Ashley Paul: Interview
“Someone said that it helped them, as a member of the audience, to close their eyes, because it felt so intimate — like they shouldn’t be watching me.”
Café Oto is a live music venue in North East London. Although it is situated in the trendier borough of Hackney, it remains one of the only venues in the city that hosts avant-garde and experimental concerts on a semi-daily basis. In that respect, it’s a unique space, offering local and international artists a platform for exhibiting their work for an increasingly engaged and enthusiastic community of listeners who frequently pack out the café’s 150 or so capacity. I often attend, and when Brooklyn-based musician Ashley Paul came to play her debut UK show there, I took the opportunity to speak with her about touring her most recent album, the gorgeously jarring Line The Clouds.
Oto already boasts an intimate setting. The audience is permitted to sit or stand merely a few feet away from whatever makeshift setup the musicians assemble. On the evening of Paul’s concert, that intimacy was increased tenfold, due to the intricate and improvised nature of the sound she meticulously crafts. In support of Ilyas Ahmed, she played a fantastic half-hour set, an incredibly delicate and often disturbing performance that pushed the boundaries of high-frequency noise, but within a refined, acoustic context. The following day, I met Paul for coffee to discuss the personal feel of her sound, performances in the US and Europe, and her efforts with longtime collaborator Eli Keszler.
How does it feel to play in a venue like Oto, and how would you compare that to some of the places you might play back home?
It’s funny, because the longer you are in Brooklyn for, the more insular it seems. You know, from an outsider’s perspective, there is so much going on, but I think now that I have lived there for a couple of years, it seems like a very small, insular group of people that are really doing things. There are some interesting venues there though. I normally play at a place called “Barbes,” which has more of a jazz vibe, but they also have some experimental, crossover musicians in as well. There is a lot of crossover, particularly with the older, downtown New York scene. There is also this new place called “Silent Barn,” it’s kind of like a collective-run place — it feels like it belongs in Berlin or Providence even; it was just like this house, and I think the owners got a grant to turn transform it into a two-story venue with a garden, and it has artist studios in the back. But it has the feeling of a squat, which makes it one of the more interesting places to play in.
That must be particularly important for you. I mean, the sound of your album is very private and specific. How do you determine the right spaces to play in?
Well, it doesn’t really work in any of those spaces. I think the place that works best is The Stone. It’s a venue in New York, on the Lower East side, and it’s one of the most intimate. It’s like a really small theater, painted all-black with seating, and there isn’t a bar either — you just go to hear music there. It probably fits like a hundred people in there when it’s packed, but it’s great because you know the audience is there, purely for the music. These other places also sell drinks, and there is other stuff going on, and that isn’t my favorite situation to play in because the music I make isn’t necessarily background music.
You’ve acquired an exceptionally personal sound on the latest record. But as a listener, when you are playing the music back, you can find various entry points that can make you feel as though you are included in that somehow. But when the audience sees you live — and you close your eyes when you are playing — you’ve got the case like last night where even though people are a couple of feet in front of you, it seems that much more isolated.
You mean like, me from the audience?
Exactly! How does that feel from your perspective?
I got a comment last night, which was really quite interesting. Someone said that it helped them, as a member of the audience, to close their eyes, because it felt so intimate — like they shouldn’t be watching me. I think my music is very personal, so I don’t know how I expect it to be perceived by other people as much — but that was something I had not really thought about so much until recently.
Because of that personal component then, how does it feel when you perform with someone like Eli Keszler, when you have the chance to create a collaborative musical sphere?
Well it’s certainly different, it still has that intimate aspect, although the whole experience is less personal. When you are playing with other people, you are opening yourself up that much more, which automatically makes you more open to their styles and preferences. It’s strange but I guess I don’t feel the same kind of responsibility for the music, so the whole experience has more of a relaxed feel. I am more at ease going into it, because when I play solo, I feel like I really want each song to convey exactly what I have in mind. However, as a duo, there is less pressure. Also, the actual music we play has a different quality to it. When Eli and I play together, I still don’t know how to describe it, but I guess there is a different kind of intensity to the sounds we create — there is more of a propulsion to the music, particularly with the percussion. It’s also very different playing with him, because obviously we know each other so well. And at this point, between our personal relationship and the music, we have our own language. So it’s nice to have that — it feels very free to play together.
What would the set up look like, if you were playing a gig with Keszler — he’s obviously renowned for his percussion.
We have different types of setups — I mean, quite often I will play sax and clarinet, and maybe sing, and he’ll play drums, but then we have a more… I mean Eli has his motors and a guitar, and sometimes he will get a string instrument — he will build an instrument that might have some motors on the strings, and I’ll have either a guitar or I’ll sing, so when we have the full setup it’s more like our album. We will then move between the different tones, so like we’ll do very intense guitar pieces with saxophone, before switching to more experimental songs, and we’ll push the sound back and forth between those elements. There are also a lot more open drum sections with saxophone, or even drums with guitar and strings and motors and other kinds of weird scraping.
So because of that joint language you refereed to, as well as your artistic relationship, does that allow for a wider margin of experimentation when you are playing?
I think the fact that there are more sounds happening, allows for more freedom. Like, simply if I stopped playing, then Eli would still be making some noise, you know, so I think just even adding one person, that frees things up quite a bit. See the thing with my solo playing is that I will think about how to keep the sound full, and how to keep the flow going. The fact is that when I stop playing, there is silence, so I guess I want there to be more than just one voice, most of the time.
Where do these aesthetic preferences come from, then?
Well, I grew up with very classical, very conservative music in my house. I mean, we listened to a lot of jazz and opera, and all the standard classical repertoire. I wasn’t really exposed to any experimental music until I was around 19, when I moved to Boston and went to school, but I was always more intrigued by anything experimental.
I think that when I first started making music, I was like, wow, OK, there is all this experimental stuff out there. I was so excited by it, and I think for a number of years after that I was just taking in information. I think it was always really important for me to figure out my own voice — something that was truly mine. However, I had idols and role models as well, but I really wanted to be myself — that was the most important thing to me and so I think, by 25 I was beginning that process. By then, I was really able to start trying to figure it out — and I feel like I only just settled into that way of working in the last year and a half, or the last two years. I feel like my first few albums were working through the beginning stages. I made D.O.L. when I was like 26 or 27 and I listen to that record, and it feels like I am just settling into where I am now.
You were talking about progression through the different albums. How did you come to record Line The Clouds?
Well, I had just finished Slowboat, and I pretty much started working on Line The Clouds straight away. Slowboat took a long while for me to finish, and then it took a really long time for it to come out, and I think it was in a holding place for a while, and there was a lot of transition in my life. It was funny, because as soon as it did come out, I started working on the new album, but I had a real vision of it, not being like a song album at all — like totally being like composed, instrumental pieces with lots of saxophone. I think I was still very much accepting that the voice and the guitar had become more prominent in my sound, and in my mind when I started.
I really didn’t want that to be the case on this album, and I recorded a bunch of music that didn’t make it to Line The Clouds — I might end up releasing it as something else, but I started the album with this vision that actually it went in the opposite direction. I had the whole thing almost 90 percent complete and I thought I was going to record one more song after returning from Europe in October, and I got home and recorded like half of Line The Clouds — all of the most “song-y songs” on there. And it all happened really quickly; I still had all these other tracks that I had recorded, and I had like 60 or 65 minutes of material, and I was debating whether I should keep trying to piece it all together to make it work, until I realized that I like albums to feel like one thing, instead of separate tracks, so I just started taking songs out and working with different orders, and then it finally came to be what was released, which was a wonderful learning experience.
You also mentioned that you have been traveling a fair bit around Europe. Was that something you had done with previous album releases?
No, this is totally new for me.
How did that come about?
I guess I felt it was time to start traveling — I wanted to see more of the world, and I guess I wanted to play music all over the world. So I played in Europe last year, and that was the first set of shows where I was touring around and playing my own music. It was really great, and it was nice that I could go with friends. This time it was different because it is the first time I have traveled solo, which is also interesting.
And is that something you are enjoying?
So far it’s really good — I mean, I was really nervous about it, but I generally get nervous when I travel anyway. But it has been really cool to meet people everywhere — I think I prefer performing in Europe [to] in the U.S. at this point.
I’m really interested in the spaces that you use to perform your music. The one that you played in last night, for example, is completely unique.
Yeah, it seems like a very special place.
It is, but it seems like the sort of thing you have a lot more of back home?
Yeah, we definitely have more. But I feel like Oto has people coming through, and it actually brings people to play there, whereas New York, there are so many musicians already living there that most of the shows are by people who are living in the city. Occasionally there will be someone traveling through, I mean, obviously there are a lot of people traveling through New York, but those who play in the smaller venues, the intimate venues like those I mentioned before. In addition to that, there is not as much funding in New York. Issue Project Room is one of the good places that is bringing in people, that might be the most similar thing to Café Oto, though they don’t have performances every day at this point.
So the reaction you get from European audiences could quite possibly come from the sparsity of these somewhat unique outlets?
I think that I have become numb to a lot of shows in New York. I mean I love going to them and I love going to see people play, but I think that most of the time people are just going to see their friends. I mean, everyone knows each other. Even though it is a huge group of people, there is definitely a lot of recycling of different people playing in the same groups. I wouldn’t say there is some place, at this time, like Oto that seems to have a community and that pretty much has nightly experimental music.
Did you find that you had similar experiences around the rest of Europe?
I think in general people pay more attention to music at the shows in Europe. There are different types of venues in New York, so at certain types of venues, they will pay more attention, but at every concert I played at in Europe, I got the feeling that everybody was paying attention as opposed to — I don’t know maybe in New York I’ll end up playing in a place that has a bar and it feels like the music is secondary, it’s like a social scene with music happening, instead of a concert that happens to have a bar. I feel like I am totally dissing the New York scene right now — I don’t mean to be! I’m thrilled to be there, I really love it, but there is something about bringing my music to different parts of the world that is so good.
I don’t think I was recording when we spoke about Greece earlier; we were talking about how you were there during the riots, but in the midst of all that, you found a pretty cool record store and a group of people who continued to maintain a great appreciation for experimental music. How were you received there in that context?
Well, I think it was cool to see so many people come out for the show. I think there also people were very attentive. A lot of people talked to us after the show. People definitely engaged with the music, which was great. I feel like I was in a totally different world there.
I guess there is a general assumption that with the financial cuts in arts funding and arts councils, that it’s going to have a negative affect on how people produce and how people make music.
Yeah, it doesn’t seem like it’s having an effect here, or even in Greece at the time, at least where we were. In the U.S., the arts funding has been so terrible for so long, and people there also know that traveling and playing in Europe is harder now because a lot of funding has been cut. However, I do feel that being in the music industry is such a hard lifestyle, and that’s why there [are] so many unique people coming out of the U.S., because you really have to want it badly.
What about the exchange then, because you said that there are so many people playing in New York, and that there may be an over saturation of musicians there; what about when a European musician or a musician from another part of the world comes over to play in a smaller venue there? Is there a different response?
I was thinking about this while I was talking to you just now — I wonder if it’s different because I am here and from a different place — maybe that’s why there is a different response. But I definitely know when people come over, people take it more seriously, when there is someone playing from out of town, its a much bigger deal. It could be that because we all know each other in New York, that things are different for us.
So what can people expect to hear from you next, in the coming months?
I started recording some new songs, and I have also started recording a duo album with Anthony Coleman, and I just recorded a duo album with Greg Kelley, who is half of Nmperign, and so we’ll see what happens…
Could you tell me about that one, it sounds fascinating.
Your work with Kelley.
Yeah, well, Greg lives in Boston and I was there for a few days and we have played together a few times with Eli in larger groups, so we are friends. But we would never really rehearse, we would just perform together. There was a certain connection in our language — and listening to our recordings sometimes I can’t even tell who is playing what. So I was going to Boston, and I called him up and asked if he wanted to record. We met, set up some mics and recorded for like four hours straight — we got a whole bunch of material. I still have to edit it all down, but, I don’t know how I am gonna deal with it all yet — if I should just leave it as trumpet and saxophone, or if should play clarinet over it, or add to it, but I haven’t had the time to listen enough to it to figure it out. It’s exciting to me, the way that we blend together — there are a lot of overlapping sounds and frequencies, and it’s really cool when you find someone you have this immediate connection with — I hope he feels the same connection. I definitely feel excited to play with him.
But you have worked with some other interesting people recently, from what I remember. Pete Swanson did a remix of “Soak The Ocean”…
Pete and I met at the same festival where I first met Ilyas Ahmed. It was in San Francisco a few years back. Pete mastered one of my records for me, then he moved to New York, where he now goes to school, and he was nice enough to do that remix for me.
I remember that he said in his intro that your music has the power to make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of these crazy noise guys, or words to that effect.
Yeah, that was a nice intro. The festival we met at had a lot of great performers; Grouper and Bill Orcutt played there, but there was a lot of electronic and drone music, and then we came on and… we were definitely the odd people of the festival.
That must have felt kinda cool, in that environment.
It feels good and it’s hard, because I often feel like I am the odd person at any festival. I’m not sure where my place is really — I feel like I am on a lot of borders of things and don’t really fit anywhere. That feels hard, that we weird people out too much, but at the same time it’s nice to be an individual. I think people are beginning to know what to expect from me.
But even last night’s show — the styles between you and Ilyas are so divergent.
I feel like it’s always like that… I guess it is my own doing, but sometimes it would feel nice not to feel that way. I feel like, if anything, it makes me want to take the direction even further — it’s an issue and its something I deal with. Having said that, I have very strong convictions about what I do. I just hope the world comes to me as opposed to the other way around, because I’m gonna just keep on doing what I do.