Gianmarco Del Re caught up with Julia Kent at the recent Cafe OTO gig...
One of the tracks in Green and Grey is titled Dear Mr Twombly, I take it you are referring to the late Cy Twombly?
JK: Yes, he is my favourite painter, I was so heart broken when he died, I was literally crying.
Seeing that you’ll be performing here at cafe OTO with Gordon Sharp who has titled his latest album Hold Everything Dear after a book by John Berger, I want to start with a quote from him about Cy Twombly: “I know of no other visual western artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colours the silent space that exists between and around words”.
JK: That is so interesting because Cy Twombly used words in his work and then he did the famous paintings that look like writing but aren’t. They are so cryptic and so gestural.
I wanted to ask you about this notion of “silent space”, is that something you think applies to your music?
JK: For sure the concept of space in terms of musical expansiveness and the concept of silence… the two together… I’d have to think about that as a concept. It’s interesting…
I’d like to take this same idea, which conjures up the notion of interval, to talk about your album Delay which revolves around airports and deals with space and time, could you tell me a little about that?
JK: I was spending a lot of time in airports, which are really spaces that are “non spaces”, in the sense that they are transitional. You are in a limbo in an airport, between your environment and a new environment you are moving into, and for me that sense of being in a condition of transition created really interesting emotional states. If you are taken out of your own environment, you feel more vulnerable, at least I do, but at the same time you are surrounded by a very generic environment. Airports, though, can also be the locus of emotion in terms of people travelling, people saying goodbye, people meeting… There is a tension between these two conditions for me in an airport.
This is the subject of Marc Augé’s book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. In it, he talks about “non-places” as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places” such as hotels and airports. I’ll read you a quote: “In one form or an other (…) some experience of non-place (indissociable from a more or less clear perception of the acceleration of history and the contraction of the planet) is today an essential component of all social existence. Hence the very particular and ultimately paradoxical character of what is sometimes regarded in the West as the fashion for ‘cocooning’, retreating into the self…” Are you familiar with this text?
JK. I am not, actually, it makes total sense because you are trying to protect yourself from these places that can be non human, because they are about processing people, moving people from one place to other. Interesting to the concept of non-place, the Internet is like the ultimate non-place where you socially interact in this complete limbo.
And yet you ground this experience with the aid of field recordings. At what point did you decide to integrate them into the album, which came first?
JK: It was a combination of the two. I started writing music and I started travelling. I became fascinated with airports and started doing the field recordings and then it made sense to turn this into the concept of the album. The titles of the songs are in fact all names of airports, which I find interesting because some are beautiful and romantic like Fontanarossa. It sounds like a magical place but in actual fact it is the airport of Catania, in Italy.
Field recordings are indeed integral to your music…
JK: I am constantly making field recordings and then, somehow the music can suggest the way the field recording can be incorporated into it. In a couple of cases I based the music on the recording, like with Tithonos on Green and Grey where I tried to use the sounds from the insects as a rhythm track for the cello.
The cover of Delay shows only a sliver of trolleys on the top line but it is immediately recognisable…
JK: I love that photo for that reason. I love the element of repetition in that image, the mechanization and the repetition. Also it is a bit of a joke, because when I get to an airport I immediately look for a luggage cart, as I have the equipment, the cello, which makes it integral to me.
That image also leaves a lot of stuff off screen so to speak. Is that something you have done with the music as well?
JK: There are some elements of my music that are implied rather than stated. Certainly, what I try to do is something that is evoking an emotion or evoking an atmosphere, rather than something that is really defined. For instance, I am interested in something that is always at the point of dissolving into something else, of transitioning into something else.
The same principle in a way applies to the cover of your ep Last Day in July, and of your latest album, images are cut off at precise angles…
JK: That is an interesting observation. It is something that implies the continuation of a movement beyond the frame of the image, and also it doesn’t present you with something that is either symmetrical or graspable as a whole. That is what I am looking for in an image.
Talking about repetition and Delay, can you tell me something about the way you approach loops?
JK: The looping is really important to me when writing music, because the way I write is really process oriented. I start with a small fragment like a harmonic idea or a melodic idea, and then, through looping and through layering, I kind of see how it evolves. I do not follow the traditional way of composing, what I do is more about the process and seeing where this process takes me. Looping is interesting because sometimes you can make a mistake and then the mistake becomes integral to the music as the loop creates a structure through repetition.
I was actually going to ask you about mistakes, thinking back to Cy Twombly and the gestural trace of erasing. How do you deal with mistakes?
JK: Part of me thinks that there are no mistakes in music. With looping you can undo, but I find that I do that very rarely because often, when something unexpected happens to me in the looping, I become more interested in seeing where it goes rather than taking it away.
Can you erase stuff but still leave a trace?
JK: You can go back. It depends how the loop is structured. Every looper has it own limitations, like they are not particularly flexible in terms of allowing you to pluck one thing out. Once you have a lot of layers, you are stuck with a lot of layers. This makes it always an additive process, nonetheless, I am always trying to find a way, especially when performing live, to make it non additive, to be able to take things away rather than to be constantly adding.
Do you strip your sound down then in a live setting?
JK: With looping you layer, layer, layer, and end up with a big sonic thing, whereas, when I play live I like to be able to go back to the first original thing, like the first little phrase.
Is narrative important to you in an album?
JK: I think concept is really important, but narrative not so much. I don’t feel there is any kind of narrative thread in my albums. Certainly in other people’s music, narrative is super interesting, like I am always attracted to lyrics that have a sense of narration in them…
Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
JK: I love Owen Pallett’s lyrics, because they tell really interesting stories and he is really clever.
Sorry, I don’t know him..
JK: He is a really brilliant violinist, he did a bunch of records under the name Final Fantasy, and he does a solo loop violin thing, but he is also an amazing arranger. He has worked with Arcade Fire and all these huge bands, but his lyrics are always interesting because they tell really quirky and interesting stories.
Do you listen to a lot of cello music?
JK: I do, people like Ernst Reijseger. He does all the soundtracks for the Werner Herzog movies. He is incredible. Also so inspiring is Arthur Russell, World of Echo is an amazing record, it is so internal.
Let’s talk about the concept behind Green and Grey now…
JK: It explores the intersections between the human created world and the natural world. I live in New York, but nature is always somehow present there. Even in the middle of the city, you still see vegetation, you still see wild birds and it is interesting to me to see how nature can survive even in this urban environment. I then became really interested in field recordings of insects and I started listening to the patterns and the rhythms that they make. Also, when I was recording outside in the country, sometimes I could still hear human sounds, like the sound of a plane, of traffic and the combination of these two things was really interesting to me.
I’d like to stay with Twombly for a minute. In an interview with David Sylvester, Twombly emphasized the importance of landscape in his artistic practice, even if he lived and worked in Rome, which is a very urban city where all notion of greenery is slowly being eroded. To illustrate this point he talks about a poet he’d met who had no knowledge whatsoever of botany at which he quipped: “You cannot be a poet without knowing anything about botany”. Considering your album is called Green and Grey, do you think the same applies to a musician?
JK: Well I don’t know if I can call myself a musician, I definitely don’t know much about botany, but I am fascinated by it, and again by pattern and repetition. If you look at the branch of a tree, or at the way leaves can form a pattern, that can be rhythmic… there are so many patterns in nature and especially in plants, and that is fascinating to me, so perhaps I should learn some botany.
Let’s talk a bit about your background now. You trained as a classical musician, but at one point you got yourself a day job…
JK: I graduated from music school and I thought this is not for me. Music school was a little bit traumatic as it is so competitive. You have to be at a super technical level and I didn’t see a future for me as a classical musician. Then I moved to New York and I started doing various things. Eventually I started playing with bands and with non classical more improvised projects, and this whole new world opened up to me, and I thought to myself, I can do something that is creative, I can make music that is creative.
You worked with a lot of people including Antony and the Johnsons and Baby Dee. What have you learned from them?
JK: I learned so much from everybody I have worked with, especially people who are making their own music, because everybody has their own way of communication what they want in order to make it happen, and that is a really fascinating thing to me. Instead of just notating something, people would sing to me, they would explain things, and I love that processes of someone explaining their musical vision and then trying to capture that and trying to recreate it.
But then you chose to work on your own…
JK: It’s true. It took me a long time, though. I worked with other people for years and years and years and only recently I started making solo music. I do still work with other people, which is something I love doing, but the solo music is really dear to my heart. It is a totally different process because when you are playing with other people you are trying to fit into their musical world. The solo music is my musical world.
I have also learnt a lot about the technology and about the recording process. It was interesting because I was always a session musician and you always had a sound engineer in the studio, but because I record at home I had to learn enormous amounts about that process.
Back to the visual arts. Another piece you talked about in one of your interviews relating to Delay is Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom.
JK: That piece was really inspiring to me.
Are the visual arts where you take your inspiration from rather than music?
JK: I am really inspired by other musicians, but I try not to be influenced by them, and I think it is difficult to avoid in music, the anxiety of influence. The visual arts are really interesting to me, because they feel complementary and yet totally different to music. I love the vocabulary of the visual arts and I love the act of looking at a painting and trying to process it.
Concerning music, I find more of a limitation in the fact that you are making a mass produced object whereas in art you are making a single object or a multiple, but with music it is a different process and creating something that is mass produced by necessity is more difficult in a way to me.
Would you say that some of your pieces are autobiographical, like self-portraits?
JK: Everything is, all the music I make. It sounds stupid, but it all comes from whatever you want to call it, your innermost core. I feel like I lay myself emotionally bare in my music and it makes me a little nervous. Sometimes I don’t think people understand that, but some people do grasp it.
What are you working on at present?
JK: I am thinking of making another record. I am home now for a couple of months and I have a lot of new material. I want to start the process of making a new record but until I sit down and start doing it, I am not going to see it clearly, because I find it very hard when I am travelling to work on my music. Still, now I have a little bit of time and I am interested in doing that.