Elysia Crampton “The older I get, the uglier I want my music to feel, to be.”

Thou Wonder, and thou Beauty, and thou Terror
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Epipsychidion”

Too much of a brute to read poetry of my own volition, I found Shelley’s Epipsychidion following Elysia Crampton’s traces. Among the many scholarly and religious references she usually drops in her work, Crampton once mentioned a poetry book by Pedro Salinas, a Spanish writer who spent almost half of his life in the US. Love and exile were two of Salinas’s main subjects, and both appear in My voice because of you, the tome I took Shelley’s epigraph from. And although Shelley’s verse stands as a succinct phenomenology of love, it could also describe Elysia Crampton’s art: Monster trucks as angelic creatures, showering sparks in a choreography of brutal grace. Engines of flesh and sinew ridding themselves of some puny rag dolls’ fictitious control. Psychogeography and landscape becoming a single entity on the trail of a Ford Ranger. A rattle powerful enough to levitate metal, transform it in elation, then break it.

Active for nearly a decade, the Bolivian-born, Virginia-based musician has evolved through many stages. Although her earliest work remains unreleased and her involvement in several bands/projects between 2006 and 2010 is unclear, the core of Crampton’s oeuvre can be divided in two periods: One running from 2008 to 2013, the other opening in 2014 and still going. The first part saw her operate under the E+E moniker, and develop the form of the sound collage as an ever-evolving reflection of its creator, incorporating Andean instruments and contemporary R&B samples in a foundation branched out of the Northwestern Mexico dance scene. The second period embraces a more performance-centric setup, still referencing huayños, crunk, and tribal, but perhaps through subconscious, granular methods rather than straight-out sampling. Crampton aspires to consolidate this phase with her debut album American Drift, out this month.

We recently had the chance to chat with Elysia Crampton, as she readied her upcoming release. This was a memorable opportunity, as Crampton is one of our favorite artists (her late 2013 album The light that you gave me to see you made it to the top 15 of our year-end favorites list). She’s also a pioneer of several contemporary musical forms, whose works we deem essential to understanding the tumultuous relationship we keep with the world today. Moreover, with American Drift envisioned as an exploration of identity, race, and colonialism, we were eager to discuss Crampton’s experience as a Bolivian-American working with cumbia and huayño — urban variations of traditional Andean music, shunned by ruling classes in South America due to their popularity among working class/indigenous segments of the population.

Like Crampton, I’m a mixed-race Bolivian (mestizo) living abroad and consider her work an astounding inquiry on the mestizo experience, able to understand the richly contradictory nature that defines it. Crampton’s music beats with the pulse of a place where you can find counterfeit sports shoes sold next to llama fetuses to be used as oblations to ancient deities, all while Korean flatscreen TVs blast a techno dance contest showcasing local teenagers dressed as Scotsmen. Highlighting her roots in Bolivian culture and the changes her music is currently undergoing, Crampton discussed some of those topics in a series of emails we exchanged, which you can read in detail below.

The first thing that caught my attention in your work was how much it establishes a conversation with cumbia andina. You play with that aesthetic in your artwork, promotional photos, etc. You tagged some of your releases as “primicias” — roughly cumbia’s equivalent to singles, and the scene’s answer to a lack of support from big labels. Since the early 2000s, cumbia andina is found all over Latin America, though its roots can be traced to Bolivian acts like Los Ronisch, who mixed saya beats with tecnocumbia, HiNRG and Peruvian cumbia chicha; yet, I understand you picked up those influences during the time you lived in Monterrey, as processed by tribal DJs. It is certainly intriguing that you had to circle your way back to a music genre so popular in Bolivia, considering those are your roots. Could you tell us more about your relationship with cumbia (andina, in particular)? Was it heard in your household while you were growing up? When did you become aware of it, and what made you decide to incorporate it in your music?

It’s true, my introduction to cumbia in general was through my living in Monte Morelos, Nuevo Leon as a child. Back in the states, my most direct introduction to Bolivian/Andean music was through my grandpa, who would bring back tons of music from Bolivia and Peru (he was always going back and forth between La Paz and the States). He would play mostly huaynos: Las muchachitas de oro I recall particularly, but also old huancayo style with the brass/woodwind ensembles and a lot of khantus music, which is the heavy pre-Columbian medieval-sounding woodwind/tympani style often associated with Bolivia/Andean culture. Through music, the post-colonial divide between Peru and Bolivia was bridged for me, and I was allowed to glimpse an ancient, illusive moment of my heritage that barred nationalistic dividings. The mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds, especially in huayno, provided inspiration that has stuck to this day. The incorporation of these textures into my own voice never had to be deliberately sought out; these ancestral/familial narratives, languages, tones, colors… moved with me as I musically came of age.

My incorporation of huancayo style on my first self-released album was, in a way, my attempt at negating/standing against the rivalry some in Bolivia have against Peruvians (which is also based on a long history of anti-queer ideology and homophobia). Likewise, the sayas referenced on that album come tethered to the body of my work as a musical remark on my own relationship to African style (and its incorporation in my music, life, history) as a Bolivian-American and the complex narratives that unite the bodies of the past to myself, the divided bodies of my own suffering and the divided bodies of African music’s struggle as a complex entity carried through storied landscapes.

Most of the Latin sounds you play with, while hugely popular in their countries, are not autochthonous in the sense that they represent contemporary mixtures of traditional music and Western pop. Do you see a continuation of such amalgamating impulse in your work? Is mixing an internet-native form like the sound collage with huayño the next step for the splicing that gave birth to Los Kjarkas techno album, tecnobrega, or tribal guarachero? Or, on the contrary, do you find yourself closer to the more experimental/academic side of the coin, as represented by the work of Jorge Reyes, Edgar Valcárcel, Gabriel Brncic, Anla Courtis, etc?

This is an ongoing discussion that stories the movement of my work and journey as a writer. I have to be as honest as possible; I have to find truth always where I couldn’t see, hear, smell it before, and I have to seek the strange event of truth’s newness, always elaborating itself, always ridding its excess with an illusive divine grace. I must go to the very bottom to see that there was no depth that wasn’t here; I must always journey through landscape to find that horizon was also always in this place, with this presence. In this way, how can my work not be indigenous? I stand for an unrepresented history of musicians and writers of color, female authors, queer artists… I stand for these histories coiled at event horizon, on the brink of new universe or total disintegration, braided with nothingness. Their legacies move through me, enmeshed in the decisions I make, don’t make, consider.

I experiment purposefully only during the writing process in order to discover a new scheme, a new formatting. to experiment fruitfully in music actually requires a lot of configuration and discipline — my work ethic is often lacking. The finished result I can’t present unless I’ve come to some kind of conclusion. This is a difficulty for me — I can’t just write something stream of consciousness and deliver it to the listener, unedited. For me, the process is all about editing and execution; perhaps this is why sampling made so much sense as a medium at the beginning. Thinking about a potential connection with an experimental music legacy, I grew up listening to my brother’s jazz and avant-garde record collection. Acts like Soft Machine and Wara were huge, huge influences on me regarding how I approached song structure, tonality, energy, and narrative in writing.

Through music, the post-colonial divide between Peru and Bolivia was bridged for me, and I was allowed to glimpse an ancient, illusive moment of my heritage that barred nationalistic dividings.

Talking about post-colonial pop music, not that it’s new (Simon & Garfunkel riffed on “Condor pasa,” a Peruvian traditional song, already in 1970), but perhaps thanks to the ICT explosion, sampling from Andean and Afro-Latin sources is becoming more common. However, at the same time, new, boundary-pushing artists like yourself are breaking through with their own radically new takes on traditional music. The result is a realm where neither the music made in the West nor the one made in Latin America could claim to be rooted in a national folklore — at least not in the conventional sense. There’s where we find Yeezus’ reguetón-by-the-way-of-trap beats (courtesy of Venezuelan American Alejandro Ghersi) or N.A.A.F.I’s sonidero-ready EDM. An optimist perspective would see this as a step toward a truly post-Western pop environment, but it’s a situation that raises concerns about cultural appropriation and extraterritoriality as well. What’s your take on this?

This is tricky. Obviously, the old claims to nativity were never valid, but I maintain a hopeful skepticism regarding most of what I come across. I don’t listen to new music, and even regarding music written by friends, there isn’t much I actually hold closely in my spare time. The older I get, the uglier I want my music to feel, to be. And that’s specific in its own kind of way: I’m drawn to it because I can’t define it totally yet, can’t sketch it justly. By the time I do or can, of course, I will have moved on. Right now, I can’t not be nourished by ugliness and queer withdrawal. By this I mean the embodied ignorance of godness itself that keeps a thing from acting as support to its own system of identifying, that keeps it from being constituted into structurings, taxonomies, hierarchies — that reveals essence as unnameable, inconsistent.

My problem with getting lumped into these worldings — particularly with online/consumer groups — is that even the ones taken as the most futuristic, and therefore thought of — by default — as optimistic, feel mired in colonial ideas of execution and seem to blindly carry out the functions of a system that privileges this mode of educated whiteness that takes its own prejudices as an unspoken given. The stuff with the sharpest, newest production value, often signaling an easy-to-read deconstructed ethos, gets taken as the most progressive work, even when this is clearly not the case. We forget to ask ourselves the simplest questions sometimes, but more frequently, we forget to ask questions at all. But people can feel newness when it’s encountered — wherever that is — even if it’s in work that’s technically 30, 60, 200 years old. Regarding questions of systemic and ethical violence, I feel folks used to be threatened by the mere mention of politics or critical participations just 10 years ago. I’m happy to see that being political, discussing ethics and being has become more of a trend in the last five years. But more roots need to grow before another possibility for real change gets blown over. My old pastor used to say the blessing and burden of the human condition is that we are like winged trees (referring to the old saying), desiring new vistas and needing to feel grounded at the same time.

There is a dual tension present in the work of many mestizo artists, especially those living outside their native countries: a permanent sense of in-betweenness and a compulsion for constant fusion. In other words, trying to adapt while knowing one will never be fully at home. Although you have moved around a lot, living both inside and outside the US, your art does not feel transterritorial in the least. On the contrary, it is tied to your Latin roots but is also deeply committed to exploring your connection with the place you live in, both as a symbolic construct (a State, a national identity) as well as a strictly natural environment, your upcoming album being the best evidence of this. How do you handle the trade off inherent to a mixed (bi-racial, if you will) inheritance and its influence on your work?

This handling, if we call it that, is a struggle of love, a struggle that will continue after I die. Essentially, not only how to make sense of this split within me, but how to live successfully with such a split, knowing that it goes all the way down, cutting up subjectivities, negating false claims to nativity, erasing naturalities, denouncing binaries all by my mere existing, making everything queer.

My body a dwelling between colonized and colonizer, I once carried a shame of my brownness. It was as though my whiteness wanted to purge my mother’s blood from me; I would even pray that I would wake up to find myself not only entirely white, but entirely a “real boy,” because even then, I already knew I didn’t fit in with the gender assigned to me. Contact with my Bolivian/indigenous heritage — whether that was through music, language, food, or literally touching the ground of La Paz — was crucial to undoing this mental fixation, this internalized hatred. My encountering with landscape, my reaching out to it, gave clarity to concepts still difficult to put into/retain with languages. In Mexico, the rules were different: as a child, I could ride deep into the countryside, unsupervised. I became aware of my own longing, isolation, hysterical positioning, while at the same time uncovering a new relationship with (and very disanthropocentric companion in) landscape. It was by this encountering that I found god, godness — this thing in me that was also an excess, indifferent yet total grace, this thing that embraces, hides, moves through what I am, surviving what I am, yet always dying in order to be new (its newness is ancient).

I remember reading you “rediscovered” your faith during a visit to a mountainous forest in California. Religion is a big part of the Latino identity, but not necessarily in a traditional/dogmatic way, instead mixing indigenous beliefs with Catholicism. For Aymaras — the native people inhabiting the Bolivian city your family is from — nature’s elementals are sacred and clearly identify with Catholic icons: Pachamama (mother earth) with the Virgin Mary, Tunupa (the god of lightning) with Saint James, etc.; thus allowing natives to preserve their rites without upsetting the officially enforced religion. Similarly, the Incas believe caves, peaks, and lakes to be sacred beings, huacas representing the ancient origin of families. Sometimes, say if a family’s huaca was a ravine, believing that to be their connection with the netherworld, it would be used as a mausoleum and a place of worship for them. This made me wonder two things: First, could your religious experience in the California forest have been a (perhaps not conscious) manifestation of such forces? Second, in American Drift, you develop your work from the perspective of the brown body as “pure substance, mineral, mud” interacting with the Shenandoah mountains; do you find a connection between that idea and huacas?

Yes, this ancient pagan narrative most definitely involved itself in my Christian return, moment of becoming, being “born again.” God always resists, always as excess and void of what it was (wasn’t). I was raised in a Christian environment, all the while knowing god moved beyond this Christianity, away from sacrificial narratives — more than father, exemplar, brother, savior — and yet also more than Pachamama, time-mother, dragon goddess. My mother’s family was unique in that not only did they reject Catholicism in their search for God, they also rejected the old pagan ways of communication, such as through k’oa and burnt offerings. Their Protestantism took them through persecution, a belief in the radical Pauline “reset to zero,” the very cut in the narrative fabric of space-time, a belief in grace and radical redemption, a belief that one can come directly to god(ness) without mediator. They took on the Adventist heritage, which has very much to do with its etymological implication — the Latin adventus or arrival (ad+venire means “to come” in Latin). I believe the failure of my pagan ancestors is the failure of the Adventist and the Catholic; meaning, like the ancients, both had concepts of godness that could not fully contain such godness, because godness is never fully locatable or fully present.

Even brainless bacteria are capable of social organizing and an array of other things we once only attributed to brain-bearing consciousness. I find there’s a lot more going on with being and bodies than we have been willing to admit.

I believe in the spiritual kingdom of the ontological, something that we see in the idea of the huaca, what Stacy Alaimo refers to as “transcorporeality.” The very substances that compose me, signal my appearance and what I am — the pigment granules that make me brown, the hard rock of skeleton that my muscles embrace/cling to for movement, the zooidic colony that long ago evolved to become my bodily organs — as objects, all relay an inaccessible elsewhere of being-becoming in their interactions, relations that navigate form and narrative, presencings — openings, enclosures I live by and am subject/bound to, within, without. This inaccessible aspect of being is, like God, a withdrawnness hinted by the appearance-action of beingness (a signaling that is chemical, tactile, acoustic, as much as it is visual) that delivers/traces or “essences” the power-potentiality of the undisclosed. This paradoxical “not here” of real beingness supplies the alterity of becoming as such — difference, inconsistency — but also, of course, elaborates and defines what something is, what God is.

There are three phrases that continue to pop through The light that you gave me to see you, cementing some of the album’s conceptual lines: “Más allá de los sueños” (Beyond dreams), “Golgotha,” and “La evolución ha llegado” (Evolution has arrived). In retrospect, it is hard not to see the album as a point you had chosen to bring your work under the E+E moniker to a close, underlining how you had evolved beyond it and the necessity of “immolating” your previous self. Moreover, though it was composed in 2011, between TLTYGMTSY and American Drift, you released “The Elysian Dream,” a song whose lyrics amount to an announcer hyping up the arrival of a promised moment — perhaps your aesthetic and personal transition? Was the timing deliberate or just a coincidence?

I was seeking something like a Jimenezine arrival in “Elysian Dream,” an encountering between God and consciousness, a face-to-face with godness itself (1 Corinthians 13:12), which is like a constant arrival — arrested yet not paralyzed — desired and desiring, a struggle of love, like fire with its own air. “Elysian Dream” was the core piece of many love songs written to my 2011 model Ford Ranger. I wrote “Elysian Dream” in Sacramento, inscribing the narratives and histories attached to that site, that city — namely, that of the first Transcontinental Railroad and the Industrial Revolution, but also what was to be the beginning of a continued dialogue in my work with the prefix “trans.” The pure engine of being — looking at the body as a machine, pure vehicle (something I was obsessed with at the time, arranging songs like “Sword,” writing “The Fired Fortress,” all not unlike the car-transformation scene in the film Adolescence of Utena) — was an energy that captured me, translated itself into the language of my songwriting, a confrontation with thingly essence and all of its inconsistencies, evolutions, marks. My personal transition has been a spiritual journey that took an exceptional turn after I was Born Again. My only goal when writing The Light That You Gave Me To See You (which I began writing around the same time as “Elysian Dream”) was to be as open as possible about such things. It wasn’t until later when I realized how much of my experience — more so than what I was consciously aware of at the time — is narrated, brought out in that work. I think in our society, we tend to privilege consciousness too much. Even brainless bacteria are capable of social organizing and an array of other things we once only attributed to brain-bearing consciousness. I find there’s a lot more going on with being and bodies than we have been willing to admit.

With American Drift, you have devoted an album to exploring Virginian American history and landscape (something that actually extends to the Shenandoah series). Do you plan to develop similar work on other places you’ve lived in or have influenced you?

Yes, of course! You make me think of Monte Morelos — the man in the mountain, the fields of grass, the oxen… of Las Cruces, New Mexico, of Skid Row in Los Angeles. I carry these places inside of me, they cling. I’ve always wanted to write about the first time I saw the Watts Towers as a teenager. I think of the giant rose bushes wrapped around chain-link and the crystalline twilight. Part of writing about Virginia has been dealing with the trauma of encountering its landscape(s). This new record will unpack years of coping with that trauma, in all of its terrible beauty. I can say I am definitely a different woman from when I first became aware of that relationship.

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