This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 9, 2015.
Ela Orleans is swirling coffee, deliberating on the themes of her new electro-noir album, Upper Hell. “Oh, you know, it’s about that whole apocalypse-slash-depression idea. Cheerful stuff like that,” she deadpans. “No hope. Misery and trauma. My favourite things.” It also touches on Glasgow indie, Warsaw opera, bootleg jungle tapes, and Bono.
Orleans’ sixth album is a heavenly record about hell. It sees the Poland-raised, Glasgow-based musician and composer team up with producer Howie B, whose credits include Tricky, Bjork, U2 and Everything But The Girl, and never has her modus operandi, “haunted dancehall”, seemed so apt.
Loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, Upper Hell voyages through fear, regret and despair, and all to a groovy dark-pop beat – from the River Acheron’s ghostly chamber-electro, through the industrial disco of City of Dis, to the “abandon all hope, ye who enter” refrains of exquisite swansong, Through Me, which features harmonies from The Pastels.
“Even though it’s about a horrible time, I didn’t want this to be a very grim and sad record,” offers Orleans. “The thing that always saves me from being on a downer is humour. Always. And there’s something perverse in joking about your unhappiness. I find that quite attractive. So I basically made a big party out of all the s**t I was going through.”
Orleans’ prior mercurial albums have cited Aleister Crowley, Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Dickinson and WB Yeats, and while Upper Hell also alludes to the bible and outsider art, its overall arc is mapped by Dante’s journey through the netherworld. What was the attraction? “I find it really comforting,” she says. “It takes you away. It makes you almost fly over everything, and lets you see the whole misery of life, you know?” She skips a beat and smiles. “That’s a cheerful thing to say. But who said you have to be happy, anyway? Who said you have to believe in fairy-tales? Especially girls. Just don’t. Be tough. You have to be tough.”
It is testament to Orleans’ extraordinary art that her songs operate on myriad levels, and in circles within circles. They are universal, literary, abstract, vivid, intimate, empowering and strangely comforting. Her re-appropriation of classic texts and her original lyrical visions tell us very little about Orleans, yet much about ourselves – and that is by meticulous design. “Art without the mystery – art with all that autobiographical stuff – why would I make that? Why would I do that to people?” She says, wryly. “I love music. I love how it sounds, when it sounds good. But I would never go into autobiography. I find that very pompous and sad. And lacking humour, actually. There’s something very self-indulgent about it.”
Her music’s sense of timelessness, and otherworldliness, is echoed in Orleans’ preoccupations with space (2011’s Ray Bradbury-inspired Mars Is Heaven) and the skies (2012’s Tumult In Clouds) – and her personal geography is similarly untethered. “People always try to put me somewhere,” says the artist, who grew up in Poland, studied in Glasgow and spent time in London and New York’s sonic underground. “But I don’t feel roots anywhere. Home is wherever I have my friends.
“Of course, it all somehow impacts,” she continues. “I was brought up on Austrian music – Strauss, Mozart, things like that – and then I listened to a lot of Polish chanson. And I always loved reggae too. I always loved dub. I always loved bass, and relentless rhythms and repetition. When I went to London, in 1995, that was the biggest hit of my life. I heard jungle music, and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ I’d get all these tapes from market stalls, of jungle music, and I thought, ‘Do I hate it, or do I love it?’ That was the only time in my life that music surprised me.”
You can hear it resonating in the fathomless bass and off-beat electronica of her new record. “Yeah, and that’s partly because of Howie – he brings that aesthetic to this album,” she says. “And actually, there is a link with him, through that time in London, because his were the records I was listening to back then – the records he produced, like Tricky and Massive Attack.”
Orleans met Howie B through a close friend who transpired to be his sister. “He came to see me play in the Glad Cafe in Glasgow, and we had this geeky exchange,” Orleans recalls. “He said to call him if I ever needed help with technical stuff. Then a few weeks later, he called me. He might have been a bit drunk actually, it was about 3am, and I think he was in China. Anyway, he was like, ‘Ela, how many new tracks do you have ready? Can you send me three?’ So I sent him demos of River Acheron, Secret Hands and Upon The Abysses. And the next day, I had this love letter to my music. I still read that email.”
They started working together soon thereafter. He encouraged Orleans to continue recording in her “intimate” way – on equipment at home in Glasgow, and then in Warsaw where she was working on an opera – and then they re-built the songs together in his studio in London. “That was terrifying,” says Orleans. “But Howie was just so great at stretching things, and bringing much more space and dynamic. He hears a lot of jazz in my music and he tried to work with that. He’d move rhythms around, and break things up a bit – just so it’s a little bit off – and add things in really odd places. Like stardust. We talked a lot about the idea of having just bass, with glitter over it.”
Theirs is a celestial union, but it was not without its heavy moments, which came to a head while the duo worked on the LP’s utterly beautiful tech-dirge, We Are One. “That was the time when I pissed off Howie,” Orleans recalls. “I was just so annoying. I was really, really particular about this synthesiser part, I wanted to hear it all the time, and I was just like – buzz, buzz, buzz, in his ear about it, all the time – you know, just constantly, ‘Howie, Howie, you can’t forget that, you can’t forget that’. And eventually he was like – ‘F*** off!’”
She stops to laugh at the memory. The tale is testament to her persistent, fastidious ethos – and indeed her singularity. “Howie called me later that night to apologise,” she continues, smiling. He said, ‘Ela, I’ve only ever said F*** off to one other person before. And that was Bono.’”
Related articles: Ela Orleans, Upper Hell album review (The List)