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Ceremony Of Gathering: Félicia Atkinson & Chicaloyoh Interviewed
David McKenna , May 15th, 2015 13:39

David McKenna talks to two artists from the French label and publishing house, founder Félicia Atkinson and Alice Dourlen, aka Chicaloyoh, about their new releases, taking influence from Edgar Allan Poe and Georges Bataille and why they are "too weird for most people"

Shelter Press self-describes as a "nomadic, artist-run organisation, building up dialogues between contemporary art, poetry and experimental music". Since 2011, it has been releasing records, zines and collections of poetry, as well as organising exhibitions. Music releases include founder Félicia Atkinson under her own name and as her Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier moniker, Pete Swanson, Ben Vida, High Wolf and Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Alice Dourlen, aka Chicaloyoh (interviewed below) whose new EP is due for release shortly.

Atkinson, who runs Shelter Press with Bartolomé Sanson, has indeed been nomadic, growing up in Paris with a Polish mother and a French father before moving to Brussels, and describes travel like an ever-changing constant in her life. "But Bartolome and I were dreaming of nature and we were both hired by the art university in Annecy to create experimental projects there. We took the opportunity to move into the mountains, in a little village."

It sounds idyllic, and Atkinson does little to dispel that idea when I ask about her surroundings. "Right now, it's 7.30 pm and the light is golden over the mountains. I am listening to Harold Budd's record, Perhaps, on Root Strata, and it melts perfectly with the birds. Someone is burning dry leaves and it smells very good. From my couch I see the sheep eating grass and it's a very mellow evening. I think I'm gonna pour myself a glass of wine before cooking a vegetarian curry!"

This does somewhat belie the perturbing undercurrents running through her most recent release, A Readymade Ceremony - Atkinson herself calls it 'scary'. Occasional phrases leap out at you but it's more in suggestion, insinuation, Atkinson's voice close in your ear amid the charged, crackling atmospherics.

Did you know in advance what kind of effect you wanted to achieve?

Félicia Atkinson: In French there is one word I cherish relating to fear: 'l'effroi' [which translates as 'fright']. I think it strikes me because my first important musical memories as a child were music I found petrifying and attractive at the same time, such as L'enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel, Apocalypse de Jean by Pierre Henry, Inuit throat songs and a bit later, Nevermind by Nirvana. Also, my friend Pete Swanson (who has had releases on Shelter) told me to listen to Ruth White. I found her so scary and mesmerising, for example when she interprets Baudelaire's Flowers Of Evil. That was one of the biggest inspirations for the record I think. But also I was interested in making a music that would bring very abstract elements, that would host contradictions. How could I be narrative and abstract at the same time? 'A poem as an argument': that was the hypothesis of the record.

A variety of texts feed into the album: there are extracts from René Char and Georges Bataille but also your own. Can you tell me more about your book Improvising Sculpture As Delayed Fictions, which was previously published on Shelter?

FA: I had, a couple of years ago, the wish to publish a book about my visual works that would take the shape of a real book, something other than the fanzines and artists' books I am used to making with Shelter Press. It was important for me since I don't exhibit that much in France, I wanted to be able to share the work more easily.

But I wanted to be able to show my process of work, that includes improvisation and also a consciousness of space and time, like in a novel or a record. I was in artist residency in a place called Rupert, in Vilnius, Lithuania, and while talking with Bartolomé, I realised I had to intertwine images with a text. I guess I was somehow inspired by the Lithuanian artist Raimundas Malašauskas.

The objects would come to speak, so encountering the works themselves would be like meeting fictional characters. They would speak in English, which is not my first language. I wanted them to be foreigners. I am from an immigrant family and the feeling of being an immigrant is something that I find very deep, almost like a philosophy of working and leaving. Being an immigrant and renting places, that's the fate of the travelling man, and this is the way I've been raised and keep living. So in the end we decided to conceive a pocket book, a pocket book with black and white images in broken English for the travelling reader!

Your mother was Polish but Atkinson isn't an especially French name either…

FA: It's an English name! I love England! I regret playing so rarely there, even though I've released a bunch of records on English labels - O Rosa, Home Normal, Hibernate and Fluid Audio. I don't know why actually. France is not that far from England! I love to go to London; I would love to live there actually, it's one of my favorite cities. Neil Atkinson, my great grandfather was English. He was a veteran, working as a radio operator in the navy to fight the Germans during World War I. This is how he met, on the French north coast, my great grandmother who lived until she was 108 years old. They split up when their kids were still young, but his way of fighting inspired my grandpa, who was also in the Resistance and fought the Germans during World War II. After the war he helped the French family that hid American soldiers just before the end of the war to meet again when peace came and stay in touch. He received two medals and his archives are now stored at the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.

On A Readymade Ceremony, I'm always drawn to the phrase "second track of the compilation, a French artist from the 70s" - possibly because it's repeated (or because it's the kind of mental notation I make quite regularly).

FA: Aha! It's also an extract from Improvising Sculpture As Delayed Fictions. I listen to a lot of 70s music, and I was thinking of Catherine Ribeiro for example. I love her music but I feel I can't listen to it the 'naïve' way my American or English friends listen to it, without understanding the lyrics. I feel sometimes disrupted by the lyrics actually. This sentence is inspired by this feeling, but the track I'm referring to in the song and the compilation doesn't exist per se, it's a fiction. I loved also the idea of speaking of a song inside a song, like a Russian doll. I love songs that speak about songs. I noticed it especially twice: in Neil Young and in Mount Eerie and each time I was very interested in the twist it provokes in the listen.

The longest track on the album is called 'L'Oeil' ['The Eye']. What does the eye mean in this context? It sounds erotic, in the sense of 'le regard' ('the gaze'), but also conjures up an idea of 'cinema for the ears'. In your notes for the album, though, you talk about asking a "sweater or an electronic device to speak".

FA: Of course there is a reference to Bataille's book L'histoire de l'oeil but not only. I was thinking also of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, when he writes "shut your eyes and see". The eye, in many cultures, is a door. So is the ear. One can shut, but not the other. They are not in sync and this disjunctive rhythm they provoke while closing and opening is for me very musical. Also, the act of recording someone whispering in a musical piece, especially if you consider that the listener might listen with headphones, is something very violent and intimate at the same time. It gets very close and very 'into' you, without asking.

I am also interested in the possibility of reversing genres, or at least blurring the frontiers: passive objects like a sweater or an electronic device would begin to speak, a woman could 'get inside' a man with her voice and the song could be a device, a gate, between someone who's absent - the musician - and who's present, the listener. Let's say it's a song that deals with some kind of politics of emancipation through eroticism... how roles and genres can fluctuate more, for there to be less of a dichotomy.

The recording was put together on a laptop, but how about the origins of the sounds? How do you improvise with a variety of sound sources, samples and field recordings, for example?

FA: It's a very good question. I recorded the field recordings from my walks in the Alps with the inner microphone of my laptop and my phone; for example, the storm and the rain, the sheep, the horses, the birds, the waterfalls... I twisted them with delay, distortion and echo. I purchased a Copicat tape echo that I use a lot when I play live also. I am interested in the juxtaposition of very digital and very analogue sounds.

But in addition to this, there was a Celtic harp and some percussive instruments that were in my attic studio, and recordings of sounds made by the objects and art pieces that were around me, such as paper, stones, plastic. I also used some basic instrument sample notes from GarageBand such as violins and pianos that I played with the keyboard of the computer. I recorded some Fender Rhodes on the Oregon coast with my computer. I loved the 'TV feel' of the Rhodes: it's like watching an 80s crime show, it has a special colour for me. It reminds me also of some sounds from Suzanne Ciani's works for commercials that I really like.

You also apparently used the 'Martenot method' - can you tell me more about that?

FA: Between the ages of four and seven, I studied music at the public musical conservatory, in the centre of Paris. I had a great teacher who taught us music with the Martenot method. Maurice Martenot was also the inventor of the wonderful electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot. After seven I tried classical training, while learning harp and piano. I had a great harp teacher but I wasn't happy with the learning to read music. I quit around 12 and then felt very shy about playing music until my late teenage years. I wish I had been taught the Martenot method the whole time! It's a very playful and intuitive method where children are asked to 'speak' the rhythm with their voice. It's pedagogy based on the pleasure of making music.

At the same age I discovered, also at the public school, the instruments created by the Baschet brothers, that are supposed to be melodic even if you don't know how to play them. These are also amazing instruments. I have a project where I would love to record with the ondes Martenot and Baschet instruments, but it will take me a bit of time and I can't speak about it properly yet...

What is the ceremonial aspect of the album? I know in the case of two writers who influenced you for this album, Genet and Artaud, ceremony is significant.

FA: Improvisation deals a lot with the ceremonial, I think. You look for a kind of epiphany while you play, a transformation. You convoke something that doesn't yet exist but has to happen. Sometimes nothing happens. There is a feeling of responsibility also. Why add more music to the world? Then you ask yourself, is this music mine or just belonging to the world already? It's a ritual for sure. A ceremony, also, in the sense that it's also a gathering.

A readymade is an object that has changed its status. It has been, somehow, 'turned', like a vampire, by the space. The changing of formats, whether it occurs through a download, a ceremony or cooking interest me a lot. Those leads brought me to the title of my record. Artaud sent sorts [curses or spells] to people. Like many musicians or artists, I see music as a kind of exorcism where the battle between the balanced and the unbalanced meet. I think I like when it stays unresolved.

'Against Archives' is the name of another track on the album. Again, literary influences are important to the album, but deployed in a non-hierarchical way. Is that the idea?

FA: Absolutely. I don't believe so much in academics, even though I teach - try to un-teach - now at university. I am more interested in self-taught people, who build and steal ideas and forms from various contexts, gather things that don't obviously pair together.

Of course, the title is also about our digital world, where everything seems to be archived and controlled. I am not against technology at all, but sometimes I dream of real-time electronic devices where there would be no 'save' buttons, just direct flows. But maybe it exists already? This is also why half of my live shows are improvised, so it stays strange, risky and moody.

What, for you, separates Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier from work under your own name?

FA: I closed the Petit Chevalier project last New Year's Eve. That name was just a way, again, to shape-shift. A name that was a masculine sentence, derived from a song by Nico, referring to wartime. "I am the little knight". It was a kind of a weapon for me, I chose that name at a moment where I needed it to try new sounds, and I left the name when I didn't need it anymore. It's very like Arya in Game Of Thrones in a way.

How did Shelter Press evolve? When did you realise you had a job on your hands working as a label and publisher?

FA: Bartolomé ran an amazing DIY publishing house and cassette label called Kaugummi for several years. In 2011 he decided to end it. He explained all of his reasons in a great "manifesto". From those ashes we decided to create a more flexible platform, Shelter Press, that would host artistic and musical projects, research and events.

You know, I am not asked that much to contribute to things, I guess because I am pluridisciplinary and non-specialists are a bit too weird for most people. And we figured out there were other artists like that, without belonging to galleries; nomads. Shelter Press was meant to be a threshold for this kind of artist. Also, more and more, we like to think of the status of the document: how can it be something more than just another archive, to come back to your former question. So we try to imagine books and records that can be a starting point to other projects, rather than only a testimony of some kind.

With Shelter Press, we travel a lot, and this experience of passing through landscapes, whether it is the Mojave Desert or Lithuania, is our moving desk. We find ideas while walking by the sea shore, drinking coffee in foreign cities and road trips.


One of the likeminds drawn to Shelter is Alice Dourlen, who records as Chicaloyoh. Dourlen first released an album with them in 2013, a truly song-based excursion after a number of more free-form essays in incantation. Folie Sacrée was music for nights on a bare mountain, whereas the new, more plushly decorated Les Sept Salons EP reeks of fin de siècle decadence, red rooms and moral turpitude.

Vocally, the aforementioned Catherine Ribeiro might be an antecedent, and there are also inevitable Nico comparisons.

"I didn't like it when my father played Nico and The Velvet Underground at home," says Dourlen, "but I think it went in anyway and later I realised I like it. But I think it's really just the deep voice. And my terrible accent!"

Did you find the voice quickly? It's not a 'head' voice, like someone singing in the shower.

Alice Dourlen: I think I need to work on it a lot to find… normally I sing better high-pitched but I don't want to sing like that, I want to sing low, it goes better with my music so I really have to work at it. What are 'les sept salons' ('the seven lounges') of the new EP?

AD: They comes from a story by Edgar Allan Poe. They're mentioned very briefly, he just says that he's been in seven different rooms with different atmospheres, with different music, and I immediately had a desire to do something with this idea. I imagine my songs like a room with a particular atmosphere and a specific story inside… I can even imagine colours, decoration...

Edgar Allan Poe seems like a good fit…

AD: It's funny because a lot of people have said, 'Oh. obviously it fits your approach so well', but I had never really paid that much attention. As a result I started reading him a bit and there is a song of mine called 'A Man In A Street' - when I realised there was a Poe story with a very similar title ['The Man Of The Crowd'] I was 'woah'. But it's not really the same subject matter.

You were originally planning to have seven songs and a painting to go with each - has that all become concentrated in the three songs on the EP?

AD: Things changed eventually - I preferred recording what I had been doing in my live show for about a year and then focusing on another project, because at the same time I started writing poems in French and wrote a short book I'm going to publish myself very soon, accompanied by a cassette with sung versions of three of my poems. I'm really looking forward to it!

Do the three tracks still represent different atmospheres for you?

AD: Oh yes, completely. There are two very different parts, one in English and one in French. 'The Sound of His Tenderness' is the story of a girl who becomes possessed, mentally and physically, it's quite violent, even if the music is fairly gentle. I tried recording shouts and sobbing to depict this woman's distress more precisely. For the other songs, or maybe just one of them… I was reading quite a lot of quite dark and erotic French literature at that moment, and I said to myself that if I wanted to be more faithful to that I could sing in French, something which up until now seemed a difficult option for me. So I was able to bring together all the words and sounds I liked most and make a sort of poem, with rhyming and so on, it was great. I carried on when I headed off on tour, and I liked writing when I was very tired, I felt like I was getting closer to an interior truth.

What was your problem with singing in French?

AD: I hadn't really tried it before. Maybe it seems weird but it's a lot harder to sing, as much for how it sounds as for what it represents. I've hidden a lot behind effects and a language that isn't my own, but this time I wanted something that felt more in phase with who I am. I've gone through the barrier and now I think it's something I'd really like to explore!

The instrumentation on the EP seems much fuller that the skeletal Folie Sacrée - did it take a while to record?

AD: No, it was pretty quick actually, as I'd been doing the set for a while already, but I was able to take longer to create arrangements and really get across the emotions and the particular mood of each song.

Does the more structured approach come easily?

AD: I always start by improvising in my room and I make a note of everything that seems… good, because I record everything and just keep what seems interesting.

So the song comes gradually then, through that process?

AD: Yes. Generally I sing a sort of 'yaourt' [it means yoghurt, but also a succession of sounds with no particular meaning] to begin with.

Are the scenarios of your songs largely imagined?

AD: There's a lot of imagination. I talk about things that are sad and serious, even murky; there's a song that's about incest. I don't know why, it's not lived, it's just a world that I like, one that's sombre. I don't really know why. Since I was little I've been drawing some pretty dark things, and my grandmother would say, 'Are you sure you're ok, why are you drawing these sad men?' and I would say: 'But I'm fine!' It's just something I really like exploring.

I guess you're not alone in having a taste for the macabre, particularly in fiction.

AD: It's a good way maybe of just getting some things out of your system and feeling better afterwards, I don't know.

Do you feel better yourself, after a show for example?

AD: Yes, after a tour particularly. It's exaggerated to say that it's like therapy but it's always very intense and then when I get home I only have one desire really, and that's to get straight to work because I've become aware of all the things that weren't working, that maybe I didn't have a handle on, things I wanted to explore more but didn't.

Is there a degree of modernity in what you do?

AD: I don't think so. It's possibly even old fashioned, particularly as I'm interested at the moment only in old things, old films and so on, so I don't think I'm creating something new… well, I am in the sense that it's my way of looking at things but not my way of looking at the modern world. Perhaps at some point I'll have a desire to say something more politically engaged, but for now it's more linked to psychological states, feelings.

How did you come into contact with Shelter Press?

AD: Long story! I met Bartolomé at lycée [upper secondary school], he was my first boyfriend, we started out together under the name 'joliszines' - I drew and he would publish my drawings in the form of fanzines. He really motivated me to release my first CD-Rs, to record and draw. Since then we've stayed best friends, we're still in touch and I really enjoy going to recharge at their place in the mountains.

A Readymade Ceremony by Félicia Atkinson and Les Sept Salons by Chicaloyoh are both out now on Shelter Press