On her debut solo album, Reef Walker, Rosa Bordallo weaves in her experience emigrating from Guam to New York City, and her Chamoru roots.
Throughout her life and career, Rosa Bordallo has been grappling with a myriad of existential questions that come with emigrating from one’s homeland: Where is home to me now? How can I contribute to my homeland while being so far away? Will I ever belong anywhere? These are questions whose answers, like the tides of her beloved country, the Pacific Island of Guam, change with the passing of time.
After emigrating to New York City from the Mariana Islands Archipelago, these questions have become central to Bordallo’s work as a solo musician. As part of the CHamoru indigenous community on her native island, creating music has also played an integral part in dealing with complicated intergenerational traumas that come with almost 500 years of colonization and displacement, while also finding ways to tell the stories of her relationship with her community and honoring her ancestors.
Bordallo’s first solo album, Reef Walker, distills her experiences in a fresh, new way by intermingling stories from her childhood upbringing with observational tales of the lives of others in a metropolis like New York. Bordallo manages to touch upon themes that are as personal as they are universal: loss, devastation, transcendence, and, ultimately, hope. With fuzzed out guitars, baroque instruments, a punk attitude, and heart wrenching emotionality, Bordallo is finally telling her story in her own words.
You emigrated from Guam to New York City when you were 19 years old. How have you dealt with that distance from your homeland, and how has that shaped your identity as part of a diaspora?
My senior year of high school I found out I was pregnant and decided to keep the baby because my mom and my dad were both supportive. The father of my baby was also supportive. I was torn because I had already gotten accepted to NYU to study film, but I made the decision to keep my baby knowing that it would be raised by an entire family. I took a year off to have my baby, and made sure that my mom was a primary caretaker as well. And then I came here. For the next four years, the entire time I was in college, my son was being raised by my parents.
After I graduated, [my son] moved here and I raised him. So, this entire experience has been the central driving force. I knew that I wanted to raise my son here, which meant that coming out of college, I needed to find work. I wanted to put down roots. My son just started college himself, so this is a point that I’ve been working towards. I knew that I would raise my son first, and then after that I would have more flexibility to pursue music or try other things out. So, dealing with that, I’ve tried to put all my focus on surviving in New York, because it’s such an expensive city. So I haven’t gotten to fly back home very often. It’s been every few years, and it really became hard in the last 10 years.
I question why I’m here all the time, because I’m spending all this time and effort to be here when I could be back in Guam, not only spending time with my family, but contributing to life there. It hasn’t been easy, but I also understand that there’s a lot of universality to my experience, and that there’s a lot of people, especially my generation, who are experiencing this— leaving their homes for opportunities elsewhere.
Reef Walker is your first solo album under your own name, and it’s a very personal work inspired by all of your life experiences. What was the lyric writing process?
For this album, I started to write songs that were stories of what I was observing in life and that weren’t necessarily personal to me. So, a song like “Hoarders of New York” is more about me observing how, because it’s such an expensive city and there are a lot of middle and working class people, it’s a wheel of fortune. You just feel like on any given day you could lose it all, and one disorder that arises from that is hoarding. The song itself doesn’t really talk about the practice of hoarding, but I think it expresses the emotional truth behind it.
There’s elements where I try to paint a picture. But sometimes I write lyrics that don’t have a story and they just pop into my head. I’m just trying to identify the emotional truth behind what I’m feeling from the music.
This album was also inspired by the recent deaths of your father and grandfather. How did writing Reef Walker help you through the grieving process?
Making music is therapeutic for me. I have a therapist and try to advocate for people with mental illness, but music is just one form of therapy. I’m also a person who is not very emotional in real life. I try to keep that very well hidden. Not so much my emotions, but when I’m really feeling, observing, thinking; these are all my private thoughts and I am mostly an introvert. So, music is a way to access a side of myself that is not accessible to other people.
Throughout Reef Walker, you move through psych rock, folk, and even a little post-punk. Part of this comes from your collaborations with producer Duane Lauginiger. Can you tell us about the process of recording the album?
A big reason why this album exists in the way that it exists is because I found Duane Lauginiger’s work. He has his own band called Birds, and they’re a psych rock, garage rock band. I reached out to Duane because I found his music online and I really liked the sound, and then I realized it was recorded here in Brooklyn, in a place called Time Castle. And then I found out that Time Castle is his label, and he had been recording bands in his house. So, it was super DIY, and that’s really what I look for. When we made “To Mariana,” for example, it was his idea to use these kind of baroque instruments. Duane will come to the song, he’ll have all these ideas at once, and it’s just a matter of letting him do his thing, and follow the path of inspiration.
Can you tell us about the gear that you used to record the album?
The album was recorded at three locations: Time Castle, a private residence in Piermont, NY, and a converted church in Craryville, NY. I played my guitar, a 1970s Univox Hi-Flier Phase 4 and others provided by Duane. He also used a 1965 Silvertone Epiphone ET-270, a 1960s Harmony Stratotone, and a 1960s Eko 400. Our guitarist, Donn Denniston, used a 1992 Mexican Fender Telecaster modified with Rio Grande Dirty Harry pickups and a Bigsby vibrato unit, among other gear.
Two of your grungiest songs, “Sleight of Hand” and “Citadel,” are both about love and different types of deception. Can you tell us more about what was going through your head when writing those songs?
When I started writing “Sleight of Hand,” I used to deliver it in a bluesy way. I wanted it to be deliberately sparse, and just guitar the entire way. There’s actually a song that inspired me, PJ Harvey’s “Ecstasy.” It’s a really stripped down rock song and it’s all about her voice; it becomes this instrument that is just strange and unique. So, while I was writing this song, I think that’s what inspired the lyrics. I wanted something kind of sexy and real, but what I found afterwards is that “Sleight of Hand” works both ways. At first I wrote it thinking that I could talk about a guy that is an unreliable person; the sleight of hand is the trick that they do when they just want to drop off the face of the Earth and not deal with you. Then I thought, well, I’m singing the song, and sleight of hand is also the singer’s trick. It didn’t occur to me until later that it’s fitting. By the end of the song, I’m saying that you’re gone because I want you gone. I can do a magic trick, too. So, that’s just me appreciating the ambiguity of lyrics.
“Citadel” was a much more angry song. It started from a mood and an emotion. As I was teasing out the song, I realized that this is really my frustration at the systems that oppress us. I was mad at the 2008 financial crisis. I think if there’s any specific topic that inspired that song, that’s what was on my mind at the time. It was so bad, and thinking about it 10 years later, nothing has been really done. If anything, it’s gotten worse. That’s where that anger started, but this is a criticism of so much. It’s not just this particular crisis, it’s this entire system. Now, when I sing the song, I think about settler colonialism, about the history of genocide that this country is built on.
The last song on your album, “See You in the Afterlife (No Longer Set Apart by Language),” contains lyrics in CHamoru Fino’håya. How important was it to you to include the language of your elders and your ancestors?
Music is my response to trauma and hardship. A lot of my trauma is intergenerational, and that’s just the experience of, it’s safe to say, all indigenous people. We all have this experience of trying to deal with traumas that are personal, but [also] trying to come to terms with trauma that has been passed [down] by previous generations. I like that that is the end of the song, and then it goes into the next one, which is me singing to my homeland, and to the memory of it. It’s a circular thing, and I think it’s interesting because if you’re an average Westerner, you hear an album and there’s a beginning and an end. Just the concept of it being circular is already subverting that idea. I like to subvert the convention of something a bit, of things you just take for granted. For me, my album never ends. It’s circular, and you’re supposed to hear it over and over.