Elisa Ambrogio “Many of the best songs are the simplest ways of saying something complex.”

Elisa Ambrogio is in the business of intensity, but conducts it with unique perspective and musical vocabulary. Her work with the prolific outfit Magik Markers is easily identifiable as “heavy music” thanks primarily to the audiovisual overload of their performances, which make the most of limited means and convey an uncommon spirit of bodily presence. Now that we’re beginning to hear her first recorded solo work (and especially against the backdrop of her work in the duo 200 Years), she’ll be quick to tell us that what we initially identify as a stylistic paradigm shift is actually the sound of the gnarliest and most fucked-up qualities of her other music being forced underground and co-opted as the energy source for a new sonic evolution. TMT sat down with her and explored the nature of this change, as well as the more specific process of inspiration and recording for solo debut The Immoralist, out now on Drag City.

Of course, Ambrogio is a busy woman. Naturally, the above use of the phrase “sat down” is entirely misleading. Our dialogue pans out over email, entirely in text, and over a period of several weeks. Consequently, many of her remarks below convey misunderstanding and the interruptive and premeditated qualities of the written word. Especially after hearing her deeply mystifying new album, I’m struck by how unexpectedly appropriate that is.


Why did you decide to make a solo record?

To pay off gambling debts. Plus, I had written a lot of songs, and I wanted to put them out and go on tour. I was lucky enough that a great friend and a great musician, Jason Quever, was available to record while I happened to be out West. Jason and I don’t have much in common musically, but we had secret common reference points for a type of melodic song structure. We were also both open to trying ideas, and we often got stoked on the same things — Quever was kind of a wild man in his suggestions, it was great.

Working in the studio with other musicians is one of my favorite parts of music. It is weird, mercurial, and surprising. Your favorite song you wrote alone in a room turns into a blank dull hole of nothingness, and the trepidatious, seemingly untenable idea you had, builds into your favorite part of the whole record.

Are all of these songs relatively new, or have they been sitting around?

Half are older and half were freshly written while I was recording. I wouldn’t phrase it “sitting around.” Poised for action, but with a cat-like readiness, sure.

What is more aggressive, a baby blanket with five stuffed animals around it in Mike Kelley’s Arena #7 (Bears) or Slayer’s “Piece by Piece”? I don’t know. They’re both pretty fucking heavy in different ways. It depends on the artist and the intent.

Is there any connection between the title of your LP, The Immoralist, and the French novel of the same name? Why exactly does that title speak to what you’re doing?

The liminal space, the imagination as a place [where] the unconscious mind can assert itself without any consequence. I like stories with unreliable narrators, in life and fiction. It is an incredibly honest, transgressive book. It’s not amoral, it’s immoral; it has the knowledge of wrongdoing and transgression.

The narrator of the book is a total narcissist, self-absorbed and constantly self-justifying. It deals with free will and the body in ways I think are really interesting. The idea that our own unmitigated desires, taken to their selfish extremes, will always be destructive. Freedom cannot just be freedom because we live in a world.

Your work with Magik Markers has been described as verbose, literary. I hear a different sort of immediacy in the lyrics of The Immoralist. Does that speak to any real creative opposition or change?

I think it a gift of songwriting that a phrase that might not work poetically on the page, something simple, becomes recontextualized in music. The adverb “suddenly” is kind of a wanky word for poetry or fiction. “Suddenly” in “My Opening Farewell” by Jackson Browne contains a complexity and a beauty it doesn’t have as just a word because of tonality. “Malfunction” is such a dry, robotic word until John Joseph repeats it, over those heavy chords, with that desperate melisma. Buddy Holly was a master of the stripped-down simplicity of a lyric, paired with a melodic complexity imbuing every word with a whole dictionary of meaning. I love that combination, when it is done deftly; it makes certain songs devastate and resonate in ways just the word or just the notes never could. John Cale’s “Buffalo Ballet” is another example. Perhaps that is obvious, but as a person who puts a lot of stock in words alone, it still surprises me. Many of the best songs are the simplest ways of saying something complex.

That said, for me this record contains work more directly related to my own straight writing than any record before it. “Clarinet Queen” was a poem first, as was “Kylie.” Usually I write a song as a song, and my prose and verse writing is completely separate. So, if anything, this record contains the most cross-pollination between prose-/verse-writing and songwriting of any of my work.

Last year, you told TMT you spent a long time on the last Magik Markers record, Surrender to the Fantasy, because you felt you needed a lot of time to become comfortable with it. Is this 1-year turnaround on The Immoralist a continued expenditure of that energy, or something new and spontaneous?

We definitely didn’t spend a lot of time on the record to become comfortable with it. I maybe said something about us spending a long time to allow the shape of the record and the order and the songs to happen organically, and to be able to hear it with more subjective ears, and shape an exact version of what we wanted. We had an ambitious plan that we had to execute in spare time and on a budget.

With The Immoralist I had songs written, and a limited amount of time with Jason in the studio, so there was less material, and the decisions were easier and only made by me. When I wanted to cut a song, I did, no discussion. Markers are a band, and the decisions are made by everyone, thankfully. There are things I fought hard against that in retrospect I am glad I was wrong about, and things I fought for that I was right about.

You also claimed you play different “characters” depending on which act you’re performing with. What kind of character are you playing now?

…There are songs told from the point of view of different characters, but it is not playing a character to write a song from a different narrative point of view. There are different images that strike you and imaginary spaces you inhabit when you work with people. When you work with someone closely inventing things out of nothing, there is a kinship that creates different mental spaces than you on your own.

As a performance outfit, Magik Markers have frequently conveyed a sense of release, and even aggression. I get an altogether different feeling from these songs. How would you explain or react to that?

There is obvious aggression, and obvious release, and then there is a more subtle or contradictory experience. A power-electronics performance rife with reheated S&M imagery that was already kind of hacky in the 60s may be perceived as “obviously” aggressive and Richard Youngs singing acapella standing alone in an auditorium may be perceived as something sweet, and gentle. But in terms of “heaviness” or “aggression,” the most audacious work contains an idiosyncratic vulnerability and strikes me as offering an equal aggression and release. It can be more transgressive and more of an assault. What is more aggressive, a baby blanket with five stuffed animals around it in Mike Kelley’s Arena #7 (Bears) or Slayer’s “Piece by Piece”? I don’t know. They’re both pretty fucking heavy in different ways. It depends on the artist and the intent.

There is a simple shorthand for people, like, “Oh yeah, Cookie Monster like heavy music! It heavy! Black! Go bang! Heavy!” To tell the truth, I could make that kind of heavy, “aggressive” music in my sleep. It would be easy. That doesn’t interest me though, and it is not where my head is at. Historically, it seems like the more actually aggressive and fucked up someone is, the sweeter their tunes. Phil Spector, Stephen Stills, Don and Phil Everly, Ira Louvin, John Martyn, etc., all of ‘em filled with chaotic rage and soft, melodic clouds. Mike Love wrote “Kokomo.”

So maybe this record is proof I am getting more fucked-up and aggressive.

I like stories with unreliable narrators, in life and fiction. It is an incredibly honest, transgressive book. It’s not amoral, it’s immoral; it has the knowledge of wrongdoing and transgression.

I listen to some tracks — especially opener “Superstitious” — and I’m surprised by their candor. Was that a choice you made, or something you noticed?

I always try to be honest. Honest is subjective, and edited, but, yeah. I hadn’t thought of it as having a particular extra amount of candor. I just thought it was true about myself that I kind of roll my eyes at things or consider myself above them in some way in my head, but I actually subscribe to my own private nonsense about music, art, the people I love.

On one hand dismissing something like Mercury in retrograde affecting communication as fuzzy hippie pablum, but then not wearing that blue shirt ever again because you had a bad show in it. Believing you can control things with your thoughts, but thinking horoscopes are nonsense. I noticed I was a total hypocrite, so I thought I would write about it.

What’s the story behind the cover photograph? I think I recognize that Flocka mask from Halloween a couple years ago.

My friend Joe Fidel Roberts is a really great artist, and he has all these masks on the living room wall, some he’s made, and some he just has. We came home from the bar and he had us put on the masks and took a picture on the couch in the living room. It’s a recreation of that photo with a higher resolution camera. It turns out Chris Berry, of Soft Abuse, sent Donovan Quinn that mask for his birthday a couple of years ago. Also, staying on-brand. E.A.: East Atlanta/Elisa Ambrogio.

Magik Markers have a whole bunch of European dates lined up. After those, do you plan to perform solo? If so, do you take a different approach to that?

Yeah, it’s going to be different for sure. I have been touring with either my best friends or my partner Ben for years, there is an intuitive communication, a set of shared reference points and experiences and just a good time to be had, so it will be really different to play a new kind of show.

On “Mary Perfectly,” you sing: Every fire in history /Burned hot/And then burned out. Which stage is Elisa Ambrogio in at the moment? What about Magik Markers?

Your favorite song you wrote alone in a room turns into a blank dull hole of nothingness, and the trepidatious, seemingly untenable idea you had, builds into your favorite part of the whole record.

I’d just read about them finding Richard III’s bones under a parking lot, and was thinking about his crazy ambition and the combat, the sacrifice of life and the futility. His bones just trash like my bones, like chicken bones, like peasant bones, just bones, dead alike, people rolling over them in Fiat 500s listening to Coldplay, spilling mayonnaise on their shirt fronts.

I was thinking about the limited views of women we’re given, reflected by limited minds for most of recorded history. There are so few actual human women in great books. It’s staggering. To be fair, there are few true actual human beings depicted period, it takes a work of genius to do at all, but there are far fewer women. Specifically, the poems Baudelaire wrote about Jeanne Duval. Fleurs Du Mal is incredible. He has the mixed fascination and revulsion for her — she is always the other; Haitian, a woman — of the colonialist. She is a statue, a snake, a cat, a smoky exotic smell, a baby elephant; she is flesh, she is satanic, she is the Madonna. She is everything but a specific human being.

Combining the weird kind of colonial fantasy inherent in those Baudelaire poems, and him writing, “Now you’re my Mary Perfectly.” He says actually, “Enfin, pour compléter ton rôle de Marie,” which has been translated a few different ways. She is his Mary, perfectly misinterpreted in verse for all-time; a monolith of tits and ass, no character but at turns wine-soaked, holy, petulant, surly, or sexual. Even a genius like Baudelaire attempting to capture reality is limited by the strictures of his own time and prejudices. For all their intimacy, he could be writing about a stranger, because she is never more than a beautifully rendered symbol, a sexy savage dolly. In the specific poem she is murdered, or penetrated by seven daggers anyhow, and there is a pretty ecstatic bloody end.

The most brutal kings in history, bones under asphalt; the most passionate, volatile desire in our body dies with our body, the verse it inspired flawed; a fire so hot you are sweating and panting is cold ashes in the morning. When we are alive we have agency; when we die we are all subject to the indignity of interpretation. No one is a perfect Mary, no one real is less or more than human. Time, mythology and decay invent their own creatures. The quality of the author versus the subject, the human condition of temporality; that we are all burning-hot until we’re not.

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