Mas Ysa

Thomas Arsenault knows the enchanted feeling of crossing into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge. The folk-pop-electronica composer and multi-instrumentalist, who goes by Mas Ysa on stage, has passed through the City numerous times, and even briefly lived in Sonoma.

“Driving into San Francisco and seeing all the boats going and the rolling hills with all the houses – it might be the most Atlantis-type city in North America,” said Arsenault, who performs at the 2015 Phono del Sol Music and Food Festival on Saturday, July 11, 2015.

If any musician makes such a claim, he has to be well travelled. Arsenault was born in Montreal, where he spent the first several years of his life. His father was then the president of a company that specialized in fragrance and flavor. When his father was offered a position in São Paulo, Brazil, his mother, who is Ecuadorian, embraced the move.

In Brazil, where Arsenault spent his high school years, he learned the club culture and electronica scene, and started writing songs. But he chose to return to Canada, this time to British Columbia, for college. Two years later, he stumbled onto Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s web page and moved again, to Ohio, to pursue an education in music. Afterward, he followed his friends to Brooklyn. He wrote and recorded in a flat with no windows; his songs shared mostly with friends and no one else.

The flat was zoned commercial, and when the landlord realized he was living there, he had police evict Arsenault. In one final move, he packed his bags and drove north to Lake Hill in upstate New York.

“It was cheaper, and I could live better, more sober more often, and making music louder,” he said.

Labeling Arsenault an experimental composer is simplifying his music. Using a quivering and fragile, yet powerful vocal delivery, he weaves the sounds into grandiose, emotional and symphonic arrangements. If Bruce Springsteen wanted to write orchestral music with Danger Mouse, the end result might be something similar to “Why,” the six-minute opus that announced Arsenault’s arrival in the New York indie scene in 2013.

In the preceding years, he learned about writing with his heart on his sleeve (and dance) in Brazil, wrote modern compositions at Oberlin, scored modern dance productions, and wrote experimental pop songs.

During his Brooklyn years, Arsenault also made several treks to Sonoma, where the children of experimental composer Warner Jepson (Oberlin class of ’53) hired him to be an archivist of the elderly Jepson’s work.

He organized old slides and photos, labeled reel-to-reel tapes, and laid the groundwork for future music releases and art shows of the work of Jepson, who passed away in 2011.

“He was kind of an unsung hero of the West Coast new music scene in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s,” Arsenault said. “I lived on the screened-in porch of his mobile home park for elders. He told everyone I was his grandson.”

The private Arsenault was always more protective of his own music. While living in Brooklyn, he would seldom perform in front of others, even after picking a new pseudonym Mas Ysa – an empty vessel not meant to signify “more” of anything.

“I’ve always been doing it and keeping it personal, but I’ve been making music and writing songs for my own therapeutic or sonic interests forever,” he said. “I never thought of music as a viable profession. I was satisfied to make music for music’s sake.”

It was not until his eviction from Brooklyn that he began to record professionally. After renting a house in Lake Hill, he built a studio to make his songs “more presentable.”

“I could rehearse really loud and not feel the pang of shame of people hearing me work out my lyrics and yell,” Arsenault said. “In Brooklyn, I’d make stuff and play a little show, but not really feel the need to share it. I’m a pretty outgoing and social person, but if the music is personal, then I’m working out something that I’m going through in my life, (and) I find myself being … exposed.”

Several songs, including “Why,” were shortlisted by Pitchfork in 2013. An EP, Worth, followed the next year.

Two weeks after Phono del Sol, Arsenault will release a debut full-length album, Seraph, on Downtown Records. The album’s 12 songs comprise a multitude of emotions set against a blend of organic electronic pop and field recordings. He doesn’t abuse the technology available to him. Instead, he writes from a natural place.

The first single, “Look Up,” comes across in multiple acts, from somber to jubilant. Arsenault writes as an armchair quarterback on several past relationships and assigns blame, asking the characters who they think is bigger than themselves and who they serve, and commanding them to get their eyes out of the mire and “look up.”

“Margarita,” the second album track to be shared, is named after Arsenault’s mother, but addresses other types of relationships. Originally, the song was faster and more techno. Once he added the flutes that provide the rhythm for much of the song, he realized how much the Ecuadorian side of his family would enjoy a song like it at a wedding.

“I started singing her name, and that brought back thoughts of being a child, being a teen, and being an adult and dealing with different levels of separation that are a function of becoming older,” Arsenault said. “There’s a little bit of stuff about relationships and lovers. There’s probably a little bit of Oedipus in there.”

Other tracks also showcase Arsenault’s emotive flair, with pulsating synths, intermingling of sparse instrumentation and dramatic vocal delivery, and symphonic elements not typically found in electronic music.

“(The songs) found their own thematic life together,” he said. “Seraph is very excreted. It’s visceral. I didn’t have a master plan. That’s why when I talk about my music, I say it’s folk music. I have one drum machine that I use. I have a couple of synths, and then I sing.”

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Phono del Sol, with Tanlines, King Tuff, Mas Ysa, Generationals, VÉRITÉ, Sonny & The Sunsets, Marriages, Everyone Is Dirty, The Tropics, TIARAS, and Scary Little Friends
Potrero del Sol Park
Saturday, July 11, 2015
12pm, $15-$60, All Ages