For Premium Rat, writing and recording a debut EP brings unexpected moments of clarity.
The Ypsilanti indie rock singer-songwriter finds truth and comfort while addressing deeply buried emotions on Cope, a poignant six-track introspection, dropping on Friday.
“Making and releasing Cope has honestly been one of the most therapeutic experiences of my life. It’s funny, one of the reasons I named it ‘Cope’ is because the EP itself helped me cope with certain things, so it’s kind of meta in a way,” said Mer Rey, aka Premium Rat.
“Songwriting is absolutely something I use for reflection and processing, and sometimes I’ll write a song and figure out what it’s about after it’s written. It’s like I can access my emotions with a certain clarity when I’m songwriting that I don’t have otherwise.”
Premium Rat extracts her raw Cope vulnerabilities from a myriad of places – drug store parking lots, internal acknowledgements, post-breakup analyses and crystalized memories. Each track is beautifully wrapped in confessional lyrics, melancholic soundscapes and cathartic instrumentation.
“It’s very honest, and we live in a society that does not prioritize emotional honesty. So it’s, of course, nerve-wracking and very vulnerable to release these songs, but I think that’s also why it feels important to me,” Rey said.
“I want my music to make people feel less alone and to give them permission to feel their feelings. If even one person feels comforted or validated by what I’ve written, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”
Cope also pushes Premium Rat to tackle toxic externalities that impact daily survival and progress. It’s a curative way to purge the negative emotions they absorb and store over time.
“We are living in late-stage capitalism, where global unrest is rising and climate catastrophe looms ever more present – not to mention in the global pandemic – so shit is hard. I identify as an anarchist, and so I have a lot more political songs that will definitely be on later projects,” Rey said.
“For this EP, I just wanted to honor the fact that everything is really difficult right now and just surviving is a challenge. I want listeners to hear all the raw, unhealthy ways that I’ve been coping and understand that whatever they’re doing to cope is OK, that we’re all just humans trying to make it to the next day.”
As part of her therapeutic Cope journey, Premium Rat confronts the unhealthy behavior of avoidance on “Hide, Not Seek.” Rhythmic drums, vibrating cymbals, fuzzy electric guitars and thoughtful bass shield them from mounting internal struggles and negative outside forces.
Premium Rat sings, “If my body is a vessel/I’ve got no more to hold/But a can of gasoline/To set fire to the overflow.”
“I’ve had high-functioning depression for a long time, so I’ve really mastered the art of performing stability for other people, even the people I’m closest to. Writing this song was a step in the process of acknowledging that I do that and trying to work on that,” she said.
“Since it is about creating this imaginary world where everything is fine while the world burns down around you, I thought it would be cool if the song sounded fun and upbeat, but if you read the lyrics, it’s actually quite depressing. That’s why I included the last chorus to give the listener a chance to actually listen to the lyrics.”
Premium Rat also will debut a new video for “Hide, Not Seek” on Friday. Filmed by Lee Hubbel, it will feature performance clips that reflect the track’s emotive theme and feel.
“I wanted the video to be fun because the song is so upbeat, so the cuts are fast-paced and the performance settings are sort of funny,” they said.
“The idea is that I’m singing the song in unusual or silly environments, like in a bathtub with clothes or in the middle of snowy woods wearing a short dress, to represent my state of mind in ignoring the world around me.”
Determined synths, clobbering drums, smashing cymbals, rapid bass and tough electric guitars provide instant relief and long-awaited emotional freedom. It’s like Premium Rat collaborated with Phoebe Bridgers and Kim Wilde to create the ultimate take-charge song bursting with synth pop and new wave sensibilities.
She sings, “I wish I’d never shown you vindicated/Can’t scream it in the car anymore, I hate it/A viscerality I never anticipated/Flashbacks to the way you manipulated.”
“I wrote the lyrics to ‘Vindicated’ after I experienced exactly what it says in the first verse. ‘Vindicated’ by Dashboard Confessional, which had been a song my ex and I used to listen together all the time, came on in the car, and I had to turn it off because it was bringing up memories I didn’t want to dwell on,” said Rey, who also released a lyric video for “Vindicated.”
“In my head, ‘Vindicated’ exists to be screamed in the car while driving like 100 mph down an empty road. The production really helped give it that sort of manic energy that I think matches the emotional buildup of the lyrics.”
Premium Rat quickly transitions from warp-speed vindication to isolated, wistful reflections on “Deathwish.” Somber acoustic guitar immerses them while singing, “Sometimes I go for a drive/Even when I have nowhere to go/And I don’t put my seat belt on/The sensors yell relentlessly that I’m in danger/There’s something about the sound, feels so calm.”
“It’s set within the mundane activities of everyday life and talks about how hard it can be just to maintain your physical body and keep yourself alive day to day. I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation throughout my life, and this song touches on the sort of passive version of that, where I’m not making plans or anything, but I’m also not gonna go out of my way to stay alive,” Rey said.
“That mindset is with me pretty much all the time and admitting that was hard, but important. I’m working on trying to take better care of myself, and writing this track was definitely a part of that process.”
Learning to Cope
Premium Rat spent seven months writing, recording and producing Cope in her home studio. They played, arranged and produced everything themselves with the exception of Chris adding bass to “Hide, Not Seek.”
“Since this is my first real project and it’s so personal to me, it was really freeing to do it all myself and have complete control over every decision. I am definitely a bit of a control freak, but I’m all really insecure about my music, so working with other people can be terrifying,” Rey said.
“I’m working on getting over that, but for this first project, it was really fun to just try to figure it all out myself. I hadn’t ever produced before, so learning in the process of making this EP was quite a rewarding challenge.”
Premium Rat’s initial discovery of music dates back to her childhood in Norwalk, Connecticut. Her musician father and music-loving mother introduced her to a variety of music, including Audioslave, Foo Fighters and The Beatles.
“I tried to pick up the guitar when I was about 11, but my hands were too small, so I properly started playing at 15. I’m self-taught, so I learned my first song, ‘You Belong with Me’ by Taylor Swift, by watching a YouTube tutorial. Then, from there, (I) just used Ultimate Guitar tabs for everything,” Rey said.
Learning guitar also helped Premium Rat develop a deep appreciation for the personalized, multi-genre sounds and lyrics of Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers.
“Phoebe, in particular, always mixes her vocals really upfront, so the words take center stage and everything else enhances that,” Rey said. “As a lyrically focused songwriter, artists like Phoebe have been huge inspirations to me in figuring out how to build these rich, emotional tapestries using production to complement the lyrics.”
By 2013, Premium Rat attended the University of Michigan to study sociology and women’s studies. Those academic pursuits inspired them to cultivate a sound that fosters connection and empathy between people with different experiences.
“During my time in college, I played a lot of open mics and jammed with people, but I actually had a period where I wasn’t writing very much because I was getting in my head a lot, “said Rey, who graduated from U-M in 2016.
“I would start to write a song, decide I didn’t like it and never finish it. This continued after college as well, and looking back, I think it’s because I wasn’t fully in touch with who I was.”
Six months after the pandemic hit, Premium Rat quit her job, changed her friend group and started identifying and organizing as an anarchist.
“I finally felt like I knew who I was and what I believed, and suddenly songs were coming faster to me than I could write them down,” Rey said. “I definitely became a better singer and musician during those years leading up to 2020, but I’m so glad I’m not holding myself back anymore.”
In 2021, Premium Rat released their sorrowful, winter-theme debut single, “don’t give up on me (demo),” which features raw acoustic guitars, tranquil synths and delicate violin interspersed with heartfelt vocals.
“I’ve struggled with depression for over a decade, so a lot of my music touches on that sadness that’s permeated my life. I was just sitting on the floor of my living room, playing my guitar, and I really liked the melancholy sound of those chords,” said Rey, whose artist moniker comes from her love of rats.
“I remember there had been a snowstorm a few days before, and I had had a conversation with a friend about how beautiful the snow was, and it made me sad that I just couldn’t look at it like that.”
With Cope hitting streaming platforms tomorrow, Premium Rat will celebrate its release with a March 3 livestream show on Instagram. They’re also working on a full-length debut album, which will expand on the new EP and include cousin Sam as co-producer.
“I’m not sure when we’ll finish it, so far we’re only a few songs in, but I’m kind of letting it go at its own pace. Certainly expect more live drums, guitars and synths, but I’m honestly not sure where the production will go,” Rey said.
“Thematically, it continues to dive into things I struggle with in my personal life, building on what the EP has to say about mental health and relationships, but it will also get into topics like my childhood, gender and queer identity, and feature more political songs that flesh out my perspective on the world around me and how I believe things need to change.”