Asheville’s Indigo De Souza is a rising singer-songwriter with a wanderer’s taste for genre. She talked to Cardinal & Pine about her ascension as a national artist.
“Where are you from?” someone screams from the crowd. It’s not heckling. Most of the folks in Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle know about Indigo De Souza’s local cred. They just want her to boast about it.
De Souza is the budding indie rock star, the name on the marquee, one of the most hyped new musicians in North Carolina in recent years. But in a moment of characteristic humility, she turns the question onto her backing band.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” she mutters into the microphone before explaining that the guitarist, drummer, and bassist all come from different parts of North Carolina.
On another artist, it would seem like false modesty or evasiveness. But De Souza, a wide-eyed 24-year-old with a crack-the-earth grin, excels in an especially frank kind of confessional songwriting so she wears it well.
We love North Carolina as much as you do. Subscribe to the free Cardinal & Pine newsletter.
Hours before the Carrboro show, she confessed to me that she was nervous to be the headliner. She’s been an opener plenty, but not the star of the show. She’s also genuinely jazzed just a handful of tickets remain with doors opening in a matter of hours.
These days, De Souza’s having a well-earned moment. Her new album — a mutating rock record aptly titled “Any Shape You Take” — landed coveted endorsements from tastemakers at MTV, NPR, Paste Magazine, and Pitchfork. It’s a substantial step forward from the rugged indie rock of her 2018 debut “I Love My Mom.”
It’s an even bigger step from her upbringing in pint-sized Spruce Pine, an old railroad and mining town of about 2,000 people in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a teen, she moved into the artier, semi-urban hub of Asheville, which is where she lives today.
Her Sept. 20 show in Carrboro isn’t technically a hometown show. But it feels like it. Fans sing along with her as if the songs were decades and not days old. Two young fans in front of me press their faces close, belting out the lyrics to a new track “Die/Cry”: “I’d rather die than make you cry.” It’s all very dramatic and morbid, but these are dramatic and morbid times.
“I just kind of have an overflowing amount of love for people,” she told Cardinal & Pine hours before the show. “Because life is really hard and there’s a lot of grief and darkness and sadness. I just have a lot of forgiveness for people in general.”
De Souza, an artist who revels in catharsis, community, and empathy on record, has the kind of intimate, relatable songs that can turn fans into huge fans. The centerpiece of her new album, a song called “Real Pain,” climaxes with a crowd-sourced collage of screaming.
De Souza asked her fans to turn in audio snippets of them letting out their anxiety amid the pandemic. It’s harrowing and uncomfortable, just like the last year. “I felt an incredible catharsis hearing their voices stacked with mine,” she wrote about it on Instagram.
Naturally, the emotionally visceral music makes for emotionally visceral responses.
“YOU INSPIRE ME TO WAKE UP EVERYDAY,” writes one commenter on the music video for “Hold U,” the second single off the new album. “Thanks for making me smile cry at 7am on a Wednesday,” writes another.
The video depicts a queer karoake dance party, the import of which shouldn’t be overlooked in a state still closely associated with HB2, the anti-gay, anti-trans “bathroom bill” that made North Carolina the face of homophobia in 2016. The raging party captured in the video was inspired by jams De Souza has in a converted old church she’s moved into outside Asheville.
But what’s most striking about De Souza isn’t her kinship with her fans. It’s her fluidity. Her music does not belong to one form or function. Over the course of two albums, De Souza’s sang and rapped over folk, electronica, grungy rock, and left-field pop. One moment she sounds like The Cranberries then she’s covering Bonnie Raitt. Now she’s opening her record with auto-tuned pop on “17.”
“This is the way I’m going to bend,” she sings. Her voice — which could make the phone book compelling — can be an ethereal soprano or a confrontational yelp in the lower register.
It’s not just her music that’s mercurial. The music industry often asks women, especially women of color like De Souza, to identify themselves by their image. De Souza’s look is defiantly unpredictable too.
Don’t mistake it for indecision or transience. As she explained to Cardinal & Pine, change — in her music, in her look, in her career — is paramount.
“The most important thing in my life is just really allowing people to be themselves,” she says. “Sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like for a lot of my life I was surrounded by people who wouldn’t allow me to fully be myself or I saw that with other people. And then I came to this realization that I could give people that space, and they would give me that space in return and that we could just create safe, special communities that way.”
It’s one of the reasons De Souza’s emergence from North Carolina’s music scene stands out. To the outside world, the state itself has an image of conservative homogeneity, a sepia fantasy of Mayberry even if the truth — like the state itself — is more prismatic.
North Carolina’s most enduring musicians — names like Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Link Wray, George Clinton, J. Cole, Tift Merritt, Rhiannon Giddens, and Earl Scruggs — come from soul, jazz, blues, hip hop and folk.
De Souza, an almost genre-free rock star, belongs with none of them and with all of them.
“I don’t know what about my music is specifically North Carolina,” she says.
Which is perfect, really. There is no one North Carolina. There is no one kind of North Carolina music, and there is no one Indigo De Souza.
“I could give people that space.”
For a non-traditional artist, De Souza had a somewhat traditional start in western North Carolina music.
Her mother, a visual artist who contributes the paintings for her surrealistic album covers, took De Souza to “hippie” music festivals when she was a child, but she describes her hometown of Spruce Pine as “conservative” and lacking in diversity. She grew up listening to bluegrass and country music, forms that germinated and flourished in the Appalachians.
Her guitar instructor taught her standard country and folk songs. It wasn’t until she moved to Asheville that she was introduced to more fringe genres. She began listening to artists like the singer-songwriter Regina Spektor and alt-country star Lucinda Williams. Today, her taste betrays her eclecticism.
She’ll listen to a Frank Sinatra record alongside British folk band Mumford & Sons, French indie rockers Phoenix, and the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.
“When I was young, I thought that music, like the music industry, was just filled with people who are super famous,” she said last week. “And I didn’t even recognize the idea that there is like a road to that place or that there are people who are not mega-famous. Like not Miley Cyrus but are still making music that’s really important.”
De Souza may see herself as an outsider but her fans treat her like an orbital pop star even as she speaks frankly with her 25,000 Instagram followers about art and community, about mental health, and about creating a safe space for all people, particularly LGBTQ people.
She is not a particularly political or topical artist. Her songs are written, as she carefully explains, for herself.
“I’m really just writing from a really raw space of emotion and hoping that other people will be able to join me in that feeling,” she told Cardinal & Pine. “Or will be able to find a safe space for feeling a full spectrum of things in songs and then be able to be there with me.”
But there is a kind of impassioned rebellion in her acceptance of others and, of course, in her kinship with queer folks in North Carolina.
De Souza doesn’t sing about the specifics of such things. Her themes are broader. She doesn’t name the thing. She tells you what it feels like.
“You are a good thing, I’ve noticed,” she sings on “Hold U.” “Gonna be alright,” she repeats later, a mantra that could feel cloying and false in other hands.
The “Hold U” video is “trying to highlight how important community is,” De Souza says. “And how important it is to lift up the people in your life and give them space to grow and fully express themselves and explore themselves. To feel comfortable to just change and to just be supported. That support within communities is really, really important. And a non-judgmental kind of support that allows any kind of shame.”
“If you want to change, I’ll love you anyway,” she sings in “Way Out,” the penultimate track on her new album. It feels like a statement of purpose.
With her fans, the feeling’s mutual. She could change — and she will — and they’ll love her anyway.
“Here I am now and it’s crazy,” she says. “And I don’t know what’s next. I can imagine, but I will never know exactly what it is until I get there.”