Techno-Musicologist Mas Ysa Brings Folk to the Dancefloor
Tanlines w/ Mas Ysa on Tour
Mas Ysa, the project of nomadic composer Thomas Arsenault, combines love songs, unabashed ecstatic pop, prayer, field recordings and techno into triumphant, danceable, melancholy folk music that pummels the heart rather than dances around it.
There’s no one way to describe Mas Ysa. The creation of musician Thomas Arsenault embraces cutting-edge electronic music, but owes plenty to traditional songwriting; songs that are made to pack a dance floor flow seamlessly into harrowing ballads. The entirety of this spectrum is apparent on his debut album Seraph, out July 24, 2015.
Seraph was created far from the noise of the city, at Arsenault’s woodland home in Lake Hill, NY. “Moving upstate and recording there, and not in Brooklyn, was less isolating than I’d expected,” he recalls. “I felt much more isolated in the city, in a dark corner of a studio, whereas in Lake Hill, I felt like my music was going out the windows and into the woods.” Away from the distractions of urban life, Arsenault was part songwriter and part mad scientist, taking winning songs from his live set and reworking them to into the powerful, penetrating tracks that appear on Seraph. “When I survey the music I listen to, I find I always spend more time with solo projects than bands,” he explains. “The individual for me is easier to commiserate with than a group, and that’s what I usually look for in music—a friend, not a scene. I’d take John Prine over the Beatles any day.
The change of scenery also allowed him to open up. “I also moved upstate at a time when I was beginning to share my music publicly,” he says, “whereas in Brooklyn I was more guarded as to who I’d play it for.”
While Seraph is his first full-length record, Arsenault is no newcomer. In 2013, after playing shows supporting Purity Ring and Deerhunter, the first Mas Ysa track, “Why,” was released and named a “Best New Track” by Pitchfork. The following year the WorthEP came out, nabbing another “Best New Track” nod for the song “Shame” and propelling Arsenault into the international spotlight with subsequent gigs around the world and across the United States. The Fader called him, “an artist whose sound has arrived fully minted,” while Noisey.com noted, “in Mas Ysa’s hands, every emotion feels titanic.” Thanks to his indefinable sound and wide appeal, Mas Ysa has since toured with bands including Delorean, EMA, Hundred Waters and Young Fathers and has played festivals like Primavera, Pitchfork, Fun Fun Fun, Hopscotch, Northside, SXSW and NXNE.
Creating Seraph took the better part of a year—it was crafted in Arsenault’s home studio, received additional production help from Steve Rivette (Liars, Black Dice) and was mixed by Grammy-nominated Damian Taylor (Bjork, Arcade Fire)—but the topics it covers have been haunting the musician for his entire life. “Thematically, there’s a lot of Catholic guilt and shame,” he says of the album, which is named for a kind of angel. “I don’t set out to use specific sounds or actively reference any culture’s sound or instruments, but looking later at the pallet of choirs, clapping, castanets, flutes—I’ve realized that they are just comforting to me. I think that comes from going to church and coming from very large and close Ecuadorian and FrenchCanadian families.”
Seraph isn’t electronic music only for the club or dance floor, it’s electronic music for the heart. “This is personal,” Arsenault says. And while Mas Ysa displays Arsenault’s unabashed love of electronic music, and Seraph puts forward a collection of songs that have made their creator a hit on dance floors across the world, what Arsenault says is important isn’t just the beats. “To me,” he says, “the truth just sounds different.”
Listen to Mas Ysa’s debut album Seraph in full at the NY Times “Press Play”