The energetic catharsis of Valley
The Toronto band's Karah James talks horoscopes, Kacey Musgraves, and why negative emotions stick like velcro
In times of uncertainty, it feels euphoric to shut out the world for just a few moments. There is power in the act of donning headphones, turning up the volume, and letting yourself dance free. And if you're looking for the right soundtrack, look no further than indie-pop group Valley.
The quartet consists of friends Rob Laska, Karah James, Alex Dimauro, and Michael Brandolino. Just last week, they released their EP sucks to see you doing better into the world. Originally from the suburbs of Oakville and Burlington, the group are currently Toronto-based, but their energetic music has taken them far beyond city limits. When I ask drummer-vocalist Karah how it feels to release this most recent collection of songs, she compares the moment to Christmas.
"Honestly, it feels so good! I feel like you sit on songs for so long, and you hold them so close to your heart, and then eventually you have to put down the paintbrush and let them live in the public world. Hopefully other people receive them as well as you think they will, and that’s all you can hope for."
Can you guys celebrate the release or is it hard because of the pandemic?
We’re not gonna have a big party or anything, but we’re celebrating, chilling as a band. We’re gonna be visiting our friends Babygirl, they’re a super cool band that just released a song today. Lots of good music came out at midnight, so it’s been very overwhelming in the best way possible.
Where did the idea of this EP come from- was it always planned, or has it evolved into something a bit unexpected?
It wasn’t always planned. It starts to date back since last November when we were in LA just doing sessions everyday. We’d come off that North American tour and we had a lot to write about. We started writing about our immediate feelings- not necessarily permanent stuff that we knew would last, but just tapping into those day-to-day feelings. We ended up with 50 or 60 songs, quite a large box of demos. Fast forward to May when the pandemic was in the heat of things (I guess it still is now), but we were sort of adjusting. We got a house and started living together as a band. We were just recording the demos that we had written in LA, the ones that were sticking with us, the ones that we would go back to on a daily. We recorded about six songs, and we didn’t know what we were going to do with them originally- since we couldn't tour them, it didn't feel right to release a full-length LP. We felt better about releasing singles here and there. I would say late August we were just like: we should release an EP. Here we are, two months later. It’s been a wild ride.
Does Valley have a mantra of living in the moment and embracing the moment?
I think we try our best to live in the current moment, especially with social media. We live in such an immediate day and age, where everything is at our disposal and is disposable, like scrolling through Tiktoks- you see it, you like it, you laugh, and you move on.
I think it’s really easy to lose sight of the present moment and the physical moment, but I think that’s how some of the best art is created. When you’re not ruminating on something that happened such a long time ago, [but rather] it’s something that you feel now and you can write about now. You can write about it in a day or a couple hours, it comes to you, and I think that’s when you’re going to get the most genuine songs. It’s kind of funny- some of the songs we’ve been the most proud of, I don’t even remember writing them. Genuinely, and not to be all hippy or anything, but it feels like such a spiritual moment when you’re really in the moment.
Going back to Tiktok, you guys are getting a lot of attention on there in indie-music compilation videos. Does it ever feel overwhelming or too fast?
It can feel overwhelming, but in tandem with feeling very excited and very grateful for people acknowledging your music and your band. I think as long as we’re not taking for granted all the faceless people, because we can’t put faces to names when it’s behind a screen. But when we go on tour and we get to meet those accounts, we get to meet the analytics, the people that are streaming our music... When we’re on tour and we actually get to put faces to names and meet them and share stories... That’s when it really pays off. It just warms our heart that people are listening to our music around the world.
Speaking about touring, you guys did a huge leg with Lennon Stella and The Band Camino- is there any other band or artist that you dream of touring with in the future?
Oh my gosh! We love Kacey Musgraves, so on our song "sucks to see you doing better" we put a little "Lonely Weekend" [reference] into the second verse. And we tweeted the lyrics and she liked the tweet- so Kacey, take us on tour! That would be a dream come true. All of our music is so influenced by her. I think it would be so rad to tour with someone like Clairo, or Harry Styles, iconic people that you dream of meeting one day. Lennon was that person; one day you get a call that she wants to bring you on tour, and it’s just crazy, but dreams do come true. We’re manifesting Kacey, Clairo, Harry... Putting it out into the universe.
The formation of Valley was kind of a happy accident. Six and a half years later, how does it feel looking back at that chance meeting?
The formation was very organic, we met at a studio when we were double booked and naturally became friends. Very shortly after we met, we started making music together. It was a no-brainer to start a band, because we’re all filling in the gaps that we’ve been looking for musically. We’re super grateful that we met each other because I think our lives would’ve been very different had we not been in that studio that same day, and we didn’t have any mutual friends or anything- if we hadn’t met there, I don’t think we would’ve met regardless. It was a crazy serendipitous fate situation.
On this EP, there’s such a focus on specific details and mundane references. Are these all real personal stories, or do you combine the real with the imaginary?
I think it’s very true, whether those things happened to us or to close friends of ours. Like [the lyric] horoscope says that I’m psycho in "homebody". This is kind of dumb, but we have the app Co–Star and it’s just kind of a fun thing to wake up in the morning and scroll through your phone and you go to Co–Star and it’s like: Today you’re gonna trip over a grape, and it’s not gonna be fun! Sometimes it’s weirdly specific and you’re like: Oh my God do I leave the house today, what do I do!? Or things like watching The Office from season one, we all watch way too much Office, way too much... Jan from The Office is actually a fan of the band!
I know, it’s actually wild! I love her so much, her name is Melora Hardin. That was a crazy thing for us. Or you watch a series with a significant other or a good friend, and then that person is just out of your life all of a sudden and it’s a surreal moment of: I don’t want to dwell on this but… I think I’m going to rewatch that entire show just to make it feel like we still know each other. We call those "chandelier moments" when we’re writing- like this has been a very broad song until now, and that’s when those specific references come out. We try to use references that can also be relatable to other people, not too specific, so that other people can also connect.
Listening to Valley, I feel like my first instinct is to dance around, but when you listen a bit closely, the lyrics seem a bit sad- where does the idea to make bops out of sad situations come from?
It’s easier for us to write sad songs, and I'm not sure why. It’s easier to pull more emotion from the sad versus [something] positive, and I think that’s very much an instinctual thing. Like if you’re being chased by a creature, something tells you to run- it’s fight or flight. The negative sticks to us like velcro, and it protects us from [future] difficult emotions. But then the positive is like teflon; we experience it and it slides away, but it doesn’t innately help to protect us. That’s a very prehistoric caveman way of thinking but I think our brains are still wired like that today. So it’s very instinctual for us to write about sad things. It just hits harder for us.
And then the second thing- so you have your sad lyrics and melodies, but the production of it and the arrangement and the instrumentation is something that we design for live settings. So when we’re in a writing session as a band, if it’s not a lyric that you can scream at the top of your lungs at the end of a set in a venue, or a drum part that’s going to get people hyped at the beginning of a show... We’re constantly thinking about the need to translate these songs live in a way that just makes us the coolest band in the world- that’s the goal! We want the show to be as good as we can possible make it, and for people to have that experience when they come to a Valley show. Literally just about making it a party, an event! We want pyro eventually! It’s gonna get crazy… when we have the budget.
And especially when you're touring with Kacey Musgraves!
One of my favourite things about this EP is we get to hear you sing a lot more. How does it feel to grow from harmonizing, to main vocals?
Transparently I’m not a singer by trade, I only really started with the band. The reason that I started singing on a lot of the songs was more as a technical reason. [Lead singer] Rob is a baritone, so his range is very much on the bottom side of things. And when we were writing a lot of songs (because we’re all writers in the band), [guitarist] Mickey is a high tenor, and I'm a low alto, so we have all these different ranges. And Mickey writes a part that’s way too high for Rob to sing, so we hit these technical bumps in the road and start thinking: how do we make this part have energy, how do we make it sound exciting?
Initially, it was like: Karah you should try doubling Rob’s part and doing a harmony, just to give it those higher frequencies. And then we just started building the brand around that. We wanted our vocals to sound like another instrument. It brings a different flavour to the music. Mind you though, it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare too, because live I’m also playing drums so it’s an adjustment at first. But I’m taking vocal lessons and my teacher is great, she helps me be able to do both at the same time. Definitely a bit of a learning curve!
What’s next for Valley? What can we expect after this EP?
We’re always writing! I think where our heads are at at this point in time, because we’re living in such an indefinite world, it would be nice to just release music when we’d like. For example, I think moving forward, if we write a song, our dream would just be like: we wrote a song this week, recorded it, and we want to release it next week. There’s no intense release plan or anything, we’ve been rolling with the punches.
We’re living in such a difficult time for so many people around the world, it can feel a little strange to be like: kudos to all the healthcare workers out there, here I am sitting in my basement stressing over verse 2 of this song. It kind of feels a bit selfish- we need to be human beings, productive members of society. What we’re trying to do, as well as other artists, is to make this time just a little bit easier with music, to have that part of your day where you're living in a different moment for just a few seconds, despite everything that’s going on. Originally when we started the band, it was for us, we wanted to make music for us. But now it’s in tandem, because it’s so much bigger than the four of us; it truly is so special to be able to have that narrative with people around the world. So I think just striving to continue to release stuff that makes people happy, that’s the only thing I think we can do. That’s what we can bring, and we’ll try to do that to the best of our abilities.
Stream "hiccup" off Valley's EP sucks to see you doing better, out now.