I’ve been a fan of Isabella Farmer since I heard her sing for the first time in our middle school choir, since her projects in our high school music theory class, since seeing her perform in school musicals. We’ve known each other for about seven years and grew up performing in some of the same music departments at our Virginia middle and high schools before her transfer to Interlochen Arts Academy. Her voice is delicate and ringing, and her talent has only gotten more and more polished as she’s gotten older.
Farmer, a current freshman at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, released her first EP, Greenhouse, in October 2020. Greenhouse contains surreal imagery with atmospheric soundscapes – it’s Farmer’s breakthrough into the indie scene and has received notice from several viral music bloggers in their playlists. In “The Shelf,” Farmer explores confusing, complex relationships in her lyrics, a steady beat and lulling guitar luring the listener in (“Lately, have you seen yourself? / You store the mirror on top of the shelf.”). Her second song on the EP, “Breaks Whole,” is a swirling wave of layered sounds from all sides: “The imprint’s been made / Fast the rope frays / Then breaks whole,” Farmer serenades. She explores the natural and the unnatural, bridging the divide between the two and creating something much more concerning than unnaturalness, and yet still enthralling (“The ghost with my name / I’ve moved away”).
Farmer’s titular track of Greenhouse is a masterpiece and a favorite to listeners and the artist alike. Her gentle crooning is powerful, tumultuous, and comforting all at once. The song contains some of her most poetic lyrics, taking the listener to a transformative location: “My first night out in the mid-spring downpour / I noticed my body shake with the sycamore.” Farmer’s lyrics are reminiscent of songwriters such as Phoebe Bridgers with her chilling imagery that one can’t turn away from: “There’s a dog on the porch step / Birdsong in its throat;” “Last night I found rotten teeth in the greenhouse / Hope to God they were yours.” The crescendo of a chorus (“I believed I could take a year’s worth of storm in one night / I believed I could take a year’s worth of storm in stride”) induces a familiar panic of being overwhelmed with no respite. Farmer’s soothing vocals, though, tell the listener that the terror of the storm must end at some point.
I was thrilled to sit down on Zoom with Isabella Farmer to discuss her EP, musical education, and inspirations.
- On Her Songwriting Journey
Farmer began writing songs in high school. “The first songs that I wrote, I was just so bad,” she laughs. “I had nothing to write about, so I would just pretend that I was in relationships so I could write about something.” While Farmer’s current genre blends indie, folk, and soft rock elements, it wasn’t always that way: “My first songs were definitely very poppy, basic, radio music. I wasn’t happy with them at all.”
Farmer credits her time at Interlochen Arts Academy as shifting songwriting from a hobby to a future career. “The first half of my first year there, I had no idea what I was doing. I had an identity crisis. But just being around all those other musicians, I fed off their energy. Being able to work with the writers there also helped me start writing songs I genuinely liked. My search for writing something I would genuinely want to listen to was finally over. I thought to myself that if I had been looking for that specific sound for so long, there were obviously other people out there who were looking for something similar.”
From Interlochen, Farmer began attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, one of the nation’s most prolific music schools. While she is remote this semester, Farmer is already seeing improvements in her musical abilities from attending the prestigious school: “I think there’s something to be said for how well I can now communicate with other musicians as a result of Berklee. I used to be so insecure working with bands and producers, but I feel like now I can confidently articulate everything I want in my music,” Farmer explained. “I’m going to major in songwriting and minor in English. Once I officially declare my major, I can’t wait to work with the songwriting professors I’ve met at camps in the past. I’ve never loved performing as much as songwriting, so it’s amazing to have a future in this field.”
- Inspiration, Perfectionism, and Identity
Farmer describes herself as a “total perfectionist,” evident in her years spent searching for the perfect sound. Now, years after her songwriting journey began, Farmer credits her ability to know herself and her desires as her biggest strength and sometimes says that perfectionism can benefit her. “When I didn’t know myself, my songs weren’t good,” Farmer says. “When I stopped performing for other people, stopped trying to fit the image of what I thought I was supposed to do, that was when I wrote my best songs. Sometimes it takes me two weeks to record a take until I’m happy, but recording lets me find satisfaction.”
Inspiration for music is all around for Farmer. “A big theme in a lot of my lyrics is travel, and wanting to reach out to another place or wanting to be somewhere else. I can’t wait to travel again because I always get my best ideas from being exposed to new things. I could travel somewhere and just be in a store where the speakers are playing a song or a type of music I haven’t heard, and that could be a huge inspiration to me.”
Songwriting is an outlet for Farmer to sort through her thoughts: “Every time I write, it’s a deep dive into my head. I feel like I haven’t sorted through things until I’ve written about them.” In Greenhouse, Farmer says that she explores mental health with “an underlying feminist theme.” Her title track is her favorite song she’s released: “It’s my baby. I wrote it the week after we got sent home from Interlochen, and I was in such a bad, low place mentally. I was so burnt out, overworked, and afraid of the pandemic. ‘Greenhouse’ poured out in one day – I had an assignment for online classes, and I didn’t follow the prompt at all. I just wrote that instead, and it was so cathartic. Every time I listen to it, I’m reminded of how different things are and I’m thankful to not be in that place, but it also reminds me that being in a rough spot can lead to beautiful art.” Farmer already has plans for her future music, as well. She embeds elements of love into her music but has no straightforward love song in her present discography: “I’ve always thought about, maybe eight to ten years down the road, writing this masterpiece of a love song that will be a testament to the life I’ve had thus far. I want to be able to listen to it and feel comfortable, joyful, and know that this is how I truly feel about my life.”
- Favorite Music and Musicians
Just like me, Farmer is a big Phoebe Bridgers fan. She credits Bridgers as inspiring her sound – “She shaped the indie-rock-folk genre. The second I listened to Stranger in the Alps, I knew I wanted to write music with a somewhat similar sound. I never knew how to describe my genre, but that was what I wanted to go for and how I wanted to reach people.”
When I asked for her favorite Phoebe Bridgers song, Farmer laughed. “This is so hard! I think I would have to say ‘Smoke Signals.’ I don’t even know exactly why. That song has always been a hard-hitter for me.”
Farmer is largely inspired by Bon Iver as well. “I love the poetic lyrics and the soundscapes – I feel like they evoke such a vivid image, and the lyrics can mean so many different things to different people. I try to keep an element of that in my lyrics as well. I remember the first time I read Bon Iver lyrics on a page, just thinking, ‘Wow, this reads like a poem.’” Her favorite Bon Iver song is difficult to pinpoint – she characterizes it as choosing a favorite child. “I guess favorite of all time, ‘Holocene.’ I know that’s a little basic, but I’ve had some intense moments with that song. It always brings up something for me. The melody is beautiful, and the lyrics are incredible.”
At Interlochen and Berklee, Farmer has met fellow musicians whose careers she is excited to follow. “My Interlochen suitemate Leah Dunn is one of the coolest people ever. I love that girl! She’s a great writer and an even better person. She’s one of the reasons I write the way I write. Leah has an EP out, Oakland, that is really great, and the title track is amazing. Her song “Bath” from the latest album is awesome. And Leah actually connected me with my producer for Greenhouse!” Farmer also points to Ava Scott’s EP Night Switch as one of her favorites. “She has an Amy Winehouse meets indie-pop voice, and I love it.” Her final recommendation is Tallulah.’s EP Revert. Farmer’s favorite song from it is “Here.”