THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 055
Greetings, my wonderful subscribers. I trust that this finds you well.
Once again, I'm letting you know that I'm going to be doing paid subscriptions for the newsletter starting in November. (I was going to make it next month, but that feels too soon and I'm going to bugging many of you for donations to XRAY's fall membership drive.) This is a way for me to become an even more independent journalist and critic, covering the shit that I want to on a more regular basis and diving into deeper, weirder waters. If you can spare $5 a month for the cause, click here.
As I said last week, there will still be a free version of the newsletter - most like a best of compilation of stuff from the previous month - but paid subscribers will receive all manner of freebies for their support. That will be downloads of free music or e-books, stickers, or whatever else I can dream up. And, if I get 20 paid subscriptions, I'll pick one of you each month to receive a care package of some specially selected vinyl.
To grease the wheels a bit, I already have a gift for new subscribers. My amazingly talented friend Patricia Wolf has graciously handed me a batch of download codes for her recent EP Sotto Le Stelle. It's a gorgeous collection of ambient instrumentals that she performed live last March for the virtual Ferrara Sotto Le Stelle Festival. (Check out a video of her set right here.) If you subscribe any time before November, I'll get you a code to download this wonderful, wonderful music. It's a perfect soundtrack for autumn.
Once again, please consider supporting this little endeavor of mine. I promise to make it worth your while.
Recently, the chatter flooding my Twitter feed concerned Rolling Stone's recent list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. I'm sure you can imagine the general hand-wringing and whinging that went on for the next day or two. It was interesting, though, to get a sense of how the list was put together. A number of writers I follow were asked to vote on their 50 favorite songs—ballots that were then compiled and formed into the tally that hit the Rolling Stone site earlier this week.
I wasn't lucky enough to get asked to participate (and, really, why would I?). But it did get me thinking on how I would have voted... and what kind of list I would put together of the 500 greatest songs ever recorded. Instead of dreaming it, I decided to be it—and to be it in the form of a mix. Or, rather, a series of mixes.
Over the next 25 or so editions of this newsletter, I'm going to be dropping a mix of 20 songs that would be part of The Voice of Energy 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. You can download the first one right here. Do feel free to email me if you'd like the playlist. This first mix runs in a dance/electronic direction. The rest will spin off into different territories.
Now to get on with the show, with my interview with singer/songwriter Alexa Rose and reviews of three new albums. Enjoy.
For as much as I revel in sounds and artists that are aiming at breaking traditional molds and roles or taking already challenging sounds into farther reaches, I still need someone like Alexa Rose in my life. The North Carolina-based singer-songwriter calmly strolls down the well-trod path of folk-pop, unfurling her loving and disappointing memories and observations with a soft twang. It's a sound as cozy as the sweater she wears in her promo picture above, and as carefree as the Polaroids reproduced on the inner sleeve of her new album Headwaters. In the latter pictures, Rose can be found grinning in front of a winding river or standing with arms spread wide on a beach. She seems to feel at ease in the natural world, and it's details from nature—wind, tall yellow pines, "snow 40 inches up in my head"—that mark the mood and seasons of these thoughtful songs.
Headwaters was written in the miasma of the pandemic and slowly constructed over a series of recording sessions in Memphis. The time and place echo through the music. The swing of fine country music and the glow of vintage soul are touchstones, but outlined with a slight urgency to get these feelings out before the hourglass runs out. Since we're talking visual signifiers, the cover art for Headwaters spells it out even more distinctly (see below). Rose looks like the water is threatening to consume her but she seems entirely resigned to that fate. Now that she's gotten the flurry of thoughts and feelings out of her head through this record, she seems at peace. Who knows? Maybe she'll float.
Like so many of us, the pandemic and the shutdown of our normal lives seemed to have a huge effect on your mental health last year. How were you able to break out of the clouds and start working on music?
I think maybe an important piece of it is that I wasn’t able to break out of the clouds. I think music is a great way to process whatever we are reckoning with, and it doesn’t necessarily cure it, it just validates that the feeling is real, which makes you feel less alone. Throughout 2020, were all dealing with daily news cycles that really exposed the brokenness of our world on so many levels - from the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd to environmental disasters. Except we couldn’t distract ourselves from those things with the regular rhythms of life - we had to really sit in them. So I just used writing as a way to process through those things.
Reading the notes on the album, it also feels like you stripped away any filters that you might have had before with songwriting - writing something the night before it needed to be recorded and then knocking it together in the studio the next day. Was that a comfortable thing to do?
I would say I’m a pretty unfiltered songwriter to begin with. I go with my gut and my emotional compass, and often those instincts end up creating a better song than when I try to rationalize a narrative or dwell too long on whether I want to change something. I think you have to feel the song for other people to feel it too, and I stop feeling when I’m trying to analyze or formulate. So it was pretty comfortable for me, possibly even more comfortable because I was really feeling those songs when I wrote them.
Do you feel like the songs changed dramatically, even within that 24-hour period of writing and recording?
Not really. I may have changed one line in "Human," but I can’t remember what it was. The arrangements weren’t even something I had the time to think about, so hearing those new songs come to life with a band so quickly was amazing. I would say “Wild Peppermint” was the most surprising because I wrote it as a piano ballad, but as soon as I heard the drums on it I was in love with the sound and knew it was the right move.
What was it that inspired you to start delving into songwriting and performing?
I honestly don’t remember. I loved acting when I was growing up, so I was used to performing. It was cool with me because I could be someone else. But I was very shy and uncomfortable about singing or sharing songs I had written for a long time. I hated feeling spectated as myself because it's so much more vulnerable. I wrote songs on an electric piano at home, and I'd wait for everyone to go to bed so no one would hear me. But now that vulnerability is what makes me feel like I'm reaching anyone. I guess I just got over it one day. I wouldn't be here without certain angels who encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and made me feel like the thing I was doing was important to share.
Do you remember a point when you felt like you were getting good, that you had hit on something unique to you?
I don’t think there’s ever been a moment where I’ve thought, “I’m good at this now,” but there were moments where I began writing songs where I felt that I conveyed something as honestly as I could, or got lucky with finding the right words at the right time. The cadence of melody, the nuance of words, the textures of the human voice are so incredibly varied across musicians, and sometimes I think about all the little pieces of other artists and that inform my own style, as well as the pieces that are organically and totally my own, and how they are all so murkily embedded that they can’t really be differentiated. Someone will hear my music and say that they hear a totally different collection of artists than someone else. My music will never appeal to anyone - just different people at different times - and to me, all of that time is valuable as long as it’s connecting to someone. So when I’m writing songs that I really, really feel and other people feel them too - that’s when I’m really satisfied with my work.
Where does a song begin for you? Is it a melody or an image you want to use as a lyric or simply trying to capture a mood or a feeling and working from there?
It’s elusive. Usually it’s just a melody that presents itself while I’m driving or doing some other mundane task, and I can assign a feeling and language to that and let it become something. In some rare instances, like with "Pale Golden Flowers," I’ll intentionally capture a story or image. In that case I was trying to capture these stories of my great grandparents in Virginia. Even in that case, I try not to make things too rigidly detailed, so there’s still room to imagine your own story. That song began as something undefined and then the stories just sort of fit right in. It doesn’t ever work for me to sit down with an idea of what the song is going to be about. It’s like painting a cloud, and then saying, “that cloud looks like a giraffe.” I’m just sort of noodling, and then I step back and look at it and decide what form it’s going to take.
What can you tell me about the choice of album artwork for Headwaters?
The album is centered around the fluidity of time, and water is in every song in some form. The photo was my manager’s idea. We shot the cover in February, in a bathtub with a glitter bath bomb from Target.
What comes next for you?
I am writing a new album, just taking it slowly and as it comes to me. I’m also very excited to tour with Headwaters in 2022.
What are you listening to / watching / reading these days?
Proc Fiskal: Siren Spine Sysex (Hyperdub)
Electronic artists have stopped trying to hide the synthetic nature of the sounds they create. Some of that is due to the all-digital means of producing their music—a DDD recording/mixing/mastering chain that is giving so much modern music that sickly gloss. Scottish producer Proc Fiskal has opted to play it like a spin around Rainbow Road at 150cc, drifting into an explosion of colorful pixels and craggy ones and zeros. The source material for Proc's second album comes from a far more analog place: the folk music history of Scotland and Ireland. As he processes them, they keep only a threadbare connection to the original creation. He applies a plunderphonic filter to the droning vocals, chopping them and distorting them with glee. The reedy sting of the bagpipe and dulcimer is recreated as a hyperreal Amiga animation. Flutes and tin whistles are pulled apart in a black hole. The whole album vibrates with that high-pitched digitalism that is disorienting and almost nauseating to subject oneself to for the first few tracks. Given time to adjust to Proc’s vision, it soon feels like the loony wild-eyed freedom of the internet’s earliest days.
Kondi Band: We Famous (Strut)
Chief Boima’s intentions were true when he connected with and remixed the work of Sorie Kondi, the blind musician from Sierra Leone who plays a custom-made 15-pin thumb piano. Like so many projects of this ilk, the idea was to celebrate the talent of this African artist and to help spread the word of his greatness by taking the raw recordings of his playing and giving them a digital once-over with dance beats and dub production touches. We Famous, the second album from this project, is a blast as it stands. The dancefloor drive of Boima’s productions, aided here by Londoner Will LV, is akin to Omar Souleyman’s wedding reception jams spiked with deep house polyrhythms and synth wheezes. But what would it mean to just let the music be—to let the wandering rhythms and occasionally pitchy singing remain unsweetened and unprocessed? It certainly wouldn’t take away one iota of the emotion behind Kondi’s vocals and deeply felt lyrics, and it’s crudeness may have a more immediate impact. I fear that We Famous could slip into the same limbo where so many world music remix albums have wound up after a few months of heavy rotation and DJ set drops.
Satoko Fujii: Piano Music (Libra)
The latest release from the ever-prolific Satoko Fujii is a patchwork. The Japanese artist recorded a batch of short piano improvisations, all based on a theme, and then constructed two long collages out of the parts using editing software. Not the most unusual process (this is basically how all great DJ sets are born), but one that was new to Fujii. And that she refined on a follow-up volume to this album. (Piano Music was originally released in Japan in April; it’s making its North American bow this month.) The two works on the album are pure abstractions, emphasizing the sounds she can pull out of her chosen instrument from the inside. She plucks the strings with her fingers, uses an e-bow on them, or drops chopsticks on them. What comes out are, on “Shiroku,” squeaks and whines like whale song, underpinned by a long sustain echoing into oblivion. Or on “Fuwarito,” the plucking takes on a childlike quality, dancing with no set rhythm and making faces all the while. In the press notes for Piano Music, Fujii talks about how she forced herself to take her time with these pieces and let segments stretch out rather than giving into an urge to switch things up quickly. That comes across so strongly in these two patient, playful works. Even amid the clamor and scratchy energy, it exudes waves of soothing energy and calm.
Thanks for reading all this way. Before I let you go, let me share with you some work I've had published recently.
I'm continuing to do a weekly column for Oregon Arts Watch where I preview one upcoming concert and review two performances that happened the week prior. This time around, I spoke with the abundantly talented Arooj Aftab ahead of her Sunday night show at Holocene and reported on the first Portland performance of Latin pop artist Mariá Isabel and one of a handful of gigs that visiting artist Shahzad Ismaily undertook while visiting the city.
For Willamette Week, I profiled the ambient duo Liila. They were not happy with what I wrote.
Finally, I put together the 300th episode of my radio show Double Bummer for XRAY. I'm still a little shocked that I've kept at it this long, but glad that I have. Check it out if you have a couple of hours to spare.
That's all for this week. Back again next Friday with my interview with the great Thalia Zedek (for real this time). And, again, I hope you will consider becoming a paying subscriber. Help support a writer trying to gain control again and get some cool free shit in return.
RIP Pee Wee Ellis, Julz Sale, and Richard H. Kirk.
Artwork for this week's edition is by Sergine Andre, a Haitian artist represented by Gallerie Monnin in Port-au-Prince.