Pictoria Vark and The Parts She Dreads
Pictoria Vark is a project by (and spoonerism for) New Jersey-born musician Victoria Park, who adopted the name as a first-year student at Grinnell College. When she’s not on tour, Vark lives in Iowa City, a stone’s throw away from her alma mater. Lately, however, she’s always on tour.
While in college, she met Ella Williams, better known by her stage name Squirrel Flower, whose musical success as a senior impressed Vark, who was just getting started. Together, the two’s friendship grew and their musical bonds tightened; Vark eventually joined the Squirrel Flower band as its touring bassist.
In fall of 2021, the pair hit the road for their sixth tour together, this time supporting Soccer Mommy on a long string of east coast dates. Following that tour Vark hopped onto another, this time with Baltimore-based punk rockers Pinkshift in support of PUP THE BAND – all of whom she’ll be rocking with through mid-May.
Fans last got a full body of work from Pictoria Vark in 2018 with her loving and inventive EP, "self-titled." On Friday, April 8, Vark is set to release her debut album "The Parts I Dread," which is also her first effort for Get Better Records. With a slew of solo gigs and other high-profile opportunities ahead, including an upcoming slot at the 80/35 Music Festival (warming up the Friday stage for Japanese Breakfast and Father John Misty), Vark is finally taking the spotlight and bringing her bass with her.
It’s difficult to see 2022 as anything other than "The Year of the Vark."
"The Parts I Dread"
"If you think about, like, "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," in the way that 'parts' is used there, it's to refer to geographic place," said Vark. "And so because the album is both about geographic place and emotional territory, "The Parts I Dread" kind of works two-fold to show those things."
It's an album of eight songs, threading through feelings of belonging and hurt. Like the lived experiences that inspired the album, instrumentals on the record were cut and recorded from all over the country: Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Iowa. Vark wrote the song "Wyoming" about her parents' impending move from her foundation in New Jersey to a Western state she knew nothing about.
“Placelessness,” said Vark of the themes of "The Parts I Dread." “Home. Complex relationships with other people who you like and who you love. It’s about Wyoming, and New Jersey, and New York, and Paris, and Iowa.”
"The Parts I Dread" gets its name from the album’s seventh track, which was also Vark's second single, “Demarest.” It's the record's emotional center, and gets stuck in its own head, ending with a repeated refrain, even more haunting the second time. “It’s not that I’m into punishment / I’m scared of change and I’m cognizant / There’s more to hurt than what’s in my head, / More to live for than I know yet.”
“‘Good For’ is about a really difficult and personal time that I was going through when I was sixteen in high school – not something I really talk that much about... What was really hard about the situation wasn’t the thing that happened… But the fact that I asked someone for help and they weren’t there. They turned their back on me when I really needed it, and that [ended up] being more painful than the other thing.”Victoria Park
Ending such a pained song with this twinge of hope for the future reflects the album’s surprising optimism. While Vark spends a good deal of time on the parts that she dreads, she doesn’t dwell on them. Rather, she repurposes her pain into something productive.
"Good For," the fifth song off Pictoria Vark’s album, begins with a gentle mist of warning. As increasingly volatile waves crash against the ship at every angle, the song nevertheless stays the course. Vark’s bass and vocals ride steady as the wind, water and rain whoosh past.
“‘Good For’ is about a really difficult and personal time that I was going through when I was sixteen in high school – not something I really talk that much about,” said Vark. “What was really hard about the situation wasn’t the thing that happened… But the fact that I asked someone for help and they weren’t there. They turned their back on me when I really needed it, and that [ended up] being more painful than the other thing.”
“Good For” seeks to navigate a storm of swirling questions. Isolation and self-doubt loom and it seems Vark’s uncomfortably honest lyrics have nowhere to hide. “What am I good for?,” she asks in the chorus. “Was it wrong for you to know?”
Vark wrote the lyrics to “Good For” in 2019, and released a straightforward interpretation in 2020. But for her debut album she sought to turn the original inside out - and twist it. Born out of Vark’s refusal to change her original lyrics, the songwriting team forwent the idea of a traditional four-four pattern, instead writing in odd time and trying to fit the lyrics. With a bendy, reverse guitar solo and other backwards elements like pianos and cymbals textured throughout, the song fosters an, at times, uneasy atmosphere.
Despite the harsh environment of “Good For,” hope still finds room to triumph. In this iteration, Vark arrives with backup: a new climax crowdsourced from the fans.
“I reached out to people on Twitter to see if they would want to scream along to the song, and I got like thirty people to contribute their backup vocals,” said Vark. “So, in the very cathartic moment, there’s like thirty people underneath me singing, yelling and screaming the same lyrics that I do. It feels so rewarding and the pay-off is there. It honestly makes the painful memory that the song is about covered [sic] with this new, joyous experience, which is so fun.”
That moment – with a wall of voices shouting “there’s nothing deep to say!” behind her – was one of many moments Vark points to as helpful in dealing with her own trauma. After writing, re-writing, performing and performing some more, those wounds begin to sting a little less.
The Parts in Between
The album’s lead-off batter, “Twin,” is a beginner’s guide to Pictoria Vark. Gentle bass, intimate vocals, teenage malaise. The song eases unsuspecting listeners into the album while impressing loyal Varkheads with restraint; they know the shredding is yet to come.
The album’s third track, “I Can’t Bike,” boasts dual superlatives: oldest song on the record and first-released single. In true DIY fashion, Vark shot, edited and produced the song’s music video pretty much all by herself – doubling down on the homemade aesthetic with camcorder whips, practical effects and actual cardboard cut-outs of her friends.
“It was the second song I ever wrote as a first year at Grinnell,” said Vark. “So it's almost four or five years old now. And I like having that [released] first, because it kind of acts as a bridge between the EP and "Good For" (2020) and this new chapter. I think it's also the most straightforward pop, indie-rock song, with a little twist at the end. So we're not hitting people full force with the crazy other stuff that happens in this, like the rest of the record.”
The sister track to “Twin” is “Out,” the album’s sixth song. When Vark mentioned not hitting people full force, this is what she was alluding to. “Out” is a hypnotic, Mexican stand-off with a wild, Not-Suitable-For-Radio outro that has to be heard to be understood. It’s not explicit, just massively chaotic. If the movie "Cowboys & Aliens" with Daniel Craig were a song, it’d probably be this.
Track four, “Bloodline II” is a masterful blend of hard and soft. Small, personal moments with Vark and her bass build to explosive heights, with every breath of chorus filled with musicians sounding like they’re having a good time. This one will be a treat at the live shows.
Finally, Vark wraps things up with “Friend Song.” With the sweeping finality of “Demarest” in the penultimate spot, it’d be difficult to end the album with anything other than a light-hearted, Death Cab-y farewell. Luckily, that’s the path Vark chose and the record is better for it.
“This record that I have coming up is going to be out on a label and on vinyl, which is something I could have never imagined as, like, an 18 year-old at Grinnell,” said Vark. “You know, living in Grinnell, which is a small town. Something I could have never dreamed of. But I'm really lucky that I found a spot for myself, and feel really at home doing music in Iowa.”
Pictoria Vark is IPR's Artist of the Month for April. "The Parts I Dread" comes out April 8, 2022. It's available for pre-order at Get Better Records. Learn more about the Artist of the Month series here.