Pom Pom Squad’s Mia Berrin opens up about the depression, pain, and vulnerability lying at the heart of the Brooklyn band’s dark, impassioned new EP ‘Ow’.
Stream: ‘Ow’ – Pom Pom Squad
Being vulnerable isn’t easy. Every time I think I’ve peeled back every layer of myself, there’s another layer to peel back, and that’s why I keep writing.
Brooklyn’s Pom Pom Squad are deep, raw, and absolutely savage – but don’t just take our word for it: Their newly-released sophomore EP Ow is an epic tour de force channeling emotional turbulence, heart-on-sleeve vulnerability, and fierce indie rock energy.
Pain never felt as alive as it does in the hands of Mia Berrin.
Introducing themselves less than a year ago through December 2018’s debut EP Hate It Here, Pom Pom Squad is the four-piece fronted by Berrin alongside band mates Mari Alé Figeman, Shelby Keller, and Alex Mercuri. Already coming into their own as a New York mainstay, the grungy rockers’ return is a hard-hitting and cohesive effort intended to channel our darkest emotions. Its creation was a means for Berrin to expel her demons, and now it exists as a vessel for all to unburden their own scars.
“Ow is all about learning to externalize internal pain,” Berrin tells Atwood Magazine. “I wrote it on the verge of what ended up being a huge pivot in the direction of my life. It was a point where I really had to stop and ask myself where all the pain was coming from, and in doing so, decide to move forward or to be debilitated by it.” Appropriately opening and closing the EP are the “Ow (Intro)” and “Owtro,” two somber and mood-setting tracks that fittingly bookend the record’s core expressions of pain, emotional turmoil and upheaval, and catharsis.
Once inside, the record proves itself a transformational experience. Pom Pom Squad previewed their EP earlier this year with lead single “Heavy Heavy,” an Atwood Editor’s Pick that throttles its listeners with waves of unrelenting intensity. “Overdriven guitars arrest the senses, creating an increasingly volatile backdrop upon which frontwoman Mia Berrin bears her soul,” we wrote at the time. “What’s unleashed is a barrage of confessional statements on mental illness and the related scrutiny, questions, and comments one tends to get on a daily basis.”
It’s getting heavy heavy
Telling everybody that I’m fine
I’m feeling heavy heavy does it mean
I wanna fucking die?
Berrin explains, “I wrote “Heavy Heavy” on a day when I woke up and everything was grayed out, which is, unfortunately, a pretty common feeling for me as a person who has suffered from depression since I was a teen. Another common feeling for me is the meta-feeling of being angry at how depressed I am. I was taking a traditional depression bath and started humming this sort of monotonous, obtrusive riff. I wanted to capture what a depressive spiral felt like for me– the way it starts out sort of manageable, even-tempered and becomes all-encompassing.”
Fully charged and dramatically explosive, “Heavy Heavy” eventually leaves listeners with a sense of long sought-after relief, only to be followed by the rollicking “Honeysuckle.” The softer sorrow of “Cherry Blossoms” offers momentary relief from Pom Pom Squad’s blistering overdrive, but the song’s depth also makes it perhaps the most soul-stirring piece on the entire EP:
I was never so good at goodbyes
I know you don’t deserve a word of it but
You know I’m always bleeding someone dry
It’s hard to forget waking up to your face
On Tuesday mornings when I got to sleep in late
You’d kiss my head before you went to work
And I would take a shower til the water turned
I’m sorry that I made you carry all that weight
I’m sorry that I yelled at you when I was
Lately I wake up feeling fucking freaked
Cause every time I fall asleep I see
You and someone new under the
Cherry blossom tree
“Writing “Cherry Blossom” was an exercise in saying the blunt thing — it’s probably one of the most unpoetic songs I’ve ever written,” Berrin observes. “It was inspired by unsaid things.”
From feverish guitar solos to stripped-back reckonings and back again, Pom Pom Squad deliver the full spectrum of musicality as they dwell in some of the darkest and heaviest parts of the human experience. Ow is something to be heard, felt, and shouted out loud – and oh, how good it feels to let it all out.
Mia Berrin spoke to Atwood Magazine about the depression, pain, and vulnerability lying at the heart of Ow. Pom Pom Squad will be performing an EP release show on September 15 at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right; don’t sleep on these heavy heavy hitters, and dive deep into their music in our interview!
‘Ow’ is all about learning to externalize internal pain.
A CONVERSATION WITH POM POM SQUAD
Atwood Magazine: In a sentence, who is Pom Pom Squad?
Mia Berrin: Pom Pom Squad is an indie-rock/punk/grunge based out of Brooklyn, NY, and we’re probably friendlier than your high school cheerleading team.
What inspired your artist name, and when did you first really know you had a band with its own distinct sound?
Berrin: The name has taken on a lot of different meanings for me — I moved around a lot growing up, but spent all of high school at this pretty competitive prep school in Orlando, Florida. It was basically, your classic American teen-movie high school with uniforms and jocks, and lunch tables separated by cliques. High school is a pretty isolating experience for a lot of people, but growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white space can feel especially bleak. I really hated it. The summer after my first year of high school, I started journaling pretty obsessively, and watching all these teen movies– it forced me to develop this kind of split-brain mentality. On one side I was existing in the experience of high school, and on the other I was analyzing it, watching it. Cheerleaders, for some reason, stuck out to me as these very powerful, terrifying, feminine figures. They, as a concept, seemed completely distant from me. They embodied the privileges of conventional attractiveness and white womanhood — this sense of self-possession and confidence that I didn’t feel entitled to. I named my band Pom Pom Squad as a way of distorting an archetype — taking a character that is typically perceived as desirable or vulnerable or weak in the male gaze, and flipping the connotation.
For some reason, I feel like Pom Pom Squad is especially associated with Brooklyn. Do you feel like you could have made these songs outside New York’s hippest borough, or were your surroundings a key ingredient in the music?
Berrin: I actually write best when I’m as far away from New York as humanly possible — I find it really hard to write in the city. I pretty much wrote all of Hate it Here and most of Ow on trips home. New York is a place that acts out all of your anxieties for you constantly, so for me, it just stirs up lots of unnamable feelings that I can only start to untangle by leaving. I think the fact that we’ve gotten to perform in Brooklyn, though, is a huge piece of Pom Pom Squad’s backbone.
New York is a place that acts out all of your anxieties for you constantly, so for me, it just stirs up lots of unnamable feelings that I can only start to untangle by leaving.
As your sophomore EP, Ow makes a pretty heavy statement. Can you talk about the personal significance of this record, and what it means to you?
Berrin: Ow is all about learning to externalize internal pain. I wrote it on the verge of what ended up being a huge pivot in the direction of my life. It was a point where I really had to stop and ask myself where all the pain was coming from, and in doing so, decide to move forward or to be debilitated by it. Writing this EP played a huge part in that decision.
“Is it worth crying at night if it sets my soul on fire?” you sing in Ow’s intro, opening the album with a somber, quite powerful question. What is the significance of this entrance?
Berrin: When I wrote this song, I was reflecting on capital-L “Love”, which was this thing I had been seeking out like an insane, hormonal, missile because I thought it would give me purpose. In that line specifically, I was asking myself if that ~grand quest~ was really worth all the pain. I think it sets up the initial questions about pain that come up in the rest of the EP — its worth, its purpose, the way it can bleed into every aspect of our lives, affect the way that we can see ourselves, see others and what we can turn pain into — for better or for worse.
Why do you think you’re attracted to writing about some of these darker perspectives and intimate topics?
Berrin: Because I need to hear them. When I can’t find a song that describes what I’m feeling, I usually try to write one.
When I can’t find a song that describes what I’m feeling, I usually try to write one.
“Heavy Heavy” is a fantastic, snarling jam full of energy and emotion. What brought this song to life?
Berrin: Depression, baby!
What inspired you to write “Heavy Heavy,” and why did you choose this song as Ow’s lead single?
Berrin: I wrote “Heavy Heavy” on a day when I woke up and everything was grayed out, which is, unfortunately, a pretty common feeling for me as a person who has suffered from depression since I was a teen. Another common feeling for me is the meta-feeling of being angry at how depressed I am. I was taking a traditional depression bath and started humming this sort of monotonous, obtrusive riff. I wanted to capture what a depressive spiral felt like for me — the way it starts out sort of manageable, even-tempered and becomes all-encompassing.
It’s the lead single because it fucking HITS.
One of the things I love is how Pom Pom Squad manages to capture their live energy on record. Can you talk about the challenge of doing this, and how you manage to keep levels high in studio settings?
Berrin: Thank you! That was actually really intentional for me. Playing these songs live in practice with my bandmates (Mari Ale Figeman, Shelby Keller, and Alex Mercuri– who switched out with Ethan Sass in the live setup) became so important to the DNA of the record that I couldn’t picture doing it any other way. I’ve never actually recorded in a professional studio, which I think makes sense for me and for this band. The way we recorded made the process super intimate, there was no pressure on time, and everyone that was in the room, I felt really comfortable being so vulnerable with.
On a literal level, we kept the levels high by not being afraid of sound-bleed. Our friend Tommy Ordway, who produced the EP with me, did an amazing job engineering. We recorded in the tiniest, dustiest practice space known to man– I would get asthma attacks after every day of recording, and couldn’t cut the vocals until two weeks later. We actually recorded the vocals in our friend Raechel’s closet. She has a project called Mima Good, and she and her boyfriend converted it into a vocal booth. The walls are all made of red velvet, and she has this box of play-doh she keeps around as a de-stressor. Little does everyone know, I was squeezing pink glitter play-doh while I recorded the vocals on every single one of these songs.
What are your favorite moments or songs on this record, outside of “Heavy Heavy”?
Berrin: I’m really proud of “Again”– I guess it’s my favorite song off the record because I really like the way it works live. It puts me in a kind of hypnotic state. I’m also really proud of Cherry Blossom. That song has taken on the greatest depth of meaning for me.
I love that you have lead guitar solos, which I feel are becoming a fleeting thing even in rock music. Who inspires your guitar work? Do you feel like we need more guitar solos in music?
Berrin: Thank you! I know Alex, who played lead on most of the EP and I share inspiration in St. Vincent. He’s also big into glam rock. I really love Courtney Barnett and found a lot of the stuff I wrote for this inspired by her playing. I typically find lead parts by singing them, as was the case with– “Heavy Heavy”. In terms of whether or not we need more guitar solos… I don’t really think we do… Or, I think it depends. The solo in “Heavy Heavy” I think serves the story of that song so well, and the “Honeysuckle” solo feels really triumphant– I’m all for a solo that tells a story. If you’re just soloing to show everyone how “good” you are at playing guitar fuck off.
“Cherry Blossom” is super grungy and raw in the best way. What inspired this song?
Berrin: Writing “Cherry Blossom” was an exercise in saying the blunt thing — it’s probably one of the most unpoetic songs I’ve ever written. It was inspired by unsaid things.
Your words so often feel like they’re torn from the page of a diary entry. What is your songwriting process like?
Berrin: Believe me, my diary is definitely much messier than my songwriting process — and I don’t really have much of a process! I write all the time– years of journaling have made it really easy to transmute feelings into neat phrases. When I’m walking, or at work, and have a thought I always try to write it down. Eventually, I string them together.
Did you always write songs this way - so honest and reflective? Or was it something you learned to do over time, and trial and error?
Berrin: It definitely took trial and error. Much to my dismay, I did not come out a fully formed songwriter. I find that the same way people try to disguise discomfort with humor, I often try to disguise bad songwriting with flowery, or didactic language. Being vulnerable isn’t easy. Every time I think I’ve peeled back every layer of myself, there’s another layer to peel back, and that’s why I keep writing.
Being vulnerable isn’t easy. Every time I think I’ve peeled back every layer of myself, there’s another layer to peel back, and that’s why I keep writing.
“Cut My Hair” addresses some heavy topics in terms of self-perception and how we see ourselves, ultimately coming out to say, “for now I will be only what I can be.” Why was this an important theme for you to write about?
Berrin: This was another case of writing what I needed to hear. Often, I feel the need to drastically change things about myself (i.e. cut my hair) as a signifier to the rest of the world that I’ve moved on when in reality all I’m doing is changing my hair. I have such a mediator personality, that I put pretty intense pressure on myself to solve problems immediately as they appear, and that’s just not always realistic. What is realistic is meeting yourself where you are.
You conclude with “Owtro,” neatly and effectively bookending the EP with an array of stirring strings (cellos?). Why end in this manner, after “Cut My Hair”?
Berrin: “Owtro” is actually all the solo’d violin tracks from “Ow (Intro)”. Our friend Jackie Green recorded about four or five layers of different violin parts that I composed in her apartment with her one day. I originally had the idea of playing a short guitar outro riffing on “Ow (zIntro)”, but when I heard the violins by themselves, I just got this swelling, heart-pumping-with-blood feeling and knew I had to give them their own moment just to be heard and to let the rest of the EP breathe.
I ask everyone this, and I’m really excited to hear your answer: Who else should I be listening to at the moment?
Berrin: Mannequin Pussy, The Ophelias, Julia Jacklin, Jamila Woods… I have very mixed feelings about Taylor Swift, but as a songwriter, I have immense respect for the groundedness of her love songs on the new album and am truly inspired by her succinctness.
For those who are about to embark on the journey of listening to Ow for the very first time, what are your introductory words? What should they know going into this music experience?
Berrin: I wrote this at a time when I thought, very narrow-mindedly, that nothing could ever get better. It does, and it did. It’s not my job to tell you how to listen, because it’s not mine anymore, it’s yours — but make room for it, make room for yourself. It’s gonna be fine eventually.
— — — —
📸 © Michelle Lobianco
an EP by Pom Pom Squad