AFTER years on the cusp of success, Glasgow-based experimentalist Ela Orleans may have found her perfect match in producer Howie B, finds Fiona Shepherd
Im always this upcoming composer,” says upcoming composer Ela Orleans. “I’m bored with that. I just want to be coming and getting there!” Orleans may soon get her wish. David Lynch and former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore are already fans of her immaculate electronica and her forthcoming sixth album, the Howie B-produced Upper Hell, can only widen that recognition.
If I get to the point where everything’s wonderful, that may be a horrible recordEla Orlean
But it’s been a lifetime apprenticeship for the itinerant but currently Glasgow-based Orleans – which is, poetically, her real (married) name, Ela being short for Elzbieta.
She grew up in a musical and artistic family in the Polish town of Oswiecim, better known in the west by its German name – Auschwitz. “It’s a very pretty town with a very ugly history,” she says. “But even though it’s a small town I grew up with this sense of other people living out there, because people were streaming to the museum so I saw all nationalities. There was this sense of expanding possibilities.”
It seems that Orleans has been exploring those possibilities for most of her life, working across the arts and honing her particular interests. She attended music school from the age of eight, studying violin and piano, singing in the school choir and playing in the orchestra. “I wasn’t really thinking seriously about music at the time, I just thought it was cool to play an instrument,” she says.
But a childhood accident and the complications arising from the concussion she suffered put paid to her formal music education.
“I had to give up because it was very rigorous. In Poland, art is taken really seriously and I just couldn’t take it, I was having these crazy migraines, I would lose consciousness, I couldn’t speak, I was all tingly – and that was followed by post-traumatic depression.”
The young Ela was interested in art so she simply swapped one artform for another, going on to attend art school, and then switching again, to acting, gaining a Masters in Theatre Arts.
Her studies brought her to Glasgow, in an exchange with students from the Royal Conservatoire, or the RSAMD as it still was in the late 1990s. After graduation, she stayed on, mingled in the city’s flourishing visual arts scene and was coaxed back into music by the band Hassle Hound, who recruited her on vocals, violin, keyboards and “toy instruments”.
And so began a love affair with recording which she pursued back in Poland while working in theatre production and then in the US, where she married and mingled again, submerging herself in New York’s visual arts community and collaborating with various luminaries of the city’s avant-garde music/noise scene.
Of all the artistic disciplines she had trained in, it was music which began to consume her as she worked diligently on her lo-fi home recordings, using keyboards, effects and her sanguine, hypnotic Nico-like voice to create an elegant, electronic Euro chamber pop soundworld which she has dubbed Movies for Ears.
“I wanted to be an artist, an actor, a painter but I never felt that I had to do any of that,” she says. “This was the first time I have to do it. I don’t even know if I like it, I can’t tell. I think I’m at the stage where I don’t care whether I make it or not as a musician. I just have to do it and I don’t have any feelings about that. I’m pretty withdrawn when I’m making music. I don’t like to use the term OCD because that’s a serious disorder but, for example, I promise every day to myself that I will stop and go to bed by 1am. Six o’clock I’m still working on something so I just can’t stop.”
Producing music at such an all-consuming rate has its advantages for her growing number of fans – between 2008 and 2012, Orleans released five albums, followed since then by numerous collaborations and a dance diversion using the moniker TRACT.
Orleans admits to feeling overwhelmed by her self-imposed workload at times but still prefers to work alone, unencumbered by anyone else’s agenda, tastes or schedule. However, she did (reluctantly) agree to work with esteemed producer Howie B (U2, Björk, Soul II Soul) on her new album, Upper Hell. His advice was that she concentrate on writing and recording and let him deal with production, tempering Orleans’ tendency to layer on effects until you can barely hear her in the music. Gradually, Orleans learned to relinquish some control and trust another’s vision for her music. The results are more spare, streamlined – and high fidelity.
“He is a master of musical space,” says Orleans. “He picks what’s important and really gets that I’m not a pop singer/songwriter. I use lyrics as an instrument and I make up words. He got that and sees the whole roots in jazz more than anything else.”
Orleans has used Ikea instructions as lyrics in the past. As a child, she would pretend she was French or English, babbling a fabricated vocabulary without actually knowing the language. “I was good at pretending I was Swedish or Finnish, I could make everybody laugh,” she remembers. “I always wanted to be foreign. Now I am, it’s not so great…”
Orleans is very candid in conversation – sometimes so candid that she asks for some of her thoughts not to be included in the interview. Music is clearly an outlet for her, yet she never writes lyrics as personal confessionals. Instead, Upper Hell is inspired by Dante’s Inferno. “I’m interested in turmoil and traumas but I wouldn’t write an album about some past relationship because it’s just not something I’d be interested in. I’d rather record a language which is more aesthetic and based on feeling rather than something complete.
“Every record is a struggle, and is usually about struggle with certain things. If I get to the point where I am happy and everything’s wonderful, that may be a horrible record, that’s my fear. Upper Hell was made as a kind of therapy, so it always has the context but nothing specific.”
As Orleans has learned to channel her own struggles and tussles, she has reached a point where she can now write music to a brief, creating short themes and incidental music for a variety of programmes on Polish TV and composing soundtracks for Swedish filmmaker Maja Borg.
As if she is not already creative enough, Orleans also makes her own hypnotic films to accompany her live performances, cutting together archive footage from open sources. Recently she’s been delving into the NASA film archive. “Everything is free to use, you just have to say ‘thank you NASA’,” she says. “I’m interested in things in space or the past.”
Orleans has been living in Glasgow since 2011 and, despite the lure of London or Paris, the wanderer plans to stay, at least for the moment. “It’s one of the most friendly places I’ve ever lived in, more than Poland, and definitely more than America. Socially it’s paradise, artistically it’s a very nurturing city.”
• Upper Hell is released by HB Recordings on 27 April. Ela Orleans plays Stereo, Glasgow, 17 April
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