This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on March 26, 2014.
Pop-noir collagist Ela Orleans’ LP Tumult In Clouds is aptly named. “I look for tumult in everything,” says the Glasgow-based artist, who was born and raised in Poland. “I have a lot of conflict in myself, and I’m always questioning things. I like to find that conflict in music too.”
Orleans’ mesmeric aesthetic is equal parts melodic and dissonant. It variously blurs and conjures minimalist electro, vintage film-pop and distorted psych-rock, the latter of which recalls her tenure in New York’s sonic underground. A multi-instrumentalist and former member of Glasgow troupe Hassle Hound, Orleans’ dramatic solo voyages have won her admirers in The Pastels, Thurston Moore and David Lynch, not to mention a remix commission from electronic powerhouse Warp. She’s set to collaborate with film-maker Maja Borg at this year’s Counterflows festival, on a bill that also stars casio-busking enigma The Space Lady, with whom Orleans has been aligned. Certainly, both acts are out of this world.
Tumult in Clouds scooped last year’s Mercury alternative, the Dead Albatross Prize (beating My Bloody Valentine, Broadcast and Factory Floor). It was recently reissued on CD and double-vinyl via Orleans’ Parental Guidance imprint, after its initial 2012 pressing sold out. As with its stellar, Ray Bradbury referencing predecessor Mars is Heaven, Tumult in Clouds takes myriad cues from literature. It variously cites Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats, whose poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, affords the LP its title. (“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds.”)
“I felt that line represented the time when I was writing the album,” Orleans offers, stirring coffee in a Glasgow bookshop basement. “I thought that the poem was not necessarily only about war – it was about agreeing to die; to diminish. Or, you know: screw the world, I don’t care, I will do whatever. Of course, that’s simplifying the poetry, which I’m very good at,” she says with a laugh. “But the poets I like are really good about describing feelings while hiding behind something – the weather, or natural causes, or war, which blows like a wind through history. Poems give me a rhythm which fits with the ostinati character of music. It’s like building on circles; on the routines of life.”
There are intricate shapes and structures throughout Orlean’s work. “Yeah, I get almost obsessive about details,” she nods. “It started with a record being stuck, actually. I remember when I was a kid, I had a copy of Janis Joplin’s Cry Baby, and it jumped, so it was like – ‘cry, cry, cry, cry’ – and I started singing along to that. I always liked that pattern, I remember it vividly. And I always like to repeat a word – for example, ‘chair, chair, chair, chair’ – until it completely loses its meaning, and it becomes something else.”
Orleans sings the praises of exploring others people’s words. “I have a hard time writing poetry myself – I’m afraid it won’t be universal,” she says. “I don’t want to patronise anybody with my thoughts. I don’t want to express my hate for my past loves, or not-loves. I don’t have that need. Plus, English is not my first language. But WB Yeats – well, nobody’s going to question that. I do, however, like to cut and add things.” Tumult in Clouds’ aural and lyrical cut-ups are abstract yet cohesive and vivid, thanks to a series of possible narratives, which are signposted by recurring motifs and evocative, if murky, titles (Diving Into The Wreck; Rolling Waters). Just don’t call it a concept.
“I don’t really have the capacity to make a concept – it disagrees with me,” she smiles. “If I was going to create a great concept, I’d like to be a scientist, and have a concept that would be useful for humans. But I like art to cover life, and I think that concept in life is really boring.” Orleans, rather, thrives on the beauty and designs of chaos, and on experimentation, such as her Counterflows collaboration with Borg.
“Maja is very sensitive to music,” she says. “She’s very connected to it, she has a great ear for sound and she won’t let any false note come in.” (The same could be said for Orleans.) “Our show is going to be a bit of an experiment,” she continues. “It’ll be partially live, and we’re designing a screen installation with different visuals. Maja’s going to do some reading and I’ll do some songs.” Their artistic partnership is ongoing. “Yeah, she’s doing something for my new record too,” says Orleans. “I’m working on a new LP and a new 12 inch. The 12 inch will be dance music; the new LP will be my regular, irregular collage.” Orleans’ forthcoming album is set to feature long-term champions Stephen and Katrina Pastel. “I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me,” she states.
Whether creating uncanny, monochrome pop or composing glimmering techno, Orleans has a knack for art that is challenging yet welcoming; keen-eyed (and eared), yet open-armed. “I like to find melody in everything,” she muses. “Even my noise attempts are melodic.” And despite their thrilling sonic divergence, Orleans’ songs have common origins. “I think they all start out from the same point,” she offers. “It’s just they all have different impulses. They’re on different frequencies.” Thank heavens for these impulses of delight.
(Photo of Ela Orleans by Natalie McGowan)