Mantric Sensibilityby Roger Young / 24.05.2011
Ella Joyce Buckley’s moody, atmospheric and self recorded Sway Church EP is now out on Righard Kapp’s Jaunted Haunts label, a follow up to her willfully naïve and enchanted debut, For Astraea. She has just finished recording her second full album. A native South African, she now lives in New York. We spoke to her about the process of realising an album, the viability of modern folk and the violence of her new album.
Ella: What do you want to talk about?
Mahala: Why do you live in New York and record here?
Ella: I live in New York because I wanted to live in a big city where I didn’t know anyone. Now I know people there but that was one of the motives. A very attractive feature. I first went to America with the idea to study arrangement in Boston and then I hated that, took a bus to New York, loved it. I’m recording here now, because I was going to do it there but decided against it. I’ve worked with Dirk Hugo before, he’s mastered some of my stuff, and I just thought to myself, he knows exactly what I want, how I want to do it. He respects my idiosyncratic way of doing things. He wanted me to be able to fulfill my vision without me thinking about limitations and what I cannot do, because I often record myself.
So have you recorded everything else you’ve done yourself?
Ella: No. The first album I did with an old friend of mine. I just started writing songs and he said: “Hey, wellI’ve kind of got a small set up in my bedroom. Would you like to put some of the stuff down?” and I did and then Righard Kapp wanted to put it out.
That was here?
Ella: That was here before I moved overseas.
Do you perform in New York?
Ella: Uh huh. I do.
Ella: For a while I had a band and we performed whenever we could. Little loft parties or a few venues around Brooklyn and Manhattan. Zebulon is my favourite.
And that band, how different is that to your recorded stuff?
Ella: Well it was still my material. It was just… I really wanted the chaos of playing with a bunch of guys and just kind of losing it, where I could not play any instruments. I sometimes played electric guitar but I mostly enjoyed just singing and running my voice through different pedals. There is a violence that I haven’t included in my past work, which is in the album that I am recording now.
So you didn’t perform while you were here this trip?
How often do you perform here?
Ella: Hmmm. I used to. I performed a couple of times, maybe about two years ago. When I came back last time, I had a show at The Waiting Room. And this time I was going to play a show. We were going to do a Jaunted Haunts showcase of all the people on the label and it’s just been crazy with recording now. And I just didn’t want to compromise anything and if I play again, I’d like to play my new material and that would require rehearsing with other people.
Which is going to take a lot more time.
Ella: Yeah and I’m really dedicated to doing this album in the right way and I just didn’t feel like doing it that way. I don’t like compromising.
And you’ve released everything on Jaunted Haunts?
Does that stuff go out in New York as well as here?
Ella: Because of the internet it doesn’t really matter. Because it’s up there so people can access it. This next album, I’m not quite sure how I am going to do it. I probably will do it through Jaunted Haunts here and then we’ll see there.
So what’s the relationship like with Jaunted Haunts? Do you have total freedom?
Ella: Total freedom. Absolute freedom. Of course Righard wouldn’t put out anything that he doesn’t like, but I think he’s quite giving in a way that he’s interested in sort of documenting the journey of a particular artist. He’s not going to say, “I don’t like this body of work but I like that.” He is interested in putting things out, even the stuff in between, and Sway Church was definitely something inbetween the last album and this one that I am recording now.
Did you have these songs before you came to record this album?
Ella: Yes. And they have changed.
How did that process work? How did you get the point where you said “OK, this is an album andnow I must record it”?
Ella: I’m quite insular regarding the creative process and I mean obviously I don’t really have much of a music career but I write songs every single day and I had about a hundred of them. And I was, like, well I’d like to do something with some of them and I just kind of chose ones that felt like they came from a similar place, and had a particular relationship with each other. I think the idea behind this album was something that initially was going to be very monolithic, like a sculpture, like lots of layers of sound all together, like a column and then I would just carve away at them with Dirk. We were going to record them from scratch here, because I did a lot of demos. In fact, writing this album, before I’d always just written on instruments, I became less interested in instruments. So they were written whilst recording the demos at my place and there are so many things I didn’t realize. I don’t know how to record “properly” so I’d be doing it with dictaphones and then re-recording them into this and then slowing them down and da-dada and we’ve used a lot of my original recordings. He is able to clean them up and help them sit in a certain way.
You say you had 100 and something songs, how do you choose where you were going to start?
Was that based on how they were recorded when you’d done them? Firstly you said you weren’t interested in instruments, so what does that mean?
Ella: Well, my idea was sometimes I’ll write something with guitar but I don’t want it to be a guitar song, but I need to get there and not inhibit myself it’ll be written straight from something that I know. ButI’d prefer the music to be more of an environment and not specific to an instrument because there are certain things instruments do that you can’t get away from, and that’s the whole fucking genre thing. You listen to something and you go: “Oh, this is a guitar song. This is this. This is that.” But if you hear it just as music…. I want it just to be as music.
So does, like you say, slowing shit down and re-recording it, does that put you in a space where you are kind of creating new instruments as you go?
Ella: Absolutely. I love the way a session looks, on Pro Tools, if you look at that it’s absolutely beautiful, like a microcosm. And I wanted to really capture that in the music. So perhaps I’d come upwith a line on a guitar or I play this alpine zither that I kind of re-purposed to a point that it doesn’t sound like a zither anymore. And you comeup with a melody line on a guitar initially, and then you play the different notes on different things and then you blend them together and it becomes its own thing but them you can listen to it in an objective way. However, my relationship with objectivity is quite subjective, so that’s a fun contradiction.
Does that mean you have to constantly create new ways creating because obviously when people first invented the guitar it didn’t have those connotations, so like as you’re making new sounds for songs, those songs start to become Ella Joyce Buckley sounds. The connotation starts to become you.
Ella: Yeah. So then it’s not objective but in that struggle for objectivity, there is a freedom in that. It’s like life; it’s two steps forward one step back and so you seek freedom and then you find a new type of control and then you seek freedom again and then you find a new type of control and I’m really into it now and I just don’t want to be stuck.
In terms of producing music and then performing it, when does it become a way of life in terms of making money from it because that’s surely if you get to a point where you are actually surviving off your music, that becomes another form of control? But you haven’t reached that point yet?
Ella: No, I haven’t and it’s partially my own fault but I’m happy that way because I like the place I’m in now. I can bartend pretty well. I do think about it but unfortunately I don’t think about it enough. I probably should because if you get to that place you can do so much more. You have a lot moretime to record. But having jobs that aren’t what you’d like to be, when you come home from workyou’re so desperate because you’ve been stuck in that survival mode. You need to be fed by something else and you really fight for it more. Fight to find the pith of who you are through what you create.
The kind of music you make you wouldn’t be able to make a living out of in South Africa, it’s just…
Ella: Maybe. Maybe not.
I don’t think so. I know bands that don’t make similar music but are in a similar space, like Inge’s solo projects and The Frown or Miss Texas or any of the Jaunted Haunts musicians. But where you are in New York surely you could?
Ella: That’s the thing… people think that. There are a lot of musicians in New York and I know people who are doing very well and still not making any money. People ask me this and they assume that because I’m a musician, yes I love music, I love making music, that I moved to New York as a career move and I didn’t. I moved there for a particular environment, a circumstance that I could be rubbed up against. For situations that are completely beyond my control and to be anonymous and to be part of a dialogue that was desperate for essence because a lot people move there for that reason and I actually find myself connecting more with people that are in the art world than in the music world and I like that. But there is this wild energy in New York and it’s really difficult. I had it much easier here, in Cape Town, and it is intriguing finding outhow to survive and I think that helps. To speak to me about a music career, I’m really the wrong person to speak to about stuff like that. Unfortunately it just doesn’t entirely feature for me and it should. Plus, I really enjoy working in obscurity.
I find it fascinating that people that think primarily about music careers tend to make very bad music or maybe bad is not the word, very overtly accessible music. Music that doesn’t shift you.
Ella: Well it’s a different kind of connection. They are trying to maybe connect with appreciation as opposed to connecting with something inside themselves. It’s really beautiful to watch someone trying to connect with something about themselves that they don’t understand.
Well a standard 4/4 pop song about a very simple emotion can appeal to a broad range of people but it’s an appeal as oppose to a connect.
In New York you have the chaos and all the desperation but it’s kind of like you came back here to record. Is it safer to record here?
Ella: No. It has nothing to do with South Africa, nothing to do with Cape Town, nothing to do with coming back, nothing to do with that. It’s purely about Dirk Hugo because he knows what I want to do and he understands what I want to do and he knows how to facilitate that and I want to work with someone like that and I have tried working with other people. Maybe I haven’t found other people but it’s not really important. It’s one person. Regardless of where he lives, I just happen to know him from when I lived here. It’s nice being back here, for other reasons, for the emotional temperature and the natural landscape.
In the choice of songs you brought over and chose to do is there any overriding thematic and I’m not talking just lyrically, I’m talking, like, besides chaos?
Ella: Yes there is, definitely. I chose the songs that were the most forthright.
Forthright in terms of?
Ella: I chose songs that were very open, musically; they’re actually very simple. Forthright by content. Honest. I chose songsthat were governed by repetition. I’m really into that. Before I was kind of ornate and all these kind of little frills and all that kind of thing, I was quite charmed by that and I’m not anymore. I love repetition and how repetition changes constantly and so the songs I chose for this, they are very, very cyclical and they repeat and they are kind of like these long trains. I chose songs that I connected with the most. There’s mind, body and spirit and they are all quite un-compounded and everybody has that and everybody has their medium where they feel it unites the important elements and for me it’s music. The songs I have chosen for this album represents this. These are the songs that I needed to record now and I knew that and that’s why I’m recording them.
When will it be finished?
Ella: Tonight. I leave tomorrow. I’ve given myself up totally to circumstance. I mean I would love to record this over a year and be very da-dada but you can’t. You just have to let all that shit go and we’ll do a bit of mixing over the internet and choices and all that stuff but it’s finished tonight and it is what it is.
*Ella Joyce’s Sway Church EP and For Astraea are available through Jaunted Haunts.