Devastation and Transformation: a chat with Pumarosa

Nestled neatly in a space between indie rock, synth pop, and acid house are Pumarosa, a four-piece from London whose music breathes total euphoria. But their story isn’t all song and dance. On the week they dropped their debut album The Witch in 2017, lead singer Isabel Munoz-Newsome was diagnosed with cervical cancer, a kind of cosmic ‘fuck you’ which weighed heavy on the hype the album conjured.

Last week Pumarosa released their follow-up LP Devastation, which as you could probably glean from the title, wrestles with that difficult period. However as Isabel tells us, it’s also an album about transformation, joy, and celebrating life.

pumarosa interview

Find out how Isabel Munoz-Newsome and Pumarosa transformed an intensely dark personal period into their jubilant new album Devastation.

HAPPY: When I was introduced to your music recently, I was told this crazy story about your cancer diagnosis right as The Witch was released. That’s kind formed the basis of this upcoming album, am I right?

ISABEL: I suppose. Also when something like that happens, it shakes up your life in all different ways. Yeah, that transformation.

HAPPY: Was the writing for the new record occurring while all this was happening, or was it something you had to revisit?

ISABEL: It’s more like… that happened in 2017 and we were writing [the album] in the end of 2017 and 2018. I mean I wasn’t in hospital writing these songs, but it’s more like… you think you’ve got better, but you haven’t. Like I was cured of cancer, you know? But you’re still having to adjust and change, so the writing was happening in that period, yeah.

HAPPY: This might be a horrible thing to ask, but have you entertained the thought of some similar cosmic thing happening when Devastation is released?

ISABEL: Like it coming back?

HAPPY: Or something great happening, to balance it out.

ISABEL: That’s a weird thought, isn’t it? No I haven’t had that thought, really. It just feels like such a different time now, and in a weird way there have actually been a lot of weird, cyclic things happening. Things to do with the diagnosis and things breaking at the same time, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. But… I am glad that we’re having it at the opposite time of year, in a way – that was spring, this is autumn. It’s a very different time, and good things are happening already. I love the music! It feels good, a lot of the songs on there, even sometimes singing about hard things… transformation is hard, but it’s also completely essential and also really exciting. Some of the things that happened and the weight of it were kind of brilliant, some things happened because I couldn’t resist them happening and I wanted them to happen. Like I didn’t want to get cancer, but then in the process of transforming you find yourself drawn to other things, and those things are amazing. Perhaps because you’re shook up, you let those things happen. Transformation is going to be good, because it has to happen.

HAPPY: A health scare can really change a person. Is there a change in attitude you’ve taken into your everyday life since the diagnosis?

ISABEL: Well, I don’t know. I suppose people are like ‘life just seems so fragile’ or something, but I think I always was sort of like that. I suppose in a weird way I think I’m more… maybe I don’t expect so much now, especially after all the changes have happened. I think I – in a strange way – I’d be more happy when things are simple. Where before I was just pushing so hard into every possibility, whereas now I’m like ‘what have we got?’ and I can see what I’ve got clearer, rather than being dissatisfied. I think I can get joy out of what’s there.

HAPPY: I’ve listened to the album and I thought a lot of it was quite joyful, as you say. But I also thought there were a lot of moments I’d call scintillating or ominous. Was there anything about the actual physical sensations of what you went through contributing to the sounds of Devastation?

ISABEL: Well yeah I think so. For example some of the stuff that happened to me was kind of amazing. It’s quite psychedelic, some of the things – your body being operated on, and you’re on quite a lot of drugs, you’re not between living and dying but your body is having some massive shock after being cut up and stuff. So physically and mentally you’re in this trippy space, but weirdly because of the painkillers, you’re able to just skirt around the pain. We’re just this incredible creature, or machine.

Then the atmosphere on Into The Woods, I suppose that’s a strange atmosphere that’s drawing you in, I guess that could be equated to those feelings you get when you’re in hospital. But then it’s also about letting go of stuff and going into the dangerous place, whether that’s nature or sexuality – it was an operation on my cervix so it did throw up a lot of stuff to do with sex – obviously for a while after the operation you can’t have sex, but later you’re like ‘woah!’ Your sexual organs have reformed or transformed a bit with the healing, and you get a bit hyper-aware of your body which is kind of exciting.

HAPPY: I can understand the psychedelic thing. All these moving parts we have are actually quite trippy to think about, if you go into it a bit.

ISABEL: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s quite weird. So they found a cancer and were operating on it quite soon, which was amazing, I got my diagnosis and the operation was in a month and a half. So I didn’t actually get that long of ‘living’, but in that short time… because you don’t even know if the operation is going to cure it, you’re like checking your diet – no sugar, no alcohol, no toxins, no nothing – so it’s this real hungry, weird thing. And then I kept that up for a while, because you don’t get the all clear and anyway, you just want to be healthy after.

HAPPY: I was gonna say…

ISABEL: Just trying to support your body to do what it needs to do.

HAPPY: Over to the music itself I really like where your songs dip into dance music – where did your relationship with dance music begin?

ISABEL: For me it started as a teenager, going underage into the local clubs and stuff like that. And then Jamie, our guitarist, he used to run raves here in South London well before he got into the band. Then Tomoya, who makes most of that stuff – especially on this album, he’s really gone deep into it – Tomoyo in the last couple of years has been getting really into acid house, like getting crazy about Halcyon and On and On. That classic ‘90s track, Orbital I think.

HAPPY: Yeah!

ISABEL: Tomoyo’s been discovering that stuff. We all come at it from different angles, but I think dance music and that culture, like raving and stuff, that’s very much something that we all hold close to our hearts.

HAPPY: I got a sense of that right as I started listening to the album. Because Fall Apart has that crazy breakbeat – but I guess the euphoria of it all had a really big acid house feeling to it.

ISABEL: That is one of the places you feel that, like when you’re dancing. When it really gets going you can get to that transcendental space – I guess that’s mixed in kind with the drugs you might be taking, the time of day, the quality of the light, the dawn or the middle of the night or something – that kind of euphoria is something, in our music, that we’ve often chased. And I suppose that’s that feeling of playing together – we improvise a lot, or if we’ll find something we’ll play and get each other into that space. That euphoric space, through just playing.

HAPPY: I saw a post about an acid house version of Priestess, has that made it to the live set?

ISABEL: We played that live! I love playing that one. We actually stumbled on that one, we had to play a really stripped back set. The other track on the album we’re planning on making into a big, dance-y epic is Lose Control. That one, at the moment, is undergoing a big transformation.

HAPPY: Well, the title is there!


Devastation is out now via Fiction Records / Caroline Australia.