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Sugar, Spice & a Sharp Knife: Lily Arminda Defines Herself in New EP Define the Relationship

It makes sense that one of the early songs that Lily Arminda wrote in elementary school was entitled “I’m on fire,” an expression of anger about something that she can’t quite remember now. Arminda, the Bushwick-based singer/songwriter, sitting before me on the skybridge overlooking the courtyard at The New School, could easily be mistaken for a quintessential “good girl”: she is soft-spoken and poised, her hands clasped together neatly in her lap, the heels of her bluish-green cowboy boots planted firmly on the ground. One only has to glance at the covers of Arminda’s fourth EP and first studio-recorded project, Define the Relationship (DTR), released September 17th, to understand that she is still on fire, this time engulfed in the flames of her own power. In the images, Arminda is seen using a pink birthday candle as a makeshift cigarette, gripping the handle of a purple steak knife and biting down on a knife blade. 

DTR, written and sung by Arminda, was produced by Daniel Álvarez de Toledo and Jordan Dunn-Pilz of the band Toledo. In the six track EP, Arminda processes nebulous relationships and proves she is just as capable of empowering listeners with an ardent, even-toned voice as she is of indulging them with the hushed, dreamy sad-girl melodies that have characterized her previous EPs. The lyrics are accompanied by an eclectic range of harmonies that correspond to genres such as pop, rock and country, a testament to Arminda’s versatility. “Previous projects were lo-fi alternative, but still pretty folk, and everything before that was very folk, so it was cool to explore a new side of my music,” Arminda says. 

Those previous bedroom projects include two EPs, Mismatched Poetry, produced by Corey Kilgannon, and Neighborhood, produced by Halen Bouhadana. Mismatched Poetry, recorded in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, was released in March of 2019. Arminda drew inspiration from the natural world and explored themes such as the solace that can be found in romantic partnership, the tendency for expectations for a relationship to fail to align with reality and the glorification of romantic relationships. Arminda’s second EP, Neighborhood, was released in October of 2019 and is centered around her romantic experiences on the Lower East Side, encapsulating the charms of love, the ardor of letting go and the insidiousness of self-doubt and fear. All of Arminda’s lyrics are based on her own experiences of romantic relationships and love. “I always write songs to process things or memorialize things,” she says of her music.

Arminda has an innate gravitation to song and music—she has expressed herself through songwriting and singing since she was a child (ie: her song “I’m on fire.”) Discussing her upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, she says, “I would always sing to Disney Princess movies. I remember being in my childhood home, and being by the fireplace, and singing songs just for fun.” Arminda is self-taught: she took a few guitar lessons and taught herself the rest, and taught herself ukulele as well as piano.

Her music career got started in 2016 when she worked with a friend, Halen Bouhadana, to make an EP entitled The Hourglass. Soon after, she began to play shows in Columbus, Ohio. Arminda worked with a series of local venues such as The Basement and The Newport Music Hall that gave her opportunities to open for nationally touring artists such as Lucy Dacus and Benjamin Francis Leftwich.

Arminda only applied to colleges in New York City, and chose The New School. As an Arts in Context major, a program that allows students to pursue both an artistic discipline and a liberal arts subject, Arminda is studying Contemporary Music and Literary Studies. Arminda’s writing classes have influenced her songwriting process, and she has learned more about the revision process from her professors. 

Arminda starts her songwriting process in front of a notebook with her guitar in her lap. She writes melody and lyrics simultaneously. “I feel it’s the most natural way to get out what I’m trying to say,” she explains. She then revises her songs into articulate and poetic pieces.  

Arminda has been anticipating the release of DTR as though awaiting a call or text from a new lover. Arminda expected to start recording DTR in March of 2020, but the pandemic delayed recording until September of that year. The extra time was a boon to Arminda’s creativity, as she wrote two more songs, including the title track, “DTR,” and realized the EP’s overall theme of undefined relationships. “This project took a lot of patience, so I was constantly revising and really getting excited about it. It was finished in December, so it’s been a really long process of waiting and showing it to very special people and only those people hearing it,” she says. 

DTR includes songs with subdued, slow tempos and tracks featuring allegro guitar and drum-heavy harmonies. The instruments do not overpower Arminda, but help to reveal the velvet-like softness that is the fabric of her voice. She surprises listeners by increasing her volume and gradually draws attention to particular words by singing them for a few moments, the lyrical equivalent to highlighting or underlining text on a page.

In the title track, “DTR,” Arminda describes the pain caused by a short-lived and unreciprocated relationship. The song’s tempo builds in intensity at the same time that Arminda belts out what she needs and deserves. Prior to recording it, Arminda believed the song was sad and mournful. Her understanding of the song changed during the recording process, when one of her producers instructed her to sing the song sassily. “I realized as I was singing it, with a more sassy, fun tone, that it was actually a really empowering song,” she says. 

The greatest testament to Arminda’s newfound confidence and lyrical acuity is the song “Bushwick Madonna,” in which she coins herself Bushwick’s version of the pop star and compares her desire to be loved to being cast to play a role in a drama. It’s a pop-inspired, feel-good tune with country-style guitar strumming that invites listeners to move their bodies in any way they please, and know that, like Arminda, they are “leading ladies”; people capable of asserting who they are and what they deserve. Arminda’s process of developing self-assurance is also palpable in the song “When You’re Lonely,” in which she articulates and appreciates her bisexuality. She uses a gentle yet clear tone that is accompanied by an andante drum-based beat and back-up vocals reminiscent of breath fogging a glass windowpane. 

In “Headstone,” Arminda returns to the themes of mortality, grief over the end of relationships and the desire for promises to be kept that she explored in the songs “A Garden” and “The Ghost” on the EP Neighborhood. Arminda’s voice crescendos and softens as she explains her all-encompassing, self-sacrificial ability to love. Similar to the tracks “Why Don’t You Kiss Me in the Morning” and “I Miss Knowing the Extent of Goodbye,” the song is slightly cryptic and tentative, forcing listeners to embark on their own quest to define and clarify the relationships described. 

The upbeat indie vibe of the songs and Arminda’s self-confidence is reflected in the aesthetic of DTR, which Arminda fondly describes as “pop star heaven.” The EP cover photos not only depict Arminda wielding knives, but also include glittery, girly images that show that her demure nature should not be underestimated. In one photo, Arminda sits in a pink-walled room that resembles an Urban Outfitters photoshoot set and wears a glamorous silky blue dress as well as a tiara. It’s an homage to the Disney songs that she sang as a child, only this time she is not just pretending to be a princess, but is sure that she is one. “I guess the aesthetic is just a combination of accepting yourself, being confident about who you are, and being very sparkly and glam and all those fun things,” Arminda says.

Arminda’s boldness can be attributed to the fact that she is maturing as an artist. “As I keep writing songs throughout my whole life, I keep finding ways to express myself more articulately, and really understand myself through that,” she says. Listeners have confirmed this in their reception of DTR. In early September, DTR was added to an editorial playlist on Spotify called “Fresh Finds,” described as “the best new music by independent artists.” DTR’s tracks have been added to a plethora of personal playlists as well: “When You’re Lonely” was added to a playlist entitled “F!ck I’m Bisexual.” What is most special about DTR is that Arminda not only summons listeners to relate to her pain and confusion, but offers listeners her wisdom—ways to transform their sadness and the expectations placed on them into shimmery sparks of self-worth and untamed flames of power.

Quinn Daugherty

New School '24

Quinn Daugherty is a second-year student at Lang hoping to major in Screen Studies. She enjoys writing, reading, and meeting new people.
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