Mother Tongues: An Interview With Adela Mede

Adela Mede speaks to Daryl Worthington about singing in three languages on her debut album, Szabadság, and how the record is rooted in a life spent moving between cultures

Photos by Petra Briškova

Bratislava-based singer, producer and composer Adela Mede’s songs are deeply layered. On debut album Szabadság – released on cassette last year, now, finally getting a vinyl release – she sings in Slovak, Hungarian and English; occasionally in all three languages on the same track. Her music moves from spellbinding choruses to intimate field recordings of folk dances. Natural sounds morph into snaps of volatile synthesis. Choirs of electronically altered voices sit side-by-side with disarmingly bare singing. All of it woven together with fragments of hypnotic beats and flickers of spoken word.

As Mede explains over a video call from her studio in Bratislava, these layers in her music are intrinsic to the story behind it. “It’s my lived experience,” she reflects. “Of being between these languages. Of having weird communication with my parents.”

Although she grew up close to the border between Hungary and Slovakia, Mede went to an English language school. She then moved to London for several years, studying at Goldsmiths, before relocating to Bratislava over the pandemic. She had already begun planning the album while in London, and recorded it at her parent’s home.

“Because I went to an English school, and had Slovak friends, the only Hungarian I heard was at home,” she explains. “So, the communication with my parents was very limited – they didn’t understand what I was learning in school, I couldn’t explain it, culturally as well. There was this dissonance, and a big part of the album is trying to express that.

“At the same time, Hungarian speaking Slovaks are a minority. I didn’t experience anything awful, but I did feel like my Slovak wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Showing that as a beauty rather than a set-back was important to me with the album. I needed to express it.

“I would introduce myself as Adele for a really long time, because that’s what people called me at my English school,” Adela Mede continues. “My course leader at Goldsmiths asked why I was Anglicising my name. At school, they’d tried to encourage me to have an international identity. But, I realised that although it’s useful to have something that unifies us, it’s also important to accept I have a culture, and to express that as well.”

Mede self-released Szabadság, which means both freedom and holiday in Hungarian, on cassette last year. It followed an EP, How We Grow and a couple of compilation appearances. The album, which features co-production from Dialect and Lung Dart on several tracks, is now set to be issued on vinyl for the first time by Glasgow-based Night School Records.

Opener ‘Háromszorra Jövök Össze’ (the track’s title is Hungarian, and translates to ‘I come together in three parts’) commences with a swarm of insect clicks and chirps, which are gradually drowned out by a frazzled electronic loop. Two voices begin speaking, one repeating the other, before peeling away to leave a beautiful gossamer of Mede chanting and harmonising with herself. “The spoken word is a short poem I wrote in Hungarian,” Mede explains of the track’s creation. “I recorded it in the field outside my family’s home, the first voice is me, and the person repeating the lines is my sister, Helena.”

For Mede, there beauty and honesty in imperfection. A word that frequently crops up in our conversation is dissonance. “I’ve not listened to things that let me define dissonance in a musical way. It’s more theoretical. To me, dissonance is when certain realities don’t add up. When people don’t realise something is another way. That the world could be something different to how you see it. I’m just expressing my frustration with this dissonance throughout the album, but then at the end accepting it’s fine.”

You move between three languages throughout the album. How do you decide which language to sing a song in?

Adela Mede: Hungarian is the dominant language on Szabadság. Speaking Hungarian is very stressful for me. Apparently, I have a very noticeable accent and my vocabulary is limited. I only have ‘poetic Hungarian’ – my mum asks me what I mean – because it’s so abstract. Things only get expressed in an abstract way when I use Hungarian. On ‘Spolu’ [‘Together’] I wrote the English part first, then I added [Hungarian and Slovak]. I wanted to have one track with all three languages. On the last two songs ‘Na Jar Sa Všetko Roztopí’ [‘At Spring Everything Melts’] and ‘Voda Sa Vráti Tiež’ [‘The Water Comes Back Too’], I consciously wanted to rhyme Slovak and Hungarian.

Does the language a song is in affect your relationship to the song?

AM: I’m very conscious that English is a language so many people speak. However, writing in Hungarian while living in Slovakia, no one has any idea what I’m singing about. Hungarian is my secret language, and my emotional language. Not many people speak it where I am now. I think it’s important to have this secret language. It’s hard for me to write lyrics. It’s helpful for me to start in Hungarian and then see if I want to transition into something else. Slovak is the language I need to communicate and fit in here [in Bratislava], now that I really live in a neighbourhood where I engage with my neighbours and want to understand their reality. English is my academic language, I use it for education. I used to be more comfortable in English, but living here it’s transitioning.

Looking at the track titles, there is a divide, with some referencing natural processes and cycles, and the other half being more personal. Can you speak a little about that?

AM: I knew I wanted to write an album about forgiveness and Spring. I was inspired by things coming to life again, a rebirth of the world. I wanted to have a rebirth, to consciously think about forgiveness, to process everything that’s happened and be free from that. To tell that story. That’s the relationship – it’s a close relationship. ‘At Spring, everything melts and the water comes back too,’ that’s such a metaphor for forgiveness for me. On the track after the second interlude – ‘Gyöngyvirág’ [Hungarian for ‘Lily Of The Valley’ – at the end I sing about forgiving myself, the way mother nature forgives winter. These metaphors, they’re important to me. I made so many field recordings, a big part of the process was teaching my sister the songs and having her sing them in a field. That was important. In the pandemic I was grateful to see any greenery – in London we lived on Kingsland Road and didn’t see any nature. When I came back I was really hit and inspired by it.

Why were you thinking about forgiveness?

AM: Moving to London was hard for me and for my family. I struggled, I wanted to understand why they couldn’t be happy for me. I had to develop an understanding about my parents, I couldn’t express to them in any language how well I was doing. Neither of my parents went to university, and they didn’t understand why I wanted to go to university so much. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to progress if I didn’t spend three years learning. It’s about accepting and understanding that it was hard for my parents. It’s forgiveness towards my parents, because I left home in a way no one in my family had done before. I needed to accept that it’s OK that it was hard for them.

Can you tell me a bit more about how you approach field recordings. What makes you decide to capture something?

AM: They were all recorded in my family home. I was feeling such an intense appreciation for my surroundings. It’s very close to the Hungarian border. It’s flat, there are fields everywhere, and you can see the highway going to Hungary. I spent so much time just sitting in those fields, listening and loving it. I was excited about any sound, and there was so much, because it was summer, the world around was alive and it was so easy to record. I tried to record in town, but it wasn’t the same. There are no field recordings from London on the album, even though I recorded a lot, tube trains and stuff. It was exciting but it wasn’t emotional.

You often use effects on your voice, especially on ‘Spolu’, pitching it up and down. What draws you to that? Are you consciously making it sound synthetic?

AM: I’ve always wanted to work with a choir but I never had the guts to do it! I did it once at Goldsmiths but I never got around to it again. I used to feel guilty for making music, so I was scared to ask anyone else to take their precious time to help me out. I had to do it on my own. On ‘Spolu’, I got some criticism for the bit where the voice goes really low. People were telling me it was uncool. But I needed to get it out of me. I’m fully aware it’s synthetic. With the voice I’m not afraid of being between the two. Knowing when it has to be raw and when it doesn’t. Aesthetically it’s not very cool, but I’m attracted to these things. I don’t like it when I listen to other people’s music, but I like it on my own.

Do you think there’s a connection between this and the interest in natural sounds?

AM: Funnily enough I’m not crazy about nature in a way. I don’t look after the plants in our house. I have no relationship to gardening. As a kid, it was important to my parents but it wasn’t to me – I was like, ‘What do you mean planting tomatoes is more important than my geography homework?’ But then living in London, I started appreciating nature. I lived in Hackney for four years. There are incredible parks, but you still hear the cars. When you go to the forest here, it’s quite different. These natural processes are what they are. They’re not perfect. But, they kind of are. I’m attracted to things that aren’t chiseled – like recording my sister who’s not a singer. It was freeing for me when I realised music isn’t just chart music. You don’t have to be so perfect to be a singer.

How far are the songs taking in influence from folklore and traditions from Slovakia and Hungary?

AM: I think the influence is subconscious and emotional, channeled from memories rather than real life examples. I only started to realize the influence more when I started playing live, as I do covers of some folk songs. I would say anything to do with Sebestyén Márta is an influence though, as the recorded folk songs she has sung were played in our household when I was a child. I never got to see my parents actually perform folk dancing live, but every Christmas we would go watch my younger cousin perform (who dances Slovak folk). So it was around. In the months in which I wrote the album, my parents invited someone from the Slovak-Hungarian folk group they used to dance for [Ifjú Szívek] to do a workshop in our garden. I was too shy to be involved and I told them about the album and wanted to record them. They forbade me from recording a video in case the choreography was somehow plagiarised, but they allowed me to record sound. So, on both ‘Interlude II’ and ‘Interlude III’ you can hear those sounds. These are also choreographies or dances my parents would’ve danced when they were my age. When I was younger I rebelled against folk music. My parents asked if I was going to do folk songs, and I was like, ‘No, I want to do hip hop.’ Now, the Hungarian folk songs that resonate with me are the ones about hardship. They’re about things I can’t even imagine but the emotion is really there. It’s beautiful that way.

Szabadság by Adela Mede is released on vinyl on 3 February via Night School

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