“I was on the last flight out of Paris. That was eleven months ago,” recalled Romanian-American musician and filmmaker Ingrid Serban. “It’s been quiet. I spent a lot of time alone with nowhere to go other than where my bicycle or my feet took me. I wrote songs, talked to crows, discovered ruins and baked bread. I was sad a lot and laughed some too. I dreamed dreams and wrote more songs.”
Serban arrived in Ireland on a Sunday evening. The following morning, she ventured out to buy necessities: a bicycle, food, a keyboard; by the afternoon, the world was in lockdown. After two years traveling with a home base in Paris, preceded by two decades as a staple member of San Francisco’s community of artists and filmmakers, the culture shock of a rural Irish village in the middle of a once-in-a-generation pandemic would become a uniquely isolating experience.
“Rural Ireland felt like an inspiration desert. Not having the external stimuli I had grown accustomed to, my psyche turned on itself and began unraveling the inner landscape. I had begun a meditation practice about a decade before in San Francisco. It made sense to find the quiet within with all the city ruckus but what do you do when the outside is quiet and the inside is raging?"
She found the answer in music — a medium she’d known intimately since her formative years growing up in Transylvania, Romania, but one which she’d primarily experienced through the lens of other writers’ songs. While singing and playing instruments had been an integral part of her life since childhood, it took the mental quietude of isolation to lead Serban to her own musical voice.
In 2018, she kept up a busy travel schedule filming pieces for her ongoing documentary film project, Strigoi: The Real Vampires of Transylvania, but in her off hours, she found herself adjusting to enormous personal changes. Healing from the end of a marriage, she was oceans away from the community she’d spent the past two decades building up around herself in California.
In the lonely spaces, she began to hear whispers of what would become a poignant songwriter’s catalogue, delving into the experiences which shaped her world -- from bittersweet odes to the pangs of love, to grief and the acceptance of loss. Over time, those harmonic journeys would pull together threads of disparate experiences, turning Serban’s unique perspective on the world into a rich tapestry of sound.
“I wrote my first proper song three years ago in Paris,” she recollected. “A Pleyel piano crowded the tiny living room of the Airbnb I was living in. Next door, a baby cried incessantly. I waited by a phone that never rang. Leaves was born.”
Her journey to solo artistry took an impressively roundabout trek, resulting in a musical point-of-view which is as multifaceted as the artist herself. Serban’s musical education began at age 6 when she was allowed to enter a music school in Romania. Under the oppressive communist regime which controlled the country until the revolutions of 1989, individualism was seen as a threat to the ruling ideals, which made for a unique environment in which to learn a discipline that relies heavily on creativity.
“There was one narrative and everyone had to speak it,” she recalled. “Personal freedom was a foreign concept, something that would land you in jail or worse. This mentality was so deeply embedded in people's minds that it manifested itself in the small things like when a child could learn to play the piano. We were a people constantly afraid and that's how we were controlled for decades.”
When she wrote her first composition at age 11, a fully fledged piano number penciled in on staff paper, she presented it to her music teacher for approval only to be crushed when they told her the piece was overwrought and mediocre.
It would take years of life experience to unlearn the ugly lessons of that time. In the interim, Serban’s innate creativity expressed itself in covert hours spent in quiet rooms listening to the whispers of clandestine radio broadcasts from Radio Free Europe as well as in imaginative moments stolen from the otherwise regimented schedule of her childhood during brief visits to her grandmother’s house.
Pictured: (Top to Bottom) My Paris by Ingrid Serban, Ingrid with her camera, ‘Singing to a flower’ - Ingrid singing in her native Transylvania as a child, Ingrid receives a star at a film festival in Kansas
Years later, the imagination and love forged in those spaces would take melodic shape in Grandma’s House, the first track listed on Spotify under Serban’s name. While she’d spent a decade touring with her former partner, a folk and country singer based in Northern California, Grandma’s House was Serban’s first lone step into the limelight as a singer-songwriter.
The breezy track marries soft bluegrass harmonies with lyrics that tell the story of her bond with her grandmother, from childhood summers spent together to her grandmother’s home being transformed into a church after her passing.
“The stories of my youth seep out into my art. They’ve carved me into a spiritual person with an insatiable curiosity and predilection to connect the dots,” she explains.
Much like Serban herself, the track would feel at home on stage in rural Kentucky, at a house concert in the hills of Northern California, or sung in solitude among the flowers outside of the song’s namesake in Transylvania.
Prior to her move to Paris, she cultivated a dynamic skill set in directing, acting, and filmmaking, earning accolades as a director on productions like the 2019 feature documentary, Free Trip to Egypt. “Film is my passion, music is my medicine,” explained Serban, when asked about how she balances her creative energy between the two disciplines. “Making a movie is a long, arduous, complex and team-driven achievement. Music is a solitary exploration.”
And ultimately, that medicine would become a vital piece of the healing process as she sought to build a new life for herself: first in Paris, and then in the Irish countryside. “Paris is well-suited to being alone. You can lose yourself in it and no one would ever notice you,” she mused. “I wrote a song on a stranger’s piano. I wrote another standing on the bridge on La Seine, another in the middle of the night when all hope felt lost. My songs came to save me.”
As she began to develop her voice as a songwriter, Serban found that tapping into the wonder and fascination music held for her as a child was a winning strategy. “Music is a language, and like a toddler without a filter, I feel like I have a lot to say,” she explains.
Column 1: ‘With my California redwoods’, Grandma’s Church by Ingrid Serban, a photo of Ingrid’s Grandmother in Romania, Column 2: Moored by Ingrid Serban, Ingrid sings live on stage - photo by Sterling Munksgard Photography, ‘My favorite statue on the planet Earth,’ by Ingrid Serban, Column 3: ‘Just another elf’ - photo by Beowulf Sheehan, The Road to Grandma by Ingrid Serban, Moonlight by Ingrid Serban.
That playful, childlike lens became a crucial part of her process, allowing her to dance between lyrics and melodies without self-judgment and criticism holding her back. “Self-judgement has no room in this process,” she says. “I’ve played this musical game long enough to recognize the futility of the inner critic. It has to be a child’s game or it’s dead.”
Over the course of her time in Paris, she began to build up the courage to share her songs. “It took a while for me to start performing my own music,” she recalls. “What if my songs weren’t good enough? Would people laugh? Would these songs reveal too much about me?” But when she worked up the courage to play for audiences, inviting her friends and supporters to join her for intimate online concerts, she found a new source of connection to the love and support of the community she’d physically left behind in California.
But in March of 2020, the world turned upside-down. In that new reality, Serban found herself in an unfamiliar kind of quiet. Rural Ireland, while peaceful, presented a new set of challenges. “I had no one to talk to other than the mailman who only began talking to me a month after my arrival. I missed my Parisian Sunday routine where I would go to a different museum each week and pop into the farmer’s market for fresh produce. Not to mention my life in San Francisco, my friends and my artist community!”
In the hushed landscape, Serban learned to find joy in the smallest details. “The treasures here aren’t as evident to me as they are in Northern California where majestic wilderness and raw beauty reign, nor are my immediate surroundings as visually stimulating as a Parisian street,” she explains. “That said, finding a centuries-old ruin or a flower that blooms all year round become as precious as a marble sculpture or a Californian coyote in the wild.”
As she struggled to adjust to her solitary vigil, waiting for change during a seemingly never-ending pandemic, she turned back to music, relying on the skills she first began to learn in the Monastery-turned-Music-School in Transylvania.
“The joy of having learned and developed my musical skills comes to life fully through using them. It’s like choosing the colors you want to wear on a particular day,” she reflects. “When I’m in a world-conquering mood, I dig into some heavy brass and tempestuous piano chords. Some days I can feel the parallel universes converging so then I choose ethereal sounds, strange unidentifiable sonic textures and musical non sequiturs. Other times, when I end up inside the delicate chambers of my soul, the music follows suit with gentle explorations and soothing harmonies.”
She also found inspiration in the timeworn textures of her surroundings, tapping into the primal beauty of the rough-hewn Irish coastline.
“Music is my first language. Music is humanity’s first language. We first spoke in sounds and then we went cerebral,” she explains. “When I travel to a new place, I search for origins. whether they be in song or story. I let them permeate my being so I can understand who was here before me and how I fit in. Each environment has its own sound print; wind against hills, leaves against trees, silenced ruins against skies, water against shore, stones against the ground and the creatures crawling through it all. At one point all of these frequencies converge into one sound and one story, but before this nirvana-like state, one must explore and travel through the unique identity of each of these sounds and stories.”
Pictured: Touch the Water, Feel the Beyond by Ingrid Serban
On a recent Thursday evening, she plugged in her headphones, carefully adjusting her laptop and phone so that each could capture the moment. Outside a nearby window, a single purple flower bloomed; a moment of color in the otherwise uniformly green and grey landscape -- a solitary blossom which would be immortalized as a lyric in one of Serban’s first songs as an independent artist.
At the stroke of 8:00 pm, she took a deep breath and hit the Live buttons on Facebook and Instagram, opening up her living room to an audience as diverse as the stamps in her passport. Despite the globe-spanning distance, as she played three of her original songs and told a story about one of the experiences which inspired them, the show felt intimate. One of Serban’s key talents as a performer is a kind of charming accessibility which gives each member of the audience, no matter how far away, the feeling that for the few minutes of the show, they are sitting right next to her, paying a social call and reminiscing over steaming cups of tea.
As she sings, her clear, gossamer vocals complement the melodies of her piano. The whole performance, to an outside observer, feels as natural as watching a fish swim in the sea. In the way a ballerina makes the complex athleticism of dance look easy and light, Serban’s natural grace and charm mask the years of rigorous technical training and hours of practice leading up to each concert.
After twenty minutes, the songs are over and she ends the Live session. The veil of harmonic magic dissipates, in the words of an Irish folk song, like ‘fairy gifts gone in the sky.’ Serban slowly eases down from the pique of nerves and excitement which precede each concert. Reflecting on the journey that brought her this far and the music which has given her a new voice, she thinks, “I am grateful for my life then and now because it's made me, me.”
Pictured: Sometimes I’m Happy by Ingrid Serban