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Escape Velocity

Pipe Dreams Come True: Elizabete Balčus Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , September 12th, 2022 08:10

Latvia’s Elizabete Balčus speaks to Alex Rigotti about the lucid dreaming, bad trips, and recuring characters that inform her shapeshifting new album Hotel Universe

Photos by Zane Zelmene

Though it’s common for most musicians to claim their journey began with a dream, for Latvia’s Elizabete Balčus that is literally true. With the use of her flute, Balčus creates amorphous, neo-psychedelic soundscapes born from snatches of her visions. So far, she’s released Conarium in 2016, which was picked up by comedian James Acaster’s podcast Perfect Sounds - and has now led to his drumming on her upcoming album, Hotel Universe.

Speaking from her hotel room in Montreal, Balčus is on tour, having recently performed at FME Festival with Animal Collective. Her stage performances are as surrealist as her albums – she’s often draped in avant-garde fashion, with a looper that allows her to sing, play flute, and use synths hooked up to fruits and vegetables. “It was just practical,” she tells me. “I ask promoters to bring fruits and vegetables as well so I don’t have to carry them.”

Her upcoming album, Hotel Universe, is another collection of tracks that take inspiration from her dreams. Her lyrics range from tales of bodily disassociation (“My body is my house, but I’m not always at home”) to her more playful connection with nature (“I’m a flower on a rock!”). It’s an exploration of connection, whether human or non-human: “Hotel Universe is the place where people can feel connected and be themselves. I went inside that hotel and found I could be everyone – in one second, I was another person, in another, I was a table, in another second, a plant.”

Much like Conarium, Hotel Universe is genreless, created through a process of intuition that uses Balčus as a vessel for other-dimensional expression. You’ll hear free jazz improvisation and classical flourishes from the flute, but Balčus’ vocals that roam in the synthwork is more reminiscent of the avant-garde. Those sounds are flutes which Balčus has layered and filtered to the point of abstraction, creating an impressive symphony from humble beginnings.

Today, Balčus looks otherworldly, with her long, bright-blue hair and graphic eyeshadow. She chats to The Quietus about lucid dreaming, bad trips, and the recuring characters that inform much of her musical work.

Could you talk me through how you made the transition from Conarium to Hotel Universe?

Elizabete Balčus: Actually, I don't think there's a big difference. I feel like I'm continuing what I started with the previous album; I also drew inspiration from my dreams. Most of the instruments I was playing on the previous album I'm still playing in this album. But I have some new things: the saxophone [Simonas Šipavičius from Sheep Got Waxed], and the guest drummer, James Acaster.

But yeah, it was really natural. That's the way I was living since the previous album. It wasn’t like I was sitting down and thinking, ‘what should the next album be about?’ It wasn’t planned at all, it was just what happened.

How did you manage to get James Acaster to play drums for you?

EB: After he talked about my album, he invited me to play flute on his album, which should come out next year. I thought he could play something for my album as well. My album was nearly finished, and there was this one song left, and I sent it to him. He said, “Wow, it's called ‘Narcissism Purgatory’! I want to play drums on that.” Because he has one song which is called something similar – ‘Narcissism Party', or something like that. He rented a studio in London and sent me a bunch of tracks. Then with a sound engineer here in Riga, I put the best bits in.

How do you extract music from your dreams?

EB: I always have a notebook next to my bed, or a phone. When I have something very vivid in my dream, or when I hear music, I hum something in my phone, or write it down. It’s better to work immediately after the dream, so I can recall what I was dreaming of. Then yeah, I just start playing music.

Sometimes it's just lyrics, sometimes it's a visual thing that inspires me from the dreams. Sometimes it's actual music that I hear from time to time. In the album, every song is related to dreams. If it's not the story itself, then it's some feeling from a particular dream.

Are there any other methods you use to connect with the dream world?

EB: There is one tea, Calea zacatechichi, which helps me lucid dream. The taste is horrible, but it's very, very good. I boil it for half an hour and then I drink it before I go to sleep. It makes my dreams come out. If I drink it in the morning, it makes me more focused. I guess that's why it helps me to remember these dreams, because it actually makes me more aware and doesn't make me sleepy. I also like to burn palo santo, or make the environment nice, put on some music and meditate.

How did you translate the backstory of ‘Narcissism Purgatory’ into a song?

EB: There’s two stories in it. The first one was that I was in a festival in Lithuania. I met one model and I'll be honest, I was on a lot of drugs. I was tripping and I started to feel bad, my head was spinning.

One week later, I went to a massage salon in Riga. The therapist was wrapping my body in plastic and putting some things on me. She left the room and I fell asleep, I thought back to the trip I had in Lithuania. It was a mixture of mummification and waking up in a bad trip, which was not a very upbeat feeling!

At the same time, I heard the music in that massage salon in background. The flute was playing, repeating itself again and again. I was like, oh shit, I cannot stand this music! I think that was the mixture of the trip of massage salon, the music, and the mummification. I thought that massage therapist left me because I had to cure my soul through a mummification ritual. I had to cure my own narcissism.

When you write about your dream states, it often evokes dissociation or utopia. Do you feel you’re consciously trying to draw a line between those two worlds?

EB: Most of the time I’m trying to get back in that dream, re-experience it again and again; that’s why I want to make the song. The dream was so weird that I want to meet the creatures I met in the dream, so I have to make a song that will make me be back in that place. They let me know what kind of style it should be.

I remember after one dream, I made a song, and in some other dream, [the creatures] were saying, yeah, this is that. But it was too late – I’d already finished the album. So that song might be held for the next album.

Who are these recurring characters? How many are there? Do they have names, looks?

EB: They become more vivid when I’m in the dream, I have to go back in that dream state to be able to say how they look. But they’re like hippies. They have long hair, long beards, colourful hippies. Some of them have some weird things on the neck that humans don’t have, like spikes.

You began your journey with music in music academy. What made you pivot to a solo career?

EB: I think that feeling of freedom made me do my own thing. I've never been very good with following rules. I knew that I had so much in me already that I didn’t need to follow other rules – I can set my own rules.

And what are the rules that you follow?

EB: The rule is just follow my own feelings – that’s always rule number one. Sometimes if someone is saying to me: let's do this or that, and then I don't think about it, then I'm just following the others and just doing what others are saying. But if I actually think about it a little bit, then I’ll want to do it. Every day, I’m trying to do what I want.

Elizabete Balčus' Hotel Universe is released on 16 September via Mothland