Growing up as a woman, you’re constantly told that your wedding will be the happiest day of your life. It’s the ultimate marker of your youth and allure, the moment you’ve achieved stability and have proven that - thank god - you’re desirable to a man. But as many of us know, if it’s lasting happiness, fulfillment, and understanding that you really want, it’s usually wiser to bet on yourself.
Raye Zaragoza’s Hold That Spirit is an album rooted in this realization. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has always made political folk music that is informed by her identity as a woman of mixed Indigenous, Asian and Latina heritage. She gained recognition in 2016 with “In The River,” which was written to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. When she performed a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR, she spoke and sang about making live music more economically accessible. And, she currently writes the music for Netflix's Spirit Rangers, a show featuring an all Native American writers room and cast.
As she approached 30 last year, Zaragoza started thinking specifically about the expectations placed on women as they age: what they should have achieved in their careers, the nuclear families they are expected to pursue and nurture, the way that beauty standards and ageism collude to make it more and more difficult to be seen. 29 was also the year Zaragoza got engaged and, soon after,, ended her relationship. After the engagement ended, she used what would have been her wedding budget to fund part of the production of her new album. As much as it was a practical decision, it was also one rife with symbolism: Zaragoza was investing in herself.
There’s an enduring sense of agency to these songs, which pull from buoyant indie pop like Japanese Breakfast and contemplative folk like Joni Mitchell. On tracks like the soaring pop opener “Joy Revolution,” which was a collaboration with fellow LA-based activist-artist MILCK, Zaragoza acknowledges that a big part of achieving happiness is choosing to be happy rather than waiting for your life to be perfect or feeling like you have to earn comfort and ease. She uses this album to claim joy that has always rightfully been hers and to actively mold herself into her own role model. As she says on galloping country track “Sweetheart,” “I don’t want to be a woman, crying on the floor at night. I don’t want to keep on searching for the day I feel alright.”
A feminist undercurrent unifies these songs. Meditative folk ballad “Strong Woman” was written as a commission for a friend’s daughter, but also more broadly celebrates a world led and built by women. “Not A Monster” candidly addresses Zaragoza’s eating disorder. And “Garden” grapples with all the unfair expectations placed on women as they age. Zaragoza also worked with exclusively female collaborators on the project, a rarity in an industry where less than 5% of production/engineering credits go to women. She feels that working with women allowed her the emotional safety to fully process the pain of her breakup and to make honest art about her life.
“It’s easy for me to be vulnerable with a female collaborator even the first time I meet her,” she says. “A lot of these sessions were 3 hours of us talking and therapizing before we started writing. This album is so much about what it feels like to be a woman leaving the “prime of your 20s” and processing what it means to get older, which is something which men don’t experience in the same way.”
She also felt like the songwriting process was communal, less a process of telling her specific story than one of finding ways to connect with her collaborators and share stories that resonated with all of them. For example, she worked with fellow songwriter of Indigenous heritage Hayley McLean on “Still Here,” a track about owning her culture as a woman of Akimel O'otham descent and acknowledging how Indigenous people exist in all facets of society. “The Native community in LA has been a huge part of my life since I moved here at 14,” she says. “Indigenous artists aren’t played on the radio or given space in mainstream publications enough, so I do what I can to be as proud as I can and pave the way for other artists too.” She hopes the sense of community she fostered while writing these songs shines through and, in turn, helps listeners feel less alone.
Hold That Spirit is a nuanced, complicated album because it is rooted in Zaragoza’s specific hardships, from her anxiety to her fraught relationship with work to her heartbreak, but it also looks outward and finds solace in people who have a shared understanding of those experiences. By leaning on those who make her feel seen and supported as she ventured into the world alone, she was able to remain defiantly optimistic, and inspire us all to do the same, too.