Artist To Watch: Vyva Melinkolya
You won’t find any evidence of them online, but there are four or five Vyva Melinkolya albums that predate the project’s 2017 “debut,” Ms. Menthol. Angel Diaz started recording lo-fi music under the Vyva Melinkolya name when she was just 16, precocious but not yet in the full command of her powers.
“I didn’t have that many effects pedals, and I think I recorded everything through one USB microphone,” Diaz, now 25, recalls. “I was listening to a lot of Deerhunter. I was listening to the Residents. And it was just disjointed, and my voice was not where I wanted it to be at all. I had a little phase early in high school where I played a bunch of folk instruments, and there was that. I was doing field recordings and stuff. I don’t want to totally disown that, but at this point I would rather not have that in the canon of Vyva Melinkolya.”
Ms. Menthol was a reset, and it saw Diaz starting to zero in on the sound that she’s since made her signature: a gloomy mélange at the nexus of shoegaze, slowcore, dreampop, and ’90s indie. While Ms. Menthol is still available on Bandcamp (for now), Diaz now considers 2018’s self-titled album the true beginning of Vyva Melinkolya as it exists today.
“I think, honestly, it coincides with when I started physically transitioning,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, this makes sense to me now.'”
If Diaz’s self-actualization as a trans woman kicked off this chapter of Vyva Melinkolya, the project’s 2023 output sees it realizing its full potential. In May, Diaz released Orbweaving, a collaboration with her friend and kindred spirit Madeline Johnston, who records as Midwife. Next month, she’ll release Unbecoming, a full-length nearly four years in the making. It’s the best thing she’s made so far — a swirling, ecliptic collection of devastating bummer jams, powered as much by its sharp songwriting as its reverb-y atmospherics. It’s also an album of immense personal importance for Diaz.
“Unbecoming is my effort to, not shed off, but to grow past and set aside the person I was when a lot of the things [in the lyrics] were happening to me,” she says. “A lot of Unbecoming is sad love songs, but also a good three or four tracks on the album are about intimate partner violence. Which is something, thank God, I hadn’t had to write about before, and something I hope I don’t have to write about again.”
“It’s not that I want to be a different person,” she adds. “But I want to be a different person than the one who was hurting so much, suffering that, staying in that.”
Apart from a brief period when it had a steady live lineup in Diaz’s hometown of Louisville, Vyva Melinkolya has always been a solo project. Lately, it’s also become a kind of avatar — a heightened version of Diaz that exists outside of her physical body. Having access to this alter ego was a key part of Diaz’s process for exorcising the experiences and emotions she sings about on Unbecoming.
“I made this joke on Tumblr that was like, ‘Angel Diaz will apologize profusely. Vyva Melinkolya would never do that,'” she says. “Sometimes, I think she’s not an attainable goal, because she’s ephemeral. But it’s also like, ‘What would she want me to do here?’ This being that is untouchable and strong and beautiful and dangerous and has power. What would she have me do in this situation?”
The Vyva Melinkolya of Unbecoming projects strength, but also vulnerability. With its gauzy vocals, languid tempos, and shimmering fogs of guitar, the album feels openhearted, like an invitation to empathy. The lyrics themselves are abstracted enough not to feel explicitly confessional, but the emotional truths shine through, especially now that Diaz has brought her vocals up in the mix. On Ms. Menthol, you have to strain to hear what Diaz is saying. On the heartbreaking Unbecoming highlight “Bruise,” she sings “Don’t tell anyone/ I’m afraid of touch.” Her delivery, unobscured by production murk, cuts to the bone.
Titles and lyrics also allow Diaz to wear her influences on her sleeve. “Song About Staying” inverts the title of Carissa’s Wierd’s landmark Songs About Leaving album. “Stars Don’t Fall” is pitched as an answer song to Duster’s “Stars Will Fall.” “Tinsley Song” nods to Red House Painters’ “Katy Song.” Even Unbecoming is a sly reference to a pair of lyrics, from Midwife’s “Haunt Me” and Low’s “Stay.” On the Low song, Alan Sparhawk sings, “It’s much too late for the action/ You’ve made this place unbecoming.”
“I thought that was such an absolutely devastating line,” Diaz says. “I feel like I’m actually going to quote it in the liner notes for this album.”
It’s a deft trick that Diaz pulls, referencing her inspirations so directly on an album that feels so completely like an expression of herself. But she’s a fan first, and for most of us who identify that way, the things we love eventually start to overwrite our factory settings. Loving Duster and Low is as much a part of Diaz’s being as the traumas that led her to write Unbecoming. She honors that in the music.
There’s a similar effect coming from the guests on the album. Diaz sings and plays almost everything on Unbecoming – producer Chyype Crosby sat in on drums and contributed a few bass parts – which imbues the scant features with extra weight. “I didn’t know who when I started, but I was like, ‘I want some features on this.’ Not instrumentally, but I need some friends to help me tell this story,” Diaz says.
Ethel Cain contributes backing vocals to “222,” while SRSQ wails like Elizabeth Fraser on “Bruise.” (Both guest spots were reciprocal: Diaz played lap steel on Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter, and she had recently given some guitar tone pointers to SRSQ’s Kennedy Ashlyn.)
“‘Bruise’ is the MBV worship song, but it also has a good amount of modulation. Kennedy is, like, a dreampop legend, so it fit perfectly for that,” Diaz says. “And then Hayden [Anhedönia, who records as Ethel Cain], her music is extremely ethereal, but it’s also pastoral and earthy, and I think ‘222’ is the earthiest song on the record. I feel so blessed that it worked out the way it did.”
The standout feature on the album comes from Midwife’s Madeline Johnston, who sings the downer hook on “Doomer GF Song”: “It’s not so bad/ I feel like death.” The chronology is flipped – Johnston recorded her vocals before the sessions for Orbweaving – but the song feels like a victory lap for one of the year’s finest team-ups. Diaz says her collaboration with Johnston has helped her find her place in the music world.
“Going to New Mexico to record that album was the first time – impostor syndrome aside – that I was like, ‘OK, I am actually a musician now,'” she says. “I’m really doing this. I’m in Madeline’s house. We are making a record together. This is crazy. I couldn’t feel more blessed.”
Another key connection between Orbweaving and Unbecoming is the image of the spider. Orbweaving takes its name from the orb-weaver spiders that spin spiral-shaped webs across six continents. (Diaz, an amateur arachnologist, says she sees making music as an act of synesthetic weaving. She isn’t so different from her beloved spiders.) Unbecoming is home to the gorgeous “Spiders” — which isn’t an allusion to the System Of A Down classic. There is a reference in there, though.
“I ended up falling for someone at a distance, and he was afraid of spiders, which I thought was endearing,” Diaz says. “There’s a band called Daddy Issues from Nashville. There’s this line [from 2015’s “Shitty World”] where it’s, ‘I’d be glad to be a spider/ Weaving in the corners of your room.’ I don’t remember specifically if I was like, ‘I would like to interpolate that,’ but in hindsight, I felt like a spider, leaving my mark on [his] walls.”
“I will continue using spiders as a motif, a device, whatever, because they’re just amazing animals,” she continues. “I’ve had some spiders over the years. I had a black widow that me and my friend raised. My mom was always afraid of spiders, so I couldn’t have them in the house.”
“But in November, when Unbecoming comes out, I am getting a tarantula. That is going to be my treat.”
Unbecoming is out 11/9.