Félicia Atkinson The multidisciplinary artist and Shelter Press proprietor talks polyphony, pregnancy, and pizza ahead of new album “The Flower and the Vessel”

I‘m no authority, but from what I’ve gathered, having a baby isn’t easy. That’s why I was quite impressed when I met up with Félicia Atkinson, Bartolomé Sanson, and their child (about half a year old, at the time) at a pizza place in Los Angeles. The exhausted couple had flown out from France, where they live and run Shelter Press together. They had lasted two days at the always-overcrowded, over-noisy, and overwhelming L.A. Art Book Fair; Atkinson had played a set in town for a large, captivated audience, and — wedged between the installation of a gallery show that would open only days later with Félicia reading her poetry — they made enough time and found enough energy to sit down with me for an hour or two.

Atkinson seemed to have no other mode of being than to speak with warmth, thought, and care. Talking points include her previous work, as well as her excellent new album (predominately produced during her own pregnancy) The Flower and The Vessel, out July 5 on Shelter Press.


First I want to talk a bit about Shelter Press and what you find meaningful about it. Why is it important to you to have your own press and label?

I think for many reasons. First, it’s teamwork. Bartolomé actually does the press more than myself; we make all the decisions together, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m not handling all the small things. It’s more Bartolomé that is working on it. But it’s very important for us to be independent and also for my music to be able to have my own home. I’m not pressured by any deadlines. We can talk about and think about the record very far ahead. And since we are also a couple, I find that we can talk about the record all day long. There is this thing where life and work is mixing, which, for me, is important because I don’t think I can make music from 9 to 5. Having your own label also allows you to — I think — be very exigent, because you can delay things and say, “Oh, I’m not ready to do this record yet. I need more time.” So that’s very important.

Also, in terms of format and in terms of sales, there is no pressure. I do not have this pressure of making something of a certain kind, because, also at Shelter Press, we don’t have a special kind of music we release. It’s more people we are into, and it’s more the personality of people that interests us rather than a style. Never considered ourselves even an ambient label at all. So this idea of being independent, building your own house, making things grow in there.

That’s interesting. I saw on the Shelter Press website that you say something about how it’s not an ambient label, but something… you use the word “abstract.” This reflected something I’d been feeling about your music as well. It fits less into ambient or experimental — even in terms of musique concrète or something — as we understand those as modes of working. It doesn’t quite fit into those, and it seems that this distinction really comes from the process itself. That you’re building it as you’re living life. It’s fully integrated.

Completely.

It sounds like even having your own press/label is part of that, built into the creative process.

Exactly. And these are layers — there is the art, the music, making books and records, writing — and all those layers make a whole puzzle and they are those pieces. So it is abstraction, but it is also something like… musique concrète means something material, something that is tangible, that is solid. And I like the idea that you can, at the same time, be abstract but signify things and use materials that are from the daily life. So, it’s a negotiation, because sometimes I also really like the idea of showing an image. I think my latest record shows, somehow, sometimes, images through the titles or words.

Do you mean Hand In Hand?

The Flower and The Vessel, the newest one. But even the one before. It’s always navigating between where I should go? Until everyone sees what I see? Or should I suggest before it at the threshold of the things and leave this kind of myopic vision where we’re not completely closed and then we are very much in between abstraction and configuration? Our eyes are a little bit too close.

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’ve gotten to listen to The Flower and the Vessel a couple times, and it feels like there’s more things to latch onto throughout the record than a lot of your recent work. I would say it’s more compositionally driven and also more varied in sound textures. It moves a lot more. Uniformity was characteristic of Hand in Hand.

Completely. Yeah, because Hand in Hand was really inspired by the desert. This idea of something that is flat. I wanted the record to be a little bit like the moon. Whereas with The Flower and the Vessel, I was also inspired by this idea of polyphony. I’m reading this book called Polyphonic Minds, and it explains the history of polyphony in music and how using different voices is also a way to think politically, and the idea that, sometimes, unison can be interesting and mystical and whatever, but sometimes you need polyphony. You need the idea that there is not one voice, and that, actually, we can’t truly compete with everybody, and we should keep the chaos or the cacophony, the diversity of it. And then, OK, if you relate to that, you need to compose more; otherwise it’s a mess. So, in order to keep this polyphony instead of cacophony, to make it melodic or musical, it allows you to be more in the composition, because you need to find space for everything.

So do you feel that, because you’re approaching this polyphonic composition, you approached this record with more intent towards the end result than you have with previous records? Or do you think that’s not quite on the mark?

Maybe. Maybe a little bit in the way that I think I wanted more, different rooms in the architecture of the record. Hand in Hand was less, less — more monolithic in the project, in the concept of it, I wanted to do something that was a solid rock. The Flower and the Vessel is very inspired by flower arrangement — ikebana, meaning this art of life, of picking things and making different arrangements every day. So, there was this idea of something that changes that has different colors and then the different tracks can go very dark, and you have to have highs. Something way more happy and dreamy and then very melancholic. I wanted different moods. I wanted it to be more about the sensation and a different kind of climate. Something very humid, almost tropical. Cold tropical, like tropics in the winter.

It also seems that you’re using voice a lot more… Or, not a lot more, but more clearly. More upfront. The record begins with you speaking, and so that was something I noticed immediately. But also I just read your essay for the Spectres book, in which you talk about using language and using English specifically, because it’s secondary to you.

Absolutely.

And then, for me, as someone who only speaks English, I’ve already engaged with your music from a level of voice-as-texture, or as a melodic element when you’re speaking french. So I guess I wondered your thoughts on when you use speech — like the clarity of the voice.

I think it’s this idea of… There are many layers — the idea of reciprocity. When I speak French and you don’t understand, there is a kind of exchange there. Almost like a trade, where, [thereafter], I’m going to speak in English and be in the position of the one that is not “not understanding” but taking the meaning of it aside, because I’m going to use one a different way. But also it’s more, and that’s when the thing that was really interesting making this album is this idea of inside-outside, the flower and the vessel, how to hold, how voices go in and out. I was pregnant, so it was also like, how, while I’m recording, someone is listening from the inside. And, myself, I am in between. I am porous. I’m inside and I’m outside. The record hints at this, and the voices go and go out, and we are in flux. And we are just energies that are traveling.

I think music, the beauty of music, is that it travels. It goes through the walls. Voice, then, is like a metaphor of that for me also. Because, I mean, we die, and the voice stays when it’s recorded, and it’s so incredible. This idea of this thing that is a bit like Frankenstein; you extract the voice of someone and then [what’s] there is not the voice, but the recording of the voice. There is an illusion. But then it’s like a character somehow.

Yeah, I wonder if you’ve had any developing feelings about recording your voice and about using music as this sort of mode of communication with the outside world as you’ve moved forward in your career as well. Like, if that’s changed for you at all. I know you ended your project Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier. That was specifically a project that was…

With no voice.

Yeah. And ultra-productive, in a DIY mode.

Completely. It was on purpose; it was really like drawing notebooks. And I really wanted that, because I feel that was a good time, this moment where there were so many blogs and the scene was completely flourishing and there was this possibility of trying things every day, and sharing — it’s like thinking out loud, basically. Opening your studio: “Hey, I’m making music — oh, I made a song today.” I really enjoyed it, and I really needed it, and it was a beautiful experience. And now, I don’t know if it’s because I am older, because maybe in 10 years I am going to have this wish of coming back to that. I don’t know if you can tell this is a young project and this will be old, but now I needed something that is more carved, more structured. But it doesn’t mean that maybe later I will be more into experimentation again. I think there are phases. And at some moment, you need to put yourself at risk again and say, “I’m going to share this draft because I am bored with finished products.”

Yeah, sure.

But for now, my ambition was to change the scale and then the voice appeared. And voice is complicated. When I was younger, I stopped using my voice for a while, because also it was a different time, being a girl, playing in a band. There was always this expectation of “Oh, you’re a girl. You’re a singer.” And this is why I was using the name Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier. It was neutral; it means, “I am a little knight.” It’s even more masculine than feminine in that sentence. I wanted this gender transparency where there is no gender. I’m a little knight, whoever, and I’m not using my voice, I’m not giving this to the audience […], I want to disappear on stage. I want to do a music that is erasing any projection, which is fantasy, because it’s impossible to disappear, right? I needed that. Something very abstract. Naive also, because you want to be abstract but you will never, because whatever you do, you show yourself. But I wanted to be hidden somehow.

After a while I didn’t find this desire anymore. Now I want to go back to my name, and I feel confident enough to acknowledge I’m a woman, and I think I can use my voice again, because I think it’s my choice, and it’s not an expectation anymore. But it wasn’t easy. It’s not something that came right away, and in general, I think my way of working is very slow. I need to try things and experiment — this is why it’s experimental — it’s not theory. First, I need to experiment with it, and then I understand what I’m doing.

Well, related to what you’re saying about how you were feeling about gender and voice: I was wondering about the new record being, as the liner notes say, “a record not about being pregnant but a record made with pregnancy.” This fact that it puts voice up front, it seems that the voice is speaking directly. Is that related to the fact that it was written during pregnancy or…?

It was. ItI find it very interesting the fact that, as I said before, all of us, the way you use your body to use your voice is felt completely differently, because you’re speaking with someone inside you, growing, and it’s very weird. [Laughs]

I’m sure.

And wonderful. And I felt, well, I was a bit curious and… I don’t know, it might have happened before, for sure, women recording pregnant and I have no clue. They never mention it. And I find it a bit sad. Then I thought, well, actually, it interests me to know that it’s not a taboo, you know? So, first it was like curiosity: just what it is to — in general — make things grow, you know? And carrying something. And I was carrying the project of the record. At the same time, I was carrying the project of having a baby, and you have to be so cautious in everything and at the same time you move mountains almost. But it’s never been about it. It was just — moving the mountains with what I had with me.

I also wanted to ask about your interest in ASMR. I don’t know how extensive that is or…

F: It’s very strange. First, I never knew about ASMR.

Bartolomé: The first review you had, for The Readymade Ceremony, it was your album before Hand in Hand. It was a lot of talk about ASMR, and we were like, “What is it about?” At first, we were just not paying attention. And you get Pitchfork, and it was really the beginning of you getting critical praise about your music, and it was the headline of the article. Pitchfork was like, “She’s doing this new music blending experimental music with ASMR.” We were like, “OK, maybe we should google it.” And then we discovered this thing, and yeah.

F: It was very surprising.

It’s actually interesting, because I read it elsewhere more than I saw it coming from you. And when I think about it, I don’t feel like your music does the same thing.

Bartolomé: And you never watched it. I told you about it, because I checked, but you never saw a proper ASMR video on YouTube — like, a girl whispering in front of their cam. You have no idea what it is.

F: But for me also, it’s not at all. It can’t be video, because it’s about whispering for me — the interest of whispering. Because it’s not about ASMR; it’s about whispering and field recording. Like when I listen to Luc Ferrari: the reference was Luc Ferrari, it was not ASMR. It’s more French musique concrète, and it’s very erotic, because he’s listening to the sea and a woman speaking and… So there is this, an embodiment; I think they are related to ASMR, but doing more also. It’s like a novel. There is something from literature in it, audiobook.

Bartolomé: Maybe it also has to do with the way you record.

Oh, yeah.

Bartolomé: You really come from a DIY background, and it’s not like “I need to record a voice and I will pay a fancy studio.” It’s just like, “I will record my voice with my laptop or even the built-in mic in your computer.”

F: Yeah. I take my blanket and I record myself under it. [Their baby cries] I can hold him a bit.

Bartolomé: No, it’s okay.

F: And that’s, for me, important. That, for this record, I recorded in studio and, again, in a hotel room and at home. And I like both. I like the proximity of the iPhone or whatever phone it is.

Yeah.

Because it’s great. You can do it everywhere. And also sometimes it’s nice to have a good mic because you can really pronounce the words with something like ASMR.

Yeah, that was actually my question about ASMR. It feels like so much of the functional side of ASMR, which is to produce tingles…

That was never my goal.

Right. And the fact that you manipulate your whispering — you add delay or you layer elements — almost eliminates the possibility of that.

Completely, because it’s never linear. It’s more — I like when there are breaks. Also, I never have a clear purpose of efficiency. That would be the opposite of my way of working. Because I believe in freedom of the listener also. And I hate being told what I have to do, so I’m not at all expecting the listener to do something particular. It would be a bit vulgar to say, “I want you to have pleasure listening.” No. Let’s, together — the listener and the musician — build a shaped form and question it.

That’s interesting. So I actually first encountered your music with Hand in Hand. I think when I first heard it, I was a little bit confused and maybe frustrated with how I should listen to it.

Ah, good! [Laughs]

Yeah, which sounds like it is ideal. Because I couldn’t tell if it was to be listened in an ambient context, like as I was saying earlier. Or if it should be focused listening, and I think it really does lead to a sort of wandering listening.

Good, I love this, this term: “wandering listening” — it’s nice. Because it means that you’re oscillating from one point to another. We just installed my exhibition today for a show I have tomorrow, and it’s about that. It’s fabric connecting parts, and the viewer is in the middle, always trying to find where he is. And I think a listener is sort of the same. Like, there is not one point to listen to; there is more like a walk or something to wander through and find.

You know, actually, I was looking at some of your installation documentation, and there was one that stood out to me. I should have written the title down, but it was with the wanderer’s sack.

Ah, yeah. The Only Luggage of the Lonely Wanderer. It’s the metaphor of the work. There is this bundle, and you don’t know what’s inside, which for me was very important, because you never completely know things, and you don’t want to know. Not because it’s agony, but just because it’s good not to know everything — magical, mystery.

Yeah, it’s very nice. In a couple places I was reading, I’ve seen that you have sort of a troubled relationship with the fact that many of your literary influences are men.

Ah, yeah, I said that some time.

And then, in an interview, 15 Questions was the site, you said, “Also, as a woman I feel it’s important to reinterpret, rephrase things or sounds that were said by men and perform a sex change operation on them.” Which I like, and I kind of want to hear more about that thought…

Well, it’s changing now, because for this record, I was very inspired by Joan Didion, by Marguerite Duras who is a French writer, a woman writer. But when I was writing that, I was reading Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, and then I was thinking, “Damn, it would be so nice to go back to the beat generation, only through a more open point of view, a more gender-open point of view than those dudes drinking and being horrible most of the time.” And even if I was enjoying their books, I didn’t know if I would be friends with those guys, you know? That’s why I really needed an idea to… there’s an exhibition also about redoing some artworks, revisiting that and also because in the history of music, now we discover so many women who made electro-acoustic [music] and [other] things. The history is getting better now, and it’s not only about females in general. How we discover all kinds of minorities that are composers and that they were composers; it was a totally different story. And fortunately now, there are new historians trying to make it more equal. But yeah, narration, being able to, for example, how can I say, invent yourself differently through music. That’s very important.

Yeah, it’s so funny with the beat stuff. Maggie Nelson, who wrote the “cruelty” book that I mentioned earlier, she calls Allen Ginsberg one of the “many-gendered mothers of [her] heart.” So she kind of does a similar thing.

Ah, voila! Exactly! Oh, we have to meet! But it’s easier now I think, because I really feel like when I started music, I was so impressed and I really thought it was difficult as a woman to make music, and that, in 10 years, 15 years, everything has changed and… even to do a soundcheck, it’s way easier now. I wouldn’t say that it’s always easy, but it’s way easier.

Just like, the vibe you get from the sound guy?

Yeah. Things are moving.

I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the cover of Hand in Hand. I think the yoga pose has a nice relationship to what your music does. So I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about where it came from or why you used it.

F: So I did this score for “A Dance A House A Poem,” which is one track of Hand in Hand.

Bartolomé: It’s the first track of Side C.

F: C1. Anyway, which was about the letter A. I published it as a poetry zine, and on the first page was a map of an A-frame house. And I performed it with a friend who’s a dancer. And we just really used the A. And, actually, this score was performed by a CalArts student last year for the Allison Knowles anniversary project. It was really nice to see the student do it. And so, talking these ideas we were looking at postures with the letter A, and we thought about downward dog in yoga, which is really like an A frame and… I loved it, because it was so simple. It’s a letter, it’s a note, it’s a body. So it’s many things [at] the same time; it’s almost magical. Just this perfect symbol. And it’s rotating, the image, the way I did the collage, so there is also this idea of the phase of something, like a clock almost. Changing, like the moon phase. So, since I’m interested in many different arts, it’s true that it was like a kind of metaphor [for] the way I work. Like, I’m going to take a topic and try in several mediums to understand this art, to question it.

Yeah. Part of what I was interested in was also the context it suggested for your music. Where the music, you have an interest in mindfulness via deep listening. But it wouldn’t be quite functional “yoga music.”

No, because there is trouble inside. And, for me, that’s always important, to keep the trouble — in this way, because I think deep listening is about that. If you read Cage or Oliveros, they talk about the noise of the street, and it’s not to act like there is no noise; it’s just to embrace the noise we hear.

Right.

So it’s not just “let’s be quiet” and… it’s more like, “OK, we live in a noisy world, and let’s take the noise with us and try to listen to it” but in the same way the arrangement of flowers on the new record plays with this ambiguity, because it can just look like, “Oh it’s just flowers in a pot.” But it’s also this act of making a bouquet, whether it’s ikebana, and it’s really a philosophy of life, which is, we can think ikebana every day and how to arrange things in a vase and find everywhere this ikebana logic and combine things to make something that is harmonious in the cares of the world. So actually, the two covers tell the same thing.

Which is so interesting, because like what you were saying about mindfulness and meditation, about listening and embracing the noise, is actually probably more at heart with the philosophy of meditation. But when we think about meditation music in the West, it’s like a bastardization of that.

Totally. This is why I like these recordings, because I don’t see them as… I use a lot of words in my latest record, and it’s not to make it nice. It’s maybe to say, “Oh a bird can always pass through the sun.” We’re gonna raise it. We’re gonna take it with us and there is this change, this thing that we don’t control everything and that I bring in joy when I am recording. Surprising sounds.

And then, also I was listening to your very first records, La La La and Roman Angles, and they kind of use songs as the primary source. Do you have any interest in songs still?

Oh, I do. I listen to a lot of pop music and indie rock music, and I enjoy, for example, the latest Low album, because I’ve always loved Low and I feel that they are tremendous at always making songs, but at the same time being so adventurous in the way they treated that. But I think, in that regard, the latest album is the most melodic record I ever made. And maybe one day I’ll make songs, but also I don’t know. I am not a singer at all. And at the beginning, I was trying to make songs that, if we come back to this idea of ikebana, it would be “I have a pot, let’s find the flowers.” And now I’m like “let’s find the flowers, and then let’s find the pot.” I reverse the way.

And I prefer that. So, maybe my songs will never look like songs, but there is this conflict between: should I do “serious” music or should I do “songs?” And, am I a composer or am I just a — not pop in the sense popular, but a… less-educated musician? And DIY vs. education. And I think this kind of social complex or ambiguity between where I am standing interests me. And I’m OK to be in between. And then, if I think of Joan La Barbara or Yoko Ono or even Laurie Anderson, they were always in between. They were not, like, “I’m the composer,” and they were not completely pop musicians either; they were in this kind of tension of the world. And I think this hesitation is for me interesting.

Yeah as you’re saying that, I’m thinking about how it’s been a realm that seemed to open, especially with like — god, I’m just thinking of this Spotify playlist that I keep seeing […] called “Women of Experimental.”

I mean, it’s good in the sense that now people can’t say that they don’t know that there are women in experimental music; it’s a handbook. Like, “Hey, it exists. You should book them.” You can’t say, “I don’t have ideas; this is why I’m not booking them.”

Totally.

But it’s nothing else than a handbook.

And it’s still like a Spotify playlist putting together a “category.” But, that said, I do think about the people who might end up in that playlist and how they are negotiating the fact that they’re expected to be the singer. Julia Holter is coming to mind, how she’s kind of negotiating the fact that she’s expected to sing songs, and she put out Tragedy, which is…

Which is such a great record.

So great. And just refuses that sort of thing for her.

And it’s so nice to call it — the fact that she called her album Tragedy is great. It says what it is, like, “Dude, we were expecting something and you turned it into something else.”

Yeah.

That’s… the real drama.

In that regard, I was just wondering if you feel like that had some of the same impulse, like you’re turned away from songs as your lack of use of voice in your other project at all.

It’s also, I don’t think I always… let’s reverse it. It’s more about desire than disgust. So it’s more, “Oh, I remember that how I listen to, because my dad — he’s still listening to a lot of contemporary music. And so this is what shaped me as a kid. I was, on one hand, as a teenager listening to Nirvana and, I don’t know, Sonic Youth, and then on the other hand listening to Robert Ashley when I was 12. Okay, well let’s… Depending on the time, sometimes I think a desire to acknowledge a part of it and not another and play with it. But this is why I like Robert Ashley also. He made an opera for television. So he was embracing the two worlds: the world of university and the world of domestic manners as TV. And I think it’s nice to navigate between both. I made music for a supermarket last year. I just asked the supermarket, “Can I play the music in your supermarket?” And at first, they were a bit like, “Are you sure? Maybe it’s not good for our staff, because it’s very quiet?”

Whoa.

And I said, “Yes, but let’s try it one day.” I think it’s nice to be in the real world, because this is where we are, but it’s nice to make serious music but also nice to make music for pizza, because this is the way we are made.

That’s great. That’s all I have.

Oh! It’s a good conclusion!

Most Read