On a bustling Thursday morning, I spoke over the phone with Mia Berrin, lead singer and songwriter of Pom Pom Squad. We discussed the inspiration behind her new EP “Ow” and the role of boundaries in an artist’s life when producing personal pieces.
By Xana Pierone
Rare Candy: Reading your recent press releases and interviews, I’ve seen you speak a lot about the emotions driving the past few singles and the EP in general. Could you speak a bit about how you approached writing these songs while engaging with these intense emotions?
Mia Berrin: I wish that I had more of a process. I had a lot of mentors tell me that writing happens when you’re sitting down with your guitar—and as much as I agree with that, and as much as I believe that it’s a really good way to exercise that muscle—I feel like I do my best songwriting when certain lyrics come to me or when certain topics come up, rather than when I’m trying to force myself to think about them. I wrote this EP all last summer, and I was in a pretty intense emotional state. I tend to get into very heightened emotional places when I’m on the verge of making a huge change in my life or when I reach this breaking point of knowing that things have to change, and these songs happened from that place of having to process those emotions and put them into words.
RC: Do you find that songwriting is cathartic, or do you feel like it’s equal parts relief and labor?
MB: It’s definitely equal parts. I feel like the whole EP has this element of learning how to say the blunt thing rather than working for the smartest thing to say. I labored over “Heavy Heavy” in that way, where lyrically I was scared of it being too simple. When I showed it to my friends , I was like, “is this all too obvious?” and it turned out that was kind of the key. So in that way, it was a labor, like sometimes seeming obvious is more of a labor than seeming smart.
RC: Do you feel like more of the labor comes from working through the riffs and the words more so than dealing with the emotions? Not to quantify it, but I’m just curious.
MB: I think it all feeds into each other. The emotions were hard. At that time, I was in therapy a lot, and I was back home and had a lot of alone time to sit and be with myself and think, and writing is something that helps me process in a more rewarding way than just having to be by myself with my thoughts. It was all difficult. I think the emotions were definitely hard. It’s funny, once all the songs were written, there’s a part of me that feels like it was the easiest thing in the world to do, but I know that at the time it definitely wasn’t. I use songwriting as this challenge to myself to occupy my mind a little bit more. I thought I was distracting myself, but I was actually just digging deeper into it.
RC: Yeah, I was going to ask: it seems like digging into songwriting is a kind of self care. We think of self care as just indulging in whatever, but self care is also dealing with your emotions in a healthy way. It sounds like the songwriting was a form of self care, but do you feel like you did other things to balance out the powerful emotional and therapeutic work you were doing?
MB: Self care has this reputation where people thing “do that face mask” or “get a bath bomb” — and those things are self care, and they definitely can be, but I also believe that self care isn’t easy. Taking care of yourself is not easy. Sometimes the bath bomb is self care, but sometimes going to therapy is self care or writing a song is self care. I think around that time songwriting was therapeutic, definitely.
RC: I don’t mean for all my questions to be so intense and focusing on emotions!
MB: It’s an intense thing!
RC: I feel like even this process of doing interviews necessitates dealing with these emotions again.
MB: Once the EP was done, I had to start writing about it as a thing people are going to consume, rather than my baby or a thing I wrote. It was difficult, and it still is difficult for me to decide what to talk about from my personal life that inspired the album. Undoubtedly, it is a very personal piece, but I also feel like me speaking on it in such a literal way kind of spoils something about it for a listener. I remember there would be songs that I loved as a teenager, and then I would hear the songwriter say something sort of shitty about it, or be like “I’m actually not proud of this song” / “I hate this song” and it almost felt like a condemnation of what I felt for the song. So I don’t want to ruin it for somebody else, but I’m also prepared to talk about the subject matter because it is really intense, and I think part of me didn’t realize that about it. I know of the issues of mental health and the issues of trauma are intense subjects, but when you deal with them in a day-to-day fashion, they become part of your life. It’s like when you can learn to talk about something without crying, you know?
RC: Definitely. When I was coming up with questions for this, I wanted to be careful, because I feel like there’s a sense of entitlement that listeners can have towards artists, especially women who have allowed themselves to be vulnerable. There’s an expectation that, “you’ve been vulnerable once, so give us everything.” Have you had to set some boundaries with yourself when preparing for the interview process?
MB: I am privileged in the sense that I can think about these things somewhat passively. I feel like I’m lucky enough to be in a really good place with myself right now, so that when I’m asked a question — unless it’s offensive — I’m not going to shame someone for asking something personal because answering those questions can give something to somebody. Maybe something I’m going through relates to someone and helps them get through that thing. But I definitely feel like I have to set boundaries for myself as an artist. At the end of the day, I’m a person and I still do go through these things and they still affect me. It’s all about perspective. To the person who is consuming the EP, maybe they feel entitled to my feelings, but also maybe there’s something in it that they can’t ask themselves, and need to ask me. I can’t always provide that, and they aren’t always aware that they’re asking for that. If it’s beyond my capacity to answer something, I won’t. I’m being really careful to set those boundaries for myself, but also being caring about setting those boundaries between myself and other people.
RC: I think that’s a really mature and beautiful way to approach interviews. Aside from the emotional aspect that what we’ve already discussed, what were some other influences for the EP?
MB: I met my current band lineup in between the last EP and this one, and our relationship is something that really inspired and uplifted the EP. When I wrote it, I thought I was going to write it, produce it, and engineer it all by myself. Since I was writing an album and working towards something else pretty actively, these songs and working on this EP hit me like a train and stopped me from progressing on everything else I was working on. When I met my bandmates, I was like “I wrote these songs, let’s see what happens when I put these in your hands.” I’m lucky to be working with an extremely emotional group of people. Something that was really touching about this experience is when I would bring a song into band practice and play it for my bandmates for the first time. Each one of them had a song that they couldn’t get through without crying.
There’s this misconception about female songwriters, this whole trend of “[songs] are pulled straight from her diary.” The diary is the messy part, the feelings are the messy part, but the song is where I give structure. For me, I’m bringing in this structured thing and, when my bandmates hear it for the first time, they react to the mess more than the structure. Having a group of people, who have their own style of playing and grew up on different influences, be so affected by the thing that I was putting in their hands was really magical. We all come from these crazy different musical backgrounds. For example Shelby, our drummer, who grew up in jazz and was inspired by Buddy Rich. Maria was listening to Guns ‘N Roses growing up and is a capital ‘M’ Musician. And then Alex Mercury, who played guitar on the EP but is no longer in our live setup is really inspired by glam rock. Ethan, who’s our new guitarist, is really inspired by David Bowie and Neil Young. We just all come from these completely different places. It was the people, more than other music, who really brought the EP to the place that it is. I think they embedded it with so much joy that it became a very different piece than if I were to be in my feelings making it by myself.
RC: I’m so happy for you that you’ve been able to have this experience of collaboration in such a meaningful way with people that you play with. I feel like that’s such a gift.
MB: It really is! I feel really fucking grateful for them. I’m such a control freak that collaboration is really scary for me, so it was a process for sure. I needed to be able to let go a little bit.
RC: Moving from then to now, what have you been listening to recently?
MB: I think the new Mannequin Pussy album is fucking genius. I’m so excited about it in a way that I haven’t been about music in a little while. I think sometimes I have trouble finding my footing in music. A lot of the time, I revisit a lot of older stuff. I tend to come late to new albums, and this was an exception where I really caught it right as it was coming out and loved it so much. I’ve recently revisited In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and I found myself super touched by it in a way that I didn’t expect. It came over the work speakers and I stopped what I was doing and had to really listen to it and that is something that is so special. I also came back to You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene, and there’s a song on it called “KC Accidental” that I really love. It’s mostly music, there’s barely any lyrics in it until the end, but it’s so compelling in a way that sometimes instrumental tracks aren’t. I’m also really into the longform album lately, like I think when it’s done well it’s done so well.