Realma is an intimate musical alter-ego of an independent Serbian/Chinese polymodal artist. Her music has been featured in Rolling Stone India, Calvert Journal, Music Crowns, as well as numerous media outlets across the world. Ashgrey Butterfly by Realma is a fantasy land where animated melodies and synths knit magical tales.
The feel-good neo-soul track is full of light and a fulfilling hope. Every melody drips into you; a golden ambrosia, until you’re reverberating with immutable positivity and wonder. It is restorative and mystical, gentle and sweet. Floating on its lilting sea of glowing melodies, with beautiful harmonies lapping at the edges of your body, is an epitome of serenity and you feel at home.
The artist depicts how it feels to be different than the rest of the world, to feel like a puzzle piece misplaced into the wrong box. She ponders on how to navigate the clouds of doubt and confusion as she tries to find her place in the world. Why do I fly differently, without a place to belong anywhere?
Fairy tale synths frolic against a backdrop of sweeping instrumentations and harmonies. The tone of the song is incredibly endearing as the artist looks for another like herself with a childlike hope and optimism. It draws us in and has us looking for another ashgrey butterfly beneath the leaves of violin melodies and mesmerizing synth flowers. So if you’re feeling as ashgrey as the artist, on a quest to find your home and happy place, this song is for you.
Q) ‘Ashgrey Butterfly’. What about this title drew you to it and how does it bring out the theme of the song?
So, in the perhaps most curious manner, the title of the song came to me in a dream from quite a while ago. From what I can remember of it, a magician was being announced, while this most ethereal sound was playing at a theatre (something I later tried to emulate through a flute-like synth panned to the left in the track itself). I was seated in the audience, when the magician released a butterfly towards us. I was mesmerised by its otherworldly colour and asked the person next to me what it was. I got a monotone reply ‘ashgrey’.
After that dream, sometime around late 2019, I was taking a songwriting course at Pointblank School in London, when my group was tasked to write progressions using extended chords. It’s then I wrote the song’s piano hook, seemingly in E major, but ending with a surprise Mixolydian D tone – 7th flat, instead of the leading note D#. Somehow, it really reminded me of that butterfly from my strange dream, which didn’t fit in with any real colours I knew, just like this D almost doesn’t fit in with E major.
Not too long after, when Covid happened, I remembered that hook and sat down to properly write the song. At the time, I was an avid reader of Emily Dickenson’s poems, so the nature theme of butterflies/bees in relation to her poetic space of loneliness must’ve influenced my lyrics to get personal. Subsequently, I channeled my own coming-of-age sentiments related to the times I myself felt ‘ashgrey’ – like a misfit, socially burnout, overwhelmed & confused by the dueling societal ‘colors’ – the buzzing noise of others’ expectations.
So, although largely deriving from that fantastical dream, I think the title ‘Ashgrey Butterfly’ gave me space to explore real-life concerns of nonconformity & loneliness, becoming my multi-layered symbol or emblem of these topics. Leading towards the production this year, the theme took the final audiovisual form in the animation, where a lonely rain fairy learns to deal with similar circumstances.
Q2) Your music is genre-bending, surpassing the ordinary in both style and presentation. Can you tell us a little about the experiences that cultivated your musical expression?
Yes, absolutely! On one hand, this genre-bending influence you mention stems from my varied cultural background and diverse music education. Being half-Chinese and half-Serbian, I grew up in both countries, lucky enough to have travelled to some remote places, which allowed me to soak in some unique ethnic/folk aesthetics from the olden traditional songs I learned. On the other hand, my parents were huge fans of a vast array of popular music, so I was surrounded by jazz, pop, rock, country, musicals and many other genres throughout my childhood. My mum is also a huge theatre enthusiast, so she would often take me to see all sorts of concerts, ballet and opera shows.
On top of that, I have classical music training, which other than violin and later guitar and piano playing, included harmony, counterpoint and orchestral composition lessons. Later on, I studied film and drama BA degree at the University of Kent in the UK, where I was actively engaged in the creation of incidental music, avant-garde soundscapes and short film scores. Therefore, I was privileged enough to gather this hefty scope of a music listening web, so whenever I composed/wrote music, I could draw inspiration from a substantial arsenal of techniques/sounds/styles.
However, I’ve also been quite an individualist my whole life – I would often get bored playing others’ compositions and would find much more fun in creating my own improvisations and variations, but even more than that, I always loved the freedom of crafting my own music pieces, where I could experiment to my heart’s content. So, with all this, I’d say I simply approach writing music instinctively. I rarely truly think about what genre I will compose in. Rather, I playfully let the song/composition take me somewhere emotionally, to a place I could personally relate to, and then I almost let it define itself in an uncertain way. It’s only then some of genre-specific elements seep through, but only the parts I feel are appropriate for what I’m writing and only after these elements have been reframed to match the wider storyworld of the song.
Q3) Your music compels visuals that mystify and mesmerize. What does your creative process look like?
So, other than being a stylistic nomad in music, I was also encouraged to cultivate my other artistic talents since I was little, which includes classical oil-painting, stone carving, dancing, acting, etc. In this sense, I’ve always experienced any art form in a polymodal way through synesthesia. For example, when I listen and write music, I almost always experience the whole process in a way that engages my other senses.
For my first single, A Hint of Pink – whenever I played that natural F-minor chord progression, I always had this cold, misty feeling embrace me, while seeing a white wolf staring at his own reflection in a pink-drenched lighting. For my second single, Wandering, whenever I played the noir-sounding F#-minor progression, I felt like there was smoke surrounding me, with this woman dressed in red contemplating revenge. If you watched the animated music videos of both songs, you’ll recognise how these two scenes developed into full narratives later on, with my collaborator, award-winning animator Mihajlo Dragas, really expanding my early concept storylines/scenes to achieve that higher cinematic experience with a fuller, deeper meaning.
Similarly for Ashgrey Butterfly, whenever I played that E Mixolydian piano hook I mentioned earlier, I’d feel rain drops on my skin, seeing a lonely fairy curled up in a depressed manner, while the rainbow-like colours would overwhelmingly fly around me. You’ll recognise this motif easily in the animation.
Q4) What are some of the things and who are some of the artists that influence your music and sound?
Since I’ve already mentioned the varied cultural background and classical training I’ve had, I’ll focus more here on the contemporary music artists that continually inspire me. For Realma – the witchy alter ego I’ve created to unite the multi-genre perspective of my songs (a little pun on the idea of each song being in its own ‘realm’), I’ve definitely had a huge influence stemming from the likes of St. Vincent and David Bowie, as well as music artists like Goldfrapp, Mitski, Kate Bush and Bjork that have that experimental or ethereal faun auras about them.
Sometimes, I have song-specific influences – for example, for Wandering, I looked at artists like Portishead, Hooverphonics and Massive Attack for that noir aesthetic, meanwhile for Ashgrey Butterfly, you can hear a bit of that spacey, wall of sound style used by Enya. Finally, the Gorillaz really helped me embrace the idea of utilizing animation and music video characters to start crafting my own audiovisual universe, which I titled Realmaverse.
Q5) What do you want your listeners to take away from your music and what do you have lined up for the future?
I guess for me each song is a new adventure. And songs really have that magical ability to transform our current realities and let us glance at different realms, put on different shoes, take on different voices… At the same time, they have the power to teach us something new about our own circumstances. I hope the audience gets to experience that with my music.
Personally, I consider songwriting a form of empowerment and I started writing music during some of my darkest hours, when I felt fully broken as a person. It’s then that songwriting gave me strength to gather up the pieces of myself I had left and helped me reclaim my identity. In this sense, I hope my music inspires people to dream, to tell them – it’s alright to hold on to the clouds, and despite some dark moments, let them set you afloat, they might just teach you how to spot the Sun, the Moon, the stars even through the deepest fog…
As for what I have lined up for the future, I’m currently working on two very contrasting tracks. The first one is a dystopian epic in A minor called Down the Railway Spine, which creatively explores some of my experiences with PTSD and panic attacks, translated as heart-racing 7/8 rhythmic runs.
The second is a brilliant-sounding track in G major dedicated to relaxing – Lil’ Note on Rushing, which focuses on how to slow down in the ever-accelerating context of contemporary life. Keep an eye out for them next year! Meanwhile, I’m also working on expanding each realm of my audiovisual universe into a powerful franchise – that is, I see a true potential in expanding these animated stories into larger comic and table top/video game mediums. I love worldbuilding, so I’m really looking forward to it.
We’re also launching our webstore next year, which I’m really excited about. I’m currently collaborating with some amazing graphic designers to create artistic merch, not unlike the creative packaging used by BTS in their inventive lyric booklets and DPR in their album packaging. So yeah, lots of stuff happening, stay tuned!