Ivan Mairesse, known musically as Sagittaire, recorded his new album in Oakland. (Photo by Marissa Leitman)

Ivan Mairesse, a singer-songwriter who recorded his new album in Oakland, has translated his musical obsessions into a winning debut record spearheaded by breezy, upbeat tracks bolstered by dark lyrics and haunting vocals, recalling early works by The Byrds and other musical heroes hailing from the Golden State.

Mairesse (“muh-ress”), known musically as Sagittaire, was living in San Francisco when he experienced a creative outburst over the past few years, a fertile period in which he wrote, recorded, and sang dozens of songs. The first batch of tracks, recorded in and near downtown Oakland, can be found in his strong new album, Lovely Music, which was released in early July.

He moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles last year but the Bay Area remains close to his heart. Mairesse is a survivor of the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, in which 36 people died. He said he doesn’t like to talk publicly about the tragic blaze these days, but memories of it has fueled some of his songwriting in recent years.

Local News Matters recently chatted with Sagittaire by phone and email. Below is a Q&A based on those conversations, in which he discussed his Bay Area years and his new album Lovely Music, among other things. The Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Los Angeles on the cusp of Koreatown and Hancock Park. It’s an urban area; essentially, it’s in Hollywood. I went to the school on the west side of L.A., so I got the flavor of both of those sides. The west and east sides of L.A. — they are very different flavors. I had one foot on both sides of town. Now, I’m living in the northeast part of town, near Eagle Rock and Silverlake.

How did you end up in the Bay Area?

I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin, and then I moved to San Francisco because I had some good friends there. I stayed in S.F. for eight years. I lived in the same apartment there; the top floor of a beautiful house in Precita Park, not far from the Mission District. I had a great place, it was a good setup. I didn’t want to leave that beautiful neighborhood.

Why the name Sagittaire?

I didn’t know I was going to use that name. I didn’t really have a name for that project. I was kind of a late bloomer in deciding I wanted to play music. I was 25 when I started recording a bunch of songs. Now, I have a pretty big back catalog. But I still needed a name, so I was at a flea market and saw a matchbox that said Sagittaire. It might sound a little pretentious; it’s a little esoteric maybe. I told a friend about using it for a side project. I’m also a Sagittarius and I grew up speaking French because my dad is French and speaks it. I liked the way the matchbox looked. It’s an alter ego, and my last name Mairesse can be difficult to pronounce.

Did you write and sing all the songs on your album?

Oh, yeah. I sang them all, and I wrote them all. I didn’t know how to sing when I started, really. It’s taken a while to get comfortable with singing; it’s been a slow gradual process. These songs on this album, called Lovely Music, came out of a larger batch that I wrote and recorded. I was going to the studio every day to write. I came out with 20 songs, and then I split them into two. Lovely Music sounds pop and simple. I have another one that’s darker and more experimental.

Who are your collaborators?

My engineer, Jason Kick, is very involved in the process. He did some of the harmonies on some of the songs. We did all the recordings in Oakland. For this batch, we did most of it in downtown Oakland in a studio called Tunnel Vision. It wasn’t a typical studio, it’s kind of like in a basement. I came in with the demo versions, three songs that were done with a live band; while the other tracks were studio creations. I recorded a little bit also at a studio called Santo Recording Studio, a great studio close to downtown Oakland. I recorded a lot in Santo. It’s fantastic. We worked in both studios. I bounced around between them.

What instruments do you play?

I write on piano or guitar and then I’ll typically have my engineer play a bass line for me. I typically come in with an idea for a song, knowing what I want the drums to sound like and what I want a song to do from Point A to Point B. Sometimes, it’s simpler than that. Other times, we bring in more elements.

You seem to be prolific songwriter. What inspires you to create?

I was a big fan of music from a young age. I was monomaniacal; obsessed with music for so long. In a way, it scared me.

It scared you?

Well, I used to write reviews and I worked as a DJ. But I realized it wasn’t enough for me. I realized I want to make records. I didn’t have the confidence to do my own stuff. I was a more of a consumer and a fan. Writing songs, that’s the consummate way of going about it. That’s the relationship I want with music. That light bulb went on, and it makes me happy. I want to do a little bit (of writing and playing music) every day. Every time you do it it’s different, it’s always challenging. I was timid about sharing it, at first. But I got obsessed with recording.

Why do you think you’re so obsessed with music?

It’s my way of examining myself and my relationship with the world and with other people. And there’s a bit of enjoying the process of creating without the connection of my inner self. It’s about the love of music, playing with melody and challenging myself to write interesting stuff. With these recordings, I was basically throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck. I approached the lyrics as if they were journal entries and just put a lot of work into the songs without knowing they would be released. I just tried to be dedicated and let myself see what came out of it. I want to get my songs out there.

Where do your best ideas come from?

I’ve learned to not overthink it, to just let it come. That’s when the best stuff arrives. The stuff I end up liking the most was not labored over too much, it came from a certain place I can’t really describe. It just comes to you and it feels right. I still do go through periods where I rewrite incessantly. There was one song where I’ve had 50 different lyric drafts. Sometimes I’m in a hole and I can’t get out, and other times it just comes easily and quickly. Sometimes you have to just keep at it to get that perfect line. Other times, it just spills out of you. It’s a combination of the two. The more time I put in at the studio and write songs as if it’s a part of my day, I’m less precious. I’ve let go of that. Being a bit loose and allowing my own personality and not being so calculating is better for the songs, whether it’s stream-of-consciousness or having more humor or just being myself. I think that’s a better way to do it.

When I hear your music, I think of The Byrds or Belle & Sebastian. Who are your musical heroes and influences?

I wanted to combine that 1960s and ‘70s California pop sound — like The Byrds and Van Dyke Parks, and even mid-period Fleetwood Mac — with weird effects and unusual guitar sounds. I don’t like bands that lazily do a retro thing. I like having one foot in new production style and one foot in the past. These songs on the album are pretty straightforward but I also like to include adding certain noisy elements to offset the melodies, to go against the prettiness. I like to have a bit of a conflict going on. I want there to be a bit of a rupture, to make them more interesting and give them a bit of the darkness. I want there to be a little bit of dissonance that gives them a layer of complexity. I’m a big fan of Robert Wyatt, who came out of the band Soft Machine, who were in the same music scene as the early incarnation of Pink Floyd and other bands who combined jazz with pop music. He always found a way to combine melody with experimentation. And even people like Bryan Eno or John Cale and Arthur Russell — they each had one foot in pop and one foot in avant-garde music. I’m really influenced by Jim O’Rourke, who produced the Wilco record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He did what I tried to do on this album: combine something familiar with something odd, making pop songs with a little eccentric quality. That’s the continuum or tradition that was inspiring and influential to me when I was a kid, just as much as pop music. I’m always trying to combine those two if I can.

I love the natural contrast your songs have: melodic and breezy tunes with dark lyrics sung in a haunting voice. Was that intentional?

I don’t know if it’s intentional. I think it depends on the song. I definitely always want there to be conflict. I want to have a melody combined with words that maybe make you do a double take; have some lyrics that reveal vulnerability in the way I sing. I like music that can almost be uncomfortable. In these songs, I definitely pushed myself to sing in a way that was vulnerable for me.

The production of those songs is especially clean. Who deserves credit for that?

The engineer, Jason Kick. I would say we co-produced it. He has good ideas. Shout out to him because he was my main collaborator. We worked on these songs for five years or so. We’d bring in a drummer like my friend like John Wujzick. He played drums and percussion on pretty much all the songs. Mark Ashworth played bass on a couple of songs. Jason and I did a lot of overdubs. We spent lots of hours working on these songs. On some songs, we tore them apart and totally redid them. One became a completely different song after we rebuilt it from the ground up. That takes months of work.

How do you release an album and connect with audiences during a deadly global pandemic?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It feels weird promoting my own music right now. It’s something I’m trying to figure out. I want to say something about my place — like a lot of people have been doing, it’s important to self-examine and note the privilege you have. You can still make art that is important to you. It can be political or maybe not directly political but still reflect certain obvious political issues.

You’ve discussed being a survivor of the fatal Ghost Ship fire. How has that tragic experience influenced you — personally and musically?

Well, they’re intertwined in a way. All but one of the songs on this album were written after that happened. Part of me didn’t know how to deal with it. I kept writing songs, and they became like journal entries. It made me take a pause from life because it was a jolt. I was shocked and needed to reflect on everything. It was a wakeup call to be more serious about what I was doing in my life. I began writing a lot after that. These songs are sonic journal entries of where I was at that time. At the same time, I wouldn’t say the songs are fully autobiographical. I want to take elements of the experience and mix it into stories, where there are characters and it’s not so literal.

What’s next for you?

I’ll put out this album and I want to put out a second, full-length album in October of this year. I want to let go of these songs. They’ve already been sitting for a year or more. And I have a new set of material I’d like to record but recording right now is — well, everything is up in the air (because of COVID-19). I really hope I can tour at some point. I’m going to keep making albums, if it’s possible. It can be difficult to share your music, going out on a limb and presenting yourself to the world. For me, that’s a challenge and it’s time for me to face it. That’s the only thing that I want to do right now. But, it’s also a weird time to do that. It’s a dark time and I’m definitely concerned with the state of the world and the direction this country is going in. As for me, I’m always writing, and I plan to keep trying different things and keep growing as an artist.