By Jed Gottlieb
Plenty of kids build makeshift drum kits. But the story behind Brittany Tsewole’s kit has its own unique charm. Born in Lowell, Tsewole — who makes music as Senseless Optimism — spent a lot of her life overseas because of her parents’ work. In 2014, barely a teenager, Tsewole constructed her kit out of boxes, a deflated basketball, pillows and a kick pedal while living in Sri Lanka and falling hard for heavy metal and hardcore.
“I just started playing to Black Sabbath and Bad Brains and Nirvana and kind of learned how to drum from them,” she said. “Then I started to write and sing, learning off of YouTube.”
An American kid obsessed with Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and living in Sri Lanka doesn’t have a lot of other options outside of YouTube tutorials and basketball drums if they want to learn the craft of rock ’n’ roll. When Tsewole returned to Massachusetts — she just graduated from University of Massachusetts Lowell — she learned guitar and founded the rock band the Seawolves. But the pandemic forced her into a radical shift a year ago.
Senseless Optimism releases new single “Why?” on Friday. It sounds nothing like Ozzy screaming “Paranoid.” Instead, the song features dreamy production, jazzy guitar, a buoyant melody and darkly introspective lyrics. Downtempo, sung in a sort of sublime whisper and absolutely hypnotic, “Why?” captivates the ears, heart and mind.
“When I moved back to this country, I thought I’d be a rockin’ musician, a hardcore musician, but then I started to write, well, I don’t want to say light songs, but they are certainly light compared to what I listen to,” she said with a laugh. “I suddenly had different goals for writing. Now I really try to get that juxtaposition between light and dreamy with lyrics that are a little heavy.”
The shift came from a few places: heartbreak, missing much of her still-overseas family, and the fact that the pandemic made it impossible to gather with others and crank the amps. Alone and writing and recording from home, she produced a series of demos that she eventually sent to producer Dan Nicklin at Henley Row Studios in Stoneham.
“During my finals week, I somehow managed to write, record and mix 10 different demos and send them to Dan,” she said. “Even in school full time and working a part-time job, music has always been the top priority. Sometimes it was classes from noon to 3, work from 4 to 9, and then working on music from 9 until sometimes 5 a.m.”
Done with school, with an armful of demos and more songs coming from writing sessions with Nicklin, Tsewole should have plenty of time and tracks to keep her music as her top priority. Listening to her home-recorded songs from the past year, you can hear her hushed-but-intense, breezy-but-wise aesthetic in every tune.
“I think my songs are coming from a deep place. It’s very hard for me to write surface level stuff,” she said. “‘Why?’ was something hard and heavy on my brain. … It came out of an imploded relationship and I think Dan heard the rawness of those emotions in the song. Now Dan and I are working on creating an EP out of the best songs I’ve ever written.”