Polish-born, Brooklyn-based Ela Orleans recently released her sophomore album Lost, a lush, eclectic and excitingly focused album of home-produced songs that ranged from bossa nova through beach and Afro-pop, into avant collage, that, through its many influences, managed to defy any easy categorization. She spoke with us about her ten-hour recording shifts, growing up behind the Iron Curtain, and her many impressive collaborators.
What do you remember about growing up in Poland under communism?
I grew up in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), quite pretty, old town with the horrific history. In a perplexing way living there contributed to my cultural education. People from all over the world streamed there. It was there, where I saw for the first time people other than whites, people who looked healthier, happier, more colorful and different than my folks. Paradoxically, living and growing up near the most gruesome museum site in the world gave me a lot of hope and filled me with the desire to discover other lands and cultures. Growing up in communism was dull and depressing, but that is probably just the nature of growing up anywhere. I was scolded in school for being asocial. I hated sports, parades, planting trees or any form of group activity. I liked working once a week in the factory at the age of 10. I thought it was fun. My parents partied a lot during that time. People drunk and smoked at work like in “Mad Men” but the life style was everything but glamorous. I was a kid and I felt protected. People spent considerable amount of time in lines, trying to get anything from toilet paper to a pair of sneakers… Ham or orange was lavishness. Everything was a ration and every purchase was a trophy. I collected chocolate wrappings and banana stickers. I stored them in the box and often would stick my nose into it and would get a sniff of the scent of “The West” so forbidden during communism. It was easy to appreciate things and very difficult to be an individual. I remember the fear of repression, but I was safe surrounded by my family, books and music. I loved to be home and sick. Everything was cozy and safe at home. The outside world was somber and bleak. My mom had a mathematical theory of the end of the communism. She would do the math and say: “Even Salomon wouldn’t be able to pour from the empty glass.” So this “economy” had to end. We knew that. The question was: when? To me capitalism is a reversed form of the communism. And as so, every mathematical fabrication is doomed to have its downfall. We are experiencing it in America now. I am not afraid of it, but I wish I could for once live in prosperity… I am bored with the crisis.
Do you “jam” alone a lot?
I prefer to “jam” alone. I practice (improvise, write, compose) two to ten hours almost every day. I can play all day long and I wish I could do only that. Unfortunately I have to pay my bills using other than musical talents. I played with others, sure. It’s good to be sociable and get out of the cave once in a while. I am not very good at rehearsing in front of the people though. I get self conscious and kind of stiff. I find a solitary production a lot more liberating…
Also, I get very tired when I have to agree with things I don’t feel strongly about. When it comes to the music, I am a total control freak. When I am recording on my own I can be as selective and critical as I want without hurting anybody’s feelings or being impeached for egomania.
How many instruments do you play?
I can’t really play any instruments. I prefer to say that I use instruments. I use violin, guitar, keyboard, flute, toy instruments and sampler. I also like to think about vocal as an instrument.
Which came first for you, the violin or the guitar?
Violin. I always idolized violinists. I went to music school when I was eight and violin was my primary instrument. I was doing pretty well but I was forced to give up my music career at the early stage due to a severe concussion. I had to take it very easy and it was impossible for me to continue the rigorous musical education. I was still a kid and didn’t quite know what are the consequences of quitting music school. I became interested and involved in fine arts and later in theatre. I realized many years later that music is something I care for more than anything else.
The second instrument was piano. I picked up the guitar only four years ago.
So why did you first move to Glasgow, rather than London or New York?
I wanted to go to New York right after I graduated from art school. I wanted to be a painter. I didn’t get the visa. London seemed to be out of my reach (far too expensive). I had friends in Glasgow and going to Scotland was just one of my romantic ideas. Glasgow is a great city. If you have steady job you can live in a mansion. It’s very easy to make friends there too. I didn’t go there to pursue music. For some reason a lot of people assume that. I wanted to become a theatre director. I gave up that idea right after the premiere of my second show and never had a slightest desire to come back to it again.
I definitely “restarted” music in Glasgow. One day I walked by the music store and saw a very cheap violin in the window. Bought it in a heartbeat. When one of my friends found out that I knew the violin, he asked me if I could play some notes during one of the ongoing “Radio Tuesday” programs. It was an artist-run radio station based in Glasgow set up to produce and broadcast sound art, experimental music, new music, poetry, documentary and other uses of sound. Starting in 1999 sporadic broadcasts took place across Glasgow and the surrounding area involving hundreds of artists. I said yes to that, although didn’t feel confident at all at the time. I took a part in its installation at Transmission Gallery. The person who asked me was Tony Swain. During the performance I met two other people: Mark Vernon – founding member of the art radio collective and David Fulford. Four of us later formed Hassle Hound. And this is how I became involved in music again.
What's your band Hassle Hound like, and do you still play with them regularly?
Hassle Hound conjures up a sophisticated mess of complimentary contradictions, sampling the best and most eclectic of record collections, ripping out and tearing off ideas and samples. The band was formed in 1999 with core members: Tony Swain (guitar, loops, samples) Mark Vernon (loops, samples, electronics and balloons) and myself (violin, keyboards, guitar & vocals) and was occasionally aided and abetted by David Fulford (keyboards & electronics). We produced wistful love songs and cartoon oneirics created from a range of unlikely sources. Each of us has a different approach towards the music and we all have our own “thing” going on. This is why, in my opinion, we have been able to maintain this collaboration. We have the new release coming on Staubgold this year. The title of the record is Born in A Night. We don’t play regularly for logistic reasons. We try to record things together whenever we see each other, but of course a lot of our work is based on virtual banding. Whenever we have to tour we prepare separately and then we spend a week on rehearsing two or three versions of the set. We don’t tour much, so the issue is almost non-existent. There is no plan of the new record after Born in A Night. It may or may not happen. It’s a mystery to all of us how this band managed to exist for such a long time…
How is Lost different from your first album?
The most significant difference is my label – La Station Radar. I never was given so much endorsement from anyone. In the way Lost is the result of LSR's constant support. I worked a lot harder on that album, because I respected their dedication and friendship. I really didn’t wish to disappoint them and wanted this collaboration to continue. They encouraged me to be as idiosyncratic as I want. And this record is more personal than anything I have done before. The record’s cover is the signature of its content.
When it comes to other, more musical / technical aspects, my first solo album – High Moon Low Sun was more minimal, fragile and almost a timid composition. It was recorded in layers with very little help from the loop station or sampler. The instruments were used quite sparsely. It never was promoted by the label, which was a big disappointment.
Lost is the result of quite meticulous production. I spent more time on loop preparation, editing and final selection than on recording itself. I continued my research and experimentation with the sound, text and above all – ostinati – a succession of equal sounds. I became more confident with the use of sampler and the delay. During that time I obsessively listened to Pet Sounds, Joe Meek’s recordings, Ethiopiquesand Bollywood scores.
Do you strive to be eclectic with your range of songs?
I am sometimes afraid that I like things that sound too similar. I feel that I am too predictable. All the clothes and shoes I buy for example look the same. And I feel as I follow certain patterns in many aspects of my life. Music is no exception. It’s like scribbling the same shape on the piece of paper over and over again completely unconsciously. There is this cult movie in Poland called The Cruise (Rejs) and one of the main characters asks himself: “How can I like the song I have never heard before?” I think I can relate to that. But then… I've heard a lot of songs…
Would you consider any of your music “lo-fi”?
Absolutely. I don’t use cassette players though. I have real “lo-fi” recordings I did ten years ago on the four-track. Now I use computer. In my case, degradation of the audio comes from aesthetics rather than from the desire to be “authentic”. Ideally I would like to sound like Andrews Sisters or Beach Boys or Velvet Underground because their sound appears to me more than the sound of any “high-fi” production. Slick sound makes me physically nauseous. I think it may have something to do with my head being heavily blown a long time ago. Since then I have been oddly attracted to all kinds of noise others would find disturbing.
Do you admire any old folk singers or musicians from Poland who you can educate us about?
Again I have to talk about “oldies” and classical/contemporary music. In my opinion, the most amazing Polish composer, whose roots are in folk, is Karol Szymanowski. I think the world of Krzysztof Penderecki and Wojciech Kilar. Their music is deeply rooted in folk and dense tone clusters coming from medieval ecclesiastical singing.
I musically grew up on post war chansonniers singing songs by Wars, Szpilmann, Wiehler to name a few and on Polish Jazz – Krzysztof Komeda, Adam Makowicz and Tomasz Stanko. I was always very fond of Jerzy “Dudus” Matuszkiewicz – an amazing score composer. He scored a ton of my favorite Polish movies. My front-runner Polish singer is Urszula Dudziak. I think that there is one universally and objectively top-drawer Polish band – Novi Singers formed in Warsaw in the 60s. All of the members were multi-instrumentalists at the Warsaw Conservatory and close-harmony singers as well. The vast artistic output of the group for the state-owned Polish record label Polskie Nagrania remained a well-kept secret for the Western-European countries and the rest of the world. The emergence of the CD in Poland confined many of these excellent jazz-recordings to the vaults. They are compared to Lambert-Ross-Hendricks or Les Double Six. They are on the very top of my Polish list.
When in Brooklyn, who do you play music with?
The only person I performed my solo project with was Kevin Shea. I could play with him any time. He is extremely talented and hilarious at the same time. It’s always fun to watch what he is doing. A few years ago I played in the noise / experimental projects called 3i’s and Ozone Swimmers (with Marc Orleans and Pete Nolan), I performed in Franklin’s Mint (Phil Franklin’s band) and also had an episode of playing with Tom Greenwood (Jackie O Motherfucker). I tried to be in other bands. I like to think I can do it, but unfortunately I have no time for commitments other than my own.
Who is Wende K. Bass?
Wende is one of the premier guitar players from Burkina Faso. He is an absolute prodigy and a sweetheart. I met him through Lukas Ligeti – my mentor and friend. Wende plays in Lukas’s bands and projects such as: Burkina Electric, Beta Foly, Kaleidoscope Point, etc. I saw Wende playing in one of Lukas’s performances at the Whitney Museum. I was blown away not only by his dexterity but also his attitude. We got introduced a few weeks later at The Stone and we became very good friends. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind doing some loose improvisations on the top of my recording and he said: “Why not?” I never met anybody so devoted and genuine about music. It was a very humbling experience. I brought my laptop to his apartment in Harlem and it took him less than an hour to play four versions of each song. It took me about five days to edit the material. I felt like a butcher tearing his riffs into parts. I truly hope we can work again.
How many overdubs did you use to make the recordings on Lost?
All instrumental pieces and parts of the songs were done in one or two takes. I used a couple of overdubs for vocals and three overdubs of Wende’s guitar. I am trying to build the song in the way, so I can easily play it live without loosing too much of the recorded quality. “Amsler Grid” for example has a score and it can be recreated life quite easily. In other words I am trying not to cheat too much.
What would you choose if you had the opportunity to replace the movie score of any movie with the music on Lost?
Hmm… Street of Crocodiles by Quay Brothers? My Night at Maud’s by Eric Rohmer? God… I don’t know. Every movie I can think of is too good to be altered. Good car commercial would be great for a start. So I could buy some more equipment or back up the old one.