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Since her youth, Boston-based singer-songwriter Isabella Farmer has been a roving creative. As one might expect from an aspiring songwriter and musician, she was raised performing in choir recitals. While Farmer also danced and did gymnastics, she knew singing was her calling. “Music was the one thing I never got tired of, ever,” she said in a recent interview with The Harvard Crimson.
In fourth grade, Farmer’s family relocated from Virginia to Bogotá, Colombia, and she got her first acoustic guitar. During this time of great change — living outside the U.S. for the first time in a completely new environment where she didn’t fully know the language — music, as Farmer put it, “became a massive creative outlet.”
She credits a particularly influential music teacher in Colombia for helping imbue her with this spark for music: Mr. Alberto. A lot of music instructors, Farmer finds, lack that kind of “zest for life” when it comes to their jobs, as they simply go through the motions. Mr.Alberto was different. “I could just tell that he loved music so much,” Farmer said.
At the same time, Farmer’s spark also comes from something intensely intrinsic. “I was always so hungry to search for a sound that really inspired me,” she said. Radio songs and trendy sounds were fine enough, but Farmer found her self disappointed with their superficiality. “I would hear it and go — that’s cool, but, what if it was like this?” Farmer said, describing her initial interest in songwriting.
Now, Farmer studies voice and songwriting at Berklee College of Music here in Boston. But, by her own account, she’s still learning how to better her craft. Reading music, for example, stands out as something she’s been working on. “That’s something I still have problems with for my Berklee assignments,” the singer said. Despite this small detail, though, Farmer has managed to develop a thorough method for song-making.
For every song, Farmer begins by writing out the lyrics first. “I am so, so strict on that,” she said. “I love the lyrics to read like poetry on the page.” Ideas and inspiration for these lyrics, meanwhile, can come from really anywhere. “It’s a pretty even mix of personal experience, a bunch of things conflated, and then childhood things,” Farmer said of her process. “I try to create a story in my head.”
Despite her own attention towards lyrics, however, Farmer recognizes that this same sentiment isn’t true for most music-listeners nowadays, who may focus more on a song’s sonic elements. “Especially the first time hearing a song, you're not necessarily drawn in first by the lyrics, you're more listening to the overall vibe,” the singer said.
Consequently, this knowledge informs how she approaches the musicality of her songs. “I write the lyrics first and try to create an atmosphere for those lyrics to live in, with the music,” Farmer said. “I like to have the music support the feeling of the lyrics.”
In order to create this ambiance, and develop her songs’ instrumentation, Farmer has a unique process that involves first putting her guitar into a random tuning so as to avoid sounding like something off the radio. “Once I have something guitar-wise that sounds like the vibe I want lyrically, I’ll just sing over it,” Farmer said. “I always like to sleep on melodies and see if I remember them the next day, because if you remember it, it’s probably a better one.” From then on, it’s just a process of editing and piecing it all together.
Her latest single “Airsick” is made with this process in mind. It all began with a class she took in high school called “Elements of Poetry.” About a year ago, Farmer began to experience writer’s block. And so, the poems she wrote in the class came as a great boon of inspiration for her songwriting. “I just kind of found that poem again and was like, I should run with this,” the singer said. “I took yet another poem that I wrote for that class too and used some of those lines.” From there, Farmer combined all of those lines to ultimately create a story.
As for plans after her graduation from Berklee in 2024, Farmer wants to regain her fluency in Spanish. “I’m gonna do the language thing first and be inspired by new music elsewhere,” she said. “I think that’ll give me a lot of new writing material.
After that, she plans to move into a city — an “up and coming” one, like Austin, Texas — to continue pursuing music. While the industry standard L.A. is still on the table, Farmer is hesitant about that kind of environment. “It’s very superficial. And I know a lot of people say that, but it’s a different level,” Farmer said.
It’s this superficiality and clout-chasing in the industry with which Farmer is unconcerned. Her main goal is simple: “Hopefully, just try to make it as an artist for a little bit,” the singer said. “I know that…there’s different definitions of that. I think that would just mean for me that I’m able to support myself off of music and playing live.”
As for potentially signing with a label, it’s clear that Farmer has reflected a lot on this issue too. She acknowledges, surely, that labels do provide stability, marketing, and connections. But there’s also a certain loss of originality within the artist. “Obviously, it’s a business,” Farmer said. “They want money, they want you to place, they want you to be able to be played on the radio. And radio music is very specific; it’s almost algorithmic.”
In the end, her desire for artist integrity wins out. “I’m not really willing to compromise my lyrics and I am totally fine if I never blow up,” Farmer said. “I like the way that my stuff sounds, and it feels very authentic to me.”
The singer-songwriter’s music can be streamed here.
—Staff writer Derek Yuan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDerekYuan.
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