Layers & Landscapes of Reflection and Exploration: A Conversation with Lena Rich on ‘Upside Down’

Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Singer/songwriter Lena Rich finds freedom, united with her Earth as she ponders time, movement, change, home, and beauty within her ‘Upside Down’ EP.
Stream: ‘Upside Down’ – Lena Rich

In front of a piano is where Lena Rich finds herself, time and time again. From her kindergarten days banging on the keys of her family’s old upright in Maine, to crafting the full landscapes of this EP in solitude in the deserts of Capitol Reef National Park at 23. Creativity and the natural world make up Lena’s essence, flowing through her as she sings of time, home, and human connection. Her first EP with OffCenter Music, Upside Down (released June 9, 2021) is a true beauty between lines of indie, folk, rock, and pop – never in contradiction.

Upside Down - Lena Rich
Upside Down – Lena Rich

Lena Rich’s sound is entirely self-assured as well as unique to her. On Upside Down, she finds and perfects balance and boundlessness. Through layers of impeccable production, moving instrumentals, an unabashed honesty with herself, and an eye for experimentation, Lena’s vocals and pen lead with vigour and charm, and a simultaneous softness and strength. Upside Down paints 6 gorgeous and meticulously detailed landscapes that move so naturally between their distinct motions; in dreams, gentle wisdom, comfort, confrontation, and acceptance.

Upside Down beautifully distills the winding multitudes of reflection, growing up, and embracing change to seek comfort through yourself in the midst of change’s uncertainty. There’s something truly remarkable in becoming both free and grounded, where they are simultaneous, intertwining. Lena Rich is untethered from the bounds of time and expectation; grounded only to her Earth. The idea of home and time are two concepts, fluid within her, shaping them as she reflects, dreams, and moves through this life.

“To have that open ended time in such beautiful landscapes that felt endless and open ended, in the way that the Southwest desert does, it was very dreamlike. I felt like I was in other worlds, in the best way; that I could get lost in the writing process and really access that connection.  The layers in the rocks, the colors, and the vastness convey themes of time, movement, change and beauty all on their own – all themes of the EP.”

Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico

The EP opens with titular track “Upside Down,” bringing forth the strength of our protagonist right away over sounds of a soft electric guitar and a piano in the next room. The atmosphere becomes a soft, embracing, unshakeable comfort with “Rain on the Roof,” while her vocals sway over a serene piano lead, soft bells, and steady, forgiving drums. Unwavering power takes center stage with rock song “New Years”, a road trip over a flawed relationship; “Yellow/Grey” is the other side of that coin, centering her strength through vulnerability while her electric guitar accompanies with emotive subtly. “Constellations” follows; an upbeat, acoustic pop song that sings notes in the sky. Now, evening takes hold, as Upside Down closes with “Dream Song” in the endless intensity and possibility of the night, drawn out with just perfectly heavy production and harmony.

We talked to Lena Rich about nature, creating, the desert, honesty and authenticity, ideas of time, landscapes, themes of her writing, and the music she’s listening to at the moment. Read our conversation below!

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Upside Down - Lena Rich

Atwood Magazine: I love the concepts of this EP's creation. The themes, landscapes, really came to life through it. Having written it entirely in Capitol Reef National Park, how do your interactions with the natural world, or your surroundings, intertwine with your relationship to music; be it as a listener, a songwriter, etc?

Lena Rich: My whole life I’ve felt really connected to nature. It’s been a really big part of my life and is really important to me, especially my creative process. As a kid, I grew up in super rural Maine; right by the ocean, playing in the forest, playing in the water. It feels very homey to me. Creativity in nature was really how I spent my time. Before phones and the internet, my sister and I would get lost in nature and invent our own worlds, our own stories. I started playing violin when I was four years old, piano when I was five, so that has always been a big part of my life – the two have just always really fed each other to me, nature and creativity. I find that I can really just be honest with myself, reflect better when I’m in the natural setting. It’s just where I find that I work best. So in Capitol Reef, that was just really ideal – to have that open ended time in such beautiful landscapes that felt endless and open ended, in the way that the Southwest desert does. It was very dreamlike. I felt like I was in other worlds, in the best way, that I could just kind of get lost in the writing process and try to push myself and really access that connection.

After my first album, a lot changed in my personal life and music took a back seat for the first time in my life, which was terrifying. For nearly a year I was questioning the place of music in my life and wondering why I wasn’t able to write or even enjoy playing. Slowly music came back to me and I fell in love with it even more than before – the joy of playing with other people and the process of writing as a means of processing. It was crucial for me to have that solitude and time dedicated solely to creativity, all while in a beautiful place. I focused on writing songs that were honest, while trying to push my own writing and composing style in new directions.

It was crucial for me to have that solitude and time dedicated solely to creativity, all while in a beautiful place. I focused on writing songs that were honest, while trying to push my own writing and composing style in new directions.

Beautiful. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Everything is boundless in nature. What is your favorite song on the EP and what was your favorite song to make?

Lena Rich: I think “Rain on the Roof” is probably the song I’m most proud of, just from a songwriting standpoint. I’ve had a few songs similar to it, I wrote it in about 20-ish minutes, start to finish. Usually it’s under a few hours but with “Rain on the Roof,” I wrote it on the piano, and it just kind of poured out of me in one of those magical moments of creativity where a song just effortlessly flows out. That’s really what I love about writing – when that happens, when I feel like the song is already there and I just need to reach out and jot it down. It’s really fun, it’s kind of like a flowy, super creative, satisfying process. To me this song is about appreciating connections for what they are, not what they could be or what they once were. That has been a huge realization for me this past year-the joy of simply appreciating someone or something as they are right now. So much of our society, culture, etc. tries to push a fairytale narrative when it comes to human connections and I’ve wasted a lot of energy in the past imagining what something could turn into, instead of just enjoying it for what it is in the moment. It was really satisfying to be able to capture just that in “Rain On The Roof,” I feel like I’m saying, “This is really special, I like you, I like this and I don’t know if you’ll be in my life down the line, but that’s okay because this is beautiful right now.” There is something freeing in embracing impermanence instead of being afraid of it, and that’s something I tried to capture in this song.

So the writing itself I was really happy with, but then I was kind of nervous because writing a song is one thing, but then actually producing it and deciding how it’s going to sound is a whole nother thing, so I brought the song to Ben Thompson, a producer I work with often, his artist name is Bensbeendead. He just pushes my music and in a really awesome way, and comes up with ideas that I never would think of myself but end up loving. He always just gets super weird with it in the best way, and takes it in a totally different direction. Usually the first time, I’m a little hesitant, but I think that’s a good thing because it always comes around and I’m like ‘Oh thank God he thought of that cool, weird idea because now it totally works. It makes it interesting and I never would have thought of that.’ He did a lot of the beat, and the background samples, and the synth stuff we worked through together; I feel like that just came together in a way that felt authentic to me, but pushing my sound in a new direction. I was really happy with how that one came out. It was probably my favourite one to make too.

And the music video as well – for the music video, I knew I wanted to work with Miranda Rico, an incredible artist also based out of Portland when she’s not living out of her van exploring and creating on the road. I flew out to Utah and met Miranda there to film. We didn’t have a detailed plan, we both just knew the themes we wanted to convey. It felt right to film in Utah, where so much of the music on the EP was originally created. In southwest Utah, the landscape speaks for itself. The layers in the rocks, the colors, and the vastness convey themes of time, movement, change and beauty all on their own: all themes of the EP. This, combined with Miranda’s eye, brought the video to life. Shooting the video with Miranda was a blast, we chased sunsets and rainstorms and got lost on top of mountains and almost stuck!

Also, “Constellations” was really fun to make, because, again, I was happy with the song, I just wrote it on guitar, you know, pretty simple, and I felt like we really brought it to life in a cool way. So that was a really fun, satisfying process. And New Years, it started off as a really stripped down, super acoustic demo, really slow, and we made it into more of a rock song. That was really fun too, something I definitely wanted to try out. When I came back to Maine, I just had this handful of songs written but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with their production. Bensbeendead, who I mentioned, along with Daniel Markus and Dave Gutter breathed new life into the songs and added ideas I never could have thought of, and the EP came together with a sound that felt new, yet true to me. I hope that answers the question.

There is something freeing in embracing impermanence instead of being afraid of it, and that’s something I tried to capture in this song.

Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico

It really does, yeah. My first impressions of the EP, something that really stood out to me, was the manifestations of different genres with every every song really exists in its own landscape. I was like ‘She has a great ear for production.’

Lena Rich: Thank you, that’s such a cool thing to hear. Definitely something I was going for, so that’s really cool to hear.

Really well done. This goes into the next question, kind of going to be redundant, but the EP captures and distills whole landscapes so beautifully. Every song is so grounded in knowing what it is. They truly exist as their own landscapes and come together like a collection of paintings. Going from ‘Upside Down’ to ‘Dream Song’, do these songs progress in a certain way together? Do they exist as separate identities to you, or do they have any relationship to each other?

Lena Rich: I didn’t make the tracklist with an evolution in mind per se, just kind of shifted them around until it felt like a really good kind of mix in contrast and flow. I wasn’t super intentional in trying to have a story or something evolve through them, although I feel like that’s kind of there with the order of them right now. What I was really going for is, like you mentioned, having each song exist in its own world, but still feed off the other ones.

That makes sense. You mentioned themes of this EP being ‘time, movement, change, and beauty all on their own.’ Tell me about that.

Lena Rich: Generally when I write, I feel like the themes I keep coming back to, even mostly unintentionally, are time and concepts of home. I don’t know why but I catch myself just writing about that a lot in relation to what is home to me, what does it look like, what does it feel like, as well as landscapes and just like my place in them. I do feel like time is definitely an overarching theme – coming to terms with time, and making peace with it. I feel like so much of my life has been super rushed through this very linear way of thinking about time; like it’s this hourglass slipping away from me, and I have to meet all these goals by a certain time or else it’s all gonna be a waste. And that was really just like dragging me down and killing my creative process as well, because every time I would sit down to write, instead of just enjoying it, I would attach an end goal to whatever I was making before I even really started. It just didn’t feel good. With this EP, I was really just trying to enjoy the process of creating, and not worry so much about the end result and that linear way of thinking about time, goals, and results, if that makes sense.

With this EP, I was really just trying to enjoy the process of creating, and not worry so much about the end result and that linear way of thinking about time, goals.

Absolutely, it makes perfect sense. Thank you for sharing. Is there any direction you see yourself going after this, any next steps for you and/or music?

Lena Rich: I’m still writing all the time and am in the studio as much as I can be, but coming up pretty soon I’m just going to release either a two- or three- pack of demo versions of some of these songs and one song that hasn’t been released yet. I’m really excited about that, to show the bones of the songs without the production. She’s done this before but last spring, Phoebe Bridgers released the demo version of Kyoto alongside the produced version. I loved listening to both of those, that was definitely a huge inspiration for New Years – just that concept of taking such a stripped down, vulnerable song and giving it a beat, making it a rock song…I think that’s such a fun challenge. So I’m excited to show the originals, but also the songs how they feel most authentic to me. I’m really excited for that, that’s up next. I’m working on some new stuff now that I’m super excited about too. Just enjoying the process.

Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico

I'm looking forward to that. Is there any genre you would like to perhaps explore, or lean into, in the future?

Lena Rich: The thing I’m most happy with this EP is that I feel like I’ve kind of settled into something that feels like my own sound. Through finding these collaborators and finding that happy medium of ‘how do I keep it authentic but keep pushing myself,’ so I want to stay within the same general sound and vibe as this EP – keep working with the same people and kind of just coast with that for right now until I get sick of it and want to try something else.

If you could collaborate with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Doesn't need to be a musician per se.

Lena Rich: Such a good question, such a hard question is, ah geez, that’s so tough. Bridget Kearney from Lake Street Dive, their upright bass player, who does most of their songwriting. I think she’s just an incredible songwriter, and when you look at the songs she’s written for them, it’s pretty mind blowing. She won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest a couple times actually. She just churns out incredible songs all seemingly effortlessly. I would love to work with her. Huge fan. Fantastic.

What have you been listening to lately, is there anything you would recommend?

Lena Rich: An artist that I discovered last fall that was actually pretty big inspiration for the production side of my EP is Victoria Bigelow. She’s pretty indie, but she’s incredible. I love her songwriting, I love her production, I feel like she strikes this really great balance. It sounds interesting, it’s an instantly engaging sound because there’s enough production and stuff going on that it’s not just like a girl strumming the guitar and singing, but the story stays so real and authentic, and the production is so interesting and fun. I was really excited to discover her. When I find a new artist I really like, I kind of become obsessed with them. For the first few weeks it’s all I listen to, I learn a handful of songs all the way through, and listen to them on repeat like a crazy person. It’s like, less for fun and is more like an academic project or something. I kind of study them and become obsessed. My friends don’t want to be in the car with me when I’ve discovered someone new because I just play the same songs on repeat. I definitely did that with her, I think she’s awesome. And Phoebe Bridgers, obviously everyone loves her. She’s just able to convey vulnerability in a way that’s really accessible, and I feel like she says things that aren’t that necessarily groundbreaking, but says them in a new enough way that it’s exciting, and she’s just not afraid to say things that most people want to say. It’s that vulnerability, just sheer honesty, it’s really great storytelling. It’s a really good lesson I try to always go back to, keeping it simple, just simple truth, is really what makes good songwriting.



Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico

Yeah, I see that. It's not hesitating in honesty, with yourself and these feelings, and in the creating/songwriting process.

Lena Rich: For me, my process, I’ll start out with a couple lines of just honest, honest feelings or an honest story, and feel myself kind of get lost in telling this fictional narrative or making it into this fairytale thing. The challenge is bringing it back into ‘Okay, what is actually honest and what truth do I want to say?’ Because there are songs I listen to where I’m like ‘Ehhh, it sounds kind of cheesy and like every other radio love song.’ You get lost in those cliches that are almost like trying too hard. I’ve definitely doubted myself, and other writers I’ve talked to have said the same thing, feeling like ‘Who cares, nobody wants to hear that, this has been said before so I should try to change it up, make it sound more exciting, or you know pretend that this thing happened when it didn’t.’ I remind myself to think ‘just say what you have to say and let that come through,’ and I think that’s always what a listener wants to hear anyway. Working with Ben has been great because he’s just the opposite of me in every approach, that’s why I love working with him. He really loves to get lost in hypothetical writing. But I think when you do it intentionally, it’s kind of different; when you’re going into the song and you’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s make a story of this.’ That’s different from being cliche. It’s fun to write with him because he’s not afraid to kind of make up an image, a storyline, or dramatize anything. And it’s great, the different approaches.

Creating for yourself, I think, and not (like you said) pandering to radio, is the thing that separates the two; cliches and actually creating scenes or stories. I think Björk once said that all of her albums are an exaggeration of herself.

Lena Rich: Right! That’s the word that Ben uses too, yeah, exaggeration. That is part of art for sure. Yeah. It’s all good, all fun.

And the authenticity really is there and unwavering, it really is all, simply, great.

Lena Rich: Yeah, thank you so much for listening so carefully. It’s really cool to hear that things I was going for were received, thank you. A huge shoutout to my producer/collaborator Daniel Markus too; he did a lot of the behind the scenes production work and has been such a support. Also, I couldn’t have done it without my manager Brendan Bennett and the OffCenter team.

Thank you so much for talking to me today! The EP is fantastic, and I can’t wait to hear all that’s coming.
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico
Lena Rich © Miranda Rico

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Upside Down - Lena Rich

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