“I’m a holy soul in a foreign land.” Hovering over a minimal, bassy synth track, the flutelike voice of Salt Cathedral’s Juliana Ronderos flickers at a low burn. “We won’t let our hearts forget this time,” she sings, the delicate musical armature around her words evaporating even as it is created. The song is “Holy Soul,” and its aching effervescence is surely one reason why it has well over 200,000 plays on SoundCloud.
Ronderos and her bandmate, guitarist Nicolas Losada, aren’t especially religious, but the spiritual tone of the name they chose suits their uplifting, crystalline electropop. “Holy Soul,” for one, is nothing if not spiritual. Over iced tea at a café in Williamsburg, Ronderos describes the song as an empathetic one. “It’s about being in this collective consciousness with other people and being an immigrant, because everyone’s life is sacred. We should have empathy and hear other people’s cries. You hear about people having to leave their homes all the time,” she says, meaning refugees of one kind or another.
Ethereal as the song is, its revelations are rooted in Ronderos’s immediate experience. The duo grew up in the same neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, and moved to New York City four years ago. They initially got together at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where they studied jazz composition, and after a period in L.A. with another project called Il Albanico. “In New York there’s people from all over the world, all walks of life,” Ronderos says. “We worked in the service industry when we first came here, and, you know, you are working in a kitchen and there’s a Mexican guy there who crossed the border illegally and he’s the same as you and you’re the same as him. And then a customer comes in and they think they know everything and they yell at you. In a way, ‘Holy Soul’ is about that.”
Independent and working on their first album, Salt Cathedral have accomplished a lot since they got to the city. They’ve toured Japan, received a 6.9 rating from Pitchfork for their second EP, 2014’s Oom Velt, and, happily, quit their day jobs. This year, they played Estéreo Picnic, a three-day, multi-stage festival in Bogotá. The all-around warm reception isn’t hard to explain. On Oom Velt, their music sparkles with surprises: Intricate dubstep dissolves into a sweet, Chvrches-style groove; a skittish drum’n’bass interlude pops up at just the right moment, spelling a tense passage of wiry r&b.
You wouldn’t call their music “jazzy,” but Ronderos can easily identify the effects of the members’ shared academic background on their songwriting. “You learn so deeply how complicated it can be that you start giving yourself freedoms to do things that you wouldn’t do by ear. You know that you can sing this tension over this thing as long as you resolve it. It just ends up sounding differently. It’s more open; there are more possibilities,” she explains, pointing out that the jazz influence has become less apparent as she and Losada, who share songwriting and production duties, expose themselves to ever greater varieties of music.
The two musicians settled in Bed-Stuy, and, along with hip-hop, Ronderos cites the reggae and dancehall they hear in the predominantly Jamaican and Caribbean neighborhood as a new influence. “We started really getting into Jamaican music, into roots and into dancehall, and dub. And we realized all this music we really liked from the U.K. came from the same place — U.K. dubstep, two-step. Being from Colombia, it makes sense. We grew up hearing a lot of reggaeton, all these Caribbean rhythms,” she says, mentioning the dub vibe on “Move Along.” Like the jazz in their DNA, the vibe is not overt, but it’s there.
Colombian fans of Il Albanico didn’t love the new band’s English-language name at first. “They’d be like, ‘You’re selling out to the gringos,’ ” Ronderos says. In truth, the name Salt Cathedral helps them connect with their new surroundings while also linking them permanently to Bogotá. It comes from a real cathedral carved into an active salt mine outside the city. “It’s a school field trip kind of place. It smells weird, like sulfur,” Ronderos says. They get asked about it in interviews a lot, something Ronderos is fine with: “This way it always comes up, like, ‘Yeah, we’re from Colombia.’ ”
There’s a bit of home in the music itself as well. The salsa and merengue they grew up dancing to left them with an ear for polyrhythms and a desire to make music that people will move to, but, at this point, everywhere they go finds a way into their songs. Ronderos took some inspiration for “Tease” from the Bollywood music she heard while traveling in India, but, again, it’s extremely subtle. Filtered through her band’s musical prism, what hits the ear is simply a dazzling rhythmic pop song, its polished surfaces scattering light in every direction.
Salt Cathedral are playing the Paper Garden Records CMJ showcase at Fulton Stall Market on October 18.