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A Quietus Interview

Shut Your Eyes And See: Félicia Atkinson Interviewed
David McKenna , October 7th, 2019 05:59

Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Semibreve festival in Braga, Portugal, the French musician talks to David McKenna about nature, nurture and musicians as “machines that constantly need rebooting”

Photography by Stine Sampers

As part of my preparation for this piece, I spent a considerable amount of time with my head next to a speaker trying to understand exactly what Félicia Atkinson is whispering on ‘L’Après-Midi’, the opening track on her beautifully unquiet latest album The Flower And The Vessel. It’s just Atkinson’s voice, following a momentary rustle as a recording device or microphone is turned on or adjusted.

Atkinson’s music pulls you in like that, asks you to adjust your attention and be receptive to tiny details, slight fluctuations, changes in tone. As it draws you closer, it also starts to flow into you – whispers (more than screams) penetrate your ears, trickling in. The phrase that comes into focus on ‘L’Après-Midi’ is “à l’interieur et… à l’exterieur”, which perhaps encapsulates her concerns on the album (and not only on this record – there are always the “microcosmic and macrocosmic levels” as she says below). Inner and exterior landscapes; life growing within you - Atkinson was pregnant during the making of the record - and without you; vibrations in the air processed as sound within our auditory cortex.

She also references Japanese floral art Ikebana, a sculptural approach to the presentation of cut flowers and branches. They can be arranged to seem ‘alive’ but can also be positioned and decorated in rather unnatural ways – painted, placed at various angles – while retaining an overall balance, according to the symbolism of the various plants, and a structural harmony. It’s not a stretch to see this as analogous to Atkinson’s work with sound, with each element having its own resonance or private symbolism. Ikebana also chimes with the way nature, and field recordings, are incorporated into The Flower And The Vessel’s 11 tracks.

Atkinson and her partner Bartholomé Sanson, with who she runs the marvellous label and publishing ‘platform’ Shelter Press, are currently based in Rennes, and I started by asking her about life in Brittany’s capital.

Last time I interviewed you, you were living in the mountains not far from Annecy. Now you’ve been living in Rennes for a while. How have you experienced the contrast between the two? I’m interested in the fact that there’s some fantastic 20th-century architecture in Rennes that is never mentioned in the guides, as if the city had stopped in the 19th Century.

Félicia Atkinson: I spent 28 years in Paris, then five in Brussels then two in the mountains, and now we’re in Rennes (although I’m replying from New York). I loved living in the mountains, but it wasn’t straightforward travelling so much when you’re based in a hamlet with a population of 30. The architecture in Rennes is interesting up until the 70s. After that it’s a massacre orchestrated by developers. Beautiful houses are being demolished every day at the moment because of property speculation.

For example, there was a wonderful, near-wild garden that I could see from my window and which hundreds of birds had made their home. And one morning, all the trees were ripped out so that a private swimming pool could be built. It broke my heart. The public parks are my favourite thing here, I spend a lot of time in them with my child. But soon we’re going to embarking on a six-month artist residency in Switzerland, which is near the mountains actually, by a lake.

I like moving regularly, it keeps me alert and curious, but at the same time I think I’m going to have to settle somewhere at some point because travelling a lot is also tiring.

For the time being anyway the travelling continues. To what degree is The Flower And The Vessel informed by your travels? For its atmosphere but also in the sonic material itself, are there sounds recorded on the road?

FA: All my records are inspired by what I see and hear around me. For The Flower And The Vessel I was very much inspired by the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest of the United States where I recorded a good deal of the album, particularly Olympic National Park.

I recorded half the album in a studio on Portland and Montreuil and the other half on different beds, on my laptop with headphones and a MIDI keyboard.

You’ve said that The Flower And The Vessel is “a record not about being pregnant [but] a record made with pregnancy.” Does that link to the sonic richness of the album, compared to the at times more austere Hand In Hand?

FA: With Hand In Hand I was looking at plants in the desert and, yes, the relationship with arid environments as spaces for creation, in science fiction, architecture, yoga and gardening.

On The Flower And The Vessel I’m more interested in creation as it relates to water and the relationship between a container and its contents, like with ikebana and raku (a Japanese technique for firing earthenware). But each time it’s always about a dialogue between microcosmic and macrocosmic levels.

In keeping with that, one of the tracks on the album - ‘Lush’ - has a much more literal title than usual. Was it a working title that you kept?

FA: Yes that’s totally right. In my head I could see a Henri Rousseau scene. Then I started thinking about Midori Takada.

Another aspect that is perhaps linked to pregnancy is the way nature in present in the album, the sense that through pregnancy you feel connected to creation in the broader sense - although it’s something I’m not likely to be able to verify myself.

FA: Nature has always been important to me. The notion of care and kindness as well. I think that even without being pregnant, and whether you’re a man, a woman or non-binary, you can very well appreciate the sensation of carrying life inside you, in a literal or figurative sense. Keeping the flame, the inspiration, the vital energy going, not letting it be extinguished. Our planet is in the process of disappearing and every one of us should maintain this sense of goodwill towards nature, others and the world in general.

On ‘Open/Ouvre’ there’s a line about the “creation of vessels”. Are vessels important to how you view creation? As it happens, I find that in listening to your music you can feel like a vessel that’s being filled up.

FA: We can certainly talk about communicating vessels, as André Breton put it. There are exchanges of energies that happen when you’re listening to music, whether it’s a recording or a concert.

What do you think about the associations being made between your music and ASMR? Does that come from you, do you have any thoughts on it? Previously you’ve said that terror was important in your music, which seems antithetical to the spirit of ASMR?

FA: I’m not too interested in labels. What does interest me is whispering. It’s more complex than ASMR because whispering has more than one function. It can reassure or frighten you. Sometimes we whisper so we won’t be heard, and sometimes to be better heard. It’s that ambivalence that interests me.

Speaking of terror, there are definitely terrifying moments on the album, such as on ‘You Have To Have Eyes’, where your voice creates an implacable rhythm that’s both mechanical and organic. I suppose the title suggests that it’s about ‘sounds you can see’ as well.

FA: James Joyce wrote “shut your eyes and see.” The track in inspired by an interview with outsider artist St EOM, he heard voices while he was working. I’m interested in music as a conduit to invisible worlds, whether they are rational or not, and this track tries to express that.

Is it mixing that takes you the longest on your albums? Creating these composite, hybrid environments out of diverse sonic materials, does it take you a while to find a way for them to co-exist?

FA: I don’t know. It’s often a back and forth between mixing and recording. I compose in a similar way to how I sculpt or draw, I think of music as a space.

Can you tell me about your collaboration with Stephen O’Malley, who I believe you’ve known for a while? Did it happen spontaneously, or did you have him in mind for the album? You’ve also worked with Jenny Hval recently.

FA: It was Stephen, who’s a friend, who offered to record with me for his show on Red Bull Radio. He brought a book by Roger Caillois, which as it turns out is one of my favourite books. The recording was highly serendipitous. Stephen’s an incredible musician who has great instincts and is very used to collaborating. I think he knew straight away what we were going to do. I’m very grateful for it. With Jenny, we have a common acquaintance Lasse Marhaug who produced her latest album and who put us in touch. I like Jenny’s work and it seemed like a great idea to collaborate. I also really enjoyed her novel Paradise Rot and we have a common interest in New Mexico’s landscapes. I recorded all the voices with my iPhone before and after the birth of my child. I think you can even hear him a little bit in the background of one track.

On the subject of collaborations, your superb last album with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma was very well received. Is he like a spiritual brother in music, in spite of the fact you sometimes produce very different work?

FA: Yes, spiritual brother in music works for me! His latest solo album is magnificent as well. I do think that there’s an involuntary dialogue between some of our solo records. As it happens we’re about to record together in New York. It’s the first time for us making music together in the same room. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens. Jefre is an excellent musician but also a music nut, and I really like the way he listens to sound. I also have boundless respect for his Root Strata label, which has been a great source of inspiration.

Do you have anything special planned for your performances at Semibreve or Unsound this year?

FA: I’m going to be playing a new set based on The Flower And The Vessel. I’m delighted to be playing at Semibreve and Unsound in the salt mine. I like playing in different contexts, the spaces modify the sounds. That said, I find it strange that there’s this current expectation that musicians should come up with a new set for every show, as if we’re machines that constantly need rebooting, or as if we’re expected to do a new number every time.

Aside from the work of composition, there’s also the work on the duration. Putting together a live set takes time, it’s a lot of work and it’s only when you’re on stage that you can really ‘check’ whether it works or not. I think it’s important to play a set more than once. For example, I created a special set for Atonal Berlin but I think I’m going to use certain parts of that composition in other shows, in a different way.

I believe in the importance of starting over, but I don’t believe in constant novelty. It’s important to be able to listen to the same piece more than once, as it will alter in any case. Like with an album, which I hope isn’t exhausted after a year or two.

It seems as though the last few releases have brought your music to a wider international audience, what has that experience been like?

FA: I don’t really have any thoughts on that. All I can say is that I’m very grateful for the interest that people have in my music at the moment. I’ve been making music for over ten years now and it’s very enjoyable and encouraging, after having played hundreds of shows, to perform in bigger venues and to be able to dream up some slightly mad projects. I feel fortunate.

And since I have a one-year-old baby now, my day is largely occupied with going to the park and playing with him, which doesn’t leave me much time for work. As a result I work and rehearse in a very intense, concentrated way and it doesn’t leave me much time for everyday interactions with people.

Félicia Atkinson plays Semibreve on Sunday 27 October