Samuel Proffitt’s new EP, Good Death, is the embodiment of introspection. The musician is currently working on a PhD at Brown University for Slavic Studies, and, as he describes in the interview below, he actively incorporates his research into his music. It may sound dense, but in reality, Good Death flutters weightlessly. Every moment is filled with purpose, if not universally apparent, at least for Proffitt himself—he describes it as an exploration of death, trauma, memory, and ultimately self-fragmentation. Read more about what he had to say about the EP, Russia, and a Good Death book below.

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What constitutes a “good death”?

Good Death grew out of an exploration of a lot of the things that had happened to me over the past five, almost six years. It explores death, both in literal and metaphorical ways, and how a lot of times when you’re dealing with these things, it is very difficult to see death as anything but malevolent, evil, bad, or a destructive force. I wanted to move on to see what grew out of that destruction.

So, it’s not speaking necessarily about death, but rather, life after death.

The death had to be there for there to be anything to come after. So a lot of it is about how much I’ve changed because of death and how my ability or inability to cope with death has changed me so much as a person that it also feels like my old self has died. You have these connections, these feelings, these ties to the past. You have this memory, but while you know this exists, there is no more emotional physical connection to it anymore.

Were you ever explicitly speaking of death?

No, I don’t really like to approach things too head-on. Every EP is a story. The last three have all been five songs, the general structure of the intro, interlude, outro, with its own story arc. ‘Last Days’ was a demo I wrote maybe six years ago. About nine months ago I took it to one of my frequent collaborators Josh Jacobson and then to Phil Petersen, who is this Grammy-nominated, incredible orchestrator. I asked them to perform it live and to just go with what they were feeling with it. So it’s taking something very old from a long time ago, [created by] that person I don’t feel the slightest connection with anymore (author’s note: himself), introducing new people from my life now into that mix, and turning it into something else—this piece of music has stood the test of time.

The other thing in terms of death and growth: the beginning and the end of the EP both start with and end with piano recordings from the practice room up here at Brown. I wanted to keep that continuity, where it begins with an iPhone recording and ends with an iPhone recording. Both of those were signifying deaths of very significant relationships that I had, that obviously ended.

Different relationship, though?

Correct. Yeah, this is spanning...the intro I wrote I think, maybe three years ago, And then ‘Sweetpeas’, I think I finished that just a couple months ago. I like to channel what I’ve done, what I’ve researched, what I’ve taught—I started very heavily in philosophy and literature, I do a lot with contemporary art, film, photography—into what I do with this. It’s not as clear on the surface, it’s more something you have to dig into.

You shared the story behind ‘Sweetpeas’, which on the surface—and correct me if I’m wrong—was a happy memory of meeting your ex in a snowstorm. It seems like an oxymoron on a release so focused on finality.

When I had that experience, it was something that was just so powerful that even after everything had ended, and everything had ended pretty abruptly and suddenly, it had still lingered. And so when I went to record, both ‘4:17’ and ‘Sweetpeas’, I improv’ed the whole thing. I sat down at the piano in the practice room one night, I turned my iPhone on record, and then I just played what I felt. It was more that even after this death…I still get chills. I can almost like picture that moment in my head because there was something that was just so pure and so passionate and so loving and amazing about it that it helped transcend all of the pain and anguish and anger, and all of these negative feelings that are constantly swirling around in our heads. It’s a triumphant end in a way, but the reason that I have it cut out so abruptly and go directly into the iPhone recording is that I want to show that the reason it’s so triumphant and it’s so big and it’s so powerful is because it is linked directly to a memory. And being able to somehow try to take hold of that memory at that certain point in time after everything was dead and gone that made it that much sweeter. I don’t think, besides the original ‘In Flames’, that every time I listen [to any of my other music], I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time.

And you wrote it.

And I wrote it. It’s very weird. Usually I don’t like listening to the things that I’ve written. [laughs] That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, when people are at a party like, “hey man, let’s listen to some of your stuff,” and I’m like, “it’s going to make everyone very sad, this is a terrible idea, let’s not do this please.” [laughs] And then they’re like, “no no no, we got this,” and then they put it on and they’re like, “ok yeah you were right.”

That’s common though—most artists don’t like to interact with what they’ve done after the fact.

Yeah, which is why I think that particular song is so special. The person who co-produced it with me, Mike Freeman, Oldboymin, he is a CS student at Brown and I think I was his TA in Russian when he came up and said, “I’ve seen your stuff on Spotify and the articles you’re in, your stuff is really great.” So I agreed to work on something together and we clicked so fast. I’ve never really worked with people in person besides maybe Josh Jacobson, but the way that Mike and I were able to understand what we both wanted out of this and the way that he was able to push past a lot of my hindrances to move toward something much bigger than myself—I think that’s the reason why for me it has the staying power that it does.

I heard that you wrote the songs on the new EP in St. Petersburg.

Some of them I did. I’ve lived in Russia many times. I usually spend at least three months a year there. The songs are really from all over—some I wrote in Canada when I lived there, some I wrote in Texas, some I wrote in Providence, some I wrote in Petersburg. It’s pretty all over the place—I travel a lot. When I’m in Petersburg I write a ton; when I’m there I get a lot of time to myself. When I’m in the States, I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are tethered to different parts of my past. Once I am able to remove myself from that, it’s a complete transformation of everything: the way that you communicate, the way that you live, the people that you interact with, and at literally the most basic—the scenery. It’s a powerful muse for me.

How you feel about the villainization of Russia in our culture right now?

So the last song on Grey Notebook was called 'Глубина (Depth)', which I did with this incredible artist, Naadia [Наадя]. I really wanted people to understand that things are not monolithic. People are so complex, cultures are so complex. Equating people with their government? None of us want that! Think about if everyone thought, “ok so you’re from the US, so you love Trump” or “you’re from the US, so you are the same as Trump.” It’s absurd. To villainize an entire culture is only detrimental to our entire understanding of ourselves, because if we think that we can do one broadstroke over an entire people, then what are we saying about the people that we interact with around our own country?

You’re still studying Slavic Studies, right?

Right, I just finished my third year of my PhD. I originally started doing Russian literature, and now I focus on memory and photography, avant-garde film, and sometimes contemporary art. I do lots of translations for contemporary art museums in Russia and I do a lot of work on death and memory. So I try to incorporate everything together, whether it’s music or whether it’s my studies, they all have to be related to the thing that I’m passionate about: the way that memory changes people, the way that death changes people; these things that we think are static are not.

This stuff fascinates me. I remember the first time I was aware that we cannot trust memory—I found this beautifully formatted BBC expose about people who had confessed to a couple of murders, despite there being no evidence they did it and despite the conflict of the confessions themselves.

Memory is a very powerful thing. The power we give it can define us, especially in the way that you’re talking about. You can almost convince yourself of anything. I know who I used to be, but I can’t feel that way anymore, and it was a quest, a search to move beyond that that allowed me to revisit old songs like ‘You’ or ‘Last Days’. They are quite disparate but at the same time they’re all a part of this formation of a completely new person.

Is the music you create realer than your memories?

Yeah, probably. I was actually thinking about this the other day: my memory used to be much better. Or I think my memory used to be better but then I listened to the EP, and when I heard each song, I remembered the exact moment that I wrote it or the exact moment that I got the masters back. I feel exactly what I felt, and that was incredibly profound for me.

My mom called the other day and she was saying, “you’ve dealt with a lot of death in your life, more than the vast majority of people your age, so do you see this as cathartic?” and I don’t really see the process of the writing as very cathartic, but sometimes when I revisit these, it’s almost like a flashback of a feeling of the moment. The reasons that they’re sticking is because of the music, it’s not because of the memory—the memory is there because it was transcribed, because it was created in something that was more than just a memory.

You never studied music, and you say that writing is not necessarily cathartic for you, but the music must benefit you somehow.

Right, so the two things I care about in life, (well, the two things I care about that are just about me, that are not interpersonal relationships,) are the music that I write and what I study and research. Balancing the PhD and music is perfect because it allows me to grow, but also be very entrenched in something that I care about more passionately than anything. It’s just within music that I just have so much more that I’m able to say.

I wouldn’t be able to do one without the other. I need both. They both help me grow. And I think if I were to just do one or the other, I would feel stunted.

Have you ever considered dropping one?

Well, I’m gonna finish the PhD.

Oh right, duh.

I already have my Masters, I only have like two or three years left in the PhD. My research, my writing, none of that is going to disappear. But these opportunities that I have right now, because, especially with memory so volatile…Even in Undergrad, but especially here [at Brown], when I have an idea, I know that I have to force myself to stop everything else and just let it come, and then it turns into something bigger, which is exactly what I wanted. Music is definitely going to be the path that I take following the PhD, at least as long as I can make it work.

You are compiling a book, also called Good Death.

Yes, I am. I have all of the work compiled, I’m trying to build it out right now, which as you can imagine is quite difficult. The book is in the original language for everyone—it’s not translated because this is all about the universality of memory, and death and memory. It could be a photographer from Russia next to a poet from Lebanon, or an installation artist from Canada next to a graphic designer from Russia. I’m putting all of these together to show that yes, there are differences in cultures, there are differences in people, there are differences in language, but at the foundation we are all having to work through these traumas, work through the deaths, work through the way that our memory is changing and redefining who we are.

Are you contributing to it?

Yeah I do a lot of short story fragments and poetry fragments, some photography, just a lot of different things.

How is this book process different from creating music?

This is a hybrid between my PhD work and my music work. Both of them are driven by passion. If I’m writing an article, I’m writing it to make something that I’m proud of that’s a statement of who I am or what I’m feeling or some idea that I have that I think other people need to hear. And the reason that the book is also going to be titled Good Death is because it is in some way an extension of the EP. I was originally just going to do it with just my work but then last summer I was in Russia and hanging out with some artists there and each person that I told all said, “I want to be a part of this.” Their work is incredible and so after hearing this from like three or four different people I said, “okay, fuck it, this is bigger than me.” Obviously the music is personal to me and the book is also very personal but that’s why I want it to be universal, universally personal. It’s about a collection of people that have had to deal with a lot of different things, have had to work through a lot of things from a lot of cultural backgrounds, different languages, different educational backgrounds, to find their way to express who they have become in spite of and despite the trauma and death, whether literal or metaphorical that they’ve experienced.