By Tyler Bunzey
December 16, 2021
Photo: Britni West
As her band played the final playful riffs of “Hold U” for a packed Asheville crowd at the Grey Eagle on November 16th, Indigo De Souza bent down to adjust her guitar pedals, preparing for the next song. But the crowd hadn’t had enough. The crowd began to sing out the refrain a capella: “I will hold you. I will hold you, oh, I will hold you.” As this congregation continued to celebrate the album’s hymn to queer love, De Souza’s bassist Zack Cordon and guitarist Avery Sullivan shared a knowing glance and immediately picked up the interwoven bass and guitar riffs that underpin the song. Indigo didn’t even stand up. She just kept looking down, smiling coyly while she waited for the band to conclude a brief coda to one of her most popular songs.
This kind of power– somehow both intentional and organic, both toilsome and effortless– marks Indigo De Souza’s artistry across live performances and her recorded repertoire. The Asheville performer, originally from Spruce Pine, is enjoying well-deserved praise for her 2021 critically acclaimed album Any Shape You Take, a loping exploration of the ancient interdependence of love and pain.
Any Shape, which was awarded the coveted “Best New Music” label from review behemoth Pitchfork, particularly explores the love/pain dyad through the contours of emotional collectivity.
“I feel inspired by humanity that is collective,” De Souza explained in a phone interview. “And it feels as if my emotions are not actually personal, because…they’re not personal, and they’re also not special because I’m just a human.”
Her conceptual exploration of what it means to be human is the quality that makes De Souza’s most recent record such an accomplishment. She, in spite of wielding what seems to be superhuman power at times, is undeniably human. It’s hard not to empathize with her desperate repetition of “I’d rather die than see you cry” on “Die/Cry.” Her ambiguous breakup anthem “Pretty Pictures” heartbreakingly details the misgivings of ending a toxic relationship with someone you love. The album’s fulcrum, “Real Pain,” devolves into a screeching mélange of human screams and wailing guitar feedback as she reflects on her experience of love and lack.
While many musical treatments of love and pain can resort to navel gazing, De Souza turns toward the collective to share that pain. “And all of the things that I’m feeling are not special,” De Souza said. “I just am a person who exists and feels things that other people have felt and feel too. It feels special to kind of share a space of raw emotion and invite people into it because it’s not a coveted or exclusive space. It just is.”
On “Real Pain,” for example, she engenders this kind collective experience by using a collage of fans’ screams in the moment of catharsis to invite her audience into her encounter. At her show in Asheville, “Real Pain” was a sublime performance moment, a blending of rock and religion, as hundreds of voices screamed, hooped, and hollered before she walked offstage to await her encore. It was a hair-raising moment in which each individual became a part of the collective scream, out of time and out of place.
These are the moments fans crave from her live shows, and they are the reason that her first headlining tour has been well attended and, in many places, sold out. De Souza seemed still in a state of mild shock as we discussed her recent performances: “There were so many people that were listening that knew the words and that were excited to come to the show. In every spot that we played, there wasn’t one show, where there wasn’t a room filled with people. And that was crazy to see.”
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Fans poured into her shows from Atlanta to D.C. to Boston to Chicago to get a taste. While obviously flattered by her fans, she also places a great deal of artistic responsibility in the organization of her live performances. She eschews what she calls performance “fluff”– like fog machines, lasers, graphics, etc.– for a stripped-down show that allows for emotional communion.
This kind of communion night after night can be quite emotionally taxing. De Souza sounded a bit weary as we talked right after her return to Asheville from the first leg of the tour. “It’s a very exhausting show. Because it’s an hour of me, like before I go on stage, every time I am making a decision to completely freak out on stage for an hour and give all of my energy and all of my emotion to the show. And in doing so, I’m inviting the audience to fully enter that space with me,” she said.
In spite of the exhaustion, it’s this intentional energy in her performances that mark the allure of her album. Her effort to show up with emotional honesty to each show guarantees audiences they will have a chance to share in her musical journey. It is precisely that vulnerability that earned her acclaim in this most recent release.
This fresh attention, however, has its drawbacks. Any Shape marks the first time De Souza has received this degree of critical attention. Although she usually shields herself from new music in her creative process because she is a self-described “sponge,” she couldn’t help but check out some of the music criticism being written about the album. After watching a particularly frank Anthony Fontano video review, however, De Souza found that criticism ultimately wasn’t healthy for her to consume: “It just wasn’t helpful for me to watch them and that I know how I feel about my music. I don’t care about how people on the outside are digesting [it].”
But De Souza was far from dismissive. She provided a reflection that inadvertently challenges others to examine their own approaches to music criticism. “I made [the album] from a space of complete openness and raw emotional catharsis. And so I think if a person is listening to it with a critical brain, then they might just miss the point of the album altogether,” she said.
Such thoughtfulness and self-awareness led her to seek a deal with Saddle Creek, the indie label under which she released Any Shape. De Souza carefully shopped deals for over a year with her manager, booking agent, and music lawyer advising her. She settled on Saddle Creek because she felt like the label offered “real and genuine” relationships centering on the artist– both an age-old problem in the music industry and an increasing concern in the streaming age.
Through Saddle Creek, she was able to link up with producer Brad Cook (Snail Mail, Bon Iver, Waxahatchee), who helped her transition from the DIY production of I Love My Mom to the more polished Any Shape. For her, working with Cook was an opportunity to find her own voice with the guidance of a veteran producer: “I didn’t want anyone that was like young and hip and trying to bring their indie rock spice to the album. I just landed on Brad because I liked his energy.”
Cook helped her connect to some of North Carolina’s most significant indie studios as well. In addition to working with Cook at his house in Durham, De Souza also recorded significant portions of the album in Sylvan Esso’s Betty’s Studios and Asheville’s Drop of Sun.
In these collaborations, as much as Any Shape is a product of the Indigo’s self-exploration, it’s also a product of North Carolina’s underappreciated music scene, especially in Asheville. When I asked her about her time in Asheville, she gave a glowing evaluation of the city’s significance to her.
“…It’s just like the most beautiful place to live in America,” she said. “The temperature is so nice year-round, and the trees and rivers and the mountains are just so wonderful. They just feel really good for my body.”
Between the region’s scenic beauty and the possibility to work with other prominent Asheville-based artists like Moses Sumney and Angel Olsen, it’s unlikely De Souza will leave the city for greener musical pastures. “I think in the past, if you’d asked me a couple years ago, I would have said I’m definitely going to leave,” she said. “But since then, I have created this really deeply life-giving community. And I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people.”
After seeing the undeniable command of her home crowd in November, it makes sense why De Souza would be hesitant to leave. From her first appearance on stage, she transformed into a steely, determined rocker who was a far cry from the thoughtfully reticent artist I had spoken to just a week before. She is a shapeshifter, able to sit thoughtfully with herself in one context and move the crowd with a wave of her hand in another. De Souza wields indelible power in her music, a power that is simultaneously innovative and classic.
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De Souza’s music reaches towards a death to the self, one that is accompanied with a rebirth into mutually affirming collective compassion. Her artistry pushes us to curate a kind of love that moves beyond the ego, sharing in moments of connection, so we can better love each other no matter what shape we might take.