Lucrecia Dalt: Interview
“I like this method very much; it’s very dysfunctional.”
Lucrecia Dalt had an incredibly productive 2013. Not only did her second album, Commotus, get a US release, but she also finished work on her third album, Syzygy, which she played live for the first time in support of Julia Holter on the European leg of her tour.
TMT was fortunate enough to premiere two tracks from Syzygy, which came on the back of an excellent guest mix Dalt put together for us called en medio. With each of these posts, the Colombia-born musician answered some of our questions about the compositional processes behind her work and her inspirations for recording. These disjointed fragments of Q&A led to a sporadic exploration of the methods that she used for writing as well as her emotional condition while working on new music; “I’m able to materialize what besets consciousness, self-estrangement rises, as does my affectation.”
The following interview was conducted a week or so before Syzygy appeared on our list of Favorite 50 Albums of 2013, and this time we caught up with Dalt via Skype from her home in Berlin, and then again over email, to fill in the blanks between those sporadic posts, to talk about her plans for the new year, Japanese softcore porn, and the importance of food in any creative process.
You’ve just returned to Berlin after touring across Europe with Julia Holter. Did you enjoy it? Did it all go according to plan?
Yeah, it was great. It was very intense. Julia and the band are great, and it was a challenge for me to be playing to bigger audiences. For example, the London show; all the shows before that one were in theaters or in very dark rooms, where I couldn’t really see the audience. And this show in London, there must have been already around 600 people when I started playing, and because of the way it was lit, I could see everybody’s eyes. It was very intense.
Do you find that you take things from the different places you visit on tour or when you are traveling and incorporate them in your work?
Yeah, depending on how the tour is set up, you could get more from the cities. This tour involved a lot of hours of traveling and trying to follow a very tight schedule at each place we arrived. The cities end up being this quick, and small, set of images, so the strongest memories are staged in a van or in a venue.
How about those images from place to place, then? You mentioned before that when you returned home from London and needed to change things…
When I travel I have another way of seeing my static self. Like when I went to Greece for vacations… It was a mind-changing trip that completely reset my relation with food and amusement. Or like when I came back from the RBMA in London, my home studio suffered the consequences of all the information I collected there.
Do you feel now that when you return from a place, like if you return from London to say, Barcelona, that your static life encompasses living in Barcelona, or does that change also? Because now you are in Berlin of course…
It depends. I like windows because the city can be present in the working space. I had two bedroom studios in Barcelona, the first one, where I made Commotus only had a street-level, half way down covered window that I could never open, sensing from it only the daylight changes. The second one, where I made Syzygy, had a very big window that let me see the streets while I was working. This window also worked as a noise gate that reminds me of how Godard treats sound in his movies: there’s noise, and suddenly you keep seeing the city in silence.
Lucrecia Dalt - Commotus
What about the space outside that immediate setting? First of all you made changes to your living space, but now you are in a different city. Are you conscious of that having an impact when you are in a new environment?
Yes, definitely. While I am working on a new record I take walks more regularly and of course all of the information I could be grasping it’s so different and it’s so inspiring in each city. The area that I moved to when recording the Syzygy album was very noisy and chaotic, and this fed my internal turmoil.
Are there any specific cities or places you find to be particularly inspirational?
Well, the thing is that I really like food. I’m always trying to look for food that’s really inspiring… Every time I travel I try to do as much as possible — when I am touring this is almost impossible but when I am traveling under different circumstances I try to find the local food or the traditional meals. Once I went on a monthlong trip to Greece to the mountains and the islands just trying the very different, local food. I don’t know how much that mixed into my music, but I would say that it does have an effect because in the end, all I am doing right now is making music and cooking.
[H]aving this in mind is how I chose the photo of the cover. You see two hands, yes, but if you start to analyze the gesture of each hand you see it’s very pornographic; one hand is begging not to be touched with a gesture of pleasure, and the other one is all for it.
How does that experience differ when you don’t have a month to spare. When you were in London you were only here for a day or so, right?
Yeah, it was very short, like I said, we had only like two days in the whole tour in which we could go out and enjoy a great meal slowly. But, hopefully I will have a headline tour in April, and I’m thinking about how I can make it work in a way that I could get a bit more from the cities. If I have to cut half an hour of sleep to do it, I will do it.
Where are you planning to tour next?
Well mostly in Europe. It’s my booking agent who is planning it actually, so I really don’t know right now what he is doing. But I told him that I wish there was shows in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy… But let’s wait and see.
While you were touring with Julia, I guess that was the first time you were playing material from the new album?
How did it feel when you were playing these new songs to larger audiences?
I actually enjoyed more the ones with bigger audiences and specially the ones with people standing because their gestures become more visible. As I was the support act, most of the audiences were listening to my music for the very first time, so these gestures helped me to understand how the live set was working. I wanted to have a very compact live set, I combined five songs from Syzygy and four songs from Commotus. I was looking for a narrative that made sense between material from the two albums, with a continuous set that resemble in a way the mixtapes I do, and leaving some space within the songs for improvisation.
Was it a challenge to integrate older material with the new songs without the silences?
I made the list of songs that I wanted to perform live and then I started to try different orders, I was thinking how the last part of a song could integrate with the next one using different reverbs or leaving some improvised loops.
You also played at least once with the drummer from Holter’s band. How did that work out?
That’s right, Corey Fogel. He’s great. We did it for “Inframince.” He was improvising and doing accents to the song and adding an extra tension that I really liked.
Did you play together again on the tour?
We did! We also did an improvisation for “Mirage.” Toward the end of that song, Corey, Chris, the cello player, and Danny the saxophone player came on stage and we started to improvise. It was nice because the cello and the saxophone were creating melodies that I would never imagine could occur inside that song. It was a very long version, we could have stayed with it forever.
Would you consider working with a band or live musicians in recording?
I have no idea yet. I still think I’m gonna record alone for a while. But lately I’ve been thinking of songs with clarinets, so I have to see how I resolve that.
The moments where I was very deprived from sleep were the most creative ones, and I started using that insanity in a creative way.
We’ve talked before about film and how that plays into your work. How did you begin to think about incorporating film into creating music, and what excites you most about film as a medium?
I guess the first time it just happened very randomly. When I made Syzygy I was having a hard time… concentrat[ing] on a specific activity for a long time; even watching a movie was difficult, like a whole movie, so I was watching half an hour of it and then I was reading and then I was making music and then I was eating and then I was out for a walk. Sometimes I was doing everything at the same time, with loads of books open and a movie playing while trying to make music. So, one day while I was trying to figure out what to do next in a song I turned up the volume for a second of the movie that was playing and this little snippet opened a world of possibility for the song I was making. It became a technique. It made a lot of sense at the time because I was having trouble to try and write the lyrics. I recognized that maybe a way to do it would be to find another story that wasn’t my story, to write the lyrics or to speak about something else that wasn’t mine.
What are the differences in composition when you are writing from the perspective of a character in a film, and when you write something that is specific to you?
I was immersed in a situation in which I was desperately wanting to talk about something, but at the same time I didn’t want to talk at all. The only way I could address it was through other people’s similar experiences, so in a situation like that I was deeply resonating with movies, like Desserto Rosso, where a girl is kind of desperate and she is trying to say something but it’s almost impossible. So I was putting myself in the position of these characters and vocalizing a feeling that was theirs but was similar to mine. I also did this exercise with “Volaverunt,” where I was taking a Walter Benjamin text and I was just jumping into words. What I’m saying is total nonsense, but it almost seems as though what I’ve come up with is very interesting, even though it doesn’t make sense, or maybe only in a pataphysical world. I like this method very much; it’s very dysfunctional.
Why did you use Benjamin’s text to begin with? What drew you to him?
It was just random. My sister handed me a Susan Sontag book and I was reading an essay she wrote on Walter Benjamin. After that I started to read the One-Way Street. To write lyrics, I have always used this technique to jump into words, the thing is that this is the first time I kept those words.
I’m interested to know how language plays into that. Firstly, how do you chose which language you are going to use in the song, and also, when you are thinking about the process — about how the song might sound — are you thinking in a certain language?
Yeah, it’s weird. I often wonder why or how does it work. When I start to work on a song, I improvise with the voice before the lyrics are written, and just randomly I start to sing what could resemble Spanish words, or what could resemble English words. But, I don’t know how that instinct occurs. With English, I feel it’s very easy to expand the words, and the syllables, but in Spanish, sometimes the accents are very strict, so much so that it’s difficult to place them into a preconceived musical structure that I have.
That’s fascinating. I was speaking with another musician about this recently and I was curious to find out how a certain language, whether that be a first or a second language, will play into the compositional process of a piece.
Well, with English, I don’t feel so compromised with the meaning because it’s not my language, and it just feels that I can play easier with the words and its sonority.
You mean the phonetics?
In Spanish it’s difficult to find short words to accommodate or expand, but in English, you have for example “why.” You could make it “why~~~~~,” you can expand it for really long time.
“Por qué~~~~” doesn’t work so well for you?
No, if you sing the word “why” for long, you can expand the whole sonority of it. But with “por qué” you only can expand the last “e” and that sounds horrible, but I guess this is a question to another discipline.
Perhaps, but you are pulling on so many disciplines in you work!
Yes, I know. Maybe when I’m 57 I will have the ultimate answer to all of these… but not right now.
You’ve talked about the sleep deprivation, about working at different times and working intermittently on compositional aspects of Syzygy. What did it feel like when you were working with very little sleep — isn’t there a sense of frustration that you can’t find what you are looking for?
Yeah, but also what happens is that the frustration comes in the work, in trying to find proper working hours. Like waking up and saying, “OK, I’m going to work, I’m going to make this happen,” and then at 11 I was so frustrated because nothing came out, and then I would go to sleep and then two hours later I was having these crazy dreams and crazy thoughts and loud music in my brain and I was like, “Yes! This is what I should do!” Then I would work for two hours and then record something that would make more sense. The moments where I was very deprived from sleep were the most creative ones, and I started using that insanity in a creative way.
I was immersed in a situation in which I was desperately wanting to talk about something, but at the same time I didn’t want to talk at all. The only way I could address it was through other people’s similar experiences, so in a situation like that I was deeply resonating with movies, like Desserto Rosso, where a girl is kind of desperate and she is trying to say something but it’s almost impossible.
Do you think the finished product of the album is an accurate reflection of that state?
I think so. Jason Grier wrote for the press release that it was a “state of eternal oscillation,” and I was feeling like that. There were loud music and loud conversations in my mind all the time, and I was trying to convey that [in] the music. It’s funny because when I started to write the first thoughts for Syzygy one of the premises was to try not to make a very dense album, I thought Commotus was already dense enough, and I said, “OK, I’m gonna do like a very light, poppy, and almost-like-a-soft-porn album.” But then I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.
You mentioned the cover art for in a recent interview and you said it was like soft porn. Could you elaborate on that?
There’s this Japanese softcore film I was screening while making Syzygy called “Daydream,” from 1964. It’s very subtle porn. This film guided the mood of the second part of “Vitti” and “Edgewise,” and in a way these are the only somewhat “soft porn” musical moments that I have on the record responding to the first premise, but having this in mind is how I chose the photo of the cover. You see two hands, yes, but if you start to analyze the gesture of each hand you see it’s very pornographic; one hand is begging not to be touched with a gesture of pleasure, and the other one is all for it.
Lucrecia Dalt - Syzygy
Did playing these songs live inspire you to think about recording something new, or are you waiting for a bit?
I can’t wait now, because I just got this scholarship granted by MusicBoard to produce an album, and I have four months to do it and one has already passed. All I have now is lots of small ideas so it’s difficult to tell what direction this is taking, but I’m definitely going for less dense sound, or at least with more moments of silence. For this project I also have the support of Care Of Editions, [which] is going to release it some time this year. And I’m also finishing two songs for a 7-inch I will hopefully release with Suicide Squeeze.
Could you say a little bit more about the exhibition you have planned in Berlin?
Yeah, this is going to be an investigation! I proposed to explore in depth the technique I started using with Syzygy to provoke this entanglement between the emotional dynamic experienced during the viewing of a film, and what is experienced during the music-production process. I’m investigating German experimental film and I’m already working along with films by by Kurt Schwerdtfeger and Ralph Rainger, as well as The Wild Blue Yonder by Herzog, maybe (I still don’t know). I will be working more with films made during the Weimar period than the 60s or 70s that is what I had in mind when I made the proposal.
Are you familiar with any artists back in Columbia who are working with a similar approach to music and recording as you? And how much would you attribute your experiences in Europe to your musical aesthetic?
Yeah, I have wondered about that. I wonder what I would be of myself and my music if I would have stayed in Colombia, I’m only sure that It would have never taken this direction. Perhaps I’m still doing something similar to what I may have heard when I was a child growing up there. If that is true, then it hasn’t happened in a very direct way. But I’m happy with how everything happened — I’m happy I’ve been traveling and working on these projects and meeting all these people because somehow I feel like I have very valuable information that I wasn’t going to be able to find it by myself so spontaneously.
I will be traveling to Colombia for a month, I’m really curious to see what’s happening there. It feels like there are a lot of things happening but I kind of lost track, I’ve only heard with attention Meridian Brothers and they are amazing. I will do three shows in Colombia in February: Bogotá, Medellín, and Manizales, dates and venues to be announced very soon!
[Main Photo by Catalina Perez]