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Meet our BOTW: Mas Ysa

At the heart of Thomas Arsenault’s music as Mas Ysa – which we can only assume is a play on Mazzy Star – and behind its layers of rustling synths and serenely intoxicating textures lies a songwriter’s heart, in the truest, folksiest sense of the word. Whether the 30-year-old, Woodstock-based musician is dabbling in ambient balladry – see ‘Life Way Up From’, which could almost pass for an Eno-produced Cocteau Twins track – or pulsating, motorik electro (‘Why’), his music is struck through with a confessional tone that only serves to make it more endearing.

That sense of honesty and personality is traceable to an adolescence spent in Brazil – he moved there from his native Montreal as a child – a country whose people Arsenault describes as being, “culturally very open”. He’s spent time living in San Francisco and New York too – the latter seeing him sharing a flat with Laurel Halo, hosting EMA in his studio and touring with Deerhunter and Purity Ring  - but is also quick to assure us he isn’t nomadic, an angle some people have been quick to jump on: “I’ve held a studio down for seven years in the same place. I’m actually more of a nester.”

From the haven of his Woodstock base, we caught up with Arsenault to chart his intriguing journey and find out about the influence of acid techno on life in Brazil, how he was certain until the age of 25 that Van Morrison would look just like his father [spoiler alert: he didn't] and where he’s at with his debut album proper.

PlanetNotion: It seems as though the press have been very quick to focus in on the nomadic angle of your story. Do you feel that’s something that’s been overdone?
Thomas Arsenault: Yes. I do in that I’ve held a studio down for seven years in the same place. I think that the nomadic thing comes more from the way I’ve personally identified with my national identity, rather than me actually having gear in a bag and being on a train.

Obviously I didn’t make up the word nomadic – I don’t read my own one-sheets. I think it also came from the fact I’ve been in California a bit, and then back to New York, and then when I got evicted I just picked up and moved. It’s a convolution of things that – in and of themselves – would make you see I’m not nomadic at all; I’m actually more of a nester.

PN: Have you found that living in all these places at one time or another has had much of an impact on you as a musician? Or are you more insular when it comes to inspiration?
TA: I think my time in Brazil has everything to do with it. My music can be very personal and confessional. As far as electronic music goes, it sits more in the folk function than the club. Going through my formative and pubescent years in Brazil had a big effect. I think it was a really important time as you get introduced to music that you use to identify yourself and your social life.

PN: What was it like as a place to grow up?
TA: It was absolutely amazing. Culturally, Brazilians are very open and I felt really welcomed. Also, learning another language was great for my young mind. There was a hefty amount of listening to Brazilian national music, alongside hard and acid techno; going to parties that were really open and unhinged. A lot of London-based producers were a big deal for us: The Liberators, Julian & Chris, D.A.V.E. the Drummer, Yolk Records. A lot of the techno that was popular in London at the time – the harder stuff – was also really well received in Brazil.

PN: Before moving to Brazil, you first grew up in Montreal. What records were you exposed to at a really young age?
TA: Mostly the same stuff that I listen to now, which would be John Prine, Van Morrison… I was actually thinking yesterday about how I’m not a music collector at all. In terms of my current influence, 50% is music my friends make and the other 50% is the music that we email each other. I’m not on blogs seeking stuff out or anything, but I was thinking about record covers and how I’d never seen Van Morrison until I was 25. I really thought he’d look like my father.

My mother’s from Ecuador and in the Latin community the Gypsy Kings are a very big deal. My grandfather was a deacon so a lot of Gregorian chant and choral music too.

PN: The EP’s got quite a variety of tracks on it. There are the ambient passages, the big belt-out moments like ‘Why’, and then some softer balladry too. Is that eclecticism reflective of you?
TA: For sure. When it comes to making an ambient record, or writing a ballad or a banger, none takes precedent for me – neither one is any more cathartic. I don’t set out to do either, they just happen. When I was a battle DJ in high school and I got my first sampler, the first thing I made on it was a really slow, delayed flute piece and it’s not because I didn’t want to make hip-hop, I just don’t know the difference between one thing and the other: the only real change is the BPM.

PN: After the EP’s seen release and you’ve supported it, what do you see yourself doing next?
TA: Mostly, when I’m playing live I’m doing stuff that’s going to come out on the full-length so I’m going to be touring a little bit and laying those tracks down. I’ll be simultaneously writing new stuff too.

PN: How’s the full-length sounding at this point in time?
TA: I look at tracks like ‘Vanya’, ‘Ktidal’ and ‘Yes’ as being moments that happened in my studio, but there are 600 of these moments a year. Live, I’ll also have these moments but I don’t necessarily plan to commit them to vinyl or even to a second day.

I’m really into it. I wrote some stuff yesterday and I’m feeling really good about it all. I’m enjoying a lot of the tracks that I play out, so I think that when it gets into recording them and tracking vocals, hopefully I’ll feel good too.

Right now, I’m certainly not nomadic. I’m plugged in here.

- Alex Cull

The Worth EP is available now on Downtown Records.

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