Student Spotlight: Isa Vidal on Accepting Her Shadows and Dancing With Her Ghosts – Soundfly

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Student Spotlight: Isa Vidal on Accepting Her Shadows and Dancing With Her Ghosts

This interview was conducted with Julia Pryde Thompson (a.k.a., Isa Vidal), a songwriter/producer, photographer, and Soundfly community member who recently undertook Kimbra’s Vocal Creativity, Arranging, and Production course on Soundfly.

Unlike some of the recent student artists we’ve featured in our long-running Student Spotlight series, Julia Pryde Thompson is not someone who has been active in the Soundfly community for a very long time. And because of this, her name was new to me when one day she posted the published version of her new single, “Dancing With My Ghosts,” under her Isa Vidal moniker.

Luckily I was online the moment she did. Within 20 seconds of Julia’s epic yet sultry piano ballad, you’re immediately swept up in this poetic, imagistic world she creates. I had to learn more about her. Take a listen:

In the below conversation — the result of the kind of immediate action-oriented reaction we’ve all had when we hear a song that just cuts right into us — Julia and I talk about accepting Trauma (with a capital T) and pain as a part of ourselves, the related experiences of photography and music, and what it means to dance with the ghosts of our past.

I hope you enjoyed this song as much as I did, the first and every time I have listened to it. Now please enjoy this conversation with Julia.

Q: Firstly, where does the artist moniker Isa Vidal come from? 

A: Vidal is my grandmother’s maiden name. When she married my grandfather, Marcelo Alonso, she became Esther Alonso; I’ve always loved and wanted to preserve her maiden name. My mother is Cuban and at birth gave me the most American sounding name possible, Julia Pryde Thompson — but my sister got Anna Maria Alonso Thompson. Most folks when I tell them I’m Cuban sort of smirk because apparently I don’t “look like it.”

Vidal is also a Sephardic name, and I very proudly come from a long line of Sephardic Jews who either changed their last names or moved during the Spanish Inquisition, some eventually making their way to Cuba. The name Isa came to me later. I’ve always adored the name Isabella but didn’t want to feel like I was taking on this whole other person so I shortened it. It has been amazing to feel more connected to this side of myself and have permission to express myself accordingly.

I also want to say congrats on the new single, “Dancing With My Ghosts.” It’s a beautifully recorded, sung, and arranged track in so many ways — and it’s absolutely epic! The hook is especially resonant and catchy. What in general were you looking to accomplish in the writing of this song? 

Thank you!!! It was truly terrifying to release and very much a spiritual process to make. I made the song with my partner, Gian Torri (SEROW) — who also happens to be an absolutely incredible producer. He is completely responsible for how gorgeous the vocals sound and how beautifully the song was produced. I had the concept for the song and but we really started writing it months later.

I have this little portable Red Casio piano and we brought it to a beach while visiting Vashon Island up in Seattle. The bridge of the song just came out of me. It makes sense, I’ve written most of my best songs while sitting in or nearby a forest! Having grown up in Seattle, its my safe space. The song was my way of retrieving my voice literally and metaphorically. I grew up singing in choirs, in musicals, and then training classically with an opera teacher and at Cornish College of the Arts.

When I went to university, I was meant to be in an applied music program and I think the weight of my perfectionist tendencies, dealing with a serious eating disorder and what is required in opera started to crush my joy for music. I basically didn’t sing then for almost 10 years, and in the meantime acquired a lot a lot of material. This song was me saying things I needed to get off my chest and not being afraid to put my heart and soul out there. Recording the vocals was extremely emotional and very much felt like the process of making the song was helping me to achieve what the lyrics convey; an acceptance of my shadows, a forgiveness for those who projected their pain onto me, and a willingness to trust and love all parts of myself.

Lyrically, what are some of the themes and ideas you’re exploring with this song?

There’s a lot in this one song. Its themes center around how we come to terms with our own shadows, especially when we’ve experienced abuse or Trauma in our lives, and how to decouple our own Trauma from that which was projected onto us by others. Similarly, I will speak for myself, to say that I had developed a lot of anger towards prominent figures in my life who were abusive. I was put in situations as a kid and young adult I never should have been put in, and experienced things that were absolutely avoidable. And in that process I was deeply isolated in very literal ways that included being institutionalized multiple times. That anger though turned inwards, it was my way to make sure those people didn’t get away with what they did. `If I continued the cycles they started on myself, somehow in this logical paradigm they would’t be able to just walk away and on with their lives. That only kept hurting me though, and it also made it very hard for me to figure out how to trust myself or others.

So the lyrics very much revolve around these themes, recognizing this pattern and figuring out how to make amends with myself for the pain I inflicted, and how to forgive in a way that felt good, felt empowering. At the same time I also wanted to recognize that we all do the best we can with the tools we have and that we are all deserving of healing. I wanted the lyrics to be healing for those people aforementioned as well, the cycles of Trauma will only stop when we can all feel safe. I figured if the cycle continues because people are ill equipped to face their shadows, or rather integrate these parts in themselves, how can I write a song that might offer a path? It’s not something you can think you’re way out of, it’s something you need to feel, to embody.

“This song was me saying things I needed to get off my chest and not being afraid to put my heart and soul out there…an acceptance of my shadows, a forgiveness for those who projected their pain onto me, and a willingness to trust and love all parts of myself.”

Does “Dancing With My Ghosts” tell any other kind of stories for you that go beyond the lyrics?

I had been writing this poem for years that I could never quite finish and I think it’s because I really didn’t want to talk about these topics on a personal level. Like most of humanity, I’ve experienced a fair amount of Trauma in my little life and had inherited a lot of pain and shame just at birth. But then this last year, my reigning question started to become how can I be there for others when there is so much collective grief and I have not resolved my own?

It is an immense privilege to “forget” or turn a blind eye to pain, even more so when most are not afforded such a luxury. At the same time we are all deserving of understanding, and most especially freedom from old paradigms; how else are we supposed to heal? So then, how do you go about not passing on these trends on to future generations? In a sense, my story may be mine, but this song, the experience and impact of Trauma on an individual, ancestral and collective level is one we all share.

“I’m especially intrigued by the idea of creating songs and compositions that take into account dimensionality — thinking about sonically moving from one space to another or how you can create a complex and dynamic environment by mixing sounds.”

You’re also a photographer and image-maker, and it’s actually an understatement to mention that your photographs themselves tell eye-opening stories, they’re so rich with composition and depth. Do you try to achieve that same photographic narrative flow or deconstruction with your music?

Thank you, that’s very kind! I absolutely love photography, it’s always been one of my favorite mediums to work in. I find it to be very meditative and similar to music it requires deep presence — especially if you’re working with film. Usually I hear a song and immediately I’m choreographing something in my head or a very specific image pops up. So it would make sense that I write in that way!

My music has always just naturally had a very cinematic quality to it, and I’m especially intrigued by the idea of creating songs and compositions that take into account dimensionality — thinking about sonically moving from one space to another or how you can create a complex and dynamic environment by mixing sounds; the way you might mix a movie or TV show.

Photograph by Julia Pryde Thompson (Isa Vidal).

What do photography and music have in common? And where do they deviate for you?

I think one thing that photography and music have in common is their ability to communicate holistically and metaphorically. In a moment you can capture a feeling that is often almost impossible to explain literally or creates further levels of abstraction and alienation. In that vein, you can also bypass a lot of the subjective associations that come with just using word-based languages themselves, which makes both mediums more collectively accessible.

You don’t need to say anything explicitly to communicate, and often sound/image/poetry communicate much more potently — the subtle knowing that we all share, of what pain feels like, of what joy evokes, that transverses space and time. It sounds cheesy, but I can listen to Jean Sibelius’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” and be immersed in this complexity of emotion without needing to know the context. It creates deep kinship in the same way that finding old photos of strangers might accomplish; a means to deconstruct our absolute uniqueness as a way to unify rather than isolate.

What is your songwriting/production process like exactly? What elements do you start with and how do you build your tracks?

I think I used to be very concept driven as a songwriter — sort of “Nashville method,” where I’d come up with the title and then write. And I do like that because I like having parameters, but then I started to get super stuck on words. Despite that fact that I don’t think words are the best means to communicate, I’m equally word obsessive to a fault, because I want to be as intentional as possible if I’m going to use them. But at a certain point this started to feel like a hinderance to truly achieving any kind of juicy flow state.

So recently, I’ve been starting with a melody, maybe I’ll play something on the piano or my partner will make a loop and I just sing gibberish on top of it. It’s always fascinating when you unearth something from your unconscious, like a line you keep saying without thinking and then all of them sudden there’s the concept without trying.

What was it that brought you to Soundfly initially?

I originally came to Soundly because I wanted to take more composing courses, and then I saw that there was one with Kimbra. She’s a complete and total genius and and I had always wanted to get better at vocal arranging. I’ve learned so so much from her course already and love how she frames things within a compositional lens as well.

I also love that Soundfly has a real community aspect, being able to get direct feedback from folks is worth everything to me!

+ Learn more about Soundfly’s goal-oriented custom mentorship program here, and fill out a quick form if you’re interested to learn more or get paired with a mentor!

Who would you say are your biggest influences and why?

This might sound heady but a lot of my biggest influences are artists and scientists who use their practices as a means of better understanding the world around them and how they interact with or account for their environments (i.e.: “Slow Motion Blackbird” by Steve Reich?!). Also people who have such a joy in witnessing the magic that abounds in everyday life that it’s impossible to not feel a sense of communion.

On a more literal level, I am highly obsessed with Donald Glover (a.k.a.: Childish Gambino). He is such a master at subversion it astounds me. He can take a topic that many people might not even hear if it’s said out right and make create ear worms or television shows that you can’t stop listening to or watching. He also doesn’t concern himself with definition, he uses whichever medium might be appropriate for the message he wants to convey.

“We actively create the world we live in, so why not choose the world we want?”

You released two other songs under the Isa Vidal moniker in the past year. I guess I’m most interested to know if you’re planning to roll out a full album or EP at some point? And what are you working on now?

One of those songs is from a project I have with my partner called Copper Creatures and the other is a piano piece I wrote. Right now I am indeed working on an EP, of which the song “Dancing With My Ghosts” is a part.

The EP is centered around this idea of what it might mean to truly heal and move past individual and ancestral Trauma. What does it look like to stop the cycles of abuse within ourselves? How do you not pass these trends on to future generations?

Throughout the project I’m sort of taking on the characters of grandmother, mother, daughter, sister, friend to myself. Completing that cycle for myself and then maybe creating a roadmap or soundtrack for others. We actively create the world we live in, so why not choose the world we want?

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.