Interview: Ela Orleans – we’ve been talking to the Dead Albatross Award winner about her new album
Ela Orleans has just released the follow-up to Tumult in Clouds, her 2013 album which was rightly honoured as the inaugural winner of the Dead Albatross Prize. Titled Upper Hell the new album is not only an intricate, intelligent listen that rewards repeated listens, but it’s also full of enough hooks such that those repeated listens are as far from a chore as it’s possible to get. In short, it’s a perfectly balanced album that’s totally won a place in our hearts and one that made our skooting off a few questions to Ela about it a must.
The clued in amongst you will know of Ela Orleans, of course. We’ve written about her and her “outsider pop meets cerebral electronica” sounds a few times here already, most notably when a couple of us caught her live in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago. But our association with her goes back further than that as we’ll explain anon. The important things about Ela, though, are that (a) she has a new album out on Howie B’s new imprint, and that (b) it’s brilliant. A conclusion not obviously drawn from our review of Upper Hell, but one that’s there if you look hard enough. The review’s a bit like Ela’s music in fact – it takes a bit of work to really connect with it and realise what its hidden meaning is.
It’s probably safe to say that Upper Hell is one of my top 3 most listened to things this year – and considering the brilliant year for music 2015s been so far (not to mention the amount of stuff I get sent as co-editor of this erstwhile organ) that’s quite impressive! So, following a brief chat at CAM’ 15 where we couldn’t do an interview (circumstances, dear people, circumstances) we decided to “do a mailer” instead, the results of which can be found below.
But first a few words from Howie B about Ela. Howie B, for the uninitiated, is a musician in his own right as well as a producer who’s worked with artists including: Björk, U2, Robbie Robertson, Elisa and Tricky amongst others. He also set up HB Records in 2013, shortly before he got to know Ela.
“I met Ela at a gig she did at Glad cafe in Glasgow in March 2014” Howie explained when he responded to my emailed question about how the two came together. What I liked about her music were the colours I could see. It was a breath of fresh air; somewhat salty with a tinge of pepper. I thought “that’s a good flavour to start with.””
But enough of the pre-amble – we want to hear what Ela has to say right? So here goes, after you’ve sampled the first single off the album, The Sky and the Ghost, which perfectly encapsulates everything I’ve been saying about Ela’s music so far.
Louder Than War: I was introduced to your work via the Dead Albatross Award which you won back in 2013 – I know we spoke a bit about why it meant so much to you to win the DAA as opposed to any other award (such as the Mercury Music Prize which the DAA is the only alternative to it which matters of course), can you explain again please for our readers? And who did you vote for this year? Was it the winner, Ibibio Sound Machine, (which I voted for)?
Ela Orleans: Receiving The Dead Albatross Music Prize was a very important moment in my music career, and also maybe in my life. Not only was I praised by people who in general I regard as musical authorities, but also its timing was absolutely perfect. I was at the time going through recovery from a physical trauma and a nervous breakdown and all the support I received through it made me believe in miracles. I shed many tears of pure happiness as I was getting used to the fact that I won it. I am now on Dead Albatross’s jury panel till the end my days, ha! It’s an honour and responsibility. Last year I voted for Mica Levy. Her soundtrack for “Under The Skin” is the work of pure beauty and I haven’t heard anything quite like that ever… (which scored a high spot in our albums of the year list 2014).
We saw you at CAM 15 last week of course – another inaugural edition of something great that’s had you front and centre! You’re obviously integral to all manner of “cool new music things”! You stood out on the bill as being the only non-Welsh participant so we were wondering how you came to be involved with Cam o’r Tywyllwch?
I was invited by a label based in Cardiff, called Peski Records. They have been playing my music a lot on their weekly experimental music radio show, ‘Cam o’r Tywyllwch’ which has since evolved into an art, literature and experimental music festival at the Wales Millennium Centre. In their invitation letter, they stated that they saw me as being an artist who was at the frontline of art and music experimentation. As they put it, I was for them “a perfect fit to a day of celebrating boundary pushing in sound”. It was an amazing experience to be there and everything – the place, curators, sound, the audience felt so right. I hope to be back, it was perfect.
“I am not comfortable being comfortable” – Ela Orleans
You’re new album’s just been released, Upper Hell, and early indications suggest it’s going to be another Dead Albatross Award contender! In what respects would you say Upper Hell is different to Tumult In Clouds and do you set out to make all your work different to its predecessors?
I am not sure if I really think about it that much. I do hate when art becomes the snake eating its own tail. I think my music grows and ages as much as I do. Personally I am not a particularly grounded and family-oriented person. I like movement and my nomadic, solitary life probably reflects in the music I make. Upper Hell was written and recorded in exactly the same way as my previous records, and then my new sound got expanded through the production process and mastering. It’s exciting to feel challenged and having to stand up to higher quality standards. I had to submit more immaculate material, which couldn’t hide behind any reverb or tremolo. It had to sound right when completely stripped from any effect or automation. I had to learn how to do it quickly. I didn’t get any help with recording. I can actually see how I am going to push it further, not sure where though. Stability is dangerous for art. I don’t want to get used to any particular way of work, I am not comfortable being comfortable. Today it’s all about the record and live show… in a few months I am going to start working on a symphony, which surely will have considerable influence on my musical perception and will certainly affect the following project.
Your 2014 reboot of Tumult In Clouds was released through your own Parental Guidance imprint (with the original having been released via Glasgow’s Clan Destine label) but this new album is on the legendary Howie B’s new label. How did that come about? Was it a tough decision to make – on the one hand I guess you’re relinquishing some of the control you have when you self release something, on the other you must feel honoured that someone like Howie B wants to release your music i guess.
Doing it myself on Parental Guidance was great, refreshing and empowering and I am definitely going back to that at some point soon. Pride is not a feeling I am particularly familiar with, but it definitely made me feel more confident and at peace about my skills as a recording artist, to know that someone I respect as a producer and also a musician is interested in investing in my art. It was the challenge of surrender which made the record sound different from the previous one.
But I was there in the room as things were happening and I was allowed to be a pain in the arse and I felt pretty head strong about every little stem of music and the way it sounded. So although I was working with someone else on it, in some ways I felt more power to create something I wanted by just explaining how I wanted it to sound. Howie knows what he is doing musically. He has respect for the sound which is there and a good feel for how to expand it. Artistically, I am very happy about this record and wouldn’t change a thing.
I do understand why artists want to keep all the control though, or prefer to produce their records themselves. There are always hard choices to be made when it comes to freedom of expression versus quality of the product.
Your music seems to have opposing sides to it, on the one hand it’s so rich and dense in content with many “high brow” references (The album’s inspired by Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and has been described as a “cerebral body of work”) but on the other hand it verges on the “pop” side of the coin (albeit a “tar-black pop” as our CAM 15 review pointed out.) Is this intentional and how much thought do you put into getting that balance right? And which comes first?
At first I thought, I should say “I don’t know”… But I do. The quiet and sombre and melancholic is first and remains solidly central. The movement, the rhythm, “pop” or “dance” come later. I can compare it to the pattern in situation; whenever I go to a dance party or any party in fact, it will take me a couple of drinks to shake off the shy and awkward. It will take some time… and once I can reach any level of madness it will go on and up and up, until i fall on my arse in the puddle of beer. The same process applies to music. And again, a glass or two or the bottle of wine comes in handy here as well.
“Lately all my tunes pop in my head while I am grocery shopping. Sometimes I have to put the basket down and hum a tune to my phone like a weirdo.” – Ela Orleans
Leading on from that question perhaps, how do you create your music? How do all the pieces come together?
Usually it starts with the certain sound of the keyboard or a chord. I often use echo or delay as a rhythmic guide, which helps to develop and place the patterns. Then comes the structure which usually is very simple regardless of the tone or mood I am planning to set for. The tune will kind of write itself once I have a sound bed for it. Then comes the more intricate part when I am filling in all the beats and drum sections. It’s all a very playful process really, but it gets extremely tiring and time consuming. Lately all my tunes pop in my head while I am grocery shopping. Sometimes I have to put the basket down and hum a tune to my phone like a weirdo. I am curious why it happens in the shops lately… maybe because it’s my only regular way of interacting with the outside world – bumping into people in Tesco lanes and asking a cashier for a plastic bag…
Can you tell us a bit about TRACT please, and what plans you have for TRACT going forwards?
I started to experiment with dance patterns once I switched from guitar and violin to synth and computer. In the beginning it was so different from anything I was doing that it sounded as if I had split personality… well, my music suggests, that’s the case. But as I kept flirting with rhythmic samples and acid ornaments, my other records would morph into something inbetween. I came up with a separate name TRACT for the specific genre – dance music.
Now however, after doing this record and working on a remix for Warp, I’m just not sure how to promote it under my own real name. I have a few friends who tried to change their name and every info I see about them is “Blah Blah – Former Blah Blah blah”. At certain stage it is difficult to separate from your ego. I am going to send TRACT to a few people, but I am prepared to do it myself and adopt that baby to the Ela Orleans family and spin people’s heads once again… As one of my favourite composers – Alban Berg said, “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.”
Time for a more playful question: tell us something about Ela Orleans that we probably don’t know already.
I was supposed to be a comedian. I have masters degree in theatre arts. But I quit my acting career while lying in the frog costume on the floor of one of the biggest TV studios in Poland. That was the other century… Good luck trying to find that program online.
Do you still stand by your tagline of trying to create “Movies for Ears”? How does a person go about creating music like that?
Oh yes. It’s the best tagline I ever got. It was adopted from the first review of my music by Polish music journalist Rafal Ksiezyk. He was describing ten participants of this music project called Sounds D curated by Markus Schmickler I was a part of. He wrote a brief description of every participating musician and called my sound “movies for ears”.
I constantly daydream, so the music I make is always going to be an illustration or projection of reality or state of my mind, or a memory, or illusion. I make visuals to accompany my live show out of found footage, illustrations, and paintings; pretty much at the same time as I work on music. I think my musical thinking comes from the visual perception. I find great cinema or fine art influencing my music way more than any record I have heard. Especially movies by Jean Pierre Melville, Fellini or Cassavettes or Wajda. Also, I love the editing part of music writing and I feel it is something I learned from filmmakers. To me, artistic execution comes to editing down and selecting what is, or is not, making the story more interesting and when I write music, there is the story to every little tune. There must be.
“I quit my acting career while lying in the frog costume on the floor of one of the biggest TV studios in Poland.” – Ela Orleans
You’ve collaborated with a lot of people, some of them pretty big names in the niche you inhabit, is this something you feel is important to your development as an artist? And is there anyone who you haven’t worked with yet who you’d really like to? Bjork (who Howie B’s also produced) seems like the most logical person for you to collaborate with to my mind, although Thurston Moore (who described Ela as “The Best Thing I’ve Heard All Year”) is someone else I’d be excited for you to work with!
I would rather work with JD Samson of Le Tigre or Ikonika or Ana Helder to be honest… Of all famous men I can think of, I wish I could work with Brian Eno, whom I absolutely adore. The closest I got to him was through the remix I did for his All Saints Records and Warp.
I am in the middle of talks with legendary electronic studio Fylkingen in Stockholm – society for experimental music, one of the world’s oldest societies of its kind (it was founded in 1933). I visited and played there last year and I think I drooled a bit while looking at their facilities and equipment. I got an informal invitation and encouragement to apply for residency there. If I can secure it, I will be the happiest person on earth. I am going to try.
Can you remember your first awareness of “music” as a thing, and how did you find out it was something you were so serious about that you wanted to do it as a career?
I’ve always been pretty sensitive to colours and sounds – the voice of my mom, the sound of the TV, electric appliances, and music… again played by my mom, played in church, radio, but also birds, cars, the sea, my dad’s garden in the summer… I think I started to be aware how musical the world was quite early. I became serious about music a few times, but the most important moment in my musical journey happened when I was chosen for the mentorship program organised by Broadcast Music Inc in New York called “Composing for the Screen” in 2009. I applied, convinced that I will not get it. They chose seven composers and I was one of them – the only woman and the only one who had no clue about composition. I had three weeks to learn everything. I took an online course of Logic software, listened and read Bach’s chorales, read Schoenberg, Hindemith and Kostka. I took a time off work and spent whole days and nights researching stuff I didn’t understand. Around the second week I got a fever and I thought I am losing my mind. I felt really high and I realised, this feeling is something I want to keep. This is when I realised that the song “All You Need Is Love” doesn’t apply to me at all, and is a bunch of bollocks. That all I need and MUST have is music. It became some sort of addiction, lifestyle, something I suddenly wasn’t able to be lazy about and something I would always put before the most attractive social affair. My final work for the program was ruthlessly slaughtered by my mentor, who grew really frustrated with my obsessive use of ostinato (a motif or phrase that persistently repeats). He told me to get out of my box and wasn’t very nice about it in the front of everybody in the room. I felt like crying. The final word however, belonged to David Shire (in my opinion – the king of all living film composers), who said, that he loves my box, and I should never try to impress my musician friends, but stick to my guns. Those words and my aforementioned fever, pushed me towards music most significantly.
I always throw this question in towards the end of interviews: who do you think we should be listening to now? preferably people we aren’t already listening to?
I highly recommend getting to know Glasgow based artist – Apostille, also Glasgow / London duo Sacred Paws are absolutely brilliant. London based Jam Money and Devon Loch are both fantastic new projects, who released two beautiful LPs recently.
My favourite DJ at the moment is Paul Ackroyd aka Kamikaze. His Mixcloud profile is full of gold and I’ve learned a lot from him.
I am little obsessed with paintings and illustrations by Aleksandra Waliszewska and I can’t get over how great director Bruno Dumont is.
I also have a weakness for “Awesome Tapes From Africa”, it is perhaps my favourite label out there and DJ sets from Brian Shimkovitz from ATFA are the maddest, most amazing sets I have ever heard… There are so many things to mention, I bet I missed something truly awesome and will be gutted that I didn’t mentioned it tomorrow.
And finally, what does the future hold in store Ela Orleans? Have you many live shows lined up and have you begun thinking of what your next recorded work yet?
Yes, I am playing a few festivals and shows all over Europe – UK, France, Sweden, Germany, Portugal and Spain. There will be a few more shows in UK in September. I will be at the Villette Sonique Festival in Paris in May, opening for “Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals”, then a few more, great festivals…
Music wise, I just got the new commission to write symphony for CAFKA in Toronto, for an exhibit featuring Donald Coxeter, a highly influential British / Canadian mathematician who was also a composer. It’s still early in the planning but the exhibit will pull in a performance by the KW Symphony, as well as elements of architecture, virtual reality, design and of course some geometry.
As for the records, I am working on the LP with the working tittle: “Let Me Introduce Myself”. As I am touring more and more it’s becoming essential to have some sort of “Best Of / Introduction to Ela Orleans” record… Actually Stephen McRobbie (from The Pastels) has been pushing me to do it for quite a while so I am going to try and do it. It will be eight most catchy songs I have ever written, reworked and revamped. And, speaking of the devil, there is an exciting project on the horizon called “Christmas with Pastels” 7” (Perhaps that will be the record which can buy us all the house, ha!).
TRACT 01 12” is kind of ready to go, There is another remix collaboration with this powerhouse I really like on a horizon (details to be revealed soon), disco / noise collaboration with Devon Loch (more than half of the record is already done) and last but not least – I will continue to work on the score for the newest documentary by Maja Borg, called “The Man”. I absolutely love working with Maja. She may be the most focused and thoughtful artist I have ever met. Her vision is so clear, it’s almost scary. I hope to join work on her movie with my experimentations at aforementioned Fylkingen as both Maja and Fylkingen are in Stockholm. It looks like 2017 will arrive before I know it.