Thomas Arsenault still speaks like a New Yorker — urgently, with a mixture of ironic self-deprecation and clear-eyed confidence, a warmth cutting through his torrential sentences. As Mas Ysa, Arsenault became a fixture of Brooklyn’s Kent Avenue collective of musicians and artists but fled the city for greener pastures and cheaper rent, like many creatives in the midst of developers’ and Vice Media’s shameless takeover of that stretch of independent spaces. “I thought I didn’t miss it,” he says, reflecting on a recent trip to Brooklyn from his new home upstate in Lake Hill, New York. “I thought I didn’t, but all those people and all that energy — it was really awesome to be around again.”
Nostalgia aside, Arsenault’s move has proved a boon for his music. He recorded Mas Ysa’s proper debut album, Seraph, in Lake Hill, and the record speaks to its creator’s attraction to both the frenetic chaos of city life and the introspective calm the countryside can bring. Seraph brings seemingly disparate elements of classic techno, bright synthpop, spare balladry, and ambient bliss into a stunning, cohesive, and altogether moving work of art, anchored in classic singer-songwriter pop structures. The final product surprised even Arsenault. “At the time I finished the EP [his first release, 2014’s Worth], I was like, I’m going to make instrumental, beatless music for a while, experimenting with textures,” he says. “I assumed my record would be 40 percent instrumental, and that I’d have four long bangers on it. And in the end, it turned into a more songwriter-focused thing. That totally surprised me. I really didn’t think of myself as a singer-songwriter at all.”
Many of the changes in Arsenault’s songwriting over the past year or so came as a result of taking his insular songwriting process and forcing it to become more external, a thing of the world. Listen to Worth’s largely ambient or amorphous tracks, punctuated by the cathartic gems “Why” and “Shame,” compared to Seraph’s relatively straightforward run. “I had a lot of firsts between the two records,” he explains. “My first touring, my first festival, my first time mixing with someone else.” Still, the marks of success — larger and larger crowds coming to his shows, the steady rise of buzz surrounding Seraph’s release — haven’t left him with an inflated sense of self, even regarding his reputation-making live shows and their harrowing, visceral intimacy. Mas Ysa has been touring with dance-pop enthusiasts Tanlines, a group that makes easy-breezy party music at the opposite end of the spectrum from Arsenault’s emotive and often elliptical songwriting, and he speaks with refreshing candor about the dissonant pairing. “I’m not going to win over a room of people on a Friday night who are there to party with Tanlines,” he says. “I’m not going to win them over with my noise-ballad stuff. So I just don’t worry about winning them [over] or not. I try to be attentive and kind to the people who do care.”
In other words, he seems at once comfortable as something of an outsider artist within a currently hot, of-the-moment sound — earnest, electronic pop — while feeling deeply appreciative of his audience, new and old. Again, that steady realism comes from years of pushing himself further outward, toward the greater world and away from the comfort of the studio, especially while embracing the openhearted character at the core of his newer, more lyrically driven material. He’s slow to compliment himself on achieving a certain comfort with this sort of bare expression, but he acknowledges the process.
“I wouldn’t have had the — well, not necessarily the ‘courage’ to do this in my early twenties, but…” he says, shying away from the C-word. “Around my late twenties,” he continues, “and after a pretty hard breakup and a look at my life, going into my thirties, I was like, ‘Well, this is what I am.’ I kind of resolved to just be this way: ‘OK, this is who I am, and if it’s embarrassing, that’s that.’ ” He pauses. “Or if it’s embarrassing, meet me in a dark alley and I’ll break your teeth,” he finishes, laughing.
That attitude, the mixture of acceptance and defiance, stems from Arsenault’s resolution to live attentively, tuned in to his place in a world he sees as full of spiritual fuel, one pulsing with significance in even the smallest details. (“It’s pretty fucking crazy that we’re even having this conversation,” he says at one point. “The fact that that’s happening!”) Even a casual listener will pick up on Mas Ysa’s frequent use of Christian iconography for symbolic import, and Arsenault’s lyrics (see: “Look Up”; “Garden”) speak to a world of sin and grace, guilt and redemption. “My record’s called Seraph,” he says, as if spelling out the obvious, “and there’s a track called ‘Service’ with church bells in it. I don’t care what the pope has for breakfast or anything, but that language is talking about grace and eternity, and that’s just my semantic vocabulary.” He connects this belief in a higher order to a classic ritual in electronic music: “My first experiences on LSD on the dance floor in high school were always revelatory and spiritual.” Now he speaks of “using music to drown out the other stuff and get into a higher resonance, where I feel like everything is so significant.”
Copping to any sort of religious belief, let alone one grounded in an ultimately positive, hopeful faith in the universe’s interconnectivity, is largely anathema to contemporary independent music and its roots in punk rock’s sneer toward anything smacking of “traditional values.” In that way, it’s easy to see Arsenault’s openness about the wonder he feels at the world as another small act of bravery, though he’d never talk of it in such terms. Rather, he contextualizes, placing himself in a larger narrative of musicians interested in a higher consciousness, from John Prine and Van Morrison — artists he says he listened to almost exclusively when making Seraph — to more recent acts.
“I don’t mean to come across like I’m on a soapbox!” he says. “It’s just that I allow myself to feel that shit is significant. And I think, too, that in Brooklyn at the time [of Mas Ysa’s first compositions] I was caught between the reintroduction of techno to indie rock and also the generation of people before me, like Black Dice, Gang Gang [Dance], Nautical Almanac, the Baltimore noise scene — those people, without saying so, were making art based in mysticism and music as a tool for tuning yourself to the divine.”
And, further distancing himself from the current swath of EDM titans or Ableton tinkerers, he says, “I felt like a lot of electronic music — that’s just graphic design, it’s fucking heartless. ‘Well, what kick pattern is cool this week, or what funny Verizon sound or airhorn can I use?’ And the music just ends up being this fucking Tumblr activity. I don’t understand that.” Mas Ysa’s music is many things — frustrated, hopeful, fragile, colossal — but you could never call it heartless.
“For a long time,” Arsenault says, “I felt — not embarrassed, but patently uncool by expressing myself so fervently.” Luckily, he’s found his footing. Cool is ephemeral, but Arsenault’s talent — and his commitment to writing, singing, performing without shame — reaches deep into a well of creativity that seems nowhere near to running dry.
Mas Ysa will celebrate the release of Seraph at Baby’s All Right on July 27. For ticket information and more, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2015