VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today, we’re featuring Swim Team, the debut EP from Christelle Bofelle.
Christelle Bofale’s pensive lyricism and hauntingly smooth voice are hitting harder than ever these days. In these chaotic, uncertain times, the Congolese-American indie artist’s unabashed vulnerability and beautifully self-reflective tone provide listeners with a much-needed calm and allow them the space to sit with their emotions.
It’s clear Bofale’s a natural artist and storyteller. Her 2019 debut EP Swim Team is a beautiful collection of songs that both artfully touch on always-relevant themes like love and self-discovery and use a variety of instruments and vocal techniques to creatively experiment with traditional musical tone, genre, and sound. “The songs on Swim Team narrate a time filled with heartbreak, depression, and moving on,” Bofale said. “For me, emotions can feel like a body of water, like a pool; the title Swim Team references the people who you wade, drown, float, jump, and splash in those emotions with. The EP is a personal symbol of survival to me.”
Bofale navigates these tricky subjects with ease, showing off her natural artistry. “I was exposed to music really early,” Bofale says. “My dad got me a keyboard when I was four years old and I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid. I think I was in seventh or eighth grade when something clicked, and I realized that I seriously wanted to pursue this.”
And she hasn’t looked back since. Songwriting is one of Bofale’s greatest strengths as an artist. Her lyrics are somehow both powerfully simple and deeply meaningful, with each word brimming with honesty. In her heartbreakingly melancholy ballad “Moving on, Getting On,” for example, the artist laments, “moving on, it ain’t easy / getting on, it ain’t clear to me,” in her trademark slow, yearning voice as powerful strings play their lush melodies in the background. This sort of open-ended poetic inquiry is common in Bofale’s storytelling; rather than pretend to have definitive answers or resolutions to her personal struggles, the artist often uses her music to muse or pose questions about her emotions.
“Some of my earliest songs were about teen angst, which is an emotion that I can honestly still relate to,” Bofale said. “In high school, I’d write about how it feels so hard to be living at home, how my parents don’t understand me, and other very narrative types of songwriting that focused on what was going on in my life at the time. Back then, I was definitely still figuring out my sound, which I would say is a little more assured now that I have a clearer intention and have evolved more as an artist.”
Bofale’s craft may have evolved over the years, but her continual effort to figure out her ever-changing sound and message is exactly what makes her music so unique and endearing. She admits that she actually wrote the single, “Miles,” when she was still in high school. The song, which utilizes a simple, soothing guitar melody and profound repetitive lyrics to muse on life’s vague shared futility, could just as easily be a diary entry from a teenage girl as it could be the thoughts of an elderly person. This, too, points to the strength of Bofale’s work as an artist; her ability to create music that is timeless in it’s delivery and forever relevant in it’s universal messaging.
Bofale’s sound takes inspiration from a number of musical influences ranging from Joni Mitchell to St. Vincent to Solange. Perhaps most notably, the artist’s Congolese heritage can be heard clearly in each of her songs, from the rhythmic guitar playing on “Miles” to the strong percussive beat on “Origami Dreams.”
“My parents are both Congolese and they’d always be playing Congolese music around the house when I was young,” the artist mused. “The songs are really long normally –– it’s not unheard of for songs to be 10 or 12 minutes. I love when songs have stamina, and I like to write songs that linger on certain moments, or that play the same chord progression for a while before moving onto something else. I love the slow burn of it, the leisurely vibe of it. It’s not like we have to fit what we’re feeling into two or three minutes, we can take our time and really sit in it.”
And that’s exactly what Bofale’s music allows us to do. In “U Ochea,” Bofale’s longest song by far, at over seven minutes, the artist takes us on a leisurely stroll, pausing at different moments to highlight the exceptional percussion, the lingering guitar, and of course, her own remarkable lyrics. “As my music making skills evolve and grow, I really want to start leaning to that instinct more,” the artist said. “I think about the music my parents played for me growing up, and that’s really the sort of sound that I’m trying to hone into.”
While Bofale is surely a pro at crafting emotional ballads with a profound and thought-provoking message, the artist has so much more up her sleeve. “I feel like when I do interviews I can read as super serious,” she told Vinyl Me, Please. “But I’d like for people to know that while, yes, some of my music is heavy, and I'm in my feelings most of the time, I'm also easy-going and fun-loving. I have two cats, I love throwing dance parties with my friends. I just love to enjoy life.”
This earnest desire to live life on her own terms shines through while both talking to Bofale and while listening to her music. Bofale’s honesty and ability to capture complex emotions in a satisfyingly simple way is what makes her music so refreshing and much-needed in this current moment.
Mary is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Nation, NPR, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets.