Over the past few months we’ve heard no shortage of platitudes about the nation’s need for “soul-searching.” The ambiguous term is offered up as a necessary step in order to determine why hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from a preventable disease and Black people continue to be killed by agents of the state.
This kind of call for introspection can feel vague and inferior, particularly when it comes from politicians who have willfully ignored myriad warning signs.
But, according to Ivan Mairesse, soul-searching is a valuable practice. The Los Angeles-based musician who records under the moniker Sagittaire, says he’s had plenty of time to ruminate since the onset of the pandemic. In addition to pondering the chaotic state of the country, Mairesse’s thoughts have often returned to a more personal trauma.
In 2016, Mairesse and his friends barely escaped the deadly Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that ultimately claimed the lives of 36 people.
“This current situation feels very similar to me, because it has sort of caused me to pause and just reflect on everything,” says Mairesse, who lived in San Francisco for seven years before moving back to his native Los Angeles in 2019. “There has been a lot of stepping back again and confronting the possibility of mortality and having these things taken away from you without any say on your part. It definitely has me going back to that time in my life a lot.”
Mairesse, who recounted his harrowing experience in vivid detail for Billboard magazine, entered the now infamous Ghost Ship warehouse to watch a DJ set from his college friend, Joel Shanahan, who performs as Golden Donna. Roughly an hour after arriving, he noticed a strange smell—”like firecrackers”—and thick plumes of smoke. That was followed quickly by a mad rush of panicked partygoers desperately trying to get out.
Despite making peace with death at one point, Mairesse (along with his friends) miraculously managed to escape unharmed. It wasn’t until he was riding home on BART — clothes reeking of smoke — that he began to somewhat understand the magnitude of the event, but even then, he still had difficulty processing what he had witnessed.
“At the time, I really didn’t know what I was dealing with,” Mairesse says. “It wasn’t until later, when I started going to the studio to record music, that I basically began unpacking everything. I took these journal entries I had and transformed them into songs. I had not really acknowledged the fire directly until I started doing that.”
Mairesse had always been a prolific songwriter — he wrote and recorded 60 songs during his seven-year stint in San Francisco, but the post-Ghost Ship period of his life, from 2017 to 2019, is when he began truly finding his voice.
He will release a collection next week. The nine-song Lovely Music, Sagittaire’s official debut album, drops July 2 on his own imprint, Drury Lane. On the album, Mairesse directly confronts the horrors of the Ghost Ship fire and his reckoning with the aftermath. He gainfully faces the trauma of that night, by both carefully examining his pain and the revelations that it brought.
“That night really caused me to sort of look at myself more honestly,” Mairesse says. “I had to examine my relationship to people and the world and to just be more truthful about who I am.”
There is a persistent theme throughout Lovely Music — of facing calamity and moving on — be it completely healed or in a fractured state. On “Desert Shore,” Mairesse fills the last minute with the hopeful mantra of “I will disappear/And I will come back,” repeating the refrain over a wall of space rock white noise. In “Say Something Nice,” a jaunty ballad that recalls Shakedown Street-era Grateful Dead, Mairesse sings “Your family’s concerned about your wealth/And your health,” a candid reflection on unhealthy relationships that he has endured and is now ready to put in the past.
Underpinning those lyrics is a rich sonic landscape bathed in warm, buoyant sounds. Taking cues from the full-pinned studio magic of the Beatles’ later records, shifting desert breeziness of Los Angeles Paisley Underground bands, jangling melodies of C86 Britpop groups and playful psychedelia of glam rock legends T-Rex, Lovely Music represents an appreciation of those ambitious genres without feeling like a photocopied revival act.
Each track is a carousel of unique ideas, but there is an airiness about them that prevents Lovely Music from feeling overly dense or laden with too many moving parts. Like the accompanying lyrics, the music evinces both melancholy and triumph — the songs are major chord tapestries that feel disarming and unnerving, but ultimately hopeful.
Mairesse credited San Francisco producer Jason Kick with helping him create the fully realized sound of Lovely Music, which was composed in parts through overdubbed solo studio sessions and in live jams with local musicians. Working alongside Kick, Mairesse sought to create the “soft production” vibes found in ’70s pop songs, and he took particular inspiration from the avant-garde composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny, who was associated with the Lovely Music record label (which served as the inspiration for the album title.)
Mairesse is still working through the memories of the Ghost Ship, not only by reflecting on the fire through his creative outlets, but by also literally reliving the night. Last year, he testified in the trial of Ghost Ship tenant Derick Almena and co-defendant Max Harris. That trial triggered the memories anew in Mairesse and reminded him that he still has some healing ahead (a dichotomy mirrored in his music making — he says he has another album’s worth of material that is considerably darker than Lovely Music.)
Ultimately, Lovely Music shows that dealing with grief is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. You don’t wake up suddenly cured because you wrote a few ditties on your guitar. But it would seriously undermine the restorative power of art to say that dealing with those memories is not cathartic. There are important lessons to learn from Lovely Music for everyone dealing with the deeply unsettling feeling of the world at the moment.
“In many ways, the emotions I experienced following the fire were deeply personal, but they’re also these universal feelings we all face,” Mairesse says. “Confronting who you are, what’s truly important to you — I think we all ask these questions, particularly at this moment.”
We don’t need to have all the answers. But, as the music of Sagittaire suggests, just asking the right questions is a vital part of the healing process.