A Conversation with Flora

We talk with Ryan and Max of Flora about heartbreak, live performance, cover art, and more.

By: Jason Behrends

August 31, 2018

My best work is genuine and from the heart and often times sounds raw, but I think there is a special type of honesty in that.

Flora released their debut album, A Sword of Holly, back in June. The album blends heartfelt storytelling with unique elements of jazz, pop, soul, and rock. From the first listen it was clear we had to find out more about this duo, their writing, and what the future holds for Flora.

The Deli (TD): One of the qualities of memorable pop music is taking heartbreak and turning it into something catchy and enjoyable to listen to, and on “A Sword of Holly” you guys certainly did that. Are you willing to share who’s heartbreak this is or is Holly completely fictional?
Ryan O’Toole (RO): It’s a mix of both of ours and a product of how we felt during our last two years of college...and it’s definitely not fictional. I was living in Chicago going to Columbia College, and Max was in Champaign at the University of Illinois. My long time girlfriend was also at U of I, and we were on years three and four of long distance. The combination of being apart from her, being apart from Max (we were writing music together but had to wait until graduation to officially start Flora), and some significant friendship turmoil led to my inspiration for this album. I didn't have many friendships at Columbia, and my best friend here got stuck in a really bad relationship that made things very hard on us. We stopped talking and it took a big emotional toll on me, but I think it was realistically a mix of everything in my life. A lot of the lyrics on Holly can be interpreted romantically and are meant to be multilayered, but much of the inspiration comes from deep platonic friendships.
Max Miller (MM): I was struggling with a lot of loneliness and anxiety during the writing period for this album. Thankfully I discovered how amazing it feels to turn negative feelings into catchy pop songs and thus replace sad feelings with excitement. Ryan and I definitely felt like what we were experiencing was universally relatable so a lot of the lyrical content is supposed to convey how we felt at the time while also being applicable to other situations and relationships in anyone’s life. The character of ‘Holly’ is fictional but we’d like to believe there is a little bit of Holly in everyone.

TD: Was it difficult to be so emotionally raw in your songwriting and is it ever challenging to perform these songs? RO: I think being emotionally raw is part of our thing. Like Max mentioned, we love to take something that is hurting us and turn it into something that gives us joy. It's also really therapeutic to perform these songs. I'm in a good place right now, and most of the lyrics on Holly are 1-3 years old. Many of the problems I wrote about aren't really plaguing me anymore, and it’s empowering to perform the songs now and see how life changes. I still relate to the themes and will for the rest of my life, but I'm enjoying how they are aging and look forward to aging with them.
MM: I’ve found that I always write my best music and lyrics whenever I just let the inspiration take me wherever it needs to go. Whenever I try to force it or have a plan to write about a specific topic it always comes out sloppy. My best work is genuine and from the heart and often times sounds raw, but I think there is a special type of honesty in that. Performing the songs is pure bliss because we get to shake our hair, dance, jam out, and then at some point I realize the whole crowd is with us and enjoying a song about how sad I was a few years ago, it’s brilliant.

TD: As a duo I can imagine that it is challenging to write music that ultimately took 15 musicians to record. This album took you guys three years to complete, what was the most time consuming part of the process?
RO: The writing took the longest, but I don't really see that as the most time consuming because it was all that we could do when we were apart. It felt like we had nothing but time to write songs, and that time and freedom was a big silver lining during those tough college years. I would say recording was the most time consuming, because we did it over the course of six months. There were long breaks between sessions that were completely maddening, and I was having studio nightmares where everything would go wrong. Trying to schedule all the musicians into sessions that worked was also awful. It took forever. I should have used a doodle poll.

TD: Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to see Flora perform live, how do these songs translate to the stage? Can they ever be stripped down to a duo or will you alway need to pull other talented musicians?
RO:We play with a 7 person ensemble on stage including us, and I think we could realistically go down to 6 or 5, but any lower than that and we lose integral parts of our sound. The songs were written on piano by me and Max, so they all have that at their core. The drums and bass are so important to give us the catchy grooves we need, along with the guitar and the sax and harmony vocals. Just the two of us wouldn't really match up with the vision, especially since we both play keys.

TD: I love the cover that Lucy Gombas created for the album. I believe she is based in Brooklyn; How did you find her work and how much input did you both have on the cover?
RO: Lucy is my cousin!! I've known her my whole life, I love her a lot. She's brilliant. She didn't show many people her artwork until college, but I always knew her creativity was off the charts. Just the way she interacts with the world, her interpretations of things, her language, it’s all creative and unique. When I first saw what she was doing at Pratt I was so blown away. I knew she would be perfect for our brand so I asked her, and she's been gracious enough to do all of our stuff!! Our logos and posters are done by her as well. As for our input with the cover, it was notable. We asked her to construct an image inspired by the song ‘Holly Wonder’, and then in the surrounding frame we wanted her to include the themes of nature that we repeat and intertwine on the album; flowers, the moon, rain, the sun, stuff like that. The brilliance of that cover is owed entirely to her, however, as the vision and overall aesthetic is from her mind.

TD: I know we have only had this album for a month, but hopefully it won’t be another three years before we get more Flora. What’s next for the band?
MM: We have several leftover songs from the Holly sessions that we didn't include on the album. We are going to release those as ‘Holly B-side singles’ in the next half a year or so. We are also sitting on an excellent music video for the song ‘Sleep’ that will be released when the timing is right. We worked with an overwhelmingly talented team for that video and we’re ecstatic to share it. Beyond that, we have multiple album concepts planned and a boatload of songs. The outline for our next album is completely written; we have all the chords and forms for the songs, and most of the melodies and lyrics. But that won't be out until 2020. Our process takes awhile because we like to slow cook everything, but we will be working on and arranging them over the next year. We expect the next album to be big and need a lot of things to line up for the release to be just right. We will be debuting those songs live throughout the next year though!! So if you come to our live shows you will get to hear a sneak peek.

You can catch Flora at Cole’s on September 8th with Fay Ray and Red Scarves.