Ela Orleans interview by Stewart Smith
Since returning to Glasgow after a spell in New York, Polish-born musican and artist Ela Orleans has become one of the city’s best-loved underground artists, enchanting audiences with atmospheric live shows in which she performs before digitally processed footage of 1960s dancing girls. At Counterflows, she’ll be collaborating with filmmaker Maja Borg, underlining her love of cinema. Drenched in echo and reverb, Orleans weaves her spectral vocal melodies around piano and guitar, sampled strings and beats, and radiophonic blips and oscillations. It all suggests an uncanny blend of Broadcast and Stereolab’s retro-futurist pop fetishism with the occult sonics of Coil and Nurse With Wound, but she’s also an avid fan of the great soundtrack composer Bernard Herrmann and underground hip-hop producer Madlib. It all adds up to the kind of magical DIY pop transmissions heard on her excellent 2012 album Tumult In Clouds, which was inspired by writers who have influenced her creative process: Emily Dickinson, Alestair Crowley, Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Rimbaud, Jacques Derrida, and Tennessee Williams.
You’re originally from Poland and have returned to Glasgow after a few years in Brooklyn. Do you feel the city has changed since your first time here?
I like it because it hasn’t changed much and my friends are pretty much the same solid people as they were 15 years ago. My situation, however, has changed. As a citizen of a country which is now a member of EU, I am now allowed to live here without any restrictions. I also returned to Glasgow with quite a body of work and with some kind of track record of good reviews and performances. I received an immediate attention and support I didn’t expect. Cry Parrot, Monorail, Ladyfest, CCA, and now Counterflows, as well as local musicians and music journalists were keen on it and thanks to their attention and support I can enjoy my place in the Glasgow music scene. I am good at working but terrible at networking. I never sent a demo and asking for favours is the the last thing on my ‘to do’ list, so it kind of confirms my old school way of treading the path with hard work. It’s possible here for me, but can’t tell whether I am just lucky or not.
How do you build your tracks? I understand you usually start on the piano.
Yes, it is quite old school. I usually start with a beat – loops are very handy – and then I write tunes with voice and piano. The ideas pop into my head quite easily, but to flesh the simple tune out and finish it takes quite a lot of time. The work for TV or for the screen is a little bit different, as I have to work around moments. When I talk to directors or producers, they describe the scene using terms for general feelings such as fear, mystery, joy. But of course we all experience those feelings differently, so my task is to really discover the details of each scene. It’s more like building fragments of music and then making them float in the distance or crawl around you. There are techniques to escalate the feeling in music, but because I am very attached to my ways, I just use my ear.
Your music has been compared to Ghost Box and Broadcast in its mix of ’60s pop samples and Radiophonic sounds. Are you happy with those comparisons or would you locate yourself elsewhere?
These comparisons are very pleasing. I definitely am a big fan of all the above, probably because they operate on quite a broad understanding of tune and sound. They cover a lot of music I consider universal and beautiful. It’s hard to tell what is my favourite genre of music though. I think I like those artists whose work has a little bit of everything and brings something new with every listen. Like Bernard Herrmann, like Charles Ives or Madlib. These are my masters. My recent experiment with remixing got me interested in dance music and at the moment I am following that direction, but I constantly refer to Ethiopiques and Bollywood. I am a bit all over the map.
You use film in your live shows. Do you make these yourself? Which directors have been a big influence on you?
The idea is quite new. Mostly, I do my own video illustrations. But I worked with Glasgow based artist Natalie McGowan and I have a video mapping project to work on with with Maja Borg. I love silent movies, French New Wave and 70’s American cinema. Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville,Federico Fellini, Jean Vigo, Chris Marker, John Cassavetes… so many to mention… Renoir, Polanski and modern directors such as Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe or Wong Kar Wai… Lynch of course… obscure stuff too, like Kuchar brothers. I am a movie junkie.
For Counterflows you’re teaming up with artist Maja Borg. What brought you together and can you give us an idea of what you have planned for the show?
I met Maja through our mutual friend Marie Liden, another Swedish filmmaker with whom I collaborate on an acid/techno project called Bläck | Tract. I have a great respect for Maja’s work and it’s great to know that the feeling is mutual. Maja has incredible hearing; there can be no false or embellished notes or sounds in her work. It’s a little like building on silence and letting it guide you. Her proposition to collaborate on this and other projects gives me a lot of confidence and makes me more resourceful when it comes to sound and being disciplined with time and use of melody. It’s very tempting to use scoring for the feature movie or stage time as an opportunity to impress musician friends and ending up with a slightly heavy handed performance. Working with intricate and gorgeous visuals is like working with a string quartet so it dictates the pace and tone of my playing. We will show her newest piece ‘We the others’ co-produced by Dazed Digital which I just scored and I will premiere a few new tracks with Maja’s illustrations. We designed a small screen installation for Counterflows. It’s going to be partially work in progress and introduction to our video mapping project.
You’re also sharing a bill with the Space Lady and Ai Aso. Are you a fan of these artists at all?
I was introduced to Suzy Sound’s work around 2005 when I lived in New York. I am a big admirer and I am very happy that I will share the bill with Space Lady. It is going to be a little bit like meeting a distant relative for the first time. I was not familiar with Ai Aso but I listened to her work recently and I am looking forward to seeing her live set. It is going to be a very special evening for me.
Are there any other artists you’re particularly looking forward to at Counterflows?
The Counterflows program is full of very strong acts. I am particularly looking forward to see Joe McPhee, Roedelius and Stefan Schneider (of To Rococo Rot and Kreidler) and I hope to see as many Glasgow acts as possible.