Montreal’s musician/composer/chanteuse Xarah Dion is one of the spearheads of the dark minimal synth scene. Strongly linked with the Quebec’s capital, where she had, and still has a leading role in the development of the fertile underground DIY musical and artistic scene, centεred around, the now closed venue, rehearsal space and recording studio La Brique.
Just back from an extensive tour around Europe after the release of her excellent sophomore album ‘Fugitive’, Xarah is going through an exciting moment in both from an artistic and a personal point of view.
Finally, we were able to ‘‘capture our fugitive’’ for a talk.
Did you start to get passionate about different or unusual music since your teenage years? When you look back, can you see any early examples of being interested regarding your art now? Have you always had a certain kind of temperament and sensitivity that (paraphrasing Siouxsie Sioux) “made you feel on the outside”?
To me there is no usual or unusual music. There are musical languages that serve different purposes, combining elements of distraction or entertainment and of socialization or ritual function. Since I can remember, music was a sensual, intellectual and emotional attraction regardless of the style and I always wanted to share the experience. From my early teenage years onwards, my interest for practicing and listening kept growing and my curiosity kept expanding across the board. I could say I experience music from the inside and I discover worlds in sound.
In the early 2000’s I was lucky to see a Godspeed You Black Emperor! gig in my hometown. I was impressed by their trance-induced intensity, power and cohesion as a full orchestra, not so often I was so completely and utterly ‘‘lost in music’’… How much have they inspired and influenced your human and artistic development in terms of attitude, integrity and independence?
God’s Pee is one of those bands that have a strong cohesion between their aesthetics, their sound, their intent and their politics. They brought me to reflect on both a humane and artistic level at a time when my conscience of social struggles was awakening. Being a collective in terms of decision making and composition, I was drawn to experience such a type of working unit in which there is no leader. Perhaps I was inspired by their work in my early 20s as a musician and as the co-creator of the artistic loft La Brique.
When your moved to Montreal in the early 2000s you dived into the electrifying underground scene, where, I guess, all seemed up for grabs in a true diy/punk spirit, therefore the cultural jam/party space and studio of La Brique, rock progressive sketches of its house-band Léopard Et Moi, the experimental / ambient duo Les Momies de Palerme with Marie Davidson… Please, could you talk about that seminal and exciting period of your life?
There is a great article that was put together by Bianca Giulone on the history of La Brique.
Electronic music is the perfect medium to be completely self-sufficient… You’ve still opted again for the self production without any kind of collaboration. A full awareness of your own art and strong personality or a self-defense attitude of independence and distrust? How do you approach the creative and recording process? And which one comes first between the lyrics and the music?
Opting for self-production was important to me in order to learn new skills and deepen my understanding of my own creative approach. If I have the ability to be self-sufficient, I tend to go down that road. And in electronic music, production is also where the aesthetic is defined. For ‘Fugitive’, I had a strong sense of what I wanted the album to sound like based on the original compositions which already included elements of mixing prior to recording. The bed-tracks were recorded live due to the nature of my set up which uses analogue gear and CV trigger to synchronize. From the raw files to the final product, there wasn’t a heavy layer of production, the material spoke for itself. Music comes first.
This period you’re being supported by your fellow Montreal-based ‘indie’ label Visage Musique, home of excellent Montreal’s bands like Brusque Twins and Gold Zebra. What were the main sources of inspiration for the latest album? Can it be considered as an evolution, musically speaking, in comparison to your debut? Could you share some words with us about ‘Fugitive’?
My debut album ‘Le Mal Nécessaire’ was composed and produced with the intention of being in dialogue with a scene I wasn’t very familiar with. By releasing the album and touring Europe, I was able to dive into this fully. On the other hand, ‘Fugitive’ grew from my discoveries and came from a more informed place. By researching electronic music from the 80s til now, I became more and more familiar with its history and its genres and how they intersect. With ‘Fugitive’ I wanted to see how far I could go with three analogue synthesizers and a drum machine. By constraining myself to such means, I explored my own language in echo with what sounds the instruments can carry.
Your songs seem to be a sort of short stories. How much does your writing draw from personal experience and how much from external source? How much do these irrational and dangerous times of perpetual war and devilish neo-liberalism affect your lyrics?
My lyrics are rooted in my personal experience and I consider them arrangements of emotions and images. Although the linear aspect of a story is not necessary to represent reality, I’d rather expose in my songs what is than what is not. I approach writing as an effort to communicate the evidence but also the openness of meaning as I invite my unconsciousness in the process. I hope to rebuild on my private scale the crushing excess of human activity in the reflexion on my own condition.
Are you interested in other forms of art like literature, cinema, painting? Which are your favourite ones? How do these influence directly or indirectly your artistic work? Are you using visuals sources during your performances?
All art forms interest me but not all art productions do; and we have to admit that the artists that excel at one or more are rare. I wouldn’t be able to rank my inclinations as each art form stimulates a different set of senses, creates its own language and references. On the other hand, music is the art form I am most qualified to analyse and create. I would say only music directly informs my artistic work although painting, cinema, and literature inspire and influence me but on a rather implicit level.
You are frequently labelled as a ‘minimal wave’ artist, but there are many elements that can be glimpsed in your songs from ancient popular music, industrial, 80s electronic disco, punk, French synth-pop, just to name a few… Do you feel comfortable to be trapped into the clichés/boundaries that surround music?
I believe we use labels to help categorize musicians and therefore attribute them similarities with other musicians. I play the music I want to hear, therefore I do not feel that labels have an impact of my music but rather the other way around. As an artist, the only traps are the ones we create for ourselves.
I recently got fascinated by a Diamanda Galas’ writing called “The Greek Vampire: A Threat To The Enemies Of Artists”, inspired by the Baudelaire’s vampire/artist combination, “A great performer is a vampire. We have trained to be thus.” and continues ‘‘The vampire knows that only new blood will sustain her. New blood, new research, new language study, and willful deconstruction and reconstruction, new meter, new arrangements, new writing, difficult performances–which later become great ones– through perseverance’’. Is this that drives every real artist/performer? The continual research of ‘new fresh blood’ in order not to be sick of it?
The concept of novation isn’t one that has intentionally defined my practice so far. Curiosity imbued in skillful play has guided my research more than a will to constantly renew myself, even if the apparent result might be the same. I could say, I am always inspired and my task is to find the proper timings to write, inform myself or perform. Somekind of a unique equilibrium between facing the unknown and understanding one’s place and possibilities. To me art is a constant dialogue between oneself, history, an audience, rather than a rapture or a sacrifice or a cumulation of personal struggles. I’m not very romantic in that sense.
After the new album release, you’re going to undertake an extensive European tour. Being a quite shy individual, I’ve always been intrigued by a solo performer, just a body and a voice with the instruments in front of the audience. A lot of questions spring to mind when I think about it. Assuming that yours is not only a musical performance (standing just behind the machines) but also a more emotional and intimate artistic one. How do you prepare yourself before? Do you always have the complete control/focus or do you sometimes get lost in an euphoric trance-laden state? Are you full confident or are there any moments of awkwardness? So in short, could you please explain, or better transfer to us the feel, or even any magic of your performance?
Each performance is indeed an emotional one and a new challenge that needs its own set of preparation and visualization and contextualizing. Especially on tour, where each city brings a different crew and audience to the venue. It is both a humbling and a euphoric feeling to be performing and it is never a given one: it always needs work, every night and every moment of the act. In that sense, even the feeling of getting lost rapidly transforms into the feeling of connecting with oneself and others which is what I aim for. Complete focus is acquired in action, not prior to it and is ephemeral. I believe we are inherently awkward and confidence is something which can be observed with time rather than in punctual events. I admit a stage and a persona can give the grand illusion of comfort and confidence. Nevertheless, it is up to the listener to decide what they are seeking and receiving. And for my part, it is a great joy when someone comes up to me to share in return their intimate experience(s).
You are a classical trained musician, but when did you realize that you possess that natural gift and instrument of your beautiful voice? Did you get any training about it too? Do you think you have reached its full potential or is there more room for improvement?
I only started considering myself a singer as a solo recording artist. I was not trained for voice and have always rightfully felt modest about my singing skills. I do not think my voice is gifted or unique but I do think I can hold a note and have a musical sense I like to entertain. I am curious to keep exploring my vocal abilities through experimentation and maybe in the future through training.
You’re so passionate about music and a DJ too! So, I guess you’re always looking for past/present news, do you have any fresh tips to share? Please, could you also pick your favourite three records of all time?
For current electronic music, I keep my ear to the ground and close to my friend’s work. I am lucky to be part of an effervescent community which inspires me constantly. For past music and sounds from around the globe, I mostly navigate through YouTube. Many users create channels with related videos and as a user we are always suggested related videos as well. It’s a great way to discover unique or remote music randomly.
I noticed this sort of statement on your FB wall “This album, of which I am the producer, closed a chapter of my feverish journey. This is the reef where the wave breaks, simply’’ It seems as the epitaph on a musical phase, what’s next after the “big splash’’?
It was a poetic way to describe the production and the release of ‘Fugitive’, like a wave ebbing and flowing; also a nod to the “waves” encompassed in my sound and research. What is next, is the production of my third solo album for 2017. I am currently working on it and planning a fifth European tour for this coming summer. Thanks for listening!
Photo credits: Fennec Jackal