Alexis O’Hara

Ellipsis and the Speakerbox Igloo: The Alexis O’Hara Interview

Erin Lyndal Martin, Euterpe’s Notebook, May 30, 2011

I’ve been a fan of Alexis O’Hara since 2003, when I first heard her 2002 album In Abulia. Though it took her eight years to put out the follow-up, Ellipsis, the album was well-worth the wait, and O’Hara kept herself busy in the meantime doing brilliant and innovative live performances and sound installations. Wickedly brilliant and creative, here is O’Hara discussing Ellipsis, the Speakerbox Igloo, and dreams about evil water.

AO: Do you mind if I ask you a question?

ELM: No, go on.

AO: How do you know who I am?

ELM: Years ago, my then-boyfriend gave me a copy of In Abulia. So I had to email him and tell him I was talking to you, and he had a very good question for you. He wanted me to ask you what your favorite non-musical sounds were, like if you liked the sound of traffic or washing machines.

AO: My very favorite sound is ice cubes in a glass, in a drink. Actually, a lot of my favorite sounds are related to the consumption of beverages. I love the sound when you open a bottle of wine and you’re just about to pour it and there’s a sort of suction that occurs there that’s very nice. Those are my top two. I have a couple wooden bracelets that are bangles that my sister gave me, and when I wear them they make a really fun sound cause they smash together. It actually reminds me of ice cubes in a glass.

ELM: So I noticed on Ellipsis that you switch between languages a lot more, and I wondered how you decided when you’re going to switch.

AO: Well, my first album had French and English on it because those are the two languages I was raised with. My mom is francophone and my dad is anglophone. But English was the dominant language for sure. Living in Montréal, I feel like I have to have some French on everything that I do. And then Spanish — I love Spanish — I only speak it a little bit, but I love the sound of it. On the album, some of it was actually mixed — I had a residency in Mexico, and I did some recording there, but I was mostly working on tracks that had been recorded here, and it came to me to do the “Twenty-Three” in Spanish. I have a French version as well, but it’s not as musical. Overall, it was a fun experience to translate that song into two languages, and I feel like the Spanish version is my favorite. So when I do live performances, like if I’m in Germany, I try to do a German song too. I wish I was more of a polyglot. I do my best to engage in as many languages as I could access.

ELM: What is your typical live show like?

AO: There’s not a typical live show because I do as much gigging in burlesque venues or cabaret venues as I do in music-type venues or art galleries or new media-type venues. In a way, I will adapt to the environment. The essential elements are my voice, a bunch of pedals, some feedback, some sampling, a lot of live sampling. It’s interesting because I put out this record and I am quite proud of it, but I haven’t really toured it. I did do a release party in Montréal with a full band, and that was really fun, but half the night was the full band and half the night was me solo. So I do the songs, which is different than the cabaret act, which is a lot more improvisation, more a comedy-type element, experimental-music-type element through the pedals and feedback. When I do the songs, it’s different. It’s much more girl-with-a-guitar. So I’ll play the bass and I’ll loop the bass and my voice. I’ve always had an issue with branding. It’s never really been my path to do the same show twice.

ELM: Where did you get the idea to use your voice as a backing instrument?

AO: I don’t consider it to be a backing instrument. I consider it to be the main instrument. It comes from being a kid with my family on road trips and being with my sister and me playing a game where one person makes a beep-beep-beep-beep sound and the next person goes mrow-mrow and so we’d compose little songs that way. So when I discovered the miracle of a loop station, it was like ‘Oh! This is the music I’ve been making since I was eight years old!’ And then experimenting with what is possible and what sounds I can make with my voice. I’ve always been inspired by vocal performers, everybody from Diamanda Galas to Bobby McFerrin. Throat singers really fascinate me. It’s only later on that I learned to play an instrument.

ELM: Even though my mother’s a French teacher, I have no idea what you’re talking about in Balade gelée. It sounds really romantic, but I don’t know if it is.

AO: It’s a woman talking about herself, so there’s no ‘you’ in it. It’s just ‘I. I could tell you some of the lyrics: ‘Je ne suis pas une des fideles / Ni praticante d’endurance / Ancrée ici par une ficelle / Ephémère de toute apparence.’ ‘I am not one of the faithful / Neither amateur of endurance / Tethered by a string / Ephemerally existing.’

I can tell you that when I do that song in Quebec, everyone laughs. And when I do it in front of an English-speaking crowd, everyone applauds. There’s a punchline that you have to be French to get at the end of the song. It’s basically the story of a woman saying ‘oh, I’m so damaged, and I could tell you all of my stories,’ and at the end saying ‘but that would take a very long time.’

ELM: I really like a line in a later song, the line ‘you can’t touch it and then touch your face.’

AO: That’s a rare example, because in a lot of way, Ellipsis is a surprise and a departure for people who know my live work because my live work is more character-driven. It has spoken word, but there are a lot more character-driven elements that happen in there. So that piece comes from a 20-minute performance I did in New York City, and then I did another version in the UK, a version of it that’s about five minutes. It’s where I’m this strange bug creature, and I have a dress that is a MIDI-controller dress, so if I touch certain parts of the dress, it triggers different samples. So I’m this character, this bug, and the bug being a triple-entendre of something that annoys you or surveillance and espionage or the bug, the insect, that whole fascinating species that will outlive the human species. That song is taken from that. I love the lyrics in that song. They’re so silly. ””You don’t touch it and then touch your face. But maybe those babies’ got babies too. And the babies’ babies’ve got babies too. And then what are you gonna do? You can’t kill them all.”

ELM: Do you feel like you consciously make records rather than put songs together?

AO: No. Look at my discography. I put out one record in 2002, and my next record came out in 2010. But, I suppose, given the time-lapse, I could easily follow the argument of having spent eight years crafting the vision of it. I would like to be more prolific in releasing material. I do create a lot of material, but I don’t always press record. Usually, I don’t press record.

ELM: One question that I ask everybody: who are your favorite writers?

AO: Right now, I’m reading a great book, but I’m so tired I can’t remember the name of it. I really like Nabokov, Lolita is my all-time favorite book. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn was a very inspirational book for me. I love Lynda Barry, a beautiful beautiful writer. There’s a Canadian writer, Miriam Toews. I love her writing. As a kid, e.e. cummings was really the bomb, the shit for me. And an Ontario poet, B.P. Nichols, lesser-known sort of Dadaist character. He died young. I should carry around a list: favorite writers, so when I get interviewed, I can sound intelligent, but I have a special variety of amnesia that makes me forget what kind of music I like whenever I walk into a record store.

ELM: Do you have any sociopolitical causes that you feel like are really close to your heart?

AO: If anything, I aspire to having a much smaller footprint, really being conscious about everything that I buy and the whole consumer process and how we’ve been trained, ideologically and emotionally, to be rewarded by this really vacuous system, so that is something I try to think about. When I was in my early 3O’s, I was quite conscious about my personality flaws and how self-centered I am as a human. So I was like ‘I need to be a better lover. Be better at loving people.’ And it’s a daily struggle for sure because there’s a lot of reasons to hate humanity any time you walk out the door. I feel like I’m not quite the political being I will, one day, be, because I feel more and more motivated every day to be more conscious of the way I live in terms of my actions and my beliefs. It’s still very personal and radiating only out to a smaller circumference than someone who’s trying to free prisoners. It’s hard because I definitely feel overwhelmed a lot by all the injustices and certainly the right-wing wave that is sweeping internationally. You’re calling me from the States, and you’ve got Obama in power now, but he’s got his hands tied in a lot of ways. And even his view of government still has a very individualistic approach to it, like taxes are viewed as the devil, so we have this societal breakdown in the sense of people not wanting to take care of each other. They just want to make their own money and take care of themselves, and that frightens me. There were elections in Canada recently, not sure if you’re aware of it, but our Prime Minister, who had been the minority — he was leading with a minority government, which meant that he was limited in what he could do. And it was weird because he’d been involved in all these scandals and closed down Parliament, just not wanting to work on specific issues, he closed down Parliament. How can you do that? How can you just shut down the process. And limiting access to the Information Act. So there was a non-confidence vote and an election was called, and, after months of campaigning, he won again, and this time with a majority. It was like, ‘oh my god!’ This was an interesting thing because for the first time in Canadian history — wait, is that true? I should Google it, but, anyway, and NDP, which is the New Democratic Party, they’re quite lefty, they believe in social government, in social democracy. Their color is orange, and Quebec is shaped a little bit like a goldfish, so the whole province is like an orange goldfish surrounded by this big blue shark. I get that we’re just specks. There are things that are going to occur in my life and then I will die. There are so many people on the planet and there are so many shifts that happen, and, in a way, I feel fatalistic about it. Not that I don’t try to be a better person, but I’m not railing, necessarily, because I see my place in the tide of it all.

ELM: It’s interesting to hear what’s going on in other countries because, especially being in a country like the US, we get a lot of tunnel vision when it comes to our own politics.

AO: It’s not very typical for Americans to hear what’s going on in the rest of the world. Your media doesn’t broadcast those stories.

ELM: Especially not about Canada, unfortunately. My last question for you relates to Escape Hatch, which is about a dream, and it’s my favorite song of yours. I was wondering if you have particularly interesting dreams or one you can recall.

AO: I love my dreams, and I have escaped into my dreams many times, and sometimes it’s a dangerously seductive place to live in your subconscious and have these fantasies, and sometimes the fantasies surprise you. That song, Escape Hatch was a real dream, and it was a real breakup, and I’m pretty much just telling the story of the dream. I was broken-hearted about it but it was also that this person was my heartbreak muse. It’s good to have your heart broken, actually. Write some stuff abut it. Lately I’ve had a couple of really good dreams. I’ve been having nice, hot dreams, like where things are going really well and some Hollywood movie star is kissing me. The other day, a friend of mine, Magali Babin, a sound artist here in Montréal and in the world, she’s been doing stuff with putting microphones underwater and recording underwater sounds. Right now she’s working on a series where she’s asking people if they have dreams about water, and I have this great dream that I had as a kid. It was a reoccurring dream, it was a nightmare, and I think I must have told the story of the reoccurring dream, for years and years and years, and it was only at one point that I looked at the retelling and thought ‘this was a very environmentalist dream that I was having.’ I was kind of raised on television because I had two professional parents, and I watched a lot of tv, and my dreams when I was a kid, and even now, I’d get these images that are images from childhood but it’s not real childhood, it’s like you grew up in the house from the Brady Bunch, this sort of split-level bungalow with a swimming pool in the back and a phone on the wall. We never had a phone on our wall with a long cord. So in this dream, the swimming pool is haunted, and the water is evil water. If this water touches your skin, it turns into plastic bags filled with tin cans that stick to you forever and ever. One by one, my friends are getting plastic-bag-tin-canned to death and the kitchen is just like the Brady Bunch kitchen, and I have to cross past the kitchen to get to the phone. And as I do, a wave of the evil water comes in the window from the swimming pool, and I am completely drenched, and I reach my doom moment, and I wake up.

ELM: That’s not a fabulous dream to have, but it’s pretty fantastic to talk about.

AO: Yes, it scared me a lot as a child.

ELM: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

AO: Do you know anything about my sound installation, the Speaker Box Igloo? It’s an igloo made of speaker boxes.

ELM: No, tell me about it.

AO: You should Google it too. There’s a lot of images of it online. It’s my first sound installation, and there’s two doors and you go inside, and there’s microphones hanging from the ceiling which are facing inwards and you pick up the microphone and you talk, and your voice going through delay or pitch-shift or some other effects comes out of the speakers around you. There’s four microphones, so there’s this spontaneous, ephemeral band that just jams out with their voice all effected. I did it at music festivals, and I did it in Club Transmedia, and a couple places in France, and Today’s Art in Holland. It’s really fun, and I love that project. I had a really busy touring schedule in presenting that project last year. I’m working now on developing a performance piece which is actually kind of a play but it’s more of a sound-piece. It has kind of a post-apocalyptic, post-everything vibe, cause the whole home of the characters is Speaker Box Igloo, which sounds like it’s made from the dredges of society, so that’s an exciting thing that’s going on with me. I really hope to be opening Speaker Box Igloos everywhere in the world. They’re really fun sport. Anyway, thanks for being interested!

Though it took her eight years to put out the follow-up, Ellipsis, the album was well-worth the wait, and O’Hara kept herself busy in the meantime doing brilliant and innovative live performances and sound installations.