Those First Impressions: Claire Rousay Interviewed

Over the course of several shows in Rotterdam and Utrecht, Richard Foster got to talk to the Canadian born, Texas-based musician about making the most of the time we have

Portraits courtesy of Nicole Geller

Picture the scene: a darkened stage in downtown Rotterdam. What lighting there is, a subdued blood red. The darkness that borders the lit backdrop and the sound emanating from the stage creates an impression of a giant Rothko canvas that has suddenly worked out it can make a noise. Completing this tableau vivant is Claire Rousay, long legs stretched out in front of her and totally at ease, almost as if she’s sat on a porch with a fag. At one point she caresses the equipment in front of her with subtle hand movements. At others she sits back and looks around, reviewing the situation and planning what new spell to cast.

There is a strong feeling that Rousay is both in the moment and dictating the mood, and yet somehow utterly elsewhere. Watching her as the womb-like background throbs and flickers, you feel like the supplicant at some ancient ritual in a cave mouth, overseen by a priestess or oracle. This feeling of being part of a religious ceremony is enhanced by the running order of the programme at Dutch arts venue WORM. Claire Rousay is the centre point between shows by two Rotterdam-based European artists: she follows a chopped, staccato electronic discourse by Lithuanian sound artist Golubjevaite and sets up a more shamanic exploration of found electronic sounds (replete with gyrating dancer) by Hungarian-Slovenian duo, BABEurs/044. Rousay’s show feels like a pivot and a wider diviner of mood for the whole night.

There are a million people sitting behind laptops making weird sounds. What is it about Claire Rousay’s work that has touched a nerve with so many people? Maybe her recent LP, A Softer Focus is key. The release – a collaboration with visual artists Dani Toral – has garnered international praise for its smooth play-off between a miscellany of samples and an almost mystic take on minimalist ambience. A seductive and sensual record and a mood maker that could be akin to looking at a Georgia O’Keefe painting, A Softer Focus centres itself around an investigation of fleeting emotions. It’s clear that Claire Rousay likes playing footsie with the listener. “Yeah! I like to be very cute about it. [The music]’s kinda like, ‘I think I’m gonna take you home tonight, but I don’t know…’”

This layering of uncertainties and expectations – where nothing is said but many things are meant – is a cornerstone of her artistic approach and maybe a guiding element in her life. Over a beer in Rotterdam, after playing in Les Ateliers Claus in Brussels with Ava Mendoza, Rousay admitted to enjoying meeting somebody for the first time and working out where the human connection is. “You don’t know what the end might be. And then something gets in the way. Every time you think about that experience, the ‘what if’ element is always there. So you have the emotion but not the concrete experience. You know more about what you feel than what the actual experience was. I think my music is like that too.”

In Rousay’s world it seems romance is a term that encompasses active collaboration. For her, music and romance can lead to the same kinds of situations “and that’s what I like the most. You can get something new out of it every time.” Openly determined to make this creative romance permanent, Rousay does a “bunch of things” in order to keep on making music; seeing it as a creative cross to bear, rather than a career. “The whole point for me is to do it all the time. Maybe forever. And if the best part is when you are doing it, then try to set your life up to be always doing it.”

A reluctance to categorise her work – even though she sometimes thinks she sounds like many other soundscapers – only adds to Rousay’s allure. “I don’t have a name for what I do, I think that thought’s weird. Anyway my music is changing all the time.” This was seen at the Le Guess Who? show where she played the room in real time, adding a cough from the audience into her set. Rousay likes to play games whilst “avoiding” any public consensus of cool. “I know there are a lot of people who don’t like what I do, especially when I use Auto-Tune on the voice or play guitar or use texts. People think I’m fucking it up or being inaccessible. And that’s when I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Then again, her musical training is not hidebound by any academic concerns. She admitted to taking a music theory course at a local community college before giving up. A lot of the basics, such as reading music, were picked up from her mother who is a piano teacher. Rousay recoiled at the thought of being institutionalised, thinking “how sad would that be, to be twenty years out of conservatory and people can still know where you went. So much for being an individual or having your own statement.”

Forthright and witty, Claire Rousay is a gregarious soul; fond of a good giggle. She revolts against the prevailing seriousness, or being weighed down by too much apocalyptic thinking. Current cautions around promoting work are also not for her. “You can’t be too open because apparently it’s kind of cheesy.” Is sex, drugs and rock & roll over? “But that’s the bit that I like! I wish there were more experimental composers who are rock stars. All we have is Basinski, his Wire cover looks like he’s doing Rolling Stone. Dope as fuck! I know some people who still know how to have fun, but they also make very serious work. I think being serious about your work and yourself should be two separate things.”

And yet the world is so uncertain and Rousay admits to needing some form of creative or emotional anchoring otherwise she could “go insane” with all the gloomy portents. “There is a huge possibility that I might not live out my whole life. So having something to hold on to is nice. Anyway; if you’re so worried about not getting the chance to experience things, why don’t you actually do it now? [Laughs] I firmly believe we are in the end times – things have shifted so much there is no going back. It’s not just the planet, it’s the attitude amongst people. So why not facilitate good experiences for other people, or just be nice, or have lots of sex, before things go to shit? I’m down for that. Do the things that feel good. Being a glutton is an element of that but supporting people emotionally doesn’t take that much work.”

Despite her generous nature Claire Rousay is not really a reckless type. Like the music she makes, she weighs matters up before deciding on her course: she’s certainly no-one’s fool. This canniness was maybe working overtime when we met because Rousay, madly, had decided to tour alone in another continent during a pandemic. Various dates in the Benelux and the UK culminated in a residency at WORM Sounds Studios in Rotterdam and an appearance on the Sunday at Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht.

During our conversations, one could sense Rousay’s determination to grab every opportunity and a willingness to push herself. Meeting people certainly appealed to her romantic side; especially whilst operating solo. “There’s no other person to bounce any idea off. Just me and my own experience. I think the ‘newness’ of this tour experience is where the romance comes from right now.” Yet this derring do was balanced by an old fashioned sense of rectitude, maybe shaped by her early Christian upbringing – she was born in Canada and is a long term resident of San Antonio, Texas – the ethical side of which she still holds on to by “picking the things that can still make their way into my life without harming other people.” When talking of playing with Eva Mendoza, she hinted at feeling guilty that she had “gatecrashed” the show. “It’s not the most ethical thing to invite yourself everywhere. I think a lot of people think that’s the way things happen in this industry. That seems weird right? [Laughs] Just inserting yourself in a situation and not really becoming a burden because you’re contributing something but… yeah…”

Ethics aside, Rousay rode her luck between a mounting number of pressures, human or otherwise. Her dates were not unduly affected by the dramatic overnight curtailment of events in the Netherlands during the Le Guess Who? festival, due to skyrocketing cases of COVID-19. It seemed to those in her orbit that she and her music operated in a sort of magical interzone; present but watching things unfold from the outside. This feeling was reinforced by her time holed up in WORM’s Sound Studios. Sat amongst the old synths and keyboards, Rousay seemed content to compose and dream away in seclusion, communication channels being her Instagram and Twitter account. Understandable concerns about getting stuck in Europe with COVID also played their part in her keeping a polite distance.

But then, the main emotional drag came from a hectic tour schedule, with its rounds of soaking up new experiences and meeting new people. “You only get that first impression one time. And trying to remember those experiences is interesting and really tiring, because it changes over time in your memory. This tour has been difficult because it’s an automotive experience.” Rousay doesn’t care for the manic routine of touring life, which she finds a blur. “It’ll be all processed at the end. I think I’m just sorting the first experiences now, because you can get really drawn into the moment. Obviously I was very happy playing in the UK, but Cafe OTO was particularly intense. A lot of people wanted to talk about music and the different people we had in common. That was exciting, but I’d just flown for twelve hours!”

Again, Rousay’s analytical, cautious side recoiled from the pitting of one kind of emotion against another in a cruelly short stretch of time. “I mean I’d just flown then I was alone in a hotel room and then immediately had to go into an event after such a big timezone switch. All of that happens to you and you go into a situation that is immediately positive. And I still felt awful! [Laughs] The scheduling didn’t really stop until now. The residency in the WORM Sound Studios is the longest I’ve been in any one place.”

It sounds contrived but Rousay really is at her happiest when she’s making music. “When I am playing a show, say for 45 minutes, my favourite part is between minute two and minute 44. And after I don’t sit back and go ‘fantastic’. I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment really. Rather it’s all in the middle when things are moving around. The rest, especially organising time, sucks.”

A Softer Focus is available via Phantom Limb in Europe

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