Release Date 03/18/2022
Yumi Zouma’s Josh Burgess likens the band’s songwriting process to gardening, “Someone brings in a seed and through collaboration, it grows into a song that is vastly different from its original form.” Like any garden, this one requires dedicated tending, a practice that seems rather inconvenient if not straight-up difficult, considering the fact that the four members live in disparate parts of the world – calling New York, London, and New Zealand home – but long-distance has always been a feature of their songwriting process, not a bug. Their new album, Present Tense, is the product of those efforts, a work Christie Simpson describes as “a gallery wall displaying these different moments in each of our lives. A process of curation, revisiting the past and making it relevant to the present.”
You might assume that while some artists have struggled to rethink their processes during a pandemic, Yumi Zouma would be perfectly suited to lockdown, but the opposite proved to be true. Without looming tour dates driving them to release new music, the prolific band found themselves at a standstill. On the day that the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the band released their third LP, Truth or Consequences, via Polyvinyl, and had sold out their first American tour. After Yumi Zouma’s first show in Washington DC, the tour was canceled and the four members went their separate ways, an experience memorialized on Present Tense opener “Give It Hell.” “It was disorientating,” Charlie Ryder admits. “We generally work at a quick clip and average about a record a year, but with no foreseeable plans, we lost our momentum.”
So they set a date. By September 1st, 2021, the album needed to be finished, regardless of whether they’d be able to tour it or even meet to record together. Before the September deadline goaded the band into action, they had what felt like endless amounts of time to record the album. What began in fits and starts became a committed practice again as Yumi Zouma dug through demos from as early as 2018 to collaborate on and make relevant to the peculiar moment in time the band, and world, was experiencing. “The lyrics on these songs feel like premonitions, in some regards,” Simpson reflects. “So much has changed for us, both personally and as a band, that things I wrote because the words sounded good together now speak to me in ways I didn’t anticipate.”
Remote and in-person sessions in studios in Wellington, Florence, New York, Los Angeles, and London all played a role, and Yumi Zouma brought in new collaborators from different disciplines to broaden their sound. Studio recordings of drummer Olivia Campion were incorporated into every song, while pedal steel, pianos, saxophones, woodwinds, and strings were played by friends around the globe who were able to lend their talents and support. The band enlisted multiple mixers in Ash Workman (Christine & The Queens, Metronomy), Kenny Gilmore (Weyes Blood, Julia Holter), and Jake Aron (Grizzly Bear, Chairlift), and recruited the mastering expertise of Antoine Chabert (Daft Punk, Charlotte Gainsbourg) for the first time. “This is our fourth album, so we wanted to pivot slightly, create more extreme versions of songs,” Ryder says. “Working with other artists helped with that, and took us far outside of our normal comfort zone.”
You can hear the impulse on “In The Eyes Of Our Love,” a song that’s seemingly twice as fast as any prior release, and closer to the classic rock of Dire Straits than the dream pop aesthetics that the band has built their career on so far. Campion’s drums crash in hard from the outset, sending the accompanying band into a revelry that only breaks upon arriving at the first bridge, when Simpson sings: “But we won’t lose sight of what we said/ I'll sing from the dirt instead.”
There’s a defiance heard throughout Present Tense, a refusal to bend to what might seem fated, communicated not only through lyrics but in the boldness of these arrangements, metamorphosing between tracks without ever losing momentum. The triumphant chorus of “Where The Light Used To Lay” belies any of the pain beneath its surface, a technique Simpson likens to the work of folk-adjacent rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and Phoebe Bridgers. “We wanted quiet moments to give into a big, brash chorus, something that approaches cliché,” Simpson says. “The chorus feels like a dramatic encapsulation of who we want to be as a band,” Ryder adds.
Two years away from the road gave Yumi Zouma a new appreciation for the friendship they’ve sustained and the opportunity an abundance of time off-cycle offered. “We used to run on adrenaline, and if a song wasn’t working we’d just nip it in the bud and move on. This process gave us the opportunity to really sit with songs and rethink them until they felt like they belonged in the collection,” Burgess says. Album closer “Astral Projection” is one such song, originally conceived by Burgess, who felt as if he’d been handed a sliver of brilliance after the song had been rewritten and abandoned by Ryder and Simpson. “It was as if I’d been given this rescue cat who had the potential to be great,” he says, laughing.
Between them, the song developed into a bass-driven slowburner, moody and oddly prescient,“A hint of panic can do wonders for distance,” Simpson sings, her voice mirrored by Burgess’s. The outro twinkles like a summer skyline at dusk, violets and grays intermingling with the bright glow of a thousand open windows. “I daydream about playing that one live,” Burgess says. “In bed, I’ll close my eyes before sleep and imagine the drumbeat kicking in.” It’s a craving the members of Yumi Zouma all share, one they hope will be satiated someday soon. Dedicated to an embattled past, Present Tense is the band’s offering to a tenuous future.“To 2020, and the memory of all that was lost,” they write in the album’s liner notes. “Kia Kaha."