Music by VICE

Christelle Bofale's Watery Rock Songs Are What Forever Sounds Like

The Austin-based songwriter draws on the Congolese music she heard growing up to make boundless, flowing songs on ‘Swim Team.’

by Colin Joyce
May 15 2019, 4:33pm

Photo by Jinni J.

Christelle Bofale’s songs move like water. The San Antonio-born, Austin-based songwriter doesn’t have much released music to her name yet, but what has come out is extraordinary. It flows unpredictably, swirling delicately like the puddles that form along the shoreline, or rushing dangerously from melody to melody like a riptide. Verses and choruses exist, but the boundaries are blurry, and she seems more keen on the swells and emotional moments that come in between established structures. She said this feeling is intentional; drawing in part on the Congolese music she heard growing up, she is making music that is consciously boundless.

“It's not uncommon for Congolese songs to run for a really long time,” Bofale said. “There's no telling what could happen; it can sometimes feel like three or four songs in one song without feeling directionless.”

What we conceive of as pop music, she explained, traditionally exists in opposition to that idea. You say what you need to say in three or four minutes and then you’re out. Instead, Bofale luxuriates in her songs. “In the music I listened to growing up, instead of expressing yourself in a short amount of time, you bask in the feeling of it for as long as possible,” she said. “It's a slow but palpable burn. It's almost as if you're trying to create what forever sounds like.”

You can hear that spirit in songs like “U Ouchea,” the first single released from her debut EP Swim Team, out May 31 on Father/Daughter Records. It’s a seven-and-a-half minute song, but it’s not really an epic in the way that length would suggest. Instead, Bofale’s spidery guitar lines sit and spin around one another, as she sings about being “pregnant with fear.” It moves, but slowly, forcing you to sit in the feelings as the song flows around you. It’s a style that suits the things she’s been concerned with writing songs about since she was a kid.

Bofale grew up around music, taping songs off the radio and playing instruments that ended up around the house as she moved away from San Antonio and back again. The real spark happened when she first picked up a guitar, and realized that songs were something she could take ownership of herself. She started writing about “songs about crushes, not feeling loved/understood, classic tween angst things.”

In a way, those are still the things she sings about today, but as a 22-year-old, her perspective is a little deeper. She sings not just of lost love, but of the ways those feelings can derail your life, and leave you feeling lost in the world. She asks big questions that don’t have easy answers.

Bofale opens the record’s closer “Where to Go” with a pair of brutal queries: “How do I keep going / How do I hang on?” It makes sense, in a way that these are feelings you might want to explore in less evidently pop structures. If there aren’t pithy answers, it makes sense to linger in them, to turn them over—to spend a little time in the pit. Bofale explained that she was “in the trenches: of a dark place when she wrote “Where to Go.”

“My depression is definitely a part of my everyday life and some days are worse than others—those days in particular were worse and worser,” she said. “I was taking antidepressants and trying to figure out what the next step was. How do I find the allure in tomorrow? How long is it until I feel better? My depression consumed me and I consumed it.”

The resultant song is a moving depiction of the confusion, stretching outward desperately, looking for answers over these circuitous guitar arpeggios that kinda feel like being stuck in quicksand. The record has its share of lighter moments too though, like “Origami Dreams,” which is premiering here today. In the video, Bofale smiles before amidst greenery, pastels and flowers, folding paper and playing along to the song, a jaunty rock song with its share of unfurling guitar leads that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Felt record, or a Captured Tracks release from the early part of this decade. It feels joyous and light, even if its backstory isn’t really.

The song describes a friendship-turned-doomed-relationship, and Bofale’s desire for things to just flip back to the way things were before. “I decided to put it on the record because at the end of the day, this record is about love,” she said. “It's about other things too, but love is definitely one of the major arteries or something. Love you need to find the strength to move on from, love you didn't want, love for yourself you need to search for without a map, love that didn't come in quite the way you bargained for.“

She says “Origami Dreams” isn’t necessarily any less intense than the rest of the record. But then that makes sense, the heavy stuff doesn’t last forever. Some days are better than others. “Origami Dreams” is moving in the way it presents those bad feelings in a more comfortable environment: “This time the windows are down and it's summertime.”.