London based multi-instrumentalist, composer, experimental sound and visual artist, Damsel Elysium utilises double bass, violin, piano and original field recordings to explore intangible connections between humans and the natural world. Having collaborated with artists including FKA twigs and Celeste, performed at London’s Southbank Centre and Tate Modern, and worked on commissions for the likes of Simone Rocha and Gucci, Elysium’s unique sound is catching the attention of those in the know. Their latest project, the anticipated EP titled Whispers From Ancient Vessels, is set for release on 2 February 2024. To learn more, Keshav Anand spoke with the artist.
Keshav Anand: Your practice spans composing, visual and performance art — I’m curious to learn more about your journey to working with sound, and how your interests in other mediums influence your music.
Damsel Elysium: I find it hard to separate them all. They are all one in the same and influenced by each other. I wasn’t trying to create a record or “music.” At the time I was making Whispers…, it was already planned to be an audio-visual project — a story of some kind. I was 19 and just came out of studying filmmaking, so my mind was deeply visually led. I wanted to work with sound as the basis though, since I had just returned back to playing violin after a five year hiatus.
The lockdown gave me the opportunity to re-examine my relationship with sound. I was introduced to producing and was very excited about playing with sound and trying to create something that hadn’t been heard. I was not interested in composing; I didn’t really know what that was and felt limited by the definitions of my classical training. There was a moment during the creation of Whispers… that I was panicking, thinking, “Is this sound art or a song? Is this meant to be a film or a music video or…?!”
I eventually realised it didn’t have to be either or it could be both, because it was mine and I didn’t need to try to fit into something I didn’t belong to, especially when the journey began out of pure excitement, naivety and play from listening to trees and exploring an instrument I barely knew — the double bass.
KA: Congratulations on the release of your new single You’re Mine. How was the song born?
DE: It was born over and over again for the last four years. It was the first song I “wrote” starting from limerence of another; it was improvised on my iPhone, just guitar and vocals. The song was kind of complete and perfect in that very moment but overtime I felt it was a very personal piece of work and didn’t really wish to share it. As I began to reconnect with nature and research into symbiotic relationships, and started to define my sound more, the song had a rebirth and a narrative that I related to.
I saw human relationships similarly to those in nature. I saw unions between humans as you would the roots of a tree and the mycorrhiza in the ground. It’s that feeling of being consumed by feelings for another, or at the beginning of the relationship where you start to merge with the other, physically, emotionally, spiritually — or it at least feels like nothing is more important in that moment. It then changed lyrically and the production too. I was aiming for something that felt in between, that was raw and candid but also lush and illusory.
The guitar became the harpsichord and the lyrics more earthly. It’s an interesting piece for me as it was born out of spontaneity, vulnerability and lustfulness but over time has become cared for and refined — without losing its vulnerability or imperfections. I guess similarly to how relationships emerge and grow. Even though it’s released now, I imagine it will continue to morph and be born again.
KA: Are you able to tell us more about Whispers From Ancient Vessels — how would you describe the sonic direction you’re moving in through this EP?
DE: If a tree’s voice was something we could understand, what would it say? If the sea called you forth, would you go? When the breeze bites, do you wrap your scarf tighter or accept that the truth is sometimes bitter? These are the questions I started with. I simply wanted to listen to what the Earth had to say and try to translate it into a sonic universe. I let the Earth move through me and used my instruments as a voice vessel.
The Fifth Season [by N. K. Jemisin] was a powerful book for me. I really resonated with the way the characters could connect to the earthly elements, feel its rage, utilise it. I realised that nature wasn’t just this whimsical beauty that it is often painted as but also a complex and emotionally charged chaos. And with the way the climate is now, it’s more than obvious that the trees would cry and the sea, roar. You hear pleading or anger or even the Earth’s death rattle.
KA: How have you approached the visuals for this project?
DE: I have always been photographing trees and that has definitely influenced the way in which I see this project. However, it started off as a short film actually; I had a very vivid idea of what I wanted the world to look and feel like, and collaborated with another visual artist to dream it into reality. Unfortunately the film never came to fruition but eventually I collaborated with Vasilisa Skasca and we talked and shared ideas on how to approach the visuals in a new organic way that still carried the energy of the previous project.
I felt connected to the artist Ana Mendieta. I collaborated with emerging designers to create a world that felt earthly yet otherworldly — I wanted to become the roots itself, or something other, or picture a scene of divine drowning.
KA: Are there any collaborations you particularly enjoyed working on while creating the record?
DE: It would have to be Shoreline — it was the beginning of the journey in 2020. I was stuck in my room everyday just discovering the bass for the first time. I was absolutely infatuated by all the textures the double bass offered. I recorded parts on my iPad which is the only thing I had to record with, and I sent it off to my friend aden in the States where they wove it together and we worked over email, or “e-letters” as they’d call them. I had no idea that it would eventually lead to this project but I feel aden has blessed it from the beginning.
KA: And aside from your own work, what are you currently listening to?
DE: Always Jon Hassell. Always Julius Eastman. I have also really been enjoying Single Gun Theory’s album Flow, River of my Soul, and ãssia ghendir. Adore the soundtrack to Poor Things by Jerskin Fendrix — it’s simply brilliant.
There will be an EP launch event and exhibition curated by Damsel Elysium at The Old Church in Stoke Newington, London on 2 February 2024. Tickets are available here.
Feature image: Damsel Elysium. Photo: Vasilisa Skasca