Masochism Of Mask-Off: Eartheater Interviewed

Ahead of the release of her first album for PAN, Eartheater speaks to Mollie Zhang about the pageantry of performing, being an autodidact, and the insightful words of Terence McKenna

With two Hausu Mountain releases under her belt, which have seen her explore an orchestral-tinged, experimentally minded strand of pop music, Eartheater moves in a slightly different direction with her newest record, IRISIRI. Gone are the trippy, computer-generated images that accompanied her last two releases, replaced by an image of her flanked by two horses. Slightly less audible (but definitely still there) are the psychedelic undertones that could be heard in her past work.

In IRISIRI, which will see release via Bill Kouligas’ PAN label, mumbles and murmurs swirl back and forth. Bizarre, unexpected palettes comprised of warbling falsettos, ambient percussion, and washes of modal harp coalesce into a whirling, disorienting record. It’s at once chaotic and balanced, as evidenced in its palindromic name and composition.

Eartheater is thoughtful and articulate over the course of our conversations, frequently pausing and taking her time to figure out what she wants to say, and how exactly she wants to say it. As we talk about her unusual trajectory and background, she expresses her excitement for learning, and her gratitude towards those around her.

I spoke to Eartheater across a couple of May evenings, as she juggled dress rehearsals and interviews from Missouri. She was generous in her answers, as we covered topics from her isolated upbringing to her relationship with psychedelia.

How was working with Bill Kouligas and PAN this time, instead of Hausu Mountain?

Eartheater: It’s all been a pleasure. Bill is really sensitive; he listens, asks a lot of questions, and makes good eye contact [laughs]. It seems like it was meant to be, and of course the PAN family is just such an honour to work with. You know how maybe there are moments where one’s life just seems so much greater than one ever could have imagined?

It’s an interesting move – how did it come about? I’m curious because I feel like your trajectory is really unusual.

E: I’ve always been an alien. Growing up, even the weird kids had cliques, but I was always just on my own wavelength, doing my own thing. Part of the Eartheater identity is this tension between different voices and ideas that almost seem to be contradicting each other.

One track that comes to mind here is ‘Curtains’ – the seventh track on the record. It’s in the middle of the 13 and it’s kind of like an intermission, consisting of two parts, or two sides of a curtain. One is classical modal harp. The other side is this pulsing boom-boom, symbolising the pure heartbeat of electronic music. The way those two opposing elements play with each other exemplifies the challenge that I’m taking on in being associated with these electronic maestros. I certainly don’t group myself with these people, and I feel very humbled. It almost feels like a miracle that such established artists, who have a clear aesthetic or vision, are willing to take on the tornado that is Eartheater.

Could you tell me a bit about how you got into production? I watched this old video of you singing ‘Cake it On’, and while I knew about your folk background, I was kind of shocked by how different it is to what you’re doing now.

E: Oh my god! I was 18 in that video, so that’s 10 years ago. I’ve always been super musically inclined, and growing up poor in Pennsylvania meant that acoustic guitars were what was accessible. Melodic structures always come super naturally to me. With electronics, it’s like you’re entering infinity. There are an infinite number of sounds and textures that you could unlock, so it’s a totally different experience. It’s about interacting with equipment, combing through libraries, or carefully massaging each sound – and constantly being surprised.

Sometimes I’m terrified by this infinite aspect of electronic music and the DAW. Before, I stuck with hardware, where I could learn gear inside and out, and feel safe in that. This record for me is definitely about opening up this infinite aspect, and being curious to explore the vastness of the production world. There’s so much minutiae in that, and I think I’ve learned to love it.

Maybe that’s a good segue into the record itself – what you were just saying reminds me of your ‘Curiosity Liberates Infinite Truth’ idea. The first thing I thought of with that phrase is the idea of you being an autodidact.

E: I had to teach myself pretty much everything, partly because I didn’t want school loans – I think the higher education system in this country is really fucked up, and I’m not someone who functions well in that kind of system, either. I think those structures ask way too much of one’s precious youth. I think curiosity being the currency of education is important whether you’re in an institution or not.

Being in shitty public schools meant I felt this hunger to learn and nurture my spirit, but I also found myself being crushed more and more by the system. By the time I was like 17, I was like ‘fuck this, I’m just going to do my own thing. The internet exists, I’m hungry, let’s go.’ And now I’m living my dream. I’m doing what I love.

There’s a lot to the ‘curiosity liberates infinite truth’ idea. It obviously comes off as very vague, which I think is part of its cheekiness. I generally don’t like absolutes, so I think I was even trolling myself when I came up with the phrase. How do you even define truth? It’s just defined by the individual. It’s an experiential thing, and it’s something that really applies to this sort of exponential growth of social awareness that I think we’re witnessing right now. You learn to not assume things about an individual because of how they look, or what they said one day, or what they said the next. It’s finding peace in that.

I see “C.L.I.T.” to be the idea of asking more questions than making assumptions. It’s a propelling poem for discovery, and I feel like the closing track, ‘OS in Vitro’ really speaks to that in a more specific way. This is all just me trying to be a better person, ultimately. That poem at the end, is an anti-projection poem – even though it uses the pronoun ‘her,’ it shouldn’t be exclusive.

Everything here is by default feminist. A few interviewers have said to me that certain things come off as really ‘feminist,’ and I want it to be clearly understood as intersectional. It goes beyond ‘just’ feminism, because that’s obvious! When people ask if I’m a feminist… well, we will be until there is no reason to be anymore.

To what extent do you think you’ve been affected in recent years as discussions around feminism, race, social justice have been catapulted to the forefront of public consciousness? How much have these conversations affected you or challenged your views?

E: I feel more safe and excited to live, more than anything else. I’m excited to propel into the sticky, difficult conversations, and to learn how to apologise quickly. I’ve made so many mistakes because I haven’t had those conversations before, and I am really here for it! I am here to embrace the awkwardness, the mistakes, and learn how to apologise, and show everyone patience and care.

One thing I do have an issue with when it comes to the feminist movement is when it might perpetuate dichotomies of separation. I understand the feeling of needing safety, but I’m kind of opposed to rigidity here. I feel like to move forward, finding flexibility is important. I’m not so into the perpetuation of a dichotomy, and I refrain from playing ‘woman-only’ lineups, especially if they’re used as a righteous selling point. The commodification bothers me.

If I woke up tomorrow and no one was immediately assuming I was a ‘she’ I wouldn’t care, I’m not attached to being seen or assumed to be a woman. I do feel a strong sense of solidarity, though. In the last couple years, this mycelic growth of conversation has really had me personally deprogramming a lot of preconceived notions. It’s so freeing, and I feel so much new peace in my heart. I’m really excited to learn more about myself as I keep breaking down these rules.

On these topics of awareness and being conscious, I also wanted to ask about your relationship to psychedelia. I see and hear a lot of references, but they’re unlike a lot of what I associate with psychedelia today.

E: I’m not very woo-woo about this stuff, maybe I was more so in the past because I was adjacent to a lot of that. But I grew up taking a lot of mushrooms and LSD. Some people are like, ‘it totally changed my life, without it I’d be a different person.’ I don’t really feel that, whenever I go into those spaces, I just feel more like myself – ‘now we can sit down and talk.’

I’m not even going to hide the fact that I sold drugs for many years, I was able to relax and nurture my musical spirit without digging into the trenches or entering an institution because I was ‘medicine mama,’ and I loved that role. I loved hooking it up and being there for people! I have guided so many people through bad trips, and I’ve built deep, integral relationships that way. Not being afraid in that way is just part of my life.

I don’t really relate to the ‘culture,’ though I definitely went to a lot of jam band festivals when I was in high school. But that was because I dated drug dealers. There’s so much misogyny up in those zones, and it was never really my thing. In terms of cultures I relate to, I didn’t really find that until I got to New York, found the queer scene and discovered my sexuality. But I think at one point, I did think I related to the culture around psychedelics – I have listened to a fair amount of Terence McKenna.

Are you familiar with FlucT? They’re my best friends – these two artists who use performance. They use one of my favourite Terence McKenna quotes, which is: ‘Culture is not your friend.’ I think it’s really important and poignant.

I’m curious; where in this last record did you hear this? When did it start sparkling?

I definitely picked it up more with the last two, particularly visually. With this most recent record, I guess it’s a bit harder to hear. The first thing that comes to mind is this thing you do with your voice – a glissando, or a pitch envelope effect – but obviously not – that I associate with auditory hallucinations.

E: I like that! That’s so interesting, because I don’t really think about this when I do that. You create a pocket at the top of your head, where your vocal chords are squeezing into a tiny little hole so you can hit these high pitches. When I do that, I’m using my voice as an instrument, as opposed to a means of transferring lyrics. I was listening to Amazonian women singing and realised that a lot of old ladies do the same thing with their voices.

I guess another thing that reminded me of it are the horses, and all the nature-related imagery, which is recurring in your output.

E: I grew up on a horse farm, so I’ve spent many, many hours around them. I worked as a groom in a stable, and used to go on tour with professional tour jumpers and be in charge of taking care of the horses, as a 13/14-year-old. My family didn’t have money, but working at those stables, I felt like I was rolling, because they’d tip super well. I used to braid the horses manes and tails, and I thought that’s what I was going to do with my life. Until I discovered music and weed [laughs].

To me, beyond just the concrete relationship that I have with them, horses really symbolise intuition. That’s a really important element in the personal mythology of Eartheater, and that relationship between the horse and rider is really holy to me. We as a people wouldn’t be able to do anything without this collaboration. They were such a huge part in developing culture up until the industrial revolution, and they don’t get a lot of credit! But beyond that, I’m just connected to them. I had a very isolated, solitary upbringing, so they were my friends.

On the note of intuition, does that have something to do with how you started to perform with your body?

E: To me, music is meant to move you. Everyone receives it differently. Some people just want to listen, some people just want to dance, and I’m on the latter side. I like to dance, and it’s simple as that. I guess since not a lot of people do that, it gets tagged as performance art or something, but I just really like feeling in my body. It makes me feel alive. I struggle with depression, and that really keeps me at the intersection of music and my body.

It’s really cool how the different ways in which you move your body can alter the chemical cocktail of your brain at that moment. It just opens up a lot of different emotions, feelings and memories. I’m trying to feel all of those things. Not to mention, I won’t deny that the pageantry of performing is important to me. I think that even when people watch me emote so physically, they vicariously experience some of those movements too.

I’ve seen some of the videos you post to YouTube – webcam videos and shit like that, and they really stand out at a time where people edit everything, and even social media posts are well-produced. Is this vulnerability an intentional thing?

E: Oh, that’s just because of a lack of time and money. Sometimes I think I need to make a well-produced performance video to exemplify what a performance is like in person. It’s mostly a lack of resources. I do struggle with this about myself though, that’s part of the masochism of ‘mask-off.’ I also just embrace embarrassment, I can get over it really quickly. I don’t know if that’s hurt me or helped me.

I know I don’t come off as the most polished, silky, cool person though. I often get overtaken by a feeling or an impulse, and I often fall on my face. I feel the embarrassment, but it’s part of embracing humour. I like to laugh at myself. Sometimes when I go out there and I’m falling off the stage or scrambling, I know that there are probably moments where people are like, ‘damn, this bitch is really shooting herself in the foot when it comes to being a marketable package.’

I had an interview the other day where I was asked if I consider myself an artist, and my reaction was, ‘I don’t know – maybe a musician, because it sounds safer.’ But actually, when it comes to the way I don’t end up being a pretty product, I think I do really feel like an artist. It’s more than just a commodity, it’s a real exploration that’s probably ‘damaging to my brand,’ or whatever. I definitely beat myself up about it sometimes, but it’s all good. This is who I am.

Eartheater’s new album IRISIRI is out on PAN this Friday (June 8). You can pre-order the album here

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