Roniit on making dark pop that appeals to her grandma and sounds like Opeth meets Britney
Roniit is a project that got started around two years ago by namesake Roniit Alkayam, who went to high school in Evergreen and studied music business at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alkayam started writing her own music in conjunction with her boyfriend Eric Brown, who keeps time for the death metal band Vale of Pnath. The music the duo made together is ostensibly far removed from metal and sounds more like electronic pop with a darker air to it. Roniit released a self-titled full-length album in 2011 that revealed a knack for making the kind of downtempo songs that would be prime for a good anime soundtrack.
Roniit's latest EP, In the Shadows expands her palette while paring the music down to essentials. We recently spoke with the sharp and frank Alkayam about the start of the band, her surprising background as a metalhead, her other roots in mainstream pop, her comfort with her music being labeled Goth and her views on the Spotify phenomenon of music marketing.
Westword: Did you start this band by yourself?
Roniit Alkayam: I was kind of writing music for fun and kind of as a joke. I would write all these stupid joke songs with my friends in Logic. That's how I learned to use Logic. Then I wrote one serious song and sent it to Eric [Brown] and asked, "What do you think?" He said he was going to remix it, and he added drums and made it sound poppy, and it was pretty cool. So from there on out, I started sending him all my songs -- he was in Nashville at the time. I had met him at a birthday party for Vance [Valenzuela] of Vale of Pnath when Eric came back for that party. We started talking, and I ended up going out to Nashville for an internship and ended up staying about six months.
What kind of internship was it?
I got the internship basically because I wanted to live with Eric. And I applied at about twenty different places and got an internship at CMT. That lasted about five months, and a month later, I came back and brought Eric with me. I was the intern for the director of digital ad sales, so I made a lot of power points. I also worked for the mobile department, so I sent out text alerts about Taylor Swift and handled contest winners and called them, which was really fun. They would be freaking out and crying. "You won a chance to meet with Taylor Swift back stage."
Did you ever meet Taylor Swift yourself?
No, but I went to her record label and gave her a guitar for her to sign. I wasn't allowed to come back and see her. I just waited in the lobby. I'm not a huge fan of her, either, but they didn't know that. For all they knew I was going to freak out.
Did you play out when you were there?
Nope. I was just writing music and kind of didn't think it was going to be a band or a thing. I was just writing songs because I wanted to and putting them on Soundcloud. It wasn't until I got back that I thought I could be doing this live.
What brought you back to Denver?
I had one semester left of school. And since I didn't like Nashville very much, I just wanted to come back and see my friends and my family and move back into my downtown apartment [instead of the kind of suburban Nashville place in which I had been living in there]. I was in the Music Business program. I had several classes with Marshall Gallagher, who is in 3OH!3 now playing guitar, and Alex Anderson from ManCub and Flashlights. There are so many. Scott Uhl from Glass Delirium, I met there.
In high school you were really into metal, which may surprise anyone that hears the music you make yourself. How did you get into that kind of music?
My old childhood friend came to visit me, and he was playing piano, and I asked, "What is that?" Apparently it was Metallica, and he showed me Metallica, and I became absolutely obsessed. Then he showed me Opeth, Children of Bodom and Arch Enemy and a lot of death metal bands. I went to every metal show and met a bunch of people in bands around here. Like the people in Vale of Pnath, Vimana and Cephalic Carnage.
I saw Opeth six times. They're my all time favorite, and I still go see them. I got to go backstage and meet them one time because I covered their videos on YouTube and they liked it and invited me backstage. It was the best night of my life because I was obsessed and eighteen. It was at the Ogden, and that was the first time in my life I had met anyone remotely famous, so I was blown away by the whole experience. I don't listen to metal much now but it's still definitely a musical influence. I just love dark music.
Did you play keyboards or piano before you started making music in Logic?
I was playing piano growing up on and off. I just loved Phantom of the Opera, and I learned every song from that, just because it was dark. Something inside me, as a child, liked dark music. After quitting for five years, I picked it back up when I was sixteen because of my friend that showed me Metallica. So I learned those songs. I got into synths later on because I was starting to get into synths.
Live you play a keyboard?
It's MIDI controller. I'm going through Logic live, so I can use all the sounds I use on the record live.
Being into metal, how did you get into the music you do now?
I grew up loving pop as well. I was a big fan of Christina Aguilera. I was obsessed with her. And Britney Spears, I still love her. People always think, "Oh, you must have grown up listening to Evanescence and Lacuna Coil." But I didn't. I never liked them, and I thought they were stupid, because I liked death metal. I guess it happened because I wanted to write music. I was in this metal band playing keyboard.
Was that band Endriel?
Yeah. That was me and my ex-boyfriend's sister. She's really talented, and we covered Opeth songs. But we parted ways, and the natural thing for me to do was just write music in Logic. I don't play guitar, so I can't write my own metal songs, so I had to try to write things that sounded like if Opeth met Britney Spears and went on a date or something. I don't know if it really comes out that way.
There's a bit of hip-hop production in the music too.
The hip-hop side probably comes more from Eric. Some of the drums. On the newer stuff I've been pushing him to make it not hip-hoppy. Just crunchy drums. Make it sound shittier?
There's guitar on the new EP too?
Yeah that's Scott [Uhl]. On "In the Shadows," he played the solo. Mikey [Reeves] from Vale of Pnath plays on the EP as well.
Would you say your music draws any inspiration from EBM bands?
I get compared to them a lot. And other '80s bands and a lot of things I've never heard of or listened to, like Switchblade Symphony. But I've never listened to those bands. I listened to a lot of Pendulum and Röyksopp. I guess somehow all the things I listened to ended up sounding like something I've never listened to in my life.
When people hear dark, kind of moody, atmospheric music, they may think "goth." Is that something you feel uncomfortable being called?
If you would have asked me when I was sixteen, I probably would have said, "Yes." You know, metalheads get kind of die-hard. "Don't call me a goth. Don't call me emo. I'm a metalhead. It's different!" But now I kind of try to embrace that. If people want to think I'm a goth, I will direct my [attention] toward goths. I've submitted my music to goth blogs and been featured. If people want to classify me that way and it's going to make some loyal fans, then sure.
But you would not describe yourself as a goth?
No. I mean, I wear black a lot. Pretty much my whole closet has black clothes. But I don't really identify with depression. Everyone gets depressed and anxious, but I don't [stay there]. I don't really feel a need to call myself anything. Does anyone? Except for high schoolers, maybe? When you get classified it makes it easier to find other bands to play with, especially when you go on tour. I have a hard time figuring out who am I going to play with. Who's going to open for me or who am I going to open for?
For your new EP, do you feel it is markedly different from your full-length album?
It feels different to me. I've had my close friends tell me it's better, but it's hard to tell. On my first album, I wasn't writing for other people. I was only writing because it was fun. I also never paid attention to lyrics when I listened to metal, so I had no idea how to write lyrics. I just wrote whatever rhymed. On this one, I tried a lot harder to be poetic. I've never been a great writer when it comes to words, but I'd like to think my lyrics are better and there's less shit going on in the songs.
I tried to make the vocals more focused because my grandma would call me and go, "I can't hear you on your album, and I want to be able to hear your voice. It's the best part." So I tried to make some songs for grandma. My old photos suck, and I'm actually paying photographers now. I have a music video, and I'm trying to move forward with everything and become more professional and sound better, too. My album took me maybe nine months to write, and this EP took me nine months to write. For my first album, I was just pumping songs out. No quality control. Even some of those were homework assignments for class that made it to the album and I still don't even like those songs.
For the EP, I would spend like two months on each song. There was a lot of anxiety that went into it. Now that I have a following online, I'm trying to impress everyone, and it's hard sometimes to think about that when you're writing music. Are people going to like this? Is this more marketable? Because, trust me, like everyone else, I don't want to work a stupid job. I want to earn my music off music. It's not all about that, but you know -- it's what I want to do. I don't want to work nine to five and work on music until two a.m. and then do it all again. It makes you really tired.
On your blog, you relatively recently wrote a bit about the status of music and being a musician now, particularly the subject of Spotify. Can you comment on that?
The thing about Spotify is that part of me loves it. Because I'm like, "This is awesome. I can listen to anyone I want and not pay anything." Well, I pay the monthly fee for the premium service. Then I sat down and crunched the numbers. I like math. I did all the math, and I realized you would have to listen to my album for eight hours straight for me to make a dollar. So I encourage people to put my album on while they sleep, so I can make a buck. That's ridiculous, I think, how little we make off that.
In that same blog entry, you talk about how it's becoming more difficult being an independent musician. Why do you feel that's true?
I think I was talking about how much money I've spent, personally. In the beginning you have to spend a lot to get started: a thousand dollars to press CDs, another thousand for shirts. I spent five thousand on my van. I didn't personally go into a studio, but I know bands that have spent ten thousand in a studio with no label support. Then you put your music on Spotify and maybe you get hundreds of people listening to it but you're barely making thirty bucks a month.
Another thing that bugs me is venue owners not being nice to artists or not giving them very much money. Look, you wouldn't exist if it weren't for us. Everyone makes money but the artist, I feel like, and they're all there because of the artist. The booking agent makes money, the labels make money, the management companies -- everyone else but the artist. It's just shitty.
Some venues are really awesome about that, and they pay out really well. Then I've played shows when there's a ton of people, and they go, "Here's thirty bucks." I know local bands here that tell me they only sell one CD a year, which is crazy. I average about a hundred plays a day on Spotify, and I don't make a living on that, and I feel like that's not a bad play count. It's not amazing like someone famous, but I'm just a person in Colorado and you would think I would make something significant off a hundred people listening to my music all day.
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