Maryland Multi-Talent Vanszi Creates Gorgeous Studies in Sound and Self on “Euphorbia”
“Now that I’ve been building an inner fire, I don’t fear the Lion’s Den so much”
Listening to Euphorbia, the fine album from Forest Hill, Maryland artist Michael Hooper (a.k.a. Vanszi), is not unlike what I imagine spending time in a sensory deprivation tank is like (another bucket list item of mine that’s been delayed by 2020). There are instrumental tracks, built on calming loops, showing Vanszi’s love for electronic music and minimalist producers who form clouds through sounds . But there are also the songs showcasing his vocals, delivering words less like lyrical phrases and more like thoughts swimming through his own cocoon, protected from everything else. It’s as if Porches’ last few albums have been brought through a filter of pure ambient energy.
For Euphorbia, Hooper took inspiration from notable ascendents, including a bishop who was martyred by the infamous Bloody Mary in 1555. (his crime? being married). He also mentions the album came together “during a time of social hypocrisies coming to light.” Despite the intense premises, Euphorbia’s presentation initially seems quite relaxed, like something designed to bring a pulse down.
But Hooper integrates material like vintage samples that keeps the album always interesting. At one moment, you’re enchanted by his gently rocking strings. At another, you’re caught up in a sample of a woman talking about biblical King Solomon. Seemingly disparate elements seem like part of one beautiful whole, not owing us any explanation.
Euphorbia is also a great album for isolation. It won’t reverse or deconstruct one’s loneliness, but it can make it seem less like a threat, even revealing the beauty in being alone. As Hooper says on the title track, “There is so much freedom in solitude.”
LSPR: You took inspiration from learning about your ancestors. Can you tell us some more about them and their lives?
As far as I know so far about my Dad’s side, they were doctors, social workers, fisherman, lighthouse keepers and life saving station keepers. After Bishop John Hooper’s execution, I read that a lot of Hoopers in England fled and eventually ended up coming to the United States. Some were “apprenticed” to the upper class (in other words, indentured servants), until they could afford to own their own lives. My lineage ties back to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Hooper’s Island which is in Dorchester County, Maryland.
My Mom’s grandfather was Joe Sweet. He was a composer and musician his whole life and owned a music school in the 1920’s in Baltimore City. The last I checked on that same block today, there’s a Baptist congregation led by Reverend Johnny Golden and his wife, Wanda. Though there’s more years than words to tie the two – I’d like to believe that’s one of the longest poems ever –
Before the Great Depression
Joseph Sweet taught harmony
Before the Great Reset
John Golden preached harmony.
Gold and Sweet with a century in between.
LSPR: Is “Euphorbia” meant to be a blend of fear and elation?
Well, sorta. I started writing Euphorbia almost immediately after the release of the Baltimore Checkerspot EP (December 2019), It was mastered and sent out to my distributors in the first week of May 2020. It certainly wasn’t written out of fear, so much as a way to shine a beacon on the people who try and oppress other people – sometimes to a hypocritical degree. This creates fear and paranoia in society which gives way to people’s fight, flight or freeze responses. Often, I’ve noticed that this tactic creates more obstacles and opponents to an agenda than it does a solution.
I used to be afraid of disappointing those kinds of people, to the point where I was unknowingly being groomed by people who never had my best interest at heart. Letting them dictate how much of my own heart and opinions should be shown. That was a super uncomfortable time and made me feel like I was an uncomfortable person to be around. So a lot of my older Vanszi releases were just instrumentals. But now that I’ve been building an inner fire, I don’t fear the Lion’s Den so much. I doubt not, future releases will show much more elation as the garden of the heart is allowed to grow more vibrant.
LSPR: The title track has a really interesting refrain – “Good people – give me more fire” Can you tell us more about that?
On February 9th, 1555, Bishop John Hooper, the “father of nonconformity,” was sentenced by the Catholic Queen Mary to be burned at the stake for “heresy” due to the fact that he was married. Aside from this, he was falsely accused of owing the Queen money. “For the love of God, good people give me more fire,” is something he said while burning on that cold, damp February morning near the River Severn in England. I kinda felt like the stars were aligned at that point in my life where I had to share his story. On one hand, to sorta say like, “hey – I can’t be the only one who feels alone and carrying a pain that doesn’t belong to me.” On the other hand, it was a way to express that imposed feeling of defeat by also saying, “hey, these beautiful, misled narcissists think they can burn down my life, my name and thus, my family tree while there are real battles in the world right now that need to be fought?” They should probably just literally light me on fire. . But that would make them fascists and I’m pretty sure no one with an actual heart wants to be a fascist. There’s no real love or creativity in that kind of society. Just artists and creative minds being held hostage by narcissistic abusers with fists full of rusted irony.
LSPR: This album includes nods to Jesus Christ and has a song about Bishop John Hooper, a Protestant martyr. Do you consider this to be Christian music?
I’d prefer not to categorize it as Christian music. I wouldn’t want it to be stocked in the Christian section of a record store. I guess it could be seen as my Christian album. I wouldn’t dispute that to save my life. Maybe I’d rather keep my feelings reserved when it comes to the modern Church and mainstream Christian music. I wouldn’t want to shove anything down anyone’s throat. Euphorbia milii is the scientific name for a flower in the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. It’s more commonly referred to as the Crown-of-thorns, Christ thorn or Corona de Cristo.
I haven’t heard any good love song sung by a bird with only one wing.
Considering my references to Archangels – notably Raphael (whose name translates to, “medicine of God”), Cedars of Lebanon and the English Reformation, I personally can’t help but pay homage to the Holy Trinity after seeing the tragic explosion in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon last August, the countless wildfires on the West coast over the summer and in Colorado this past October. Not to mention of course, the fires sparked during riots in cities across the globe, the isolation of the COVID-19 Lockdowns and the vast amount of flooding in both Asia and places like Eden Bridge, Michigan. So while I don’t want to sell myself as a “Christian musician” in the marketing sense, I’d rather just hope the album helps someone remember that change is possible and in some aspects, inevitable. No one should shame anyone for trying to stay alive. Euphorbia is just an honest attempt at fighting for the victims of oppression in the world without having to call anyone out for their unqualified immunities.
LSPR: Some of this album has a very barebones sound with acoustic instruments, while other tracks are full of electronic layers. What appeals to you about each style?
Well, I grew up learning to write songs by learning the chords and words to music like Bright Eyes, Devendra Banhart, The Microphones, Six Organs of Admittance, Elizabeth Cotten, Karen Dalton, Daniel Johnston, The Early November, The Moldy Peaches and The Books. But I was also getting poetic inspiration from hip hop by artists like MF Doom, Aesop Rock and Doseone. But all of my best friends were in punk bands or in the hardcore scene so I was also getting lyrical inspiration from bands they would introduce me to like Have Heart, The Chariot, Bane and August Burns Red.
After releasing an extensive amount of hip hop instrumentals over the past four years, I started thinking deeply about the singularity of humans and machines. Tons of producers were feeling this too, I think. There are dozens of Youtube Channels streaming them 24/7 and it’s amazing. But how is it that vaporwave, synth wave and lo-fi hip hop are the only ways to really trigger that cozy nostalgic feeling amidst all of the possibilities that the digital age offers us? I try to hold on to the feeling that there’s a choir of options when it comes to making music for everybody as well as means to convey some deep, unshakable personal truths. The idea of using samplers to compose a song, using only acoustic instruments that I’ve recorded myself, sits well with the idea of the technological singularity.
Sound design through strictly digital means is amazing but there’s something undeniably human in all its imperfections when you record an acoustic guitar with a piece of paper woven into the strings. It’s akin to sculpting a Bible scene from pieces of driftwood, with a bit of cement and putty. It’s like reading about a distant relative or ancestor who you’ve never heard of before, but you can relate to them more than anyone else. Writing a folk song or a piano trio after only playing a cello for a year and violin for three years, and then producing the track the same way that anyone making a lo-fi hip hop beat would, I felt like it built a bridge between cultures in a way that ties it all together, sonically. It’s kinda like Sampson’s riddle and that’s what appeals most to me. There’s a digital ocean of pitch-perfect music but rest assured we are still only humans, resting on the shore, watching the waveforms feather the sand.