Written by Maurice Maurion
Sinjihn Smith, who goes by the moniker Simara, is currently making some of the freshest, most inspired electronic music in New York. Combining a love of glitchy electronic noise, rave music, hip-hop, and a deeply personal fascination with Japanese aesthetics and culture, Simara produces beats that are ethereal, detailed, and emotive. He is also one of the most kindhearted and genuine people you could possibly meet. But Simara skirts classification and evades the confines of categorization. He eschews what he calls the "archetype of nerdy black guys who are into rap but also like anime.” Above all, Simara’s music is that of someone who is utterly true to himself. Listeners can throw as many adjectives at his music as they like — glitchy, glo-fi, chill-wave, ambient — but only one word can properly describe the musical universe of Simara, a word thoroughly abused by our generation but accurate all the same: it’s dope.
Rare Candy: How’d you get started on making electronic music?
Simara: I feel like I tell the same story to everybody but when I was like eight or nine years old, my mom bought me Dance Dance revolution, and that was the first time I ever had an experience with electronic music. And it was cool because there were so many producers on Dance Dance Revolution who were, like, you wouldn’t know who they are. You’d just have no idea. So I’d look them up on the computer, listen to all their stuff, and think “I wanna do this.” I was really into all those rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, or Beat Me, where you press buttons when the beats comes up and stuff. So when I originally started doing music, I wanted to make music for those games or at least design games like that. But then as I got more into the production and music in general, like growing up, like not being ten years old [laughs], I just wanted to do music in general.
RC: What kind of samples do you enjoy messing with? How do you go about finding your them?
S: I think my style of sampling has changed a lot. I used to produce hip-hop a lot, so there was a lot of time when I was looking like for the classic ‘soulful’ sample, like 80’s or 70’s artists, and that was helpful because I got exposed to that music, but then I realized that it wasn’t really my style, so I wanted to expand more into trying to keep the traditional hip-hop sound but with different types of samples. So I would look at like more like techno records or like really electronic-sounding stuff like Mark Fell or um… I’m trying to think of who I’ve sampled… like I’ve sampled soundtracks from Final Fantasy and stuff like that.
RC: Final Fantasy has great music. I can totally get why you’d wanna sample that.
S: Yeah, I recently watched this interview with the guy, Nobu Omatsu, who’s been doing it since the first Final Fantasy, and he talked about how he really likes the idea of how Final Fantasy had this very medieval theme and then once [Final Fantasy] 10 came out it was all about scrapping this traditional mindset and making a fantasy game that’s about living on an island where there’s machinery. And I feel like that’s the same mentality for hip-hop, where there’s definitely a classic style, but I really want to keep the same elements but move it into a different space.
RC: As a producer myself, I often listen more to the production than the words with hip-hop. Do you get that way?
S: Yeah. I like, a lot of times, the juxtaposition of the rhythm of the beat and the rapper. I often times, like to just hear different flows, and I feel as though the flows themselves are the rhythm that I care about.
RC: So you’re performing pretty often these days.
S: Yeah, last semester I didn’t really — like I remember there was a time when I was very consciously reaching out to people, saying “yeah I want to play shows,” but trying to get sort of an “in-crowd.” I took a step back this year. I really wanted to focus on my studies but also think about my artistry in general. If I even care about it, or what that means.
RC: Like if you want to pursue it after school?
S: Yeah, kind of. It was more like I wanted to be able to integrate my daily life and my ideas in a way that wasn’t like… like it wasn’t too… what’s the word…I want to it to be less like “oh I want to be an artist,” more like something I naturally tend to, so I want to just do this. Last semester I did nothing musical. The only thing I did was an installation art piece, and there were still sound aspects to it, but I was less interested in making something. And then that feeling of wanting to make something came back as the semester went on and so I did it and then people started talking to me and then I started talking to more people and now they’re asking me to play shows. For me, it’s less like… I don’t mind if I play shows. I like doing them and there are times when I want to. But I feel like sometimes it just happen-chances upon me.
RC: So the way you narrativize the break you took last semester is that you wanted to naturally want it?
S: Kind of, yeah. It was like if I felt like I was forcing myself to do things it wouldn’t come out in a way I wanted. I feel like in some ways the best thing I’ve ever done musically was this album I made that was the first one I ever released through an independent label and it was called Yukashima, and it was about my girlfriend, basically.
RC: I love that album. It’s so great.
S: Thanks! I did the whole thing at the end of the school year because I was in this weird place where I was done with school but I was home and I knew I was gonna see my girlfriend this summer. I missed her but I also like didn’t really know what I was doing in life and so the music just came naturally. Things since then have been a little more like… it was more like I was trying to do something specific with different styles like “oh I wanna do this or play with this.” Which is fine. They’ve been useful exercises but musically I feel I’m at my best when I’m… when things are just like coming out of me.
RC: Yeah, organic, definitely. If Yukashima was about your girlfriend. What is your latest release, Hologram Summer, about?
S: Hologram Summer was a little more intellectual. I think I was caught up in this whole very Tumblr, very… I don’t know… broad-range aesthetics and ideas that I just wanted to sort of filter through and like pick one. And I liked the idea of what a hologram was and what a simulation was. And then I remember reading this idea about how this entire universe could be a hologram, so I thought about how like… what if you just put somebody in a hologram of their regular lives, like they knew they were doing the same things as their regular life but they knew it wasn’t real, and what would happen. And the music doesn’t reflect the feeling of it as much as it emphasizes how much I was just working with things that I wasn’t even… that I was trying very consciously to work with. The sounds were things I was very consciously like “Ok I’m not familiar with this type of sound. Let me try to use it.” And like let me try to simulate this kind of new Sinjihn who is very conscious of these musical styles and knows them, without actually being that person. So it kind of was at the end of the day personal, but there are other aspects of it. Like I remember I think at least half of the tracks on that one were started when I didn’t have a computer and I was living at my uncles house during my semester off and I had an MPC. And like the only thing I could do when I was bored was to just mess with it, cause I was just living in the Bronx and it was like an hour and a half away from school. And so during that time period and I felt very much like I wasn’t, like, real. Because I wasn’t doing anything with my life because I was taking a semester off. And it kind of just felt like I was in this negative space of like “I have no idea what I’m doing.” And so that feeling of things not being real was I thought of like a hologram.
RC: You said in your Bandcamp profile that you’re a “seventeen-year-old Japanese girl in a black male body.” Explain that for me. How do you see that as a—
S: [Laughs] I wrote that when I was seventeen. Now I’m twenty-one. I think there’s some of it that still rings true. Back then, when I didn’t know a lot about Japan — now I know a decent amount — like there are certain things that you just project onto images of things. So for me, I had the desire to sort of be immersed in Japanese culture, but not so much the culture as the idea of unabashedly liking all these genres of music without having to worry about social pressure, because that’s my idea of Japan as I understand it. There are a lot of different scenes in Japan that people get into but there’s a lot of mutual respect outside of these scenes, like “You like this, and that’s cool. You like that, and that’s cool.” And your whole persona is defined on those scenes. And all these people do their own thing and have fun.
RC: And it’s not like that in America.
S: It’s not. Because I feel like your identity gets so tied into what you like and people start to judge you for it and you feel that pressure when people judge you for it. So if I told someone I listen to Japanese rave music —
RC: — you’d become the Japanese rave music guy.
S: Yeah, I’d become the Japanese rave music guy. And so my calling myself that person stuck in a Japanese girl’s body was a way of self-protection, being sort of self-conscious about my music tastes while acknowledging that “this is me,” like, not trying to be someone who likes something that I don’t like. And I feel like if I say that thing in my Bandcamp then people will intuitively understand what I’m about. And there’s no coincidence that there’s this whole — I don’t want to say “social phenomenon” — but there’s an archetype now of nerdy black guys who like are into rap and also like anime.” And I fell into that hole a bit when my first fans were people who were really into anime and all this stuff, and I was kind of turned off by it, because I thought “I don’t really want to reach these people.”
RC: So you realized that you were fitting into a niche that people wanted to see you as?
S: Yeah, exactly. And I really wanted to make sure that my music wasn’t about aesthetics as much as it is personal. And I feel like I’m at that place now, where I’m not so concerned about what picture to attach to the Soundcloud audio thing, you know what I mean? Just like, whatever. The music will speak for itself sometimes. Having an image is nice, but like…
RC: That’s not what comes first.
S: Yeah, yeah.
RC: We haven’t really gotten the chance to talk about Buddhism at all yet. That’s something we both have in common. How do you see Buddhism playing into your music?
S: Yeah, I think the aspect that’s helped me a lot is the concept of practice. Buddhism in general, like… the big insight of the Buddha I think was that... that your own liberation is not a question of existence. It’s a question of practice. I feel like a lot of times in the West people are concerned with why does this exist, or what is this, but the Buddha doesn’t care about what things are. He cares about how to stop suffering. Because he’s changing the question from “why do I exist?” to “how can I keep existing well?” And I feel like for music, I would be wrapped up in all these silly questions like “Am I doing this right? Is my aesthetic good?” All these silly questions that aren’t relevant to the process of making music, which is what I care about. And like I love sound, and I love music, and all these other thoughts are going to stop me from doing this and growing. And so the mentality of just keep working continuously, being observant of your process, being observant of your environment, without being thrown off-kilter by whatever feelings come up, whatever other things come up, like just keep doing it, so it doesn’t have to be an existential question every time you make a track.
RC: Yeah, a big part of Buddhism and meditation in general that I find applies well in this way is the concept of “being here,” existing entirely in the present and not having your mind wander off to thinking about the past or future.
S: Yeah, I think the “being here” aspect is definitely true. But “being here” also forces you to acknowledge that time goes from present to past, and that being here means looking at your influences of the past and you’re looking at your experiences and seeing “oh this is affecting me now.” And so by "being here" you have the ability to change how you relate to the past and change how you relate to your experiences and your influences, and that’s how I think of things. Like, “I came from this background. My parents are immigrants. I study this. My mom raised me to be this sort of person.” And then I have this narrative I’m attached to, and then I just say “Okay, this is how I’ve been functioning, with this narrative, but it’s just a narrative. That’s all it is.” So musically, I don’t want to get caught up in he narrative of, “he was a young ivy-league student who made music in his dorm room.”
RC: Some sort of story you’re telling yourself.
S: Yeah, exactly, or that other people will create for me, but I’m not interested in that. I’m just interested in continuing what I’m doing.
RC: Yeah, just doing.
S: Yeah, totally. It took me a while to arrive at this point of clarity, cause like this is such a recent development and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m so… far ahead or like…
RC: Some sort of “changed person”.
S: Yeah, exactly, because there are definitely times when I sort of… fuck up I guess.
RC: Tell me what you think of this, but I feel like, as an electronic musician myself, that there’s this phenomenon of the “facade” we put on —
S: Yeah [laughs] I know exactly what you’re talking about. That “I’m not a real musician,” or something.
RC: [Laughs] Yeah, sort of! Like, there's this secret that no listener knows and no beatmaker ever wants to say: that it’s actually really easy to make beats.
S: Yeah, no, exactly, exactly. [Laughs]
M: Like only the person who makes the beats can assimilate their influences to make that exact sound, but the actual act of doing it —
S: — is not that difficult.
RC: Yeah, it’s not that difficult. It’s not like when you’re a classical composer, poring over your score, culling the sounds out of your brain onto the page.
S: Yeah, that’s where the whole “narrative” aspect of making music helped me with that. Because like the story of the composer laboring over notating his music and creating his symphony that all these rich white people love is cool. But it’s just one narrative. And here’s another narrative: like, a generation of young people who love music enough and have the resources to do it whenever they want, and do whatever they want based on what’s happened to them. That’s another narrative, but they’re both just narratives to me.
But there’s definitely a lot of social conflict with the beat thing, in the sense that... you tell someone “yeah, I make beats” and they’re like “oh, well obviously. You’re wearing a snapback.” You know what I mean? There’s like all this stuff that just gets tied into it, how you look and stuff. And I’m honestly tired of it, but I’m not tired of it in the sense that I don’t want to hear people talk about it. I’m tired of it in the sense that I know people will cast those things onto me, but I’m not going to let that affect how I approach what I think is work.
I think that the barrier of entry for making electronic music has been lowered by a product of the fact that everyone has a computer and they know that things have become simple. And the job of computer scientists is to make things easier for people. Like Ableton is super easy. You don’t even need to DJ it like you had to do traditionally. I think that people forget that if something is lost, something else is gained, but loss and gain are just a natural product of change in general. Like things come and then they'll go. Like there will be a time when you won’t have people using turntables or something. And maybe DJing does die, like that original idea of some using headphones, trying to find when the kick starts or something. Like that idea will probably die, and that’s… okay.
RC: So with your live set-up, what do you think of the contention that electronic artists, DJs, you can’t really “see” the performance. It’s just them on a computer. And what do you think of people like Baths who are doing playback but manipulating the audio in live time using an MPD or something?
S: I feel like a lot of the discussion around it is people feeling like that have to compensate for it with theatrics or performance elements. I don’t think DJing is a performance, in general. I think it gets lumped into the same category, but my idea of DJ is that people come to a place to dance, and like they shouldn’t even necessarily be looking at me. I mean, they can — it’s cool to know there’s a person behind it, but if you go to club to dance and listen to music, what does it matter who's doing it, what they’re doing, where it came from. If you go to a show, where you’re thinking “oh I want to see someone perform,” then you understand that you have expectations, that you want to share a performance. So Baths is someone who performs. He sings a little bit. He does his live looping of guitars sometimes, and people know that about him and go to see him do that, but he performs knowing also that like “okay, these are the electronic elements that people think are cool to see in a performance.” But if you go to see a performance and you just see a guy standing behind a computer the whole time, you may be disappointed. Then again, there are definitely some people who go just to hear music. I definitely do that. Like the performance aspect of it is cool, and it enhances it, but it’s notnecessarily for me.
RC: And that’s sort of because you don’t really see yourself as a performer.
S: Yeah, I’m not a performer. Or not in some aspects. Like I don’t buy MIDI controllers so people can see me using them and be like “oh, that’s cool.” What I wanna do when I play music, if I’m DJing or something, is to have people hear sounds, and give them an experience that I want them to have. It’s very personal. I want to make sure it’s clear to people is that electronic music has performance aspects. Like people like Bjork or Imogen Heap do a lot of performance stuff with technology. But the music of those people isn’t like the music of the young New York club-goer who wants to just go out and be in a dirty warehouse with a bunch of sweaty people and have this rave experience. And those people also have their own idea of what an enjoyable time for them should be, and so they don’t expect a Bjork when they go to a club or something. They don’t care if they just see someone with headphones bobbing their head to something, because they came there to do something specific. So I think the remedy to this whole issue is be clear about what you want to see when you go to something, and be clear as an artist about what you want to do. I think you shouldn’t feel too much pressure to be like “oh, I do electronic music. That means I have to perform to compensate for the lack of things electronic musicians have tied in with them.” It’s not really about that.
RC: So what’s Simara coming out with next?
S: I have an EP coming out called Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and it’s sort of an homage to this woman Buddhist monk who’s now ordained in the Tibetan tradition. And her mentality of enlightenment was like… there are a lot of questions such as “Can women be enlightened? Can they be monks?” and she was very dedicated to the idea that you can be enlightened while you’re in the woman form. I thought the idea behind it… this vow to become enlightened in “the form of a woman,” which is how the Buddhists phrase it, is important because it goes against this idea that the only way to be happy or liberated is to have a certain set of specific qualities. That you have to be a male, that you have to be rich, that you have to be raised well, all these kinds of things. I’m very much into the idea that no matter how far down you are on the political or social food chain, you still have the ability to be liberated or do what you want to do. It takes a lot of work and it’s harder, but you can still do it. And that hope is what I care about. And I care that a lot of people have that hope. So the EP is just kind of my expression of my feelings toward that hope through her stuff.
Listen to more of Simara on his Bandcamp