It’s hard to stand out on Spotify. Endless choices and playlists can make even the most interesting artists fade into the background. This is not a problem for Caroline Sans, who, under the name of Sur Back, has been releasing a series of EPs that instantly demand your attention. Her music is intimate and ethereal, but with a sharp edge that slowly reveals itself. Beats pulse in space as Sans unfurls phrases like “aspirin of diaspora” and “buried your rolex in tasteless snow” with such conviction that you feel like you’re being told a secret from a friend. Her first EP, Kitch, starts off with sparse, moody pop and slowly builds in scope to a crescendo with the epic title track.
Christopher Busch: I knew virtually nothing about Jupiter, FL until I started listening to your music. How does it influence your writing?
Sur Back: I was born and raised in South Florida, and I’ve lived in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter, but I lived in the latter when I first started putting out music and thought it was the best-named choice! Living near the ocean is kind of space-like in a way…but my hometown has become more of a hot spot in the past 10 years. I’ve always wanted to be up north in the snow and the cold which was bizarre to most people, but as I got older I learned to appreciate the area even though those preferences remained. As far as music goes I do think living in a place that isn’t overly congested gave me the space I needed to decide what I wanted to create. There is a music scene in Florida, but the one I had access to was pretty distant from the kind of music I wanted to make or listen to, so I sort of lived through scenes on the internet for the last several years. It’s really exciting to meet and work with those people now in real life.
CB: You’re about to release your second EP in a series. I have always loved this format – how do you go about structuring a good EP? Do you prefer it to full-length albums?
SB: I wanted to release Kitsch as an LP, but a few things changed that. One song ended up being long enough to split in two, the album as a whole seemed to split in half stylistically, and the artist whose painting I used for the first EP had a similar piece that seemed mark the shift in the second group too well.
As I started structuring the two EPs I realized that the strings at the end of Kitsch (the last song on the first EP) were the perfect prelude for Kitsch II, which is a much more dramatic, orchestral sequel. Kitsch II is Kitsch’s darker cousin and definitely my favorite of the two. I wanted to make music that I wanted to listen and dance too, not so much in a club but like, spinning around your room in pajamas. I put some of the more modern, palatable songs on Kitsch with the intent of getting my foot in the door but with Kitsch II, I hope to break it down!
CB: If you could have one artist cover one of your songs, who would you choose?
SB: That’s so hard! I’ve been listening to a lot of Kamasi Washington lately…it would be so cool to hear my songs as instrumentals and really highlight the brass and strings sounds. Maybe the synth chords could be sung by the choir? And he could play my lead vocal on the sax?
CB: Your self-directed video for “Trophy Daughter” is beautiful. What inspired you to direct, and would you like to do more?
SB: I have a lot less confidence with the visual side of Sur Back, and “Trophy Daughter” was pretty much just me messing around in iMovie after I finished the EP. But I do enjoy learning more about it as I go! I’m currently learning how to use better software and working on a video for two songs on Kitsch II right now.
CB: Your lyrics are some of the best I’ve heard in awhile. What’s one lyric you wish you had written?
SB: So many! Some of my current favorites are:
“You push me up to a state of emergency/ How beautiful to be/ State of emergency is where I want to be,” “My love is taller, taller than the Empire State/ We move in space with minimum waste and maximum joy,” “You’re like a party I heard through a wall/ Invite me,” “Distance is exactly like a blowing wind/ Putting out the embers and the tiny flames and keeping the big ones burning.”
[This is] an adaptation of a Rumi quote, but still: “Beyond all ideas of right and wrong/ There is a field/ I will be meeting you there.”
And pretty much every song from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.
CB: The production on your EP is very intimate and layered. I saw videos of you playing live and there was the exact same intensity that I heard in my headphones. How do you translate this to a live performance setting?
SB: Thank you! I’m definitely a product of the internet age, because my favorite mode of listening to music is in the dark with headphones, not in a live setting. So I try really hard to replicate that feeling in my live shows. My arrangements are super important to me, but at this point there’s no realistic way for me to have a band playing every part live. So I run samples through Ableton and sing and play guitar live. I’m also starting to incorporate live string players into my sets—I think that’s one type of instrument that sounds more beautiful in person.
CB: “Kitsch” is, simply put, an amazing word. What are some of your favorite words? Do you focus on how phrases will sound when sung when you write lyrics?
SB: Definitely! I was a creative writing major and I wrote poetry long before I started writing music, so language is really important to me. I actually decided on the title in a poetry class when the professor was talking about how society used to compare high and low brow art, and I was interested in comparing that tension to my take on pop music. I also did a lot of research on Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and how sound relates to semantics, so it’s always in the back of mind when writing lyrics!
CB: Your songs have a very distinct sound. How hard is it to stand out these days when your music is being streamed? Has it influenced your production in any way?
SB: Thank you! I’m definitely not trying to stand out as much as I’m trying to make music that I enjoy listening to. I lot of that is influenced by my past with dance and a love for these really heart-wrenching classical pieces that will fling you to an emotional height on their own—they don’t really require any patience or work to enjoy. But on the other hand I’m amazed by songs that are really invested in this complicated, layered tradition of storytelling that you have to dig deep to understand. I think music can bring on both a passive and active listening experience and songs that can do both are the best!
CB: What’s an album or song that you think deserves more love?
SB: Empress Of’s Me should be huge. She’s getting bigger with every release but I think she’s deserved celebrity status for a while now. When I first moved to New York and was looking for apartments I would walk around lip syncing to that album wondering which street I would get to call my own. Her production is as energizing as it is satisfying, which is the best kind of pop!
Sur Back is the experimental pop brainchild of former Florida ballerina Caroline Sans. Kitsch II, the follow-up to her debut EP, will be available to stream and download via Bandcamp on 2/23. Buy tickets to her EP release show at Baby’s All Right here.