Cruel Optimism – The story behind the music of Natural Velvet

by Corynne Ostermann of Natural Velvet

Natural Velvet

My name is Corynne Ostermann; I’m a multidisciplinary artist and musician playing bass & providing vocals for the Baltimore-based group Natural Velvet.

Natural Velvet started in 2012, and I’ve been involved since the beginning, as well as with my bandmates Spike Arreaga (guitar), Kim Te (guitar), and Greg Hatem (drums, production). I genuinely feel so lucky to have had my bandmates’ attention for as long as I have had, and as a result, I’m very protective of them and the long-term sustainability of our project.

Listen to the album while reading the text.

Cruel Optimism

It’s strange to be releasing the Cruel Optimism recordings after it was recorded so early into 2019 — but life goes that way, especially if you are a working artist/musician trying to make it happen in an industry that rarely pays out enough to survive, touring is close to homelessness depending on one’s standing in regional markets beyond your own, and mental healthcare for the profession is non-existent. This is especially true when the group is bigger than just one person and their specific needs, and one is trying to sustainably keep their bandmates in mind while working. So, it just so happened that way that we sat on this material for five years before it came out.

The initial plan was for the album to come out in 2020 — and well, we saw what happened that year.

Cruel Optimism, as well as the accompanying material that will make up our upcoming full length were recorded at Magpie Cage in Baltimore, MD with J. Robbins in spring of 2019. Robbins is known for his work with Jawbox and recording and producing so many iconic Mid-Atlantic bands and projects, and we specifically sought him out for his expertise and his ear. We made the right decision, I’d say! He was a delight to work with (would happily return for another project) and I found we had similar “language” as musicians trying to capture a moment in a recording. I have so much respect for his craft.

Angel Marcloid mastered the recordings at Angel Hair Audio outside of Chicago, Illinois. She is a secret weapon of a mastering engineer. I hope to always be able to afford her.

Lyrically and inspirationally, Cruel Optimism (and the forthcoming secret full length) were written in 2018, while dealing with a major breakup, poverty, the reality of new mental health needs, a ceiling collapse, etc., all while wrapped in the squealing guitar that we are known for.

Mirror to Make You

Our previous work, Mirror to Make You, (2017) had been a bomb of more noise-rock inspired sonic brutality that examined the trope of the villainess, and therefore had been a very strong album with tearing feminine vocals and lyrically dealing with entering one’s villain era. We had the extreme privilege of getting to record with the seminal New York Noise-rock producer Martin Bisi (worked on Swans records, Sonic Youth, Herbie Handcock, etc. — owns and operates B.C. Studios) so we had at our fingertips the best ears to produce this blankhet of heavy crunch, feminine rage, and deafening guitar in an extremely male-dominated music genre.

There were a few self-criticisms of the album; every musician wishes for what they want the next record to sound like, how it will evolve, while releasing older material. It’s part of the job of being an artist — living for the dream of what you will make moving forward.

On the one hand, we had had a blast during this era, exploring the camp of the villainess, heavy sound, and feminine rage, but on the other hand, conceptually and lyrically the album was singularly minded, and that this would not be an avenue we could continue with, long-term. I realized I lyrically wanted to incorporate more self-awareness into the lyrics — after all, musicians are people who ideally grow — and I wanted the pieces to have more range of emotions available to us to explore, leave space in the music for insecurity to just exist, and push the guitar a smidge more sparkly, just only in a few places, though!

Great Changes

2018 was a year of great change, for all of us in Natural Velvet, and the lyrics of Cruel Optimism reflect that — questions of how one should be, questions of future dreams and the realities closing in, watching the downward spiral of megalithic social media companies, social constructs, and what this all means for a limited human existence in a sea of quick change. As a lot of lyrics are written from the singular perspective, so this also encompassed the questions of my romantic life at the time, of course, or references to other things going on in my personal life (i.e., the roof in my bedroom collapsed that year and I was displaced into a different room in the house I lived in, and in “I Keep You Honest” you can read this, ‘In my dreams the roof crashes down on me/I drown in its collected rainwater’, etc., capturing an era of uncertainty in my personal life.) I would say most of this material came together in fall of 2018.

The end of 2018 also saw the death of one of the most important mentors and friends in my life, and the alternative “sliding door” reality he offered me closed off in front of my eyes when he was found dead in his apartment. Lyrically, the material in Cruel Optimism and our future album were finished by that point, but the question of “how should a person be” was compounded by this experience and only showed its head in the flexibility of the new compositions Natural Velvet was experimenting with. Vulnerability was the ticket item for this record.

We toured North America in early 2019, successfully, I might add, and then jumped into the studio with J. Robbins and recorded the Cruel Optimism and Perma-Blues material. This is the material I am most proud of, and we were excited to release it in summer of 2020, and planned accordingly.

The pandemic changed that — we watched the world shutter by the end of March 2020, and the music industry imploded overnight. So much of the income made by musicians comes from touring, and there was absolutely NO WAY that we were going to be able to tour on this material, at least until the pandemic loosened its grip, as event companies and venues shuttered left and right. Yes, there was the option of a livestream, but I could see even then the future disassociation with that project — people NEED to gather to view entertainment or a cultural moment. It’s written into our DNA — think of religious gatherings, or, more specifically, tent revivals and other semi-dramatic non-musical moments of public gathering.

Going Through it Together

Add to this my own personal depression of losing a job I liked that I could sustainably tour with, and, further, losing a major career advancement for myself as a painter, I couldn’t fathom dropping the ep and album in 2020. I didn’t want it to get buried in a year of no music press and no touring, or the songs to be served poorly when we had poured our talents and hearts into them for years. I didn’t want my bandmates to get burned out, by my insistence of moving forward during a global pandemic. So, we sat. I slept for the better part of a year, if not more, my depression worsened, my medication needed to be adjusted.

2021 proved that the events industry was still mostly ground to a halt — tours for major musicians were continually getting cancelled, and I knew that we would not be able to compete with major international acts who were having these problems as well. So, we sat. We watched our industry get gutted watching mentally unhealthy musicians kill themselves, reasonable musicians leaving for real paying jobs and reorienting their lives, and the waiting for those of us who are lifers for the tide to turn. We kept watching our friend’s livestreams. We released a remix EP for M2MU. Work was still done, but slowly, with attention paid to the sustainability of our band. By this I mean that the 2020’s music industry is not an economy of working-musician bands getting snapped up within 2-5 years of existence (unless it’s nepo babies, models, or other wealthy children in cities bigger than Baltimore), and as such we knew that we were going to have to pay attention to the sustainability of Natural Velvet if it were to continue. Looking back, it was not a failure to adapt. It was thinking of my bandmates and their lives and making sure that we were all going to be all right through this moment, together. So many bands disbanded during this time due to egotistical bandmates insisting they continue to work during a pandemic, and I saw the writing on the wall.

2022 saw inflation hit, and in my own personal life, I was engaged to be married and very much a reluctant DIY bride — so that ate into my time considerably that year (I would have preferred to elope). I am so grateful to my bandmates for their patience with me during this time and always. Part of that year was also testing out the markets for touring and for events, again, because the financials of playing shows had to match up to make it worth it. We started playing regional shows again. We built up our personal bank accounts, again.

So here we are, releasing the Cruel Optimism EP in March of 2023. It feels worlds away from the Natural Velvet that wrote this material in 2018, but that said, I’ve enjoyed the space between the recording and the live performances of the material we’re currently re-playing, despite it being frustrating while stuck in it. This album mirrors the zeitgeist of the time in which it was born and slowed by global pandemic and economic insecurities. But it’s finally here.

I’m also grateful that we have years of material in us to come, based in real lived emotion and musical growth. We cannot wait to bring it to you. I know exactly what I want to create for you next time, and so do my bandmates. Be ready.


Artist’s Note
Baltimore, Maryland
Alternative, Dreampop, Grunge, Indie, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, Post-Punk, Shoegaze
musician, recording, touring, health, covid

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