Gorgeous Decay: Liz Harris On Her New Project Nivhek

Liz Harris went through extremes when she went to Murmansk for an artistic residency at the height of the Arctic summer. She talked with our man in San Francisco, Ned Raggett about the resultant new album and project. Portrait by JJ Harris

Grouper is Liz Harris, but Liz Harris is not simply Grouper. The Portland-based musician remains most well known for her continuing work under that name, but she has pursued a variety of projects over time exploring newer and different approaches.

The latest, Nivhek, debuted with a double-vinyl/ digital release earlier this year, After Its Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House. With each album’s contents resembling but not exactly duplicating the other – the second is more or less a quieter redaction of the first, but is also a partial rearrangement – the net effect is of a shadowy dream world. Instead of deep psych/shoegaze drones (with the exception of a very short moment on the first album), skeletal piano or even cheerier indie pop per Harris’s work in Helen, Nivhek’s music aims for the ghostly. Murmuring and echo-swathed vocals flow deep in the mix as looped tones and deep senses of sonic space emerge throughout. Elsewhere soft, then increasingly deeper and darker chimes and isolated, almost yearning sounding guitar parts add to an immersive but never crushing experience.

Reached by phone, Harris offered this explanation for the project’s name, which certainly suits the flowing and strange feeling of the music:

"It came in a dream around this time where I was having a lot of word-based dreams. I was somewhere in the Arctic and watching some kind of ritual being performed, and I was supposed to be learning what this ritual was. There was this woman there and at the end, her name flashed really strong, and Nivhek was the last name. I don’t have to think about a lot of the stuff I do creatively, I just kind of get told to do it. Then right after that I got offered this, someone got in touch asking me to do a residency in the Arctic. I was, ‘Oh, that’s what that was about, I’m supposed to go there and do this,’ and that is what related to Nivhek."

This particular residency was in Murmansk, Russia, a distinct contrast from a previous residency in the Azores where some of Harris’s work just previous to this was recorded. The overall contents of the Nivhek release build on these sessions and further work later – one song, ‘Crying Jar’, also features contributions from fellow sonic explorers like Christopher Reid Martin and Michael Morley. The resultant collage feels intriguingly disconnected from any one specific place or atmosphere; it’s not that it could have been recorded anywhere, but simply suggests something that is distinctly other, not quite of this earth.

"It’s beautiful there," enthused Harris when asked about Murmansk. "There’s a lot of buildings that are empty and rotting, and there’s really beautiful native plants coming back and growing all over them, like some of the same native ones we get in the Arctic here, like fireweed and whatnot, so kind of a gorgeous decay happening.

"It’s just so different culturally as well. I was pretty isolated within it, which is good for working, but also it felt bleak. I felt really obsessed, into, and not in a good/ bad qualified kind of way, but just very in the work when I was there and that is what I wanted, but also it was not necessarily an enjoyable time at all. I was just alone there and the light, it didn’t get dark quite till midnight. There was only about ten minutes of real darkness and then it slowly started getting light again. I was already on a different time zone, so I was mostly sleeping from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, which added to the sense of being in a separate universe."

Given the distinctness which can appear in the separate phases of her work, it’s easy to ask if a certain testing of new approaches was core to the Nivhek recordings. Harris agreed to an extent, while noting that it wasn’t a case of universal, radical changes.

"I elaborated on some stuff," she said at one point, "and I did have really particular ideas of elements I wanted in it or that I knew had to be in it. Ableton’s still relatively a new tool that I’m using, and that has affected it definitely because some of the more elaborate vocals benefit from that setup compared to what I had before, which is a really old PC program where you have to kind of blindly mix stuff, you can’t multitrack.

"You can get quiet sound in a way that you can’t on tape, and I’ve used a lot of tape recording. With the melodic stuff Kassian [Troyer], who mastered it with me, and I spent a lot of time pushing that keyboard stuff so that it was on the edge of uncomfortable feedback but then going back to a really quiet place, an under edge of something more intense or overwhelming. I don’t think there would have been space to do that if I recorded it on tape. It would’ve just been more mud.

"I definitely play a lot with randomly pairing things and that’s happened for a long time, whether it’s more a impulsive or more developed technique of mixing. Blindly putting stuff together or recording something but not listening to it and recording over, I think that got pushed further with the choral stuff. I was scavenging harmonies from something else entirely and then turning it into something new."

As for whether Nivhek itself is seen as distinct from her work as a whole, or whether each of her various group names or projects are their own particular creative points or selves, Harris prefers a somewhat different conception: "At the time I’m doing [something], it’s just a whole new room. I think if I listen to it in retrospect, of course it’s with a different perspective because I can hear things that relate to one another. They remind me really strongly once they already exist of a certain time or place in life and you can see where you went since then and how they might’ve connected to something in your own life. I only see myself in it in retrospect."

When asked about the Nivhek project’s cyclical nature, how the two albums complement and revisit each other, Harris opened up more about that as well as what fed into its darker feeling, as hinted by the first album title.

"I think there’s always a fascination with representing two different things at once," she initially noted. "There’s two versions of the same album and they kind of do represent an overlapping of, and ideas of before and after passing through a phase or eclipse, that kind of paradoxical, like two different windows opening at the same time."

She later elaborated: "I think about more just the passing of time with maybe Walking In A Spiral because it plays after the first one and it feels a little bit like a requiem, just since there’s so much death related to this album and just passing through really hard times. I used something for an after that actually came before, so all melodic stuff came before any of the noisier stuff that is on the first version on the album, just sequentially. What I recorded first was that quiet Mellotron music, but now it’s after the more bombastic version."

The initial editing and assembly of the album began in Murmansk, as Harris worked with some material from the Azores residency, then proceeded to add to it in her new residency: "[The Azores was] where I first was trying out this type of choral stuff. In the end there were a couple longer vocal pieces that I did [in Murmansk]. I didn’t do a lot of recording there, it was just a really intense mixing session of stuff I’d been working on for probably, I guess over three years by then. I did things I didn’t expect to do at all, like I pulled only the vocals from a sketch I had to work with someone on a song, just after listening to it accidentally. It just became something totally new with only the vocals, and then I added to that, singing over it. But it was really intuitive and I would say relatively quick, which is how I tend to work these days anyway, just in bursts of intensity. It was just me, mostly just in this basement mixing and listening obsessively for two weeks."

While there, Harris also fulfilled contractual requirements of the residency by doing four live performances, presenting the still-evolving project in a new context. She admitted it wasn’t entirely an ideal situation, though she understood why due to her preferred work methods: "It all felt pretty intuitive and once it was glued into place, it just felt immovable. It was in a different order live, mostly because I had been asked to work with this collaborator and we just switched it up live a little bit, which at the time felt really hard. I’m really not a good collaborator; I want to do something the way I want to do it. If there’s a big difference in opinion, I have a hard time even wanting to compromise. So that was something I did compromise on live and then I just put it back to where it was."

Harris herself was not entirely sure if and how Nivhek will exist further on the stage, but concluded that perhaps its story is not over quite yet:

"It’s funny, [I was thinking] this is going to come out and I’m not going to do any performances, I already did them. This is not a performative album and it’s just done; it’ll exist. The second it was out, time passes and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m interested in this music again.’ I actually really want to play around with doing it live but also totally switching it up, like playing around with just one element or trying to play it on guitar, trying to play it on piano. It’s just funny how things surprise you or just decide what you’re going to do with them for you."

After Its Own Death/ Walking In A Spiral Towards The House will be available on CD and vinyl from Superior Viaduct after 21 June. Nivhek plays this year’s Le Guess Who Festival on Sunday, 10th November – for more information and tickets visit Le Guess Who’s website

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