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Stay Afloat with Soft Punch — Above Water

Soft Punch, aka Rye Thomas, of Washington D.C. released his debut album, Above Water on September 15th, after years of working on it.

Soft Punch - Above Water album art: A painting of a pond and two dogs embracing overlaying it, one wearing green pants.
Soft Punch - Above Water Album Art

The album is a labor of love that Soft Punch, the stage name of Rye Thomas, has been working on for years since the diagnosis of his chronic illness. It takes you through the highs and lows, mourning the freedom lost, and celebrating the things that he is grateful for in his day to day life. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to him about his process of writing the album.

The titles of albums are the first thing that an artist sees. That, and the artist’s name. When I first heard the name ‘Soft Punch’, I was intrigued. It was gentle but intentional. “I don’t know if I had a specific ‘A-ha, Lightbulb’ moment, but I was interested in words that sound good together and have multiple meanings,” Thomas said. “It’s a gentle hit, and a nonalcoholic punch. It’s the image of something harsh and something soft is interesting to me. I think I lucked out.”

As a swimmer, and as someone who suffers from a chronic illness, the title ‘Above Water’ really resonated with me. The feeling of struggling to keep afloat while everything else is lapping at my chin is one I am not unfamiliar with. For me, the album, from start to finish, catalogs the feeling of the moment you think you are going to drown to the exhilaration that comes with making it to shore.

When I asked about the name of the album, Thomas had this to say: “Well, I like the idea of keeping your head above water. It certainly resonates when you’re dealing with a bunch of difficulties like severe illness. It sort of started there, just the idea of being above water, and what did that mean? In a bigger way, what is it to be above water, to not be overwhelmed? I don’t have a snappy retort there. You know what it feels like to be under water and overwhelmed, and to be barely keeping your head above water, but to be above water… what does it mean, what does it look like?”

I shared with him what I experienced when I listened to the album. “I tried to make the album feel like a journey, sonically and then tried to arrange the songs in such a way that it felt like it started somewhere, and ended somewhere else. It’s cool that you are able to find a way to visualize the journey,” Thomas added. And what a journey it was.

The album itself was a long process. Some of these songs have been in Thomas’s vault for quite a while. I was curious about how the process of revisiting the songs was, from a recording and emotional standpoint.

“I think I enjoyed it,” Thomas started. “ It wasn’t actually that different from recording a more recent demo, say, and then figuring out how to arrange it for an album. You know, I’ve had some older songs that have existed for a long time – I mean, most of the songs on the album are pretty new – but there are some songs, like ‘The Astronaut’, that have been around since 2008 or something. I had a little demo of it, and I had an idea of what I wanted to make happen with it, and once I was working on the actual album, it made sense to record it and arrange it in a way that would fit with the rest of the songs on the album. I guess it does take a certain ability to take a step back from yourself and what you’ve done and look at it with a completely fresh, in-the-moment mind to make it something that fits with everything else, rather than the idea it was years ago. I feel like I am pretty good at separating myself from the work and it doesn’t bother me to edit or radically change something. I feel like I can do what’s best.” And the headspace that he was in?

Thomas has been homebound since 2013, after he was diagnosed with a mysterious illness. As someone who has also been bedridden for a period of time due to illness, I know it is hard for me to revisit writings of my past. I asked him about it, seeing if that was a common ground.  “Just to be clear, I am still homebound,” Thomas clarified. “I wasn’t going back to something I wrote when I was really sick as a completely healthy person, but certainly, by the time I was recording the album I was in better shape than I was in 2018.” 

He continues, “2018 was the worst year for me in terms of physical health, where I was able to get out of bed for 30 minutes, play the keyboard and that was it for the day. And I was literally in a very dark room. I was extremely sensitive to light and sound. I honestly don’t know how I was able to play music at the time. I wasn’t able to do much of anything, but somehow I was able to do that. In terms of going back to that now that it’s not that severe… You know, I’ve listened to a lot of recordings and demos from that especially difficult period. Most of those ideas were not completely finished. There was some stuff that listening back was really heavy because I could hear just how sick I was in my voice in the recording. I could hear how frail my health was. I did have to decide which of those things I definitely wanted to use.

“I think the song ‘Fine’, actually. I wrote that when I was pretty sick. And even then, I knew that would be a song that would be on a record. It felt right. And so, as soon as I started arranging the song and how to make it work for the album, I wasn’t listening to that old recording so I wasn’t in that space anymore while I was working on it. There was maybe a period when I was listening to those recordings at my lowest point that was emotionally heavy, but not when I was working on it. It feels separate from the conditions that surrounded me when I was working on it.”

‘Fine’, my personal favorite, is a track on the album that explores the frustration of wanting to go after something, but being unable to. There are all these unresolved maybes, unresolved what-ifs, and there is nothing that can be done except reconcile the fact that it is fine. It’s no use to be anything but fine because there is no point in wallowing in what cannot be changed. But as the bridge repeats that sentiment of “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine” over and over again, the music builds with crashing drums louder guitars until it quickly dies back down. The frustration was felt, acknowledged, and begrudgingly reconciled.

Another strong song off the album is the last single before the album’s release, ‘My Head.’ It is filled with this crazed, trapped feeling that most people can relate to, regardless of if they have been bedridden or not. In those crazed moments, it’s important to have something to anchor you.

“You know, weighted blankets are great,” Thomas responded with a laugh. “I definitely recommend getting a weighted blanket if you are stuck in bed for an extended period of time.” He took a bit, sombered up, and went on. “Beyond that, it’s hard. It’s going to be hard if you are in that situation. There is no way to sugar-coat that. Like I said, I was able to work on music for a little bit every day. Honestly, I couldn’t even listen to music. It’s kind of insane that I was able to play music at all. I would press record on a cassette recorder, or later I started using some digital recordings. I would hit record and I would just play. I couldn’t even listen back and edit. I could just hit record and just… play. The idea of expressing myself a little bit every day, that was just a crucial part of not feeling horrible, a crucial part of feeling like I was still working towards something. So either the blanket or the music, either one.”

From the beginning of this album to the end, it is clear that this was Thomas’s saving grace. The importance it held in his life as they created it comes through every synth, ever word, every rest. Take a moment out of your day, and appreciate this labor of love and life.

Above Water is available now on major streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud.

 

Percy Sampson headshot for Alchemical Records

Percy Sampson

Percy Sampson, New Orleans born and Virginia bred, is finishing up their time at University of Mary Washington, where they are double majoring in English and Theatre. A passionate writer, they spend most of their free time working on (mostly horror) scripts and short stories.

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