PopCrush Presents: TOTEM
While pop might seem like a multi-sensory experience, TOTEM is, at the moment, focused squarely on the sound.
Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, TOTEM pursued political science and American Studies at the University of North Carolina. But after graduation, he decided to go full-time with music and hasn’t looked back. Now, he’s insistent on evolving as a storyteller, and is harnessing his songwriting talents.
“One of things I wanted to do is say, ‘Hey, this is my ritual. This is my religion. This is music,’ and actually try and view it as pop music,” he tells PopCrush. “That’s what I make with some kind of actual meaning and telling a story. I want people to connect to that as a whole.”
Read more of what he told PopCrush below, and dive into the dancefloor-ready “Hanging On,” his latest.
What are some of your early musical memories?
I remember listening to classical Indian music with my folks, but my most formative musical memories were waiting at the bus stop with my dad and listening to the radio. That’s really how I got into pop music. And at that time, there was a lot of Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, Alanis Morissette and Oasis. Those were my first CDs, first concerts, and that’s what really got me on my way.
What’s the significance behind your name?
In anthropology, anytime you talk about groups of people “totem” can be a mascot. It’s something that links to a larger culture and a common thread throughout that society. And a lot of times while it’s linking to those bigger meanings, it’s obscuring the individual, too. So to me, “totem” is in religious context like rites and rituals and all that stuff. I’ve always thought of music as a ritual — making it, performing it and sharing it.
Let’s talk about “Hanging On.” What’s that song about?
I worked with a writer and producer in New York a few times, Christian Medice. He brought a writer into the room that day, and she goes by Stalking Gia. And I had been in North Carolina for the election returns, and I was, maybe like most people, shocked by the outcome…So we had a session on the [November] 21st, one of our first sessions after the election back in New York, and I had all of these ideas that I wrote down in this notebook. And Christian played this track that didn’t seem like it was talking about anything. I don’t think [the current political climate] was what it sounded like, but we were all in this place.
As a brown person, I had my own feelings about the whole ordeal. And we made this song that was really talking about this feeling of betrayal and the unknown. We turned it into this thing that talked about this relationship. It’s like you’re not quite sure why you’re there anymore. You don’t know if you’re going to make it through, but you’ve got to try because there’s no other option really.
Who are you dream collaborations?
I really, really like a couple of writers. Guys like Savan Kotecha, pretty much the whole Max Martin camp. Shellback. Those are dream collaborators for me. I am absolutely in love with Tove Lo‘s writing style and everything that she does. She manages to, more than anyone I know out of the gate, put a real visceral story behind everything she does. And you don’t necessarily know it unless you’re looking at the lyrics. And to me, that’s the point. So the Swedes. And honestly, I really like Clean Bandit‘s stuff, too. It’s really fresh, and I love the strings. They’re using them in a completely modern way, which I’m a big fan of.
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