Recently nominated for “New Artist of the Year” at Boston Music Awards, local duo Optic Bloom reveals how their personal growth and history in the local music scene has led to their success. 

Neither Flowerthief nor Dephrase were looking forward to meeting one another. And without encouragement from their respective romantic partners, these solitary creators may never have began the project known as Optic Bloom.

“I dragged myself to Dan’s [Dephrase’s] studio to pick up my partner and was ready to be completely unimpressed,” explains lead vocalist Flowerthief. “Dan reluctantly played me some of his work and I was like oh… shit. This is actually genius level work,” they say.

Producer and keyboardist Dephrase felt similarly; “My immediate reaction when I heard Wren [Flowerthief] was ‘damn, this is different, and it fits.’ Before you know it, we were in the studio planting seeds, and 18 months later a beautiful space garden was born,” says Dephrase with a laugh. 

Those seeds that were sown blossomed into Space Garden, the duo’s upcoming album, which sounds like a hybrid of electronica, R&B, hip hop and pop. At times, the unique timbre of Flowerthierf’s voice and the clicks and snaps of Dephrase’s beats create a fog of gloom that feels like the “weird” darkness of Billie Eilish or Lorde. At others, like on “Movement,” there’s distorted, jerky electronica paired with loud demands, like the avant-pop rap of M.I.A.

We’re at Ugly Duck Studios, a cozy recording space co-owned by Dephrase, who as head producer/engineer works on vocal and beat production for many local artists. As we talk, it’s easy to understand what Dephrase means: there’s a feeling of cohesion and balance as the two answer my questions about their time as a band. 

Though Optic Bloom—as a duo—is relatively new to the local music scene, Dephrase has spent years working to build the network that prompted such a warm welcome. The addition of Flowerthief’s vocals helped him step out of the shadows of the lesser-known beat scene and into the spotlight. Or, as Dephrase explains: “There’s always been a scene for producers and that scene has almost never gotten love.” Dephrase also laid the foundation for their success through his time co-teaching at the Berklee Jazz Institute and both interning and working at the Bridge Sound and Stage in Cambridge, which led to an Optic Bloom gig opening for well-known local hip hop act STL GLD at the Oberon in February. (STL GLD’s Janos “The Arcitype” Fulop is one of the owners of the Bridge and mastered Optic Bloom’s Space Garden) The collaborations on the record also reflect the clout and connections Optic Bloom have built up over the last year: well-known local rappers like Latrell James, Cliff Notez and Oompa are featured, as well as horn player Alec Hutson (of the Drunk Monkeys and Alec Hutson Trio).

When I asked the duo to imagine their album as a physical space they described a terrarium, floating in space. In other words, a rework of the album’s title. And with good reason: Space Garden captures the growth of Optic Bloom—mapping out their maturation as a band sonically, reflecting their blossoming within the scene and displaying the evolution of their personal identities. 

“We both came out during this band and this record,” notes Dephrase. “Wren [Flowertheif] brought me around a lot of people who were queer and nice and open and sweet humans… I had had queer friends but had never seen a sort of community before and this was like the first time—sort of through our friendship and working together—that I was exposed to that,” he says. 

While Dephrase came to terms with his sexual identity, Flowerthief grappled with their gender identity: “A big catalyst for me was our very first show ever. We played at Thunder Road, and I hadn’t performed, where I was like, ‘this is me, I’m on a stage,’ for like a decade—since I was in high school.” The lineup featured black women who sang RnB, and as a result, Flowerthief felt there was an expectation to fulfill that identity: “I actually really freaked out and I didn’t know what was going on,” they explain. “I felt so uncomfortable. I just felt incredible dysphoria… all these people staring at me and projecting onto me that I’m a woman when I’m not.”

To combat these unspoken expectations, the duo began performing a song called “other girls” during every set. Over time the lyrics actually changed to reflect Flowerthief’s increasing certainty of their gender identity: “When I was first questioning my gender and wrote this song it was like: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’m even a girl / sometimes I wonder if they can see me under / can you see me at all?’” explains Flowerthief, “then it changed when I was solidified in my gender identity; it was like, ‘I used to wonder if I was even a girl / I wonder I wondered / can they see me under.’”

Perhaps the authentic selves that Optic Bloom present is part of the key to their success. As audience members, sometimes it’s easier to relate to musicians who are willing to live and wield their true selves. If anything is certain, it is that the duo’s ability to be genuine comes, in part, thanks to the visibility of local role models. As we discuss influences Flowerthief calls out the importance of local queer and Black artist representation: “Seeing Oompa and Billy Dean Thomas and Anjimile… being like: ‘Oh wow these people are all out here and really queer.’ That was inspirational for my identity as an artist. I can show people who I am and it’ll be okay.” 

Space Garden presents a more assertive vision and sound than Optic Bloom’s shakey Thunder Road beginnings, and it’s a reflection of the confidence and learnings that come with the work the artists have done to focus on their personal growth. As the duo continues to gain recognition within the local scene and beyond, it will soon be less a question of who inspired them, but instead, who will they inspire? 

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