Gabrielle Wortman On The Seductive Fog of Smoke Season

0 Comments 05 February 2017

Gabrielle Wortman of the electro-soul duo Smoke Season talks tackling social issues in music, the group’s latest direction, and the album that inspired her the most.

by Daniel Barron



Smoke Season derives their namesake from the thick fog of artifice that tends to sour Los Angeles. Where life on the hustle often means cloudy with a chance of bullshit, Gabrielle Wortman & Jason Rosen are compelled to keep it real.  Showing that the best way to speak to truth to power is to bring power to truth, the electro-soul duo weave soaring psychedelic journeys that invest urgent social issues with a primal, seductive resonance.

Now that the band is set to debut six new songs tomorrow night at The Echoplex, their voice feels as crucial as ever. 2016 was a prolific year for Smoke Season, who dropped a single, their EP Ouroboros, and the first three segments of a counterpart multimedia project Wortman co-wrote with Scott Fleishman (The fourth, final installment is “coming soon.”) With their penchant for audacious, ambient live shows one medium is too limiting for their ambitions.
Below, Wortman clears the air on the band’s new sonic direction, standing up, the album that changed her life, and “the greatest sex music that any LA band has ever made.”


“Loose” Music Video (Ouroboros Part I)



Smoke Season has a history of addressing social issues in its music. Is it something you feel a moral obligation to do, to speak up?

Yeah. It’s always been a part of my music, because music became my outlet when I was younger, just as a way to process things that had happened to me. The tone and the themes in my music were always raw, or I guess  a bit unpleasant or disturbing. Now there is such blatant right and wrong going on, it feels no-holds-barred. It’s nice because we have incredible fans that are in Texas, one fan is in Canada- they won’t stop supporting us even if they believe something different. I’m not backing down, we’ve gotten some harassment on social media, but it’s been a lot less than I expected. Maybe there were fans who quietly departed after seeing how outspoken we’ve become, but I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror if I wasn’t speaking out about what I think is right or wrong. A lot of people don’t have the stamina or the access to facts or information, so if I can make it in the audio and bring it under their nose, then I feel like I’m doing my job.



That’s one of the gifts of the internet and social media. In major cities or cultural hubs people have access to a variety of different perspectives and creative communities. That privilege isn’t available to those in more conservative areas. It can help make people feel less alone in that regard.

I agree.



In your youth did you observe any specific pop idols and think, “I want to be that!”? Or were you drawn towards more alternative figures?

The person who is most responsible for my outspokenness about social issues is definitely Tori Amos. My discovery of Little Earthquakes when I was 11-years-old totally shaped the way I look at art. Jason [Rosen] and I really split the songwriting in this band, and his style is a little more upbeat. Not that he isn’t deep. Tori Amos influenced me in how dramatic I could go. Also, David Bowie.

I feel like there was a special attraction to 1960s and 70s rock-and-roll artists, all the self-destruction of their lifestyles. Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, I related to that a little bit more when I was younger. I could feel the emotions in the messiness of the stories that they told.

But yeah, Tori Amos was my first die-hard fandom, so I think that speaks to the tone of my music a lot.



Was her music introduced to you or did you discover it independently?

I stole my sister’s Little Earthquakes CD [laughs]. Much to her dismay! My sister is six years older than me so the stuff that she was listening to in high school I was listening to by default because I idolized her. So I was always six years ahead of the curve when it came to music. Whatever people listened to at sixteen I was doing it at ten.



Did you grow up in a community where you were free to be weird or embrace fringe lifestyles?

Oh god no. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where people thought they were super liberal, but my gosh if you didn’t dress a certain way or stick to certain social codes it was like you had leprosy or something. The bullying was really bad in that town. I look back and it was definitely a struggle. That’s why when I moved out to California to go to UCLA I thought, “Oh, this is a collection of misfits!” It was really liberating.



You strongly believe in the power of live music, utilizing light shows and ornate outfits. When you’re onstage is that the most “you” or is it more of a character you assume?

It’s weird, I have alter-egos, and there’s purity in each one of them. They’re the most emotionally pure versions of me, and I think when I’m onstage I’m the most conscious version of myself. It’s definitely a different me from my day-to-day.



So you ditch the glittery catsuit before going to the bank?

[laughs] Yeah, usually.



ou could get away with it in this town. I’ve seen weirder.

Me too! You could definitely get away with it.



The band had a big year in 2016 between the EP, the tour, and the music video releases. What were you personally most proud of?I understand you have been working on a short film?

The film is in the very final stages. We have a team now submitting it to film festivals. I woke up politically in a lot of ways doing the screenplay with my friend Scott [Fleishman], who works with APLUSFILMZ. We couldn’t just write a screenplay or a music video about immigration. I had to understand immigration. We couldn’t just write about our veterans, I had to go to veterans support groups and do research. There was hundreds of hours worth of research. It was a really beautiful thing to be able to use the mediums of art to express important issues. So that awakening of both of us is something that we’re really proud of in 2016.

Also, our first national headlining tour was very emotionally-exhausting but also super rewarding.


Did you expect to do all of that field research from the very beginning or was it a process of discovering you needed further insight?

Yeah. We knew the general story we wanted to tell, but we wanted to preserve as much authenticity as possible. We spoke to people who worked with non-profit organizations for veterans rights, we spoke to people for who work for non-profits for immigration reform. For us it was, “Don’t even touch if if you aren’t ready to commit.”




Was there ever a moment in the film’s development where you collided with your presuppositions and learned something you didn’t know?

The research made me a bit more outraged about certain things like veteran’s rights or how some political parties will go on and on about how for the military they are. They’re super pro-military, they want more military funding, but in their super contradictory way they are also cutting all support for veterans. I realized how maybe that’s not clear to all veterans. And how there’s a lot more dissent among veterans and those types of politicians than I had realized. It was very eye-opening, just how much love there is in the veteran community, the brotherhood.

With immigration it put a human face to it. When you hear people say, “Let’s deport undocumented workers who are committing crimes,” a lot of those crimes are as simple as not signaling while turning left. Obviously, the immigration conversation has gotten a lot more extreme with the executive orders that are going through. Things that I’ve done, like driving while having my phone in my hand, those are reasons for deportation in certain parts of the United States.


You recently protested against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. What was that experience like?

There’s a bigger story going on with Standing Rock. Standing Rock was probably the most politically eye-opening situation that I have ever been personally involved in. First of all, Standing Rock isn’t about any one person. The Wiconi’s fight is about water protection. I have to check myself when I talk about this. I was blessed to have spent that time with them, but it’s about the Wiconi, not me.

I think I got a better understanding of both sides. I mean, there is pretty blatant right and wrong going on, and there’s blatant racism. But we villainize people without fully understanding why this pipeline is so important to the ones who want it built. The city of Bismarck and its’ majority-white population didn’t want the pipeline routed near their water source, and so the re-route put it dangerously close to the Sioux reservation’s water source. And so the Sioux nation is asking for the same courtesy. So the question is, “Why is that so much harder?” There is nothing to say other than, “This is a form of systematic oppression and racism.”

We talk about “jobs, job, jobs.” There are people all over the country that live below the poverty line. Imagine living below the poverty line for your whole life. Then you hear that there is a job that has opened up and companies are flocking there and have basically tapped into this massive reserve of crude oil and they need men to work on the rig. This influx of men- a lot of them have stayed employed in industrial jobs their whole life- suddenly have an opportunity to provide for their families, having access to almost six-figure jobs. It made parts of North Dakota the most expensive place to live in the United States for multiple years in a row. Just think about how many people needed a job. And so try putting yourself in the shoes of these people where the only thing society has ever given back to them now has people coming to say, “No you can’t.” It’s the lifeline of a lot of people who are working there. Oil is a finite resource. They’re doing monstrous things, but they’re not monsters.

I think it was it important for [the protestors] to make the pipeline at the forefront of the news, but you also can’t fix the problem unless you understand why it’s there. We need to start directing jobs towards new industries, maybe renewable energy. Hillary Clinton ran her campaign on a platform of job training and getting people into different industries so that they can have jobs even if coal jobs aren’t available because it’s an outdated form of energy.




Smoke Season’s sound has evolved over time from its roots in soul towards more ethereal, ambient soundscapes. Is there a firm idea of what directions you want to explore next?

In the first half of 2016 we put out that EP [Ouroboros] and spent all the time touring. So when we got back from that summer touring our focus has been writing. So we’ve been writing all-new material since October and it’s more upbeat. It kind of goes in the opposite direction of the political climate, actually. I think we needed a bit more release. The world has gotten darker, but we’re finding the light in music. It’s less heavy than Ouroboros, which was super emotional to us. It’s a natural shift, it wasn’t intentional.

I’m really excited for this upcoming show at The Echoplex because we’re playing six new songs, and we’re introducing them to our biggest fans, which is LA.


The band is planning its first national tour in 2017. Who’s on your tour mate wish list?

We’re a big fan of Glass Animals, we would looove to tour with them. Alt-J would be bomb.


Some LA local bands you would like to recommend?

Let’s see, number one is Moses Sumney. He’s someone I went to college with and I really admire his fearlessness and minimalism. He has so much confidence in his vocals and melodies that he doesn’t need bullshit or stacks layers to tracks. I also love Profiles of Sound. We stumbled upon their music while stoned at a festival and had to stay and watch their whole set. It almost has that bottled-up 80s feeling of the Drive soundtrack. I feel like that’s the greatest sex music that any LA band has ever made.




“When The Smoke Clears” Music Video (Ouroboros Part II)



“Emilia” Music Video (Ouroboros Part III)



Learn more about Smoke Season on their website.

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- who has written 424 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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