BENKYO: A Song Study of Still Around

Issue No. 2: Intersections + Zenbu - September 2021 -------



ZEMBU’s song Still Around was released on her debut EP recall in March of 2020. ZEMBU’s words, vocals and music combine to share a hazy, enchanting and richly beautiful song inspired by a recurring dream of her mother (see the details in THE STORY).


1. THE SONG: ZEMBU’s Still Around

Here are two links where you can listen to Still Around.

Still Around | ZEMBU (you can buy the track for $1)

ZEMBU - Still Around (Official Audio) - YouTube

2. THE LYRICS



3. THE STORY

ZEMBU/Sarah Pumpian’s mother died by suicide when Sarah was fifteen. After her mother’s death, Sarah had a recurring dream where she’d find her mother still around


in West Seattle. “When she died, I would have this dream a lot. In the dream what happens is that I would find her again and it would just be this big mistake that she died and that it was just a miscommunication and that she was actually still here.”


In the first year after her mother’s death, this dream recurred often. Over time, it subsided until Sarah stopped having the dream altogether. Then, fast forward to ten years later in 2019, when Sarah had this dream three times in a single week as she was struggling to write the final song for her first EP.


“I was telling my partner, ‘It’s really interesting. I’m having this dream and it was so vivid and emotional and I would wake up crying.’ I was grateful to see her [Sarah’s mother] in my dreams, as I always am, and I was a little surprised that I was having this dream three times. After the third time I took it as a sign and a message from my mom that maybe this was the last song to write for the EP, because I was searching for it, and this was right in front of me.”


The combination of finding this song “right in front” of her and having such vivid dream imagery to draw from as inspiration, made its writing flow seamlessly. “It just really poured out of me. I loved the process of making this song.”


Breaking Down the Lyrics

The lyrics of Still Around narrate Sarah’s recurring dream while presenting an emotional arc that spans from the wonder of reconnecting with her absent beloved mother to the sorrow that comes in awakening to the reality of her loss intermingled with the gratitude for the supernatural reunion of mother and child.


Found out you’re still around

Still see it somehow your jet black hair and your mouth


Tree covered roads as a race back to you

What I would do, just see you in West Seattle


The first lines of the song describe the dreamscape: her mother’s defining features—her jet black hair and the shape of her mouth—and the landscape of West Seattle, her mother’s home during the final year of her life. “It was really the last chapter. Especially around her death and the latter part of her life, a lot is tied up in West Seattle for me.”


She said, she said, she said

8 more times

She said then she’s gone


Her mother’s words shaped the chorus of this song as Sarah remembers a quotation from her third dream, when her mother said she would only come eight more times and then she’s gone. “It almost felt like a cat having nine lives. It was so specific. Remembering this part of the dream.”


Wake up to find you’re still gone

Hate it every time but I don’t care savor through the night


The second verse describes the reality of loss. “I woke up crying still, ten years later, because it was so vivid and I hate having to acknowledge that she is gone yet again. But I’d do anything just to see her in my dreams, so I’ll just savor it and I’ll take it.”


Here I am now, writing on your guitar

Not the way it was supposed to be


Sarah’s mother had been a singer-songwriter herself. Sarah now has her mother’s guitar and writes with it--Still Around was written on her mother’s guitar.


Thought you had changed your mind

At least I’ll have you for this time


At the moment of awakening from the dream, when the division between what is real and dreamt is unclear, Sarah presents a haunting thought. In this confusing and beautiful moment she thinks her mother had changed her mind, undone her death, and come back. As Sarah remembers what happened and accepts reality, she appreciates this time she’s had with the vision of her mother through dreams.

4. THE MUSIC

The song came quickly once Sarah was at her mother’s guitar playing a basic chord progression. “The melody and the lyrics poured out on top of that.”


Watch ZEMBU/Sarah guide us through some of the stems--guitar, vocals and drums--that combine with a bass stem to create the “really dreamy and a little haunting” feel of Still Around.



Sarah took her chord progression to Ben Pasano of the band Corsicana, who co-produced the recall EP, and was “mostly responsible for the musical part of this song.” Ben made the original guitar “a more interesting chord progression.” Then, they added fazers, reverb and decay to layers of guitar. Next, they added electronic drums they called “bleep bloop blops” (that’s how they sound) and a bass line. “It’s pretty bare bones. It doesn’t have a lot of layers, which I love.”

5. LIVE

This stripped down, live site-specific performance of Still Around (in a super cool and creepy industrial space) was captured and curated as part of a digital series of music videos by Unwrapt.


Article written by Margaret Ozaki-Graves, edited by Courtney Ozaki.