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A Quietus Interview

A Nomad’s Life: An Interview With Elvin Brandhi
Stephanie Phillips , September 8th, 2021 06:21

Ahead of Donaufestival, experimental noise artist Elvin Brandhi speaks to Stephanie Phillips about letting go on stage, travelling to Uganda with the Nyege Nyege collective, and listening to a Rihanna sample for five hours

Elvin Brandhi by Sophie Garcia

Elvin Brandhi plays Donaufestival in Krems an der Donau on October 1st

There are a hundred and one ways in which the Welsh experimental electronic sound artist Elvin Brandhi is hard to pin down. Known for her work in the father daughter duo Yeah You, sonically the 24-year-old artist’s use of glitched out beats and haunting distorted vocals in her improvisational practice push against the rudimentary boundaries of genre. Similarly, geographically, Brandhi is rarely in one place for too long.

After spending some time Vienna studying fine art, since 2018 Brandhi has travelled the world; living with friends in Lebanon during the height of lockdown, performing spontaneous experimental shows in Morocco, and taking part in a residential programme studying Senegalese hip hop in Dakar. At each stop along the way she has collaborated with local artists. It is a hectic schedule to breakdown, even for Brandhi. “I should write you like a timetable,” she jokes as we chat over video call. “I'm even getting confused myself thinking about it.”

So today, where in the world (sonically, geographically, spiritually) is Elvin Brandhi? I find Brandhi in Marseille, France, where she is currently hanging out with her family who came out to visit her for the first time in over a year. Over the phone, Brandhi is sharp and esoteric. Her inquisitive approach to music also extends to almost every area of her life as she spent the morning before our talk taking part in summer school readings led by the Russian academic Keti Chukrov. “I've always been really interested in philosophy. It’s a way of reflecting on our times and obviously in a broader sense, the human condition,” Brandhi muses.

Brandhi’s creative process is far removed from the world of the stereotypical, self-centred solo star. As a nomad at heart, her search for new spaces and communities in which to thrive is imbued in her art and often leads her to abandon the definition of solo artist altogether, presenting herself to the world through collaborations and bands formed during her travels. These include the warped digital frenzy of duo Bad@Maths, the otherworldly improvised explorations with former Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg in their band BAHK, and her work with Palestinian producer Bashar Suleiman in the noise band INSIN, who she met at a residency in Cairo.

“These things happen naturally,” she insists, referring to the way she meets her collaborators. “It's not like something that I personally initiate. I've always had this principle of wanting to try and jam with anyone. That ended up influencing the way I produce as well.” When the opportunity to challenge herself in new situations occur, Brandhi rarely says no. After bumping into the organisers of Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival at Macao, Brandhi travelled with them to Kampala. There she started a residency living in a house with dozens of artists.

The residency led to her 2020 record Headroof, released on the Nyege Nyege associated label Hakuna Kulala under the name Villaelvin. “It was amazing. There are people who are more long term, but the rooms always have different people in and everyone's just making music the whole time,” she states. “Because you're always hearing other people's music in the house, you can't help but be influenced by all these different sounds.”

Although she collaborates often, when working solo, making music becomes a kind of medicine where the process is more important than the product. “There can definitely be a certain itch or something internal that you’re sensing that you need to go towards. Sometimes you can be on Ableton for five hours listening to one particular loop and that is you really trying to kind of get to the bottom of a certain state or decode a psychological cloud or atmosphere.”

This state of mind can be heard on her 2019 solo EP Shelf Life, an existential take on late-stage capitalism as Brandhi contorts her voice into stifled yelps uttered over frantic, frazzled electronics. Whether alone or in collaboration, to make the explorative work Brandhi brings out, it must be informed by constant self-discovery and change, both physically and psychologically.

Brandhi grew up between Wales and North Yorkshire, influenced by her dad (who performs under the psedounym Gwilly Edmondez) and his experimental record collection, her mother’s love of literature, and the Slayer tunes blasting from her brother’s bedroom. From an early age Brandhi developed a connection to sound that would become essential to her music in later life. “I’ve often had this thing all throughout my life that loops just come into my head. They were almost little themes for the atmosphere or lack of feeling in a space.”

To Brandhi these loops are akin to magic, that can at times feel healing (“when the little melodies come into your head, sometimes they sustain you”), but also have the potential for harm. She references working on the track ‘FRIDGE! Ez_virus’ for the Canvas Records 2021 compilation Apocope and listening to a warped sample of the line “feel the adrenaline” from Rihanna’s ‘Who’s That Chick’ for hours. “It was deliberately a really annoying invasive kind of loop that was supposed to be like this sickness or stagnancy,” she explains, “But, I really was listening to this for five hours and I'm like, ‘Jesus Christ, what am I doing?’”

After creating her own demos as a teenager on Ableton, she asked her dad for his advice leading to the formation of Yeah You. Honing their songs on car journeys and spontaneous roadside performances, Yeah You make raw, lo-fi noise pop full of claustrophobic beats and Brandhi’s sputtered, stream of consciousness lyrics. The duo is a space where Brandhi says she felt “unjudged” by her dad, though she understands the family dynamic can put onlookers on edge. “This is why Yeah You has always been so distinct. People would never ask you so much about the psychology of you and your band member, because this really strikes home to everyone. A lot of people when they know it's father and daughter are always comparing to their own relationship with their parents.”

The uninhibited performances Brandhi honed in Yeah You are there to see in her solo shows and collaborations with other performers. Whether hunched over her equipment as her illustrations play alongside set or stuttering into the mic freeform lyrics, her performances are focused and cathartic. She views the stage as a place where music can fall out of her, adding that a signifier for a job well done isn’t to aesthetically analyse whether the performance was good. “For me the performative thing is whether you managed to get out of your own head. Whether you were there in that moment expressing something,” she says. “Then I wash my hands, I take no responsibility for what happens. I used to think I was sick, out of my head on stage. There's no control and that's the aim, but also the defect.”

Though social distancing and restrictions have created a difficult environment for some musicians to perform in, Brandhi is no stranger to change. “With my improvisational background it also shifts this idea about my conditions as a performance artist. I feel like I'm up for trying anything, even if it's weird and awkward.” Seeing how the pandemic has affected communities up close in her travels has given Brandhi an insight into how different countries and the experimental noise community have dealt with COVID. “I feel like people don't want to voice opinions that are too strong. Everyone's just keeping themselves to themselves. In these events you can tell who’s wearing a mask and who’s really considerate and who's maybe trying to just symbolically keep things in place.”

The future for Brandhi looks set to be as busy. It is clear that for someone as young as she is, who has such a plethora of creativity to explore, her impact will continue to grow. As she races towards her next project, does she ever stop to reflect on how she’s grown as an artist?

It is a question that gives her pause, the silence only relenting when Brandhi circles back to the place she knows best. “I often feel very related to context. Its why improvisation works, because I feel like the immediate has always been the space where I exist, which sounds like stupid because it should be always the case. I’m good at doing residencies and context specific things because I can feel that's where I can work the most intuitively where I know I’m in demand. I know what my purpose is, what my art is.”

Donaufestival is held between October 1 & 3 and October 8 & 10