Darkness you can dance to: Baasch’s gothic electro pop captures young Poland’s fear and daring

Darkness you can dance to: Baasch’s gothic electro pop captures young Poland’s fear and daring

26 November 2020

Warsaw musician Baasch never set out to be the voice of a generation. “I don’t have it in me,” he says, laughing. Yet the singer-songwriter’s latest album, Noc [Night] — a heady blend of icy synth textures, trance-inspired beats, and nimbly melodic vocals — has captured the mood of Poland’s urban youth like few before it.

Some see the record, released in August 2020, as commentary on the pandemic and the lockdown loneliness that came with it. For others, it’s a timely political statement, alluding to Poland’s recent spate of homophobic policies. The video for a recent single, Miasto [City], weaves together the story of a modern-day queer exodus from Warsaw, as Baasch — real name: Bartosz Schmidt — coldly describes his city slipping from his reach.

Futuristic, rave-ready soundscapes form the backdrop for Baasch’s suprisingly lyrical vocals

According to Baasch, Noc speaks to a more universal disquiet. “[The album] was inspired by a particular year I’d lived through, when I had mostly been awake at nighttime,” he tells me. “In part, it’s about loneliness: being lonely in a crowd, lost in urban nightlife. Loneliness occurs for a variety of reasons — social exclusion being one of them — so I’m not surprised by interpretations that highlight the situation of queer people in Poland.”

The music video for Miasto opens with footage from a now-symbolic August protest against the arrest of a Polish LGBT activist. Demonstrators later told of a police show of force; many described unlawful detentions and mistreatment in custody. Among those detained was one of Schmidt’s friends, a Polish electro musician and rights activist recording as Avtomat.

The clip goes on to show young Warsaw residents, their rooms adorned with rainbow flags, seemingly plotting an escape — a box of treasured possessions being passed along from friend to friend.

Baasch agrees that the video, if not the song itself, is a response to recent events. “You can’t deny it, there’s the rainbow flag and the police,” he laughs.

“LGBT themes have featured in my work pretty much from the start. One video shows a young man in a dress doing a very queer dance in a meadow; there’s another — fairly homoerotic — with two tough guys in tracksuits… Despite that, I never felt the need to be a warrior for a cause. Now I’m speaking out, because I’m deeply distraught by the situation.”

Indeed, the lyrics to Miasto evoke a broader malaise. “A sense of unease has built up in Warsaw; I definitely do not feel at home here the way I used to,” Baasch says. “I think that a lot of young people who disagree with [the government] feel like they’re in alien territory. Social polarisation has been growing for a while, but these days, the authorities and the media are purposely ramping up tensions … I think we’ll live with the consequences for many years to come.”

“A sense of unease has built up in Warsaw; I definitely do not feel at home here the way I used to”

The video for Miasto features Baasch’s real-life friends and acquaintances. “One of them really is leaving for Berlin,” he says. “I do think a mass emigration is underway. Young Poles used to go abroad in search of opportunities; now they look for places where they can feel at ease.”

Alongside his steadfast political stance, Baasch stands out for a musical style that is all his own. Futuristic, rave-ready soundscapes form the backdrop for Schmidt’s suprisingly lyrical vocals, reminescent of Robert Smith’s dark balladry as much as of the late greats of the Polish 80s. Many draw comparisons to Grzegorz Ciechowski, frontman of the cult band Republika, known for his whimsical delivery and poetic prowess.

In interviews, Baasch speaks of having made music “for as long as he can remember”: as a teenager, he kept busy working in Warsaw’s music theatres and leading a band. Baasch as a solo project was born in 2012, when Schmidt’s Bandcamp profile first caught the eye of industry professionals. Festival invitations followed, and in 2012 Baasch’s first EP, Simple Dark Romantic Songs, mapped out the melodic electro territory he has been exploring ever since.

The same year saw Schmidt try his hand at film music — also as Baasch, he wrote the soundtrack for Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers, billed as Polish cinema’s first foray into queer romance.

“I see myself primarily as a songwriter. I stick to a fairly conventional verse-and-chorus form,” Baasch says. “The vocals are definitely at the forefront. My aim is to write songs which can stand on their own, with just piano or guitar for accompaniment.”

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His emphasis on songwriting as a craft was also one of the reasons for his recent turn to Polish-language lyrics. “Most of my listeners are Polish,” he explains, “and even those who speak English well tend to treat English-language vocals as yet another instrument. This time, I really wanted to emphasise the lyrics.”

Suitably, Noc brims with wordplay, conjuring up a twilight urban netherworld as alluring as it is alienating. Baasch sings of glittering club escapes and weighty mornings-after, the shadow-play of romantic delusions and self-doubt in a harsh, passionless society.

“I refer to Noc as a concept album, but that’s a bit of a white lie,” he says. “It wasn’t conceived as such. Still, the songs are built around similar themes: of nightlife in the city, human relationships, questioning yourself.”

Is he also questioning his future in Warsaw?

“A while ago, I decided that I would stay in Poland but travel often to clear my head,” he says. “I haven’t been anywhere this year because of the pandemic, so I’m suffering quite a bit right now. But I’ve built so much here [in Warsaw] that is valuable, and I’m not giving up on all of it.”

He is eager to continue recording with other up-and coming artists. To date, he has collaborated with Berlin-based polymath Mary Komasa, fellow singer-songwriter Novika, and the electronic duo Rysy, among others. “I think the Polish music scene — electronic and otherwise — is in great shape right now,” he says.

“Besides, someone has to stay. Nothing good will come out of all of us packing our bags.”

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