Features, Interviews

Vonnegut, Touring, and Reductive Listening: A Conversation with Reuben Hollebon

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It’s a breezy Sunday afternoon in the quaint, sunny little town of Mill Valley. I meet Reuben Hollebon at my neighborhood coffee shop, downtown, to sit down and chat about reading, traveling, and music. There’s a laid back air about the English singer-songwriter–the black wife-beater tank top worn under a green unbuttoned button-down, hair bristling from his face–that blends him in quite seamlessly with the Bay Area’s casual outdoor scene. In fact, if it weren’t for the lilting English accent, it would be fathomable to mistake him for a native.

At Equator, we run into some people he knows, whom he at once reassures “we’re not on a date.” After his prompt qualification, I tell him about The Sympathizer, how we write about pop culture in a personal context. He mishears me and tells me about the “pub culture” at a neat pub near his house where a lot of musicians and artists congregate. I do not correct him. 

Reuben orders a macchiato.

“At the moment I live in Peckham, London,” he says, after I ask him where he lives, so I can visit this pub too. “Sometimes in Norfolk, England as well. That’s also where I grew up, so sometimes I stay on a friend’s farm out there, just in a caravan. I help him on his farm a little bit, and he helps me out with some other things. And I’m always about in London, but I’ve kind of switched to being generally nomadic now. I’ll do the tour, then I’ll go to New York for a week and then I’ll go to LA for four weeks, maybe Denver for a week. And then, I don’t know where I’m going to live for the month after that. I was going to go to Russia this summer for a month, but I think maybe I won’t do that in winter. But it just doesn’t really matter anymore, where you live, you know? If you’re not tied down by anyone or anything.”

Reina Shinohara: That sounds like a lot of fun. But it also seems a little bit stressful to not know where you’re gonna be in a month.

Reuben Hollebon: In a way. As long as you’re happy with yourself. Because your self becomes your own residence. And I mean, you can get stressed about anything. You could get stressed about how hard it is to walk down the stairs. It’s not that easy. We manage to get it right every day and we just forget about it. So once you get used to being semi-permanently moving, the stress just kind of goes.

RS: How was it growing up in Norfolk? Was there a music scene around you growing up?

RH: I mean, there was music in church. My family were churchgoers–Baptist–I stopped doing that when I was about 11. We got music from that and then, as soon as one of us could drive, we would drive 20 miles into the city and spend any money that we made from working. And around there you work early. You would start work at 12, 13 years old. I was working on a farm, I think, but we spent all of our money going to gigs in the city. There were a few good records stores and there were a lot of bands, but we weren’t yet old enough to be involved with the bands. But if you didn’t drive into the city, there was nothing, which was a little frustrating. It’s just the nature of the town. It’s the same with any countryside town I think. When you’ve only got less than 1,000 people. The one musician in the town is probably kind of… kept away from everyone to write, and be considered the weirdo. The musician I remember when I was young was this guy that mainly dealt with computers and lived on his own in a room full of old printers and terrible keyboards and would try and write–I mean, this is like late 80’s–and that’s how he tried to make music. That was the only musician I knew in the town, apart from a piano teacher.

RS: So then, how did you eventually get into engineering? Because you worked as a music engineer before you were writing your own songs, right?

RH: I picked up a guitar when I was maybe 18 and a month later, ended up in music college. I seemed to be ok at the guitar so I went and did that quite quickly. But everyone else was obviously more practised–I had spent a lot of time listening to music, that’s what I mainly did, I listened to music constantly and knew all of the records–everyone else had spent a lot of time playing music and playing with everyone else. Because I spent a lot of time listening to music, I kind of knew how to plug things in, so I became the guy that plugged things in for everyone else when they were recording music. And then I went and bugged the hell out of a guy at this studio. I said to him “Listen, I want to do this,” and he said, “I haven’t got any work,” so I came back the next week saying, “I want to do this” and again he said “I still haven’t got any work.” So I came back and hassled him and hassled him and one day, he was incredibly hungover and had no idea who I was, and I told him I had been hassling him for a while and he said, “Well, alright, you sit in that chair. I’m going to sit here, with a hangover, and I’m going to tell the band that you’re an engineer. And I’m just going to tell you what to do. Because it had all been set up from the day before. And so he showed me how the EQ works and the compressor, and how the tape machine works. From that I learned the engineering tools. And I went from doing that there to doing that in Yorkshire, to doing it in London. And then the work continued and continued to grow. And I ended up working for one composer for about four years, then he introduced me to a lot of other people to work with. But soon, I realized that although that was all really good, because I was making music, it wasn’t what I was chasing. I was chasing writing music, not spending all this time making everyone else’s music. And I had around about 300 songs and I decided I should try and record some. So I recorded 49 songs in three days. Now, not 49 finished tracks. 49 demos.

RS: Did you just do them all in just one take?

RH: I laid down the guitar or the piano, and then vocals on top. And then I was like right, let’s add some drums to this or some bass to this, let’s do that. And that process ended up forming seven tracks which became the first EP that I did, called Clutch. And that garnered some nice attention from a lot of different people in music. I did my own little ad hoc tour of Europe–did 14 shows in a month, that I just booked myself, all the way from Slovakia up to Denmark. And from there, there was some momentum. It wasn’t enough to really quit working as an engineer, but there was some, so I quit working as an engineer and just took a few select jobs, like oh, an artist that I like who needs someone for two weeks, or someone needs a record to be mixed.  And eventually you end up with a manager and a record label and a publisher and your booking agent and everyone else that’s involved behind the scenes. I know you’re not meant to mention the game as a musician, you’re meant to pretend it’s all magic. As if it’s just me, but you need the talents of everyone else in every way, you know. You need that kind of talent, and you need the talent of the label that are going to work hard on all the other things and your managers. And it makes sense, because then you can spend more time making music.

RS: I know your tour just started, but how has life been for you on the road?

RH: This is the first tour since the European tour, where I’m doing more than 5 dates in a row, so we’ve got 11 dates on this one. I don’t know yet! We’ll find out after tonight. We’ll get a vibe. And I imagine after 3 or 4 shows we’ll begin to settle in. I’ve got loads of friends coming down tonight, but I wish that I had a few more shows to warm up for it. And it’s the first time we’re going to be playing on stage with this set-up, with just me and Chris playing bass. So it’s always nice to run that a few times as well, so you feel much more comfortable with what you do. It’s also fun not knowing. It’s gonna be good. Getting to see loads of different cities is great as well. But you can’t experience a city in a day or a half a day. You need like a month for every city. But I think part of my plan is because I don’t really need to be anywhere in particular, as long as I’ve got some basic stuff to make music with, is to live in a few different cities across the year. I went and spent like two, three weeks in Denver last year and might spend some more time in Seattle and no doubt New York, I might go to Berlin for a month. Just keep it moving. I’d quite like to live in San Fran as well. I spent three weeks there before, but maybe I’d like to spend some more time in the Mission or somewhere like that.

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RS: You seem like you play a bunch of instruments, especially on your record.

RH: I try. Guitar is the main, and I do a bit of singing. I want to play electric guitar a bit more. I’ve been playing the bass quite a lot. I’m starting on learning the drums. Kind of learned the flute in the past two months, and I’ve started on the violin. Once you can play the piano, then obviously it gives you access, well, it doesn’t mean that you can play the organ, but it means that you’ve at least got the notes in your fingers and then you can learn how that instrument works on it’s own. Played double bass on the record as well. I mean, I didn’t play it particularly well, but I needed to play something particularly scratchy so it’s fine. But I haven’t really restricted instrument choice. Some genres really do say that you have to use certain instruments. And like pop has its trends which say that say, right, you need to have these sort of drums, these sort of synths, and this sort of bassline going. But I don’t have any of those restrictions. Like I can use a little groove that you would normally find in dub or trip hop or rock n’ roll. You can use any of those if you don’t have to lock everything off. Which is good and challenging. It means sometimes you do have to adjust to make it cohesive between two pieces of music. I wouldn’t want to be in a band where you set rules and you can’t use anything outside that box. That would be really disappointing.

RS: To a certain extent, do you find that in the music world people tend to try to pigeonhole or categorize music, in a certain way? For instance people hearing your music might say “oh, he must be an acoustic singer songwriter.”

RH: Yeah, but, Bon Iver is a band and they don’t call him an acoustic singer-songwriter, but he’s exactly what he is. They call it “indie,” and it’s the same. Bob Marley was an acoustic singer songwriter. Even Mick Jagger and Rolling Stones, they were singer songwriters, well, on some occasions at least. But it’s just one of these tags that was used to distinguish the fact that they didn’t just sing other people’s songs, back during the 70’s. And now it’s become a term that really gives some annoying connotations to music. There’s a presumption that you’re going to be singing songs about love, there’s a presumption that you’re going to be strumming chords and all of those prejudgments, so it’s really frustrating for a musician to be boxed off like that to begin with. But I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to have genres, because if you’re going to listen to music, you want to have some kind of reference of where you’re going when you start playing something. There’s so much music out there. Otherwise you’d get lost. But I have tried quite hard to push away from the singer-songwriter thing because I have–out of 19 songs I’ve released so far, one, maybe one and a half are about love for a partner, which you wouldn’t necessarily think when you think “singer songwriter.” I get it when you see someone with an acoustic guitar, it’s like “Right, I know what’s coming next”, then when you say “Wait a minute, I’m going to sit and wait and actually find out”, you can’t expect everyone to do that all the time. It’s automatic.

RS: It’s like that instant gratification where if you can’t tell what it’s going to be in the first 10 seconds, people are either into it or they’re not.

RH: Yeah, it happens. It’s normal. You could get really frustrated about it but it’s not really something worth complaining about.

RS: I guess in the spirit of genres and tagging, I’ve seen a lot of people on the internet say that your music is “meditative” and “dark” and “brooding,” and I was wondering what you think about people describing your music that way?

RH: “Meditative” is fine enough because I think that all music is meditative, or, well, most music is meditative. Music to me, is a meditation, to get into the right place. But a lot of music is designed for connecting to another human being because that makes us all feel better. Just like when you read a book and you’re actively listening to someone else. I think music is part of that as well. And then when you play live, obviously you share it. I think most music is like that. Uh, “dark”, I don’t personally consider my music “dark.” But then again, maybe I center myself in what might be considered a more “dark” place. But to me, that’s the center. It’s not a dark place. It’s a good place and an optimistic place. Like if they’re comparing me to Rihanna, maybe that makes sense. But I’m not brooding. I’m a happy man who finds everything to be interesting. Not brooding. I’m not sitting around on my own going “God, life is so hard.” Far from it. I probably did that 14 years ago. People will hear a minor chord and some space and they do that. They hear some deliberate dissonance and it brings all these other things straight away. Understandably, people don’t necessarily have time to consider the lyrics and exactly what’s going on in the lyrics. I think they center on the initial feeling. But you need the lyrics for the context of what that dissonance means. Like the one love song on the record, “Come Back Early”, is deliberately made to sound difficult because it is. It’s a very difficult thing to comprehend and be comfortable with.

RS: That’s an interesting approach to the love song, but it makes more sense for it to be complex. So about your record, Terminal Nostalgia, I’ve read that the title of it is based on a passage from a Kurt Vonnegut book. Are there any other Vonnegut books that have stood out to you as having a personal relevance?

RH: Yeah. He’s my favorite author probably, if I had to segue all the other brilliant authors out there. He talks with such honesty and humanity. He does things that are deliberately vulgar, almost to sort of counter reference the fact that the subjects that he is talking about, that actually happened in real life, are much more vulgar. And the fact that he’s drawn an asshole on Breakfast of Champions. He’s drawn it to say “By the way, we have capitalism here that’s fucking everyone over and you’re offended by this picture of a part of a human body. Whats going wrong there?” And his books, like Slaughterhouse Five, just taught a really different way of thinking about life. And so the particular phrase “terminal nostalgia”,  I think it’s “a young man in the terminal stages of nostalgia and lover’s nuts.” It’s like all this nostalgia that we have and all this tradition and everything else is what’s holding us back as a community and as a people. There are so many things that are much more important than tradition, and yet tradition overrules a lot of the ways that society doesn’t get on the move to change and become better. That’s the short version.

RS: Given that your album is based on a passage from a book and kind of that theme in the context of the book, would you say that a lot of your songs are based on narratives?

RH: There’s not always a story, but it might be a feeling or an intent that might be a small little notion. Like, “Augustus” is concerned with the painter Augustus John and removing yourself from the standard stream of life to something where you spend more time concentrating on the things you enjoy. And I’m not talking about just being lazy and not working, I’m talking about just realizing that all of the really easy stuff, the sugar, is not really relevant to your happiness. Most of your happiness is coming from communication and being a human, not watching all the stuff that makes time pass by. Some of them do have direct stories. Like “We’re Going to Miss Us When We’re Gone” is about having seen a few people with dementia and seeing them realize that they know they’re going to forget themselves. And that’s such a powerful little feeling that you can easily write a whole song about it. You could write a whole book about that without having to get into a direct narrative. And as long as you can get that feeling across, then you’ve kind of achieved what you wanted to do in a song. I think that might be why a lot of my songs are short as well, because you don’t need to flesh it out. You don’t need to build it up to anything. It’s just like, this is the feeling, experience this feeling. Now let’s move on to the next one. It’s about inviting, rather than shouting, I’d say. That’s the intention.

RS: Are you currently reading anything?

RH: I’m reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which is pretty entertaining. He doesn’t necessarily come across as a nice guy, but he comes across as a very interesting guy. Just started A Fortress of Solitude. And then I’m actually reading a friend’s book right now. I’m reading the first draft, which is 160,000 words. He’s given me quite a firm directive of: “Tell me what to get rid of.” So this is going to be… fun. Maybe I should have waited until he’d done the second draft so it’s not as long, but I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes.

RS: How do you feel about peer review?

RH: There are a lot of people that can provide valid opinions. You have to have a lot of respect for someone’s artistic insight, because a lot of people can give you feedback on a lot of things, and you need to understand whether they are doing it from a financial perspective or an artistic perspective, or from a “I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I just want to feel like I can tell someone something” perspective. The best way to assess it is if you understand someone’s music taste. You can probably get a vibe of whether or not they’re worth listening to on that front. But regardless, all feedback you do end up listening to, whether you want to or not, but you just process some of it differently. Some of it you just go , right, whatever. And sometimes people can come up to you and tell you you make great music, but you just go, meh, if you don’t have the right feeling from them. But if you do, it can really be like “Wow.” whether it’s positive or negative. But I do think it’s necessary. It’s necessary in everything. It’s even necessary in relationships sometimes, to know that you’re not going completely down the wrong lines.

RS: Are there people that you trust to give you an honest review of your work?

RH: There are people that I’ll listen to, and I’ll take quite a few things from what they’ll say. But I do appreciate input from anyone.

RS: I know a lot of people who rather not get feedback in their process.

RH: When I’m locked in, there’ll be a point where I’m just like “Right, it’s just me, I’m doing this, I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Because when I make music, I make it only to please myself with the view that if I make a piece of music that makes entire sense to me, there will be enough people, who are all similar enough, that will also share interest. That’s the aim. And then you step out for a second and go “Uhh guys, does this make any sense?”

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RS: When did you start writing songs? Somewhere in the scheme of engineering and producing?

RH: Probably the first week that I had a guitar. I didn’t know what I was doing, but you instantly start trying to write songs. And yeah, they were probably all terrible. Maybe a couple of years in, I first completed a record. And I got all the way through something, but I didn’t–there was no magic moment. I never considered myself to be particularly talented. I just work hard. And work an obscene amount of hours at writing something, making something. Whatever it is I want to do, you know, I’ll lock myself down and fastidiously try and work out how to do it and then work out how to do it better. All in the hope, and certain amount of knowledge, that if you do something for 5 years, you’re a lot better than when you started. And eventually you get better than you realize. It’s always good to be better than you realize you are.

RS: Are there certain records that you’ve listened to that you feel are informative of your sound? Or that you listened to in the process of writing your songs?

RH: Not particularly. But there are a lot of direct little hints. You know, like a little lyrics here or there that will directly hint to one genre or one record, or a little bit of feeling. But there’s no, “Right, I need to make a record that sounds like Neil Young right now” or something like that. That’s not in the book. It’s just continually listening, and kind of the process where–if you want to make a Marvin Gaye record, you don’t sit down and try to copy a Marvin Gaye record. What you do is you listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye and before you know it, when you make the next record, you’re going to have much more of that in you. It’s just natural like that. That’s the way you should do it. So you could, in a way, set out your listening based on that. But my listening is so sporadic and all over the place that it’s never going to work like that. At the moment, I’m listening to lots of drum and bass, but I’m not planning to make a drum and bass record. I might make something that’s more focused on a rhythm, but that’s about it. So I wouldn’t lock it down to anything in particular.

RS: Did you always want to work in music?

RH: No. Not at all. Didn’t know what I wanted to do. It kind of just happened. There was a point where I actually thought that “Right, this is really what I want to be doing.” But I was already doing it. So it was kind of just like, I can do anything. I did a bit of mechanics for a while. I did a bit of gardening. Could have worked on a farm for my whole life and been perfectly happy doing that. Would have loved to have been an artist, and well, I could be an artist or a writer in the future. But I’m terrible at the English language so that might be a bit too far away from me. But I could always study it. I would actually like to go back and study… There’s loads of things. There’s no restrictions, I mean maybe the talents that I’ve gained will lead to me working in music for a while, but I’m just avoiding boxes, basically. I don’t like the idea of other human being setting themselves for one career choice for the rest of their lives. We should all be able to experience doing loads of different things. Because regardless of everything, we all really only have one life and we’ve only got one go at it, so don’t just do one thing and don’t just stay in one box for the whole thing. The truth is, you have to be able to pay to get by in life by doing a job and everything else is optional.

RS: Since you started out in engineering, was it just a natural shift to becoming a performer and writing your own stuff? Or was it a conscience decision like “This is what I want to do now.”

RH: It’s just one of those things where I realized I had loads of material and I’d been interested in doing it. As with all things I do–because I worked in engineering, I spent a lot of time learning about engineering, and I spent a lot of time learning about the business of music, and songwriting, and I realized that I had a lot of songs so I figured it was time to learn how to perform these songs. But I could have easily been the engineer that spent ages making equipment or just desperately trying to work to be the big-time producer. This is just what I’m doing now. It’s not some kind of life calling. It’s not like that.

RS: Has your experience being an engineer informed your process of writing, recording, and producing?

RH: Yeah, it means I don’t spend ages having a fetish about what equipment I’m going to use or anything. I’ve spent enough time doing that with enough small and big artists to realize that the only thing important is the performance and the song. The best $4,000 microphone will not make much difference at all. All of the great retro records that everyone loves, were actually recorded on equipment that is inferior to the equipment that we use nowadays, but the performances were great, and the songs were great. And our ears will ignore that. So if we just make a good record and do a good performance, we do not need a great recording. The equipment that you use doesn’t really matter in the end. We’ve just got to focus on the important part of it all. And then the rest of it will happen overtime.

RS: I’m sure you worked with a variety of artists in different styles and genres over the years. Do you think that influenced your style of music?

RH: Yeah, but mainly about characters. Not necessarily about the genres or anything. The way they are as people, first. Then I like the way they do stuff. I get that being an artist can make you nervous and difficult and all of these other things, but I think it’s the most humble sort of musicians that I really want to follow. You can certainly get all in your head when you’re making music, particularly when you’ve got a big session as an artist, you go “Right, this is costing me, or someone, but eventually me, a lot of money to do this.” Or just like you’re on a date, you want to impress that producer and these other musicians. Musicians don’t realize that it’s not that terrible to have a bad day making music, so therefore just be a little bit more relaxed. That’s something that I’ve taken from musicians that I’ve worked with. Also, being nice to everyone involved and realize that the person bringing you tea that day has a huge influence on the attitude of the whole session making music. Just as big as the producer, because everyone has an influence on the process. It’s holistic, but actually holistic, not some kind of nonsense idea about what’s healthy for you.

RS: Do you consider yourself to have a signature “sound”?

RH: I’ve probably got quite a particular voice. Which always felt like a bane when I started to sing because you don’t sound like anyone, so there’s no idea of how I’m meant to sound. That’s really tough to get used to. Then I realized that I can sing on any style of music, so it’s now become an advantage. That’s probably the signature of anything I do. I mean I play the guitar in a pretty particular kind of style as well, that isn’t that common I think. But any other “signatures” will need to be shown by time.

RS: I know you mentioned earlier that you want to get more into playing electric guitar. Your most recent album was largely acoustic, but are you interested in experimenting sonically with different styles of music?

RH: Always. I think this first album itself is an example of sonic experimentation. I used harmoniums in ways that they’re not really built for, and played the double bass, which I’ve never done. Playing drums, well, some of the drums, you know. Spending time taking music and processing it to use as a soundscape. And using other instruments to change the way that it all works. I think oddly enough, from this sonic experimentation, I’m kind of going back more into just playing real instruments. That’s where my next thing is. I think for me right now, that’s the more interesting area of experimenting.

RS: This kind of goes back to listening to music and the fact that you worked as an engineer and are now working as a performer, but do you feel like you listen to music different based on what role you’re playing in the creation of the music?

RH: That’s called “reductive listening” when you sit and you analyze music, but I don’t know if it’s that healthy to making a good record. I try to just listen to a vibe, but sometimes you do have to get reductive and say “oh, what is the bass doing? And why is it that it works so well?” Like Dr. Dre records. Why does the bass sound massive? And it’s because he lets no information go below 200 Hz apart from the kick drum and the bass, and so the whole of the bottom end goes bang bang bang every time and the thing sounds huge. I mean you practice reductive listening naturally when you’re acting as a producer or engineer and I honestly try not to, but sometimes you just hear something and need to figure out what’s going on there. My music theory is adequate, but not necessarily brilliant. And maybe it’s nice to have it that way so I don’t get locked down by ideas of restrictions set by theory and just make something that works.

RS: It’s interesting that you say you try not to do reductive listening because reductive listening is so trendy now, with podcasts like “Song Exploder” where artists are breaking down the elements of their own songs and discussing how they created the sound.

RH: Did they do it consciously? Or did it just happen and now they’re trying to make stuff up to explain what they did? There is a chance they did it consciously, but it’s probably more that they did stuff off instinct, and now someone’s asked them why. Bruce Springsteen once did a great interview where he clearly got annoyed with the journalist asked him to explain what he did with the music in order to create certain feelings in his songs. So he went through the whole album and explained what he did to get each feeling, and at the end of the interview, the journalist goes “Wow, that’s amazing!” and Bruce says, “No it’s not. It’s all bullshit. A complete lie. I just wrote some songs.” And some days, you just write some songs and other days you specifically do something in order to create something. But often it’s just a realization that this works because that connects with that, you know? Like the track “Faces,” it goes in loops of 14 bars and it’s got a 4/4 beat underneath. Normally anything with a 4/4 beat would be like house music, which works well with 8 bar phrases, so “Faces” therefore ends up with two 7 bar phrases and that makes the thing sound more immediate. But I didn’t do that intentionally to make it sound more immediate. I did it because I thought it would sound good and now I just realize it sounds more immediate because i’ve done it, because it always changes before you think it’s going to change. I could claim that it was a pre-judged decision, but it wasn’t. It was just a feeling.

RS: With your process of writing, do you just write a song? Or do you have an idea of what you’re wanting to write?

RH: Normally I land upon a lyric or a guitar riff and that will sit there. And one day it will just come out into an almost finished song. And then eventually I’ll look at it again and finish it. And it usually just happens like that.

RS: Do you have a store of a bunch of snippets of songs to be?

RH: I have 6,000 audio demos. And 40 notebooks of stuff. They might be songs and stories, poems, or addresses and pictures. But yeah I have quite a lot. There’s always new material, but it’s not necessarily good. I would estimate that around 1 in 100 songs that I write, I actually think are worthwhile. But I’d like to say that around half of the songs I finish writing are good. But some of them aren’t even for me. But all the ones I put on the record, I love.

RS: So, what’s next for you?

RH: Tour, tour, tour. If it was up to me, I would play a show every night. It’s not realistic, but if we work hard, maybe we can make it where it is realistic. I’ve said to everyone I work with, that I want to play no less than 100 shows next year. Obviously, I’ll be making music the other days as well, but that’s what I want to do every day. Play more music, write more stories, learn how to draw, run a few marathons, maybe act? It’s really not restricted.

Reuben Hollebon is a London based musician signed to Bright Antenna Records. He is currently on a tour across the U.S. supporting his first full length album Terminal Nostalgia. Find him online here.

September 21, 2016

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Reina Shinohara Reina is a person who just found out she's from the snobbiest city in California. You can find her at a cafe sipping unreasonably priced artisan coffee writing a condescending tweet that will probably stay in her unpublished drafts.


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