Elysia Crampton

Email interview by Stefan Wharton
Photos shot by boychild in Los Angeles, USA

In the midst of huayños and R&B, cumbia and crunk, the landscape of Elysia Crampton’s music is a mountainous one. Its sheer rolling mass tells numerous tales, from collages of already storied samples to her own South and Central American and indigenous history. At the same time, oscillating between rocky, unstable points of reference her music is equally mountainous in its formation, as of shifting plates highlighting the temporal nature of our selves. I remember my first encounter with Elysia’s music: the track ‘Raining Cut’ – an edit of SWV’s 1997 single ‘Rain’ – under her former moniker E+E. While different from 2015’s more composition-based Moth/Lake or American Drift, the edit alluded to a vaporous air – one that carries through on her recent releases. Still, just as American Drift’s ‘Petrichrist’ – based on the etymology of ‘petrichor’ – signifies the scent of rain on soil, her music can be easily painted as a mountainous ethereality, where rock carries just as much weight, and where elegance and bleak ugliness combine. There’s slight friction in the disjointed nature of our conversation over time, which doesn’t quite concede to the continuity of underlying forces. ‘Nothing is still, nothing is solid state, fixed – there was never a stable point of reference,’ she says. ‘Trace the geological history of America long enough and you’ll find that it was part of the European continent. There are pieces of Africa still stuck to the southern east coast of the United States.’

How are you?

Tired – I’m an insomniac.

Where are you at the moment?

On a plane in El Alto, Bolivia.

I recently read that you tend not to listen to new music. Why is that?

My knowledge of/connection to newer music is sustained mainly through my personal relationships with other musicians. For me, inspiration usually manifests from something at first glance unrelated to the category of music – for example, image documents, film or books – so I tend to focus my attention more on those areas.

What aspects of music do you value most?

I love the playfulness of music, the way you can explore and enact fantasy through it, this is something very precious that I’ve utilised time and time again for survival. I recall days of poorer health when music was the only thing that would work to relieve my physical pain and depression. I carried the sensations, the melodies, the movements with me, and I could feel them changing my body, my health, my future.

‘My issue isn’t so much with clarity in and of itself but how we come to determine what is clear, legible or definable’

What music is particularly meaningful to you right now?

I recently DJed at a party with my friend Juliana (Huxtable) and I loved how we were bouncing off each other’s energy. We share sensibilities when it comes to our personal taste in music, so that was an exceptionally revitalising experience for me. I’ve been leaning on my friends’ work more and more, with a growing appreciation for the solidarity and shared universe I have with so many talented people that aren’t just musicians but artists and writers as well.

In terms of sheer sonics, your recognition of clarity as sometimes overvalued is refreshing.

My issue isn’t so much with clarity in and of itself but how we come to determine what is clear, legible or definable. What about everything that can’t be defined because there’s never actually been a stable point of reference? What about everything at the periphery of such ‘clarity’? Sometimes when we assume we have all the information (visual, chemical, text data, etc.) on a system/entity/concept in our grasp, it keeps us from truly discovering or learning. There is always something that resists, that eludes; this is queerness’s domain.

You recently shifted from E+E – a project largely based on edits – toward the composition-based American Drift and Moth/Lake as Elysia Crampton. How conscious was this?

It was a fairly simple decision – I mean, it just made sense to put my own name on stuff that was mostly written and performed by me, as opposed to arranged/mixed/edited etc. All the post-production is still done pretty much the same way. Working on computers can feel tedious most of the time, but one thing I like is having all the resources there with me, while I’m writing, whatever that is – texts, images, sound clips. It’s good to have everything lying around because things can easily influence/come into dialogue with one another that way.

Is there a desire to claim agency over your story – your transition and this process of
coming into your own – with your original compositions?

It’s never been my goal to have the music reflect my own story at the expense of all else, but obviously the music stems from/comes out of my experience, which is its own multi-helixed collision of narratives. With technology, we can embed texts and other image info into a sound file, yet still the document resists our totalising narratives – finding new relationships, new modes of being and being with. 

For me, The Light That You Gave Me To See You certainly has an enduring (if not timeless) quality. It includes a track that you worked on with WHY BE. How did that collaboration go down?

That’s very kind of you to say – thank you. I guess I’ll have to wait and see for myself.

Tobias (WHY BE) and I met in Los Angeles years ago, through our mutual friend Ashland Mines (Total Freedom). Ashland was always helping me out with booking experiments and supporting my general spiral. Tobias and I played a night that he coordinated at this speakeasy we used to go to called MIA, which has since been shut down. We hit it off and have shared music and friendship ever since. Toby’s collaborating with me on a new release I’ll be doing this year with my friends Chino Amobi, Eric (Rabit) and Felix Lee (lexxi).

Something that strikes me about you is the communal endeavour that you share with your
friends and contemporaries. At the same time, your music is very personal in nature. How do you relate the shared and the personal?

We are stronger when we are together. The personal is its own community of collaborations, relationships, allies. I tend to rant with this example, but really [Laughs], look at your skin, consider your organs, your vascular system, gut flora, your skeleton – what a beautiful camaraderie of entities brought together by evolution’s struggle. Also – consider my Americanness, which opens into my Bolivianess, which opens into my Aymaraness which opens into all kinds of Asian, African and mixed indigenous legacies that materially make up the Aymara body. The more we learn, not only do we find how connected we’ve always been, but we come to understand our own discreteness as well, through this process of symbiosis. It’s not that these collaborations obscure what we are, they help us better utilise our potentiality and power by uncovering what is actually involved in the maintenance of identity over time.

You’ve recently toured Europe, both solo and with Chino Amobi. What are your feelings on
live performance? How does it compare to your writing?

Have you heard Chino’s new EP? It’s my favourite release of his since 2011’s e. I appreciate music as a larger space of mobility to sort of counter all of that policing and side-taking. I think the trick is to treat writing words like writing music – just getting to that aesthetic place of communication with the sublime. It’s hit-and-miss at times, but one advances so much by what is learned in the process or attempt.

Because of my low income and the small budgets I’ve had to work with, I’ve had to learn how to perform as a one-woman act. However, that’s a challenge I’ve enjoyed working out.

Yes, Chino’s new EP is great! How do you think Virginia shaped you as a person, and what
brought about the move to La Paz?

As beautiful as Virginia was, like a lot of places in the US it could be violent and hostile at times, especially to someone like me. Even in the middle of nowhere, the carceral system makes itself known – the powers that be are there to remind you who’s in charge and what bodies go where.

What are your plans for the future?

This year I’ll be debuting a new show that runs like a short play/DJ production/live performance. The show comes from the perspective/consciousness of Bartolina Sisa’s entrails, after she was severed into pieces, and spirals into a time slide that ends in the distant future, where we see the end of the prison industrial complex in a universe where blind trans cyborgs of colour have inherited a barren, barely inhabitable earth. The show is my contribution to the Aymara/Andina Futurist legacy.

Elysia Crampton plays Progress Bar in Paradiso-Noord, Tolhuistuin on Saturday, 4 June.