When you hear Pom Pom Squad, you might picture a gaggle of matching teens, or a wry, sarcastic clan decked out in black; the reality is somewhere in between. Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Mia Berrin, the Brooklyn-based band unites punk inclinations with a raw, visceral vulnerability. It’s quiet grrrl punk reminiscent of Rilo Kiley, Mitski and PJ Harvey that would rather growl than yell.
Alongside Berrin, Pom Pom Squad features bassist Mari Alé Figeman, and drummer Shelby Keller. Hailing from a variety of different backgrounds — whether Keller’s jazz training or Berrin’s classic hip-hop and new wave upbringing — the group manages to be serious without taking themselves too seriously. It’s that balance of solemnity and whimsy that allows punk and tenderness to live side by side: chunky, distorted guitar on some tracks, and near-whisper on others; brash yells or tame, wry wit.
They first released the EP Hate It Here in 2017 and followed it up with “Heavy Heavy,” the first single off their most recent EP, Ow, which earned praise from the likes of Stereogum, High Snobiety, Paste and more. Berrin’s music reveals internal discord — she’s intent to cast off the “nice girl” narrative, and that means turning herself inside out to show that the inside isn’t so put-together after all.
Also integral to Berrin’s self-excoration is her existence as a queer woman of color, two identities that come with their own preconceived notions. With lyrics centering on mental health, abuse, trauma, and healing, Pom Pom Squad pursues radical self-acceptance through periodic self-exposure and self-undressing.
I met Kaina by shyly responding to her tweets for months before eventually DM-ing her. In an alternate timeline, we would have met in person for the first time playing AV Club’s SXSW showcase in 2020, but in this timeline we ended up in a long-distance friendship. If you ever get the pleasure of talking to Kaina, even over Zoom, you can feel her distinctive energy — a humble confidence and a rare kind of warmth that’s hard to describe. In the short span of our friendship thus far, she has given me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Her perspective is always unique, refreshing, and necessary. In this interview, we talk about beginnings, the value of gentleness, imposter syndrome, visuals, and an embarrassing thing I did at a party! Enjoy!
— Mia Berrin
Kaina: Age of nine, we both said, “Well, I want to be on a stage.”
Mia: Yeah, I wonder what that is. I wonder what that’s fueled by, because it did us pretty well.
Kaina: It worked out. I always feel like people say, “Did you always want to do this?” And I’m like, dude, I’m still trying to convince myself that this is real, you know?
Mia: I was about to say the same thing.
Kaina: Yeah! It’s just hard to… I didn’t wake up and say, “I was born to be a singer.” Now in retrospect, it made sense that I would land into this position because I did that for years, but I never thought that I would be making music as my career.
And it’s so funny. There’s this neighbor where my parents live across the street that we just call Grandpa, and I think he had clients and would do readings on people. I remember having a cool dancer boyfriend and saying “I’m going to be a dancer,” or whatever. And [Grandpa] said, “You’re going to be a singer. I see you singing on TV.” I was, I don’t know.. 17 or 18, at the time and I was like, “Fuck that, I have a dancer boyfriend. I’m going to be a dancer. We’re going to dance together. It’s going to be a dance career.” And now I think about him all the time, because it’s so funny that I ended up being a singer and a writer.
Mia: Yeah. Clearly, he knew something. That’s so interesting. I was thinking about this too recently. There was some interview with Taylor Swift, where she’s talking about how, when her mom was pregnant with her, she went to a psychic and the psychic was like, “You’re going to have a daughter, and everybody’s going to know her name.” And that fucking happened. There has to be some kind of… something.
I wanted to ask you, because I know we’re going to talk about visuals, and you talked about being nervous to be perceived again by the public — you were kind of joking, but I also agree. I guess what I was wondering is, if you feel like creating visuals around your music is an empowering experience?
Kaina: Hm. I don’t know yet. I feel like I have people where I think, Wow, I wish I could be like that. When I watch your videos Mia, I think, Mia knows exactly what she wants to do and what she wants it to look like. My brain doesn’t work like that yet, but I’m really trying to tap into that because I’ve never really tried to expand my brain in that way. But also being like, OK, clearly my brain doesn’t work this way, so let me try to work with friends who I trust.
I think now that my mindset is more, let me get inspired by visuals, I’m paying more attention to things that I like. I mostly think about it in fashion. I think about my mom, who dresses so amazing, and I think about Celia Cruz — that’s a fashion icon. I’m thinking about the way that I want to feel on stage a lot, how I want it to look, what I want to be wearing.
That’s why I always try to watch things that inspire me. I’ve been watching a ton of music videos to just be like: what does it look like? What are people doing? How have they created a world within their music? I think Teezo Touchdown has been super inspiring for me. He did this Pigeons and Planes interview where, instead of writing back the answers to questions, he filmed a little music video response. It’s mind blowing how every single element of his visuals are so thorough and truly him all the time. I feel that way about your visuals too, and Sen [Morimoto]’s visuals. The intent is so amazing to watch — how someone builds a little world for their music. I’m trying to think about upcoming music — how to build a world like that for myself too. I’m working on it.
Mia: Thank you for including me on the list of visual inspirations, that means a lot to me. You’re kind of molding clay around the project visually.
Kaina: Yeah. Yeah. I’m like, Oh, there’s clay to even mold! you know? I can express myself in many different ways.
It is fun. I think visuals will be a really important part of whatever I release next, because it’s just hard to cut through to people. I’m like, if I can’t play for you, if I haven’t played for you in two years, you haven’t seen my face, you haven’t felt my energy, we haven’t built something together. I’m definitely going into the next visuals I make trying to build a world that people can enter again.
Mia: We’ve talked a little about that, and I want to get into it a little more — I love the way that you’ve described bringing people into your music by providing a gentler energy.
I think especially with social media, there’s such an over-saturation of new music, and opinions, and information that it’s hard to parse out the emotional, human, connection. I also think, in all fairness, my brain has been short circuiting lately — I’m new to being a public persona, and pop culture was the universal language of my household growing up. We were always talking about what new movies came out and what new songs. We were always commentating on pop culture, commentating on new music, and commenting on press.
I made an idiot of myself at a party recently because I was talking about someone who, to me, was a capital-C celebrity — an abstract concept essentially, but to the person next to me was very, very real. I just looked like an idiot because to me, celebrity and press and industry has felt completely “other” for so long, you know? Now I feel like I’m contending with the facade and the reality. There’s also this kind of cult of, “If X person says it’s good, then it’s good. Period.” And nobody wants to be the person to question it or challenge it. Or ask if something is culturally relevant or if it’s just… you know… on the internet?
Kaina: It feels like a system, you know? It feels like this is the game. This is the process. To an extent, our job requires us to indulge into that. I didn’t grow up knowing these things — I feel like I’m terrible at movies, I’m terrible at actor names. I did not know who the fuck the Beatles were. That just was not my household. Pop culture was not a thing until I got older, until Disney channel and Raven and Hilary Duff, and then I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is fucking amazing. To an extent, I do feel really lucky that I just didn’t know about that stuff. because I don’t feel like it’s as relevant.
I feel like I had my moment that you’re having in 2019. That’s when my previous album came out, and things really became a serious career and write ups happened and whatever. I grew up in that time where I remember life before the internet and social media and I feel like it’s kind of lucky to have that experience. I’ve been talking to a lot of young people who grew up only with the internet and I see them online saying, “Oh, my god, so-and-so, didn’t write about me,” and I didn’t even know who so-and-so was until I released my album. I just feel really lucky that I had a lot of time to like, jam with my friends in high school, and that other stuff didn’t hold as much relevance in my life, you know? Even now, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t get sucked into that feeling of like, Oh, my gosh, I shouldn’t have made that comment about so-and-so. It’s like, everyone feels like there’s no room for critique, but it’s just untrue. You know, it’s like life and art is for critique. I try to not just blatantly talk shit about people, and I really try to do a good job of being thorough about why I might not like a piece of art. A concept that has helped me a lot to not be so worried about what I say to people when I’m trying to critique something is being like that’s cool that you’re close friends, but I don’t think that music was made for someone like me, you know?
I think that definitely happens a lot in the white indie world of the music industry, where there’s a lot of people that maybe want my attention or my space. And it’s never personal. It’s just that there’s a lot of whiteness in these spaces, you know? I already consume that all the time. So, it’s not really unfair for me to say, “I don’t like this project because it just didn’t speak to me — because it probably wasn’t made for me because it wasn’t made by someone who considers my life”. And I know music isn’t like that, but I just mean, like, of course it’s gonna feel different for different people.
I had a song about immigration on my last project, and the only YouTube review that’s up about it is like, “I thought this was going to be really cool, and then the first song is about immigration.” And I’m like, you know what? I don’t give a shit because you clearly are a white man and I did not write about this for you. It has nothing to do with you, so your opinion actually doesn’t matter to me. That thing you’re talking about, it’s just like, yes, I know I have a platform and I’m a public figure, but that doesn’t mean that I need to give up critiquing things or questioning things.
I think that’s why we make the music we do and where it comes from because we try to challenge what’s already set. So it’s not that wild to critique someone sometimes because I don’t want to kiss everyone’s ass. That’s just what it is. I’m getting older, I’m getting grumpier and I have less energy cause I need to give myself more than I previously had. I feel like I’ve been hurt by not giving myself the attention and energy to the right spaces and the right people, by trying to follow something that I thought would put me on. To an extent, I can’t indulge because it’s just not meant for me, you know? It’s a different experience for everyone to arrive there. I mean, sometimes you have to talk shit about people and that’s fine. We’re human and everyone talks shit. But, artists are critical about the art.
This is what your music does. It dismantles a certain perception of who is at the center. It’s not that crazy to be critiquing systems that tend to favor certain things, you know? And it’s not a diss at them. It’s just that, until the majority of people who aren’t all a certain kind of person are in those positions, then it won’t be really reflective of everything that a music community has to offer, or they might not get the perspective.
Mia: That’s really reassuring to hear you say and makes me feel a lot less stupid about the thing I said at that one party that one time.
Kaina: You shouldn’t give a shit. You probably had good reason, and if you didn’t, it’s fine. It’s just a critique. It’s not like the end of the world. People will always have something to say.
Mia: I definitely have the tendency to catastrophize and I think — you know, the scene in New York is pretty competitive in a lot of ways.
Kaina: I was going to say, it’s different too, because I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a city where there’s industry. Like in Chicago, we don’t have that. So, I bet it’s a different process. I bet there’s more politics involved.
Mia: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in an interesting way, because I was born on Long Island and my dad was always in and out of the city. Then I moved to Detroit when I was a kid — I had a really bad experience being in Detroit in public school, I was bullied pretty severely. We moved to Florida and I was bullied severely in public school there as well. Eventually I ended up in private school — like this prestigious Florida private school and it was a huge culture shock. It was pretty homogenous, overwhelming white.
I think that was where I learned to be competitive with other artists. Maybe I just have a competitive personality type, but when I was in school, I was in the theater program and people were unnecessarily cutthroat. And this was… high school theater. I felt this constant need to prove to other people that I deserved my place. I think I internalized that I need to be infallible. I assumed that if I did everything “right,” then no one could criticize me, which obviously is deluded and was a very naive way of seeing things. If there’s anything I’ve learned recently, it’s that anyone can and will criticize you for any reason they want. It doesn’t make it wrong or right.
I definitely hadn’t learned that lesson when I moved back to New York for acting. That was one of the darkest times in my life emotionally. The culture is basically, “if you don’t do it, someone else will,” So, essentially: don’t speak up, don’t tell anybody how you feel, just suck up and do the work and you’ll get jobs. It doesn’t surprise me at all that #MeToo really broke out in Hollywood first. So many industries are built on abuse of power. So many industries in the arts are built on abuse of power. With acting, you’re kind of selling yourself as a blank canvas to be projected on.
Kaina: I never thought about it that way.
Mia: I mean if you’re doing it with integrity, and coming into it with a level of self-possession, it doesn’t have to be — but I certainly wasn’t. I remember I had a friend — and it was kind of the moment that I knew I needed to get out — I was standing in the hallway and this girl that I knew said, “I would give up anything to be an actor.” She said, “I want to be a mother, but I would give up wanting to have a child. I would sleep with anyone, I would… ” on and on. I just thought to myself, I fucking would not! That’s not something I’m willing to do. And if that’s what I have to do to be in this industry, fuck that.
At that point I had just started playing live with a band for the first time and I was skipping classes, skipping my scene work to go play shows. When I transferred to music school, I fought tooth and nail for that education. I tried to absorb everything and really do it for myself, as opposed to for validation.
Kaina: I’ve had dark times too. I think it’s always been a community that helps me get back on track. I had worked with some people who basically made me feel like my voice didn’t matter and, like, they just exploited it. They were in a different life position than me. My name wasn’t on the project for years, and people would come up to me and say, “I didn’t realize you wrote that song,” and it crushed me because they were like my diary entries. It wasn’t until I met Sen and my friend Brian, that they both said, “Dude, you wrote this shit, this is your music, you need to rewire the way you think. Let’s put out this new shit.” I really feel like if it wasn’t for my community, that I probably would have stopped making music because of that experience.
My first time making music was so horrible in retrospect. And especially now that I’m older, if I ever had a mentee in that position, I would say, “We are absolutely not dealing with this, you need to leave the situation. You need to stop chasing people who clearly don’t give a shit about you, and resources don’t equate to care.” I feel in a similar way, I had gotten to a place where everyone said, “This is the thing that’s popping. Keep working with these people.” And it was mostly because they had money and I didn’t. I don’t come from a family with money.
It took all of this pain to be like, OK, people really prioritized their experiences. And of course, I got pushed to the side. Even now there are still people here in Chicago who think that I didn’t help produce that music, it’s so wild. But, you know, like I said, I think I just got so lucky that I had a good support system around me. But I struggled for a long time, and I still struggle with my self worth because we’re in an industry that teaches you that women are not at the center, that people who are non-men are not at the center, and there’s still a lot of unlearning to do. Even though I feel like I work with the best men possible, I still catch myself sometimes being like, Well, let me take the backseat, cause Sen can play every single fucking instrument, so like, why am I trying to do all this? But no, I know how to run my shit, I know how to run my vocals, I know how to mix my vocals better than anyone else. It’s just about taking inventory of those things. I am good at what I do and I want to do a better job at identifying the moments I feel empowered and reflecting on them, because I do feel like I still struggle because of this past incident.
I think it’s a consistent practice to say, “I don’t have to feed into this,” or “I can do this, but in my own way. These are [my] limits.” It’s hard to set boundaries, but I think that’s the most important thing, is just being like, “I’m not going to feel silly for critiquing something or someone. I’m not going to feed into pleasing people all the time.” It’s paid off. The last project I put out, it was just me and my manager and my friends, and it worked, you know, us making every single decision about how we would introduce things or put things out or create spaces and events. It worked. I feel like that taught me that I don’t have to follow everything to a T for it to work, you know? I want that for you too.
Mia: You’re totally, totally right, and that’s a really good point, I mean, obviously I also have anxiety, that’s rooted in that exact kind of people pleasing.
Kaina: Yeah. And you’re a cancer, and I’m a cancer rising, and a Pisces moon, and so I’m just emotions and feelings and people pleasing. And I really don’t want to leave this pandemic situation going back into losing myself to other people. I’ve seen what happens to me when I do that. I can’t do that anymore. I am such a people pleaser, so I get what you’re saying. I don’t want you to suffer in this way, because the music industry can be weird. We’re also people, we get to critique things. Everyone critiques them.
Mia: No, it’s true. Honestly, my bandmates and my fan community are constantly the ones who remind me that I’m allowed to take up space. Also, I was actually pleasantly surprised that in the press cycle for [Death of a Cheerleader] people did attribute the correct credits to me. That was extremely validating. I think in the beginning you kind of get essentialized down to certain things — like you’re just the singer. That kind of stuff always stuck with me — again it’s that thing where I feel like I have to prove myself to everyone.
I had a huge bout of insecurity when I was making the record. I really hesitated about asking to co-produce. We worked with Sarah Tudzin, and she’s a producer’s producer. It’s her job, it’s her career, aside from Illuminati Hotties. I studied production and engineering, I went to school for it, I put in the hours, and I did all the pre-production before we got into the studio together, but I still was like, Do I really deserve to take up that space? Did I do enough? And Sarah and I were sitting in my apartment, I think the last day she was about to go back to LA, and she said, “A lot of people ask for co-producer credit, but you really earned it.” And it was extremely validating for me. Obviously I have to work on validating myself in those moments.
Mia: It was really powerful to be told that to somebody who you respect so much.
Kaina: Your voice obviously matters. It’s your record. I feel the same. I think the pandemic has been a lesson in taking up space physically. Like, I have an apartment where I feel comfortable to roam. I feel like ever since I was a child, I would lock myself in a room because this is the only space I have to myself, and even when I moved out, I would be like, this is my only space. Moving into my own place has been great, I can lounge, I can exist, I can be.
I’ve been trying to also feel that way within music. It’s just nice. I feel that same support for my bandmates and my friends as well. I’m still learning how to say this: it feels uncomfortable, but “I am a producer,” and “I have dreams of executive producing.” I’m working on my friend’s album, and it’s been awesome. I don’t know, I talked to the person who does my press and is also just a great friend, her name is Danielle, and I was talking to her about this and she was like, “Dude, you should totally be in A&R one day, and you should totally executive produce.” And I was like “I’m not sure because I don’t know how to actually play an instrument or anything. I do feel like I’m an arranger. I can take sessions and I can rearrange a song.” and Danielle said, “Dude, do you know what executive producers do in LA? They’re just like old white dudes who say what’s good and what’s not good.” And I was like, are you kidding? That’s what people get executive producer credits for? I didn’t know that it was just like, sometimes men just go into a room and are like, “Nope.” And I’m like, I could do that, but I also do more than that, you know?
I was watching this Bee Gees documentary and I think the guy who produced the records where they sing in falsetto, he was talking about how there’s different types of producers and how some producers literally play everything and some producers just arrange shit. And it was so affirming to listen to that and be like, oh, Quincy Jones, just sometimes wrote parts and didn’t actually play things, or so-and-so just hires the musicians and they do all the work. And I was like, “Oh, I do that.” I can learn more and I will, but I already do that.
Mia: It’s the classic “you can’t be what you can’t see.” So if you only see producers that are white men who play all the instruments, tell everybody what to do, and run the board, you’re going to think, OK, well, I’m not a producer because I’m not a white man, I don’t play all the instruments, and I don’t run the board. But, that’s not all there is. There’s no one singular way to be involved with music on a technical level. There’s plenty that you can learn on your own if you have a GarageBand and Google and a computer. Do you need to know what a patch bay is to be a producer? No, you don’t because most people won’t even use a patch bay in their recording process anymore. It feels like you have to do all these mental gymnastics and check off all the boxes to even allow yourself to use the title “producer.” I still have trouble calling myself a musician, which I know is a crime.
Kaina: I mean, I have trouble calling myself a singer because I really don’t feel like that’s my strength as much as songwriting is. I feel comfortable saying I’m a songwriter.
Mia: Someone like you, I’m like KAINA is a singer. I would never hesitate to say KAINA is a singer.
Kaina: I always say, “I’m not a vocalist.” It’s so funny. I struggle with the same thing. Just learning. You need self-validation, but I feel like it reminds me of being a child sometimes when I feel that way. That’s the part of me that I’m trying to heal. There’s probably some inner child shit. I’ve learned so much from the harm that I’ve experienced on how I really want young people I think. If I can keep learning and keep growing, but also uplift people and not separate myself, then that would be the best thing that I can do in this situation. I’m trying to mold a lane for myself that has nothing to do with these set of rules that I don’t believe in. I want to also allow other people to teach me about things and that’s what mentorship is, that’s what lineage is, that’s how you build community. I feel like that’s been my experience in Chicago. Looking up to people who are older than me and idolizing them and then slowly becoming peers and then having a lot to teach each other.
Mia: I think that’s a part of the life cycle of art that needs to be acknowledged, I think if I would’ve known or seen anyone that looked like me when I was a teenager, I would’ve gone into this with a very different mindset. I really hope to be that person for someone else eventually.
Kaina: Me and Sen are Pom Pom Squad stans and I always tell everyone that. And I think now, if I had Mia when I was like 16, it would’ve changed my life.
Mia: That means the fucking world to me, truly.
Kaina: You’re just inspiring. There is like probably a 16 year old who will find your music and be like, holy fuck.
Mia: I’ve had a couple people express really beautiful and touching things to me in that vein. When I do feel like I’m trapped or like I’m running on the hamster wheel, I have to stop and force myself to think about what really matters, which is the 16 year old who is listening to this in their bedroom and needs it. It just gets to the heart of what music is. I have to think about what music is and why music is. I have been having those moments a lot lately — Why do I do this? Who do I do this for? And what do I do this for? And it always comes back to that.
Kaina: Yeah. And that’s why I feel like we’re shy about performing, even though it’s my favorite part. I remember one of the tours I did in 2019, I was opening up for Cuco and his audience was all Latinx kids. It was insane to play to a crowd every night where the majority were all young, Latina girls. That was just the most special feeling, looking into the crowd and seeing baby versions of myself, and then for people to come up to me and say, “I’ve never felt like I could engage in my Latina-ness,” “ I’ve never felt Latina enough” etc. That’s literally what I write about sometimes. So the stage is beautiful and realizing that music is a tool for what you were just talking about. That feeling of connection and feeling less alone in the world is just, it’s beautiful because it’s a mirror, you know, I needed that crowd as much as they might need me.
(Photo Credit: left, Sammy Ray Nelson; right, Dennis Elliott)