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Escape Velocity

Life Diary: Perila Interviewed
Christian Eede , July 25th, 2022 10:45

Ahead of her appearance at this year's Dekmantel festival next month, Perila speaks to Christian Eede about field recordings, the power of isolation and the influence of her father

Once a year, Alexandra Zakharenko travels from her base of Berlin to a remote mountain village in France where her aunt owns a house, to switch off from the outside world. Now in her third year, she refers to it as her "annual isolation retreat," an opportunity to get away from social media, emails and internet, "and just be present." It's where she's speaking to me from as we connect over Zoom and she assures me that I haven't interrupted her getaway from life's stresses – "I had about 10 days off from everything completely, and this week I'm slowly getting back to the real world out there as I prepare to return to Berlin."

The retreat also offers Zakharenko – who records beguiling, intimate and knotty ambient-adjacent music primarily under the moniker Perila – the opportunity to flesh out new musical ideas and get down to work on new projects. The first of these trips, for example, birthed the concept for her 2021 Smalltown Supersound-released album How Much Time It Is Between You And Me? Seeking to limit her use of artificial sounds, having found herself in such a serene and remote area, she captured field recordings of what was around her, from the sounds of a nearby river to the howling wind. It resulted in an album that is equal parts soothing and head-scratching, gritty and refined.

Dividing her time on these retreats between daytime hikes among the mountainous surroundings of the village and making music on her computer, as well as reading and writing, the trips are somewhat nourishing to the body and the mind for Zakharenko as she continues to seek new inspiration from her everyday life. Her music and life, she says, are deeply intertwined. She describes her work as "a life diary" of sorts, and works on music almost every day when she isn't touring, juggling her sound practice with a near-daily desire to commit her thoughts to writing and explore poetry.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg in the early '90s, Zakharenko reflects that she was probably "quite lucky with [her] parents." Her father, who passed away six years ago, was a Buddhist and was passionately into music while she was growing up – "an artist within his soul," she says. "My mum also gave me a lot of freedom and choices. I guess because they gave me freedom to explore more who I am, and I was also travelling the world as a kid and seeing other cultures, I had this opportunity to see that I needed to get out of Russia at some point."

Having relocated to Moscow at the age of 18 to undertake studies, which she later dropped out from to pursue music projects, Zahkarenko eventually started taking occasional trips to Berlin and ultimately decided to relocate there. She describes that move now as a "crazy right decision," bluntly declaring that "Russia is fucked" when asked why she moved when she did. The relocation to Berlin has proved fruitful in putting her in touch with a thriving community of artists centred around the 3XL and West Mineral Ltd. labels, particularly the DJs and producers Exael and Special Guest DJ, and the Philadelphia-based artist Ulla Straus with whom Zakharenko connected via other figures from the labels. Since meeting, Zakharenko and Straus have struck up a productive musical partnership that has birthed a trio of collaborative self-releases via their silence box label, as well as a gorgeously, dubbed-out ambient album called LOG ET3RNAL. Released under the joint alias LOG in 2020, it married the two artists' distinctive sounds with the sparse ambient techno of '90s labels like Mille Plateaux.

As someone so committed to working daily at her practice, it's no surprise that Zakharenko has numerous projects and ideas in the pipeline. She speaks of wanting to make a jazz album with Ulla and return to their LOG project for a 10-inch vinyl release in the near future. There are plans for a book project with the Australian record label and publishing platform Daisart, while her latest retreat has also seen her wrap up work on a new release for a label that I'm not sure if I'm allowed to name yet. Tentative plans are in place too to completely isolate herself once again, for considerably longer this time, and begin work on a follow-up to How Much Time It Is Between You And Me? for Smalltown Supersound. The label, she says, "gives me so much trust and space to be who I am, so I want to push boundaries even more."

A lot of your music is sketch-based and sounds quite improvised. Is that how you mainly prefer to work?

Alexandra Zakharenko: It depends on the project. For label releases, usually it starts with a solid concept or framework to work within. The message, for me, is very important for bigger releases. When I'm not touring, I try to have this flow of just working on music every day as my life practice, and I release a lot of that music myself. That music is usually just about how I process certain moods and feelings in my everyday life, and sometimes I will look to try something new which I might not have done before. In the last year, that has involved working more with field recordings and appreciating silence, instead of wanting to overwhelm things with artificial noises or electronics. I really like to explore things that are just present around us.

I know you've been incorporating field recordings more into your work over the last year or two, but can you trace when you discovered field recording as a sound practice?

AZ: I always liked to record messages to myself and noises around me on my phone, but with no intention of using them for music. During the pandemic, when things became so much more condensed – although my experience of that time was quite fruitful, inspiring and transformational – and I was in one space, I started to ask myself what I could do to make use of the time, so I started exploring field recording. Collaborating with Ulla [Straus], we had so many ideas and projects, so much communication, during that time, and we encouraged each other to explore what was around us more, the sounds between the silence in the outside world. It helped me to go deeper into what field recording is, and explore the essence of it.

Do you have a preference for sounds that you like to record when it comes to field recordings?

AZ: A lot of it is nature-based because I often find myself out and exploring nature. I would like to expand the sounds I use more though. I have some ideas for future releases where I would like to continue using field recordings, but explore beyond nature sounds or transform them to a level where you cannot really trace the origin of it. I would love to take some field trips exploring industrial sounds too, because I feel like using the same kinds of sounds too much can become so predictable. During the pandemic, I also started borrowing instruments from friends that I've never played before, and I just recorded myself exploring them for the first time. During this current trip, when I was doing a residency in France in a beautiful space with nice acoustics, I just started recording vocals there. I like to record vocals in certain spaces where you get these crazy, natural reverberations.

You said before that the pandemic was a fruitful time for you. Did it just give you a chance to slow down and focus on music rather than any kind of touring?

AZ: Yeah, I was making music every day and I liked this condensed reality that I happened to be in. I wasn't in much nature, but I just took time to explore my mind, read, jam and share music that I was making on Bandcamp as an experiment. It went well, so it inspired me to do more, and I was using that music to process certain emotions. It also helped me to make some money during the pandemic because there was no other way to earn money as a musician. It was a beautiful time just for introspection, which I am such a fan of, but it was of course a very difficult time in other ways.

Putting out music so quickly on Bandcamp at that time helped me to grow a lot musically. It encouraged me to stop focusing too much on concepts. For an album, you just want everything to be perfect and it can be very slow. It takes time to understand what you want to do, but putting out music on Bandcamp felt like a safe space, especially because I had this idea of presenting it as a life diary. It just helped me to have less anxiety about music and my own thoughts, and release it all through my work.

You have quite a unique approach to the way you use vocals in your music. Talk me through that – is a lot of it based around your own writings and poetry?

AZ: Writing has become a permanent, daily practice for me lately, and especially now. I approach it in a similar way to music because I write as a general life practice. A lot of my writing is, like my music, just a way to process feelings and emotions about daily events, and I started using vocals based on my writing as a challenge to myself. The more I have written and recorded them, I have become more comfortable with using my voice and words. I've also grown more comfortable playing shows where I use my voice, and these words just flow quite naturally out of me when I jam and record music. I guess vocals are just an instrument for me now.

I don't actually read too much though, because I find that I can become too overwhelmed and affected by certain things. But for this trip in the mountains, when I was just taking time off from everything for my first official vacation in years, I brought some books. Instead of listening to and thinking about music, I was just reading and writing fiction, though I do actually prefer reading non-fiction – food for thought writing about psychology and our bodies. I prefer to have a little distance though, so I don’t get too affected and I can protect my own thoughts from being influenced too much.

Did you come from a musical household?

Yes, I would say so. It probably came from my dad a lot, because he was really into music from lots of different directions when I was growing up. When I was a kid, we would jam together on different instruments – he might play guitar and I would be drumming. I explored some instruments myself, and when my parents separated, we were meeting and sharing each other's music discoveries. The more I think about it, it makes sense that Ryuichi Sakamoto was my dad's favourite music artist because he has such a crazy range of styles and moods across his discography. Through listening to his music at home with my dad, and then exploring it myself, it expanded my mind. He was quite an influential artist for me growing up, and still is now.

Would you say you learnt any instruments to a considerable standard when you were experimenting with them?

AZ: I tried to, but I would have a couple of classes of acoustic guitar, a couple of classes of piano, and then I would move on. I guess, as a kid, it was hard sometimes, but now I am older, I actually don't want to study playing anything professionally. I used to think I need to learn music theory, but now I don't want to ruin the magic of it. My music is about momentum and it's very experimental. I'm constantly changing and testing things, so it feels like learning theory might ruin the magic and this novice approach to using sounds and instruments. It's nice to just touch something and play it from feeling and a pure connection in the moment. I don't know how to play piano, but I really like jamming with it, and I don't think it's necessary to know how to play properly.

You’ve been based in Berlin since 2014. Why did you decide to relocate there when you did?

AZ: Well, because Russia is fucked, especially now of course. Looking back at my decision to move, I can see it was such a crazy right decision. Obviously it's been hard to navigate in terms of visas and the bureaucracy, but I got my artist visa last year after seven or eight years. I don't regret anything, because I just didn't feel free there, even eight years ago, to be who I am. I didn't really know who I was at that time, and there was no space to explore that. The moment I came to Berlin, I felt like I had this freedom to explore that more. I am proud to be Russian, in terms of the culture and the nature, but the politics is so constraining and it's just getting more fucked all the time.

My family were super chill. I think I'm pretty lucky with my parents. My dad was a Buddhist, very open-minded and into music. My mum also gave me a lot of freedom and choices. I guess because they gave me freedom to explore more who I am, and I was also travelling the world as a kid and seeing other cultures, I had this opportunity to see that I needed to get out.

I wanted to touch on artists like Ulla Straus, Exael and others from the 3XL and West Mineral Ltd. labels that you make music with. How did you all come together?

AZ: I'd been listening to all of the music that they released online, and I also knew Brian [Leeds, AKA Huerco S.] from a long time ago because he was visiting St. Petersburg around 10 years ago to play his first gig there in the forest. A lot of the rest of the crew, I've met through Shy [AKA Special Guest DJ] in Berlin and elsewhere. I first met Shy at Berlin Community Radio four or five years ago and we just immediately vibed. Through Shy, I got to know Naemi [AKA Exael] and everyone else. They put me in touch with Ulla and we became really good friends and close collaborators, and there was this whole synchronisation of minds between us during the pandemic. It's all slowly become one family. Myself and Ulla had lots of free time when the pandemic hit, so we just started making tons of music every day. We still have a lot to release from all of the stuff we were working on at that time.

Do you mind how other people characterise your music?

AZ: It was interesting to read this review on Pitchfork of How Much Time It Is Between You And Me? where the album was described as being so dark and eerie, and I was just like, 'Yooo, wow'. There is of course an element of that, but I wasn't so sure that was what I was trying for. It makes me happy to read it though, because it means somebody has experienced something of their own from my music rather than everyone having this generic feeling. I would rather that than there be this description of it being generic Brian Eno chill-out music. Everyone has their own trip, so that's nice.

Perila plays Dekmantel festival on Thursday, August 4. Find more information and get tickets here