noticed that I had some sort of “talent”. From the first lesson, he told my parents that they had to keep me on the course because he could see something in me. I was exclusively a guitarist up until I turned 20. Still, ever since I was little, I had always loved creating songs in my head. I was a very shy child, so the idea of performing and singing in front of an audience felt a bit too much for how I was at the time I became involved in music. Hiding behind an instrument was the easiest thing to do, which is why it came so naturally to me. The positive side of that was that I learned how to play an instrument very well, which is something most artists don’t do right now as we have transitioned to computer music. While a large part of my practice centres around digital production, personally, I believe that having the knowledge of a particular instrument allows you to achieve a more organic relationship with music. Believe it or not, I only wrote my first songs towards my final year of university in London.

RE: Think of the way your music has evolved since you first started playing around with it, and even more so since the release of your first EP, Piccolina (2018). What drives your musical experimentation today and what is the vision behind it? What made this change possible?

B: I always find it quite hard to answer this question. When they ask me what genre my work falls under, I go with alternative pop, simply because while having a “poppy” sound to them, my tracks encapsulate quite a lot of different “alternative” influences. I am a very curious person, and that is reflected in the way I approach music; I am rarely influenced by something in particular or exclusively. Instead, I listen to a lot of stuff and gain inspiration from things that aren’t necessarily sound-based. The way I experience the world around me makes its way into my music, which is my way of channelling and reinterpreting my everyday life. Still, what holds the strongest influence on my work is probably my Sardinian upbringing and the fact that I lived there until I was 18 years old. My family has a very strong relationship to the countryside of our region and the many histories that have unfolded in it. Because my relatives and I are actively taking part in the traditions that characterise our town, I was always interested in the music, the costumes and the richness of stories that are captured and brought to life in Sardinian local festivities.

Most people know Sardinia as a holiday place, yet what they don’t realise is that we are strongly attached to habits that date back thousands of years. We don’t even know the origins of many of the traditions that have been handed down to us but we keep transmitting them to each generation. This is something that has certainly been vital to the shaping of my project. On top of that comes my 10-year-long stay in London, which is radically different from where I grew up. At the beginning, the cultural shock was traumatic but I am happy to have given myself the time necessary to elaborate both realities inside of me, which now coexist in my creative work. London gave me the opportunity to discover a lot of stuff, whether music-related or not. Had I not moved here, I probably wouldn’t have found the courage to experiment with electronic music or alternative pop. Having spent most of my life in a unique place like Sardinia, where the connection to the land, local folklore and costumes still count, I felt the need to take some of its magic into the London scene and give it some representation.

RE: Your music blends electronic sounds with heartfelt lyrics and folkloristic undertones. What references can be found in your work?

B: Out of all artists I draw inspiration from, my main influence at the very beginning was Grimes, and that is because she was the first female producer I came across. I thought that Grimes was particularly in line with me as, besides producing, she also makes songs. When thinking of female producers, it is rare to associate them with pop music: instead, they are more frequently connected to music that has more of a niche feeling to it. I remember listening to Visions for the first time and reading about how Grimes had put it together in a college room over two weeks: to me, that experience was profoundly eye-opening. In my head and heart, I had always known that if I was going to make songs and find the courage to expose myself in that way, then I would do it on my own, curating and producing every single aspect of it. I guess Grimes gave me the push necessary to pursue music on my own terms.

RE: You have talked about your Sardinian roots as crucial to the unravelling of your artistic journey. Can you share any insights into your favourite Sardinian tradition?

B: There is one my family is particularly active in, which is called Sartiglia. It is the carnival of my hometown, Oristano, and it consists of a horse race during which Sardinian men and women wear traditional masks and costumes. Holding a sword while riding, they are called to catch a star that has a little hole in it as well as performing acrobatics on their horses. If this doesn’t sound easy, even less so is the preparation that makes the event possible every year. Because my cousin is one of the protagonists of this festivity, I have the luck to observe it up close every year. Out of the around 120 people that take part in the horse race, maybe five of them are women. Despite being a predominantly male pageant, women are usually behind the whole thing, whether prepping the costumes or making food for those participating in it. The whole town literally lives for this specific time of the year: I see it with my aunt as the mother of one of the brave cavalieri trying their luck during the race. From the very moment they get on the horse till the end of the festivity, those at the heart of Sartiglia are seen as semi-gods.

A tradition dating back nearly 500 years, Sartiglia sees the citizens of Oristano spend months working on the specially crafted garments, headpieces, masks and decorations serving as the trademark of this annual February ritual. Every year, joining the festivity feels like stepping into another dimension: people are so invested in it that their perception of the city and those inhabiting it is revolutionised by the arrival of Sartiglia. Needless to say, this feast is even more felt within my own family. What I found most striking about it is the fact that only few women directly participate in it. Seeing them in their traditional skirt, which stretches all the way to the back of the horse, feels like looking at real goddesses. The power this tradition has held on me ever since I was a young girl is unparalleled. I have always found it incredibly inspiring, especially as a symbol of women’s bravery and boldness in the face of a “men’s world”. Sartiglia is something that I am continuously trying to keep alive through my project as well: you might have noticed it in the artwork of my 2021 EP GIOVEDÌ, where I wore the same skirt women normally dress up in on that occasion.

Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist
Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist

RE: To this day, the music industry is still known to be rather sexist and men-led. What are your impressions of it so far?

B: I had the luck of growing up in a place that is anything but sexist. Even though many of our traditions still put men centre stage, Sardinian society is way more matriarchal than the reality found in most Italian regions. Generally speaking, the most important characters in Sardinian culture are women. Even within my own family, women are the ones with the strongest personality. In that sense, I have definitely taken after both my grandmother and my mother. When not drawing on their example, I would learn from my girlfriends and the resolute female figures they all had in their own family. It wasn't until I left Oristano for London that I understood that things are quite different elsewhere. NOTTE (2021), my debut album, did quite well in Italy so at a certain point, tired of having to work two full-time jobs to make ends meet in London, I considered moving back home. Still, I didn’t like the way people perceived my work in Italy, especially because most of them attributed the sound of my projects to male collaborators that contributed to them, rather than to myself.

When I was looking for creatives to work with on nou (2023), my latest album, I realised that sexism exists well beyond the Italian borders. Some people interested in taking part in the project asked my label whether my previous male collaborators would have been ok with them taking over on this record: this shows how much many still think that women in the music industry owe their success to men. There are people that struggle to believe that the sound of NOTTE was something I mastered myself. This kind of stuff happens to female artists all the time and it makes me want to scream, but I am stubborn enough not to let those incidents influence my perception of collaborative work. I was reading a book on artists in New York a few weeks ago which talked about how Edward Hopper did anything he could to prevent his wife and fellow painter Josephine Verstille Nivison from rising to fame. I feel lucky to live in an era that encourages female creativity, even more so being aware of how many women’s artistic path was brutally hijacked by their male counterparts.

RE: Your new album, nou, has just come out. Translating to “new” in Sardinian, the project hints at a new beginning. Tell us about the story behind it.

B: After releasing NOTTE (2021), thinking about a new album was difficult for a while. When your first project goes unexpectedly well, you know you are never going back to that. Making a whole record off spontaneous creativity isn’t the same as conceptualising a new one from scratch with a specific audience in mind. The moment I decided to call this second body of work “nou”, which means new in Sardinian language, changed everything for me. The title of the album came before any of the songs on it as a promise to myself, a reminder of my desire to experiment with music and sound in every possible way. I wanted the record to be an opportunity to push the boundaries of my creative experimentation further: nowadays, people expect artists to be productive all the time, but if there is one thing that cannot be forced, that is creativity.

When I first started working on nou, I was listening a lot to PinkPantheress and Sega Bodega, both of whom have influenced the overall feel of the album. I was hanging out with artists who were trying to bring that UK sound to Italy, which is why the project feels like a blending of my Italian and British experiences. Another key aspect of it is the notion of femininity, something I explored thoroughly with this new release. In nou, I reflect on how my understanding of women’s condition changed abruptly after leaving my hometown. To do so, I looked at ancient stories from Sardinian mythology as well as women in Greek tragedy. The idea was to find timeless female figures that mirrored my view of womanhood to express my vision as a woman and a female artist and producer. At its core, nou and the many collaborations that are part of it are my attempt at redirecting Italian people’s attention onto artists who are striving for change within the Italian contemporary music industry.

Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist
Photo by Valeria Cherchi. Courtesy of the artist

RE: Judging from your words, you seem to have a love and hate relationship with both Italy and London. How do you feel about your adopted home today?

B: Lately, I have definitely been more on the “love” side of things here in London. Coming from Sardinia, it did take some time for me to find my stability in the UK. At the beginning, I was constantly changing rooms which, together with the struggle of having to keep up with the cost of living in London, made things incredibly difficult. I am finally living on my own in Peckham and I am really happy to be here. In retrospect, I think that the initial cultural shock was inevitable. I didn’t grow up in Cagliari, which is the largest Sardinian city, so relocating to London for me meant discovering life in a city for the very first time. I feel grateful for finally having my own team here in London and I am glad that this new project won’t be confined to the Italian territory. My experience in the UK has granted me so many new stimuli and I look forward to chasing the opportunity to give as much back to my British audience as I can.

RE: In recent years, more and more music artists have lent their talent to other creative realms. Whether music, fashion, cinema or art-related, what would be your dream collaboration?

B: I would love to become more involved in other kinds of art as that is something I have tried to do since the real beginning of this project. For me, music is just one of the components of my work, not the whole thing. What counts the most is the narrative behind each and every one of my tracks. Some of my songs include recordings of people speaking in Sardinian language as interludes, for example, while for nou, I teamed up with photographer Valeria Cherchi to visualise the folkloristic, otherworldly atmosphere of the album. If I were to dream big, I am a massive fan of David Lynch, so I wouldn’t mind working with him. I just love his films and aesthetic, I find them incredible. I actually studied film music in university, so being able to work on scores would feel like coming full circle. Besides photography and cinema, I am quite active in the fashion scene: this year my single Adele opened the ETRO’s women fashion show and I have already worked with Sardinian fashion designer Antonio Marras on a couple of occasions. I am open to more creative exchanges and cannot wait to see what the future will bring in that sense.

RE: What were your New Year’s resolutions for 2023? What can we expect from you in the future?

B: I guess my priority this year is to do more stuff in Europe and in the UK. I am currently working on a couple of collaborations outside of Italy and I am hoping that, as those take shape and are released, similar opportunities will come about. Other than that, I just want to make more time to do everything I want to do. That is the thing I have been wishing most in the past year and a half: I am so busy trying to survive while gigging, making albums, doing interviews, and taking care of all the things that are necessary to amplify my reach that finding ways of nurturing my imaginative and creative side would make a nice change.

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