On the face of it, it would seem quite strange to be afraid of Lucrecia Dalt. Musically, she plays an often quiet blend of post-rock and ambient electronica shaped into pop songs. Physically she has a beauty that is both casual and elegant, while in conversation she is both charming and intelligent, patiently weighing up each answer. Hardly the stuff of nightmares. Yet by circumstance my encounters with her have come to be plagued by misfortune and a sense of dread even while they have also always been inspirational and artistically satisfying. Somewhere in this enigma is the essence of her music, a poised world between reward and danger, between decision and inertia, an uncomfortable place forever becoming.
The story begins at the Mutek festival in Barcelona where Lucrecia opened with a landmark set of her one-woman show, singing as well as playing bass and a mass of electronics all at the same time. In this case she was performing a live soundtrack of dreamy industrial music to Werner Herzog’ 1992 film ‘Lessons in Darkness’ about the deliberately lit oil fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War. As the images of flames and plumes of oily smoke rose above her on the screen it was hard to tell if she was calling out to them or trying to dispel them with the music. The background to the event was a winter of extreme cold, talk of the Mayan apocalypse looming and Lars von Trier’ ‘Melancholia’ in circulation at the cinema. The end of the world was nigh. Next time we met for the interview it was summer and we are in the wilder part of Park Güell at night, torn apart by mosquitoes and with more than an element of witchery in the moonlit sky. When I arrived home I had been shut out of my apartment and already that day I had lost my job. Two months later she presented the premiere of her third album ‘Commotus’ [HEM, 2012] in an art gallery. The only reason I was there is because my house has been robbed and my holidays cancelled. She exceled on stage that night, bathed in moody light and wearing a red dress, untroubled by the weight of her signature bass. “I’ve been doing deals with the devil” she moaned again into the microphone towards the end of the set.
The true story begins sometime earlier in Colombia in the town of Medellín, once more recognisable as the most violent city in the world thanks to Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel, but now a modern centre, recently voted the world’ most innovative city in 2013. While still living there, she released her debut album Acerca in 2005 for the local Series label which she describes as “more like a collaborative, collective of musicians than a label”. Her sound was still a work in progress then, bearing the influences of both the local electronic scene and an influence of Warp-style IDM. “At the time I did this album I was close to this environment that went towards electronic music and the dance music of the moment.” She muses. “They’re the people that I learned from, using their synths and their drum machines. But then you are looking at your friends who are teaching and they are making four to the floor beats and you are like “I have to record a voice just to feel a little bit more balanced. So that’s how I started. I didn’t realise that I could develop something that I was going to do all my time”.
The follow-up to ‘Acerca’ was an EP ‘Like being home’ released in 2007, also on Series. With this came confidence and then a bit of luck as she explains. “The first album was a really local thing, only 100 copies, or maybe 200, made in the copistera (copy centre), printed in the computers of friends and so on. But then the second one, the EP, was on a netlabel and a free down-load, but it was a nice experience to have, because I was sending it to everybody. From that I organised some dates to play in Argentina and I became like a stalker in MySpace, to every Argentinian I could see: “This is my album and I’m coming to Argentina. It was a very spontaneous and naive way of doing thing back then.”
But MySpace also yielded unexpected rewards when the highly influential and respected German musician and Monika Enterprise label owner Gudrun Gut came calling. “I was living in Colombia at the time when I first got the contact through MySpace. I knew the label, but I didn’ realise who she was. When I started to research I was like ‘Oh my goodness, this is a really important contact”. Because sometimes you receive a lot of crappy mails like ‘do you want to sing in my song’ so you are always looking to say no in a polite way. It was the first thing that happened that was like really interesting.” The fruit of the contact was the opening four tracks on the compilation ‘4 Women No Cry Vol. 3’ [Monika Enterprise, 2008] that also featured the then unknown Julia Holter, Liz Christine and Greek artist Eleni Adamopoulou. In-between releasing the compilation, Lucrecia moved to Barcelona, facilitating a short European tour to promote the release, which lead to more contacts, amongst them a lasting friendship with Holter who contributed to Commotus.
Lucrecia’s presence on the all-girl compilation also raises some interesting questions about femininity and the state of female artists in general, especially given the public image of female Colombian artists is tainted somewhat by the gyrations and teasings of the likes of Shakira. The motives behind the series of compilations at least appear simple. “When I first had the contact with Gudrun Gut, I thought it was more like a feminist thing, but when I was there I realised that it was just pure passion of female production, it’s not pretentious at all, just promoting women without politics,” explains Lucrecia, before pausing and adding, “Sometimes you do feel this female pressure around you, but I felt really comfortable and everything was so fluid, that the question wasn’ necessary. But there is still something there that needs to be resolved.”
The something to resolve, for Lucrecia at least, may come from the broader cultural perspectives of Colombian culture. “I guess the Colombian stereotype of a woman is voluptuous and sexy, uncovered and operated. It’s very, very common, even among girls who don’t even want to show themselves. Many friends got their [breast enlargement]operation at 15. There’s a question in many families, ‘Do you want to go on a trip, or do you want the operation for your 15th birthday?’. It’s something really normal. I was reading an interview of Maria Minerva and she was talking about this concept of ‘slutwave’ and she was saying ‘Let’s be honest, let’s not forget the fact that I’m a woman on stage and actually when I look around there is a lot of guys in the audience and when I am moving and singing, there is always a little twist…’ In my case I am not sure if it is something absolutely related to my femininity or if it is just the way I am? It does make the project kind of more empowering when I am on stage, but if I was a guy on stage would I be the same?”
After the tour to promote the compilation and some collaborative projects, the now Barcelona-based Lucrecia published her second full album, 2009’s ‘Congosta’ on the Pruna label. The album signalled the consolidation of Lucrecia´s sound, finding a powerful confidence in self-expression and a perfect balance between atmosphere and the multi instrumental parts that still fitted into the space of the pop song format. If anything, ‘Congosta’ was a further step away from electronica, making frequent use of the guitar, with the beats forming more of a backdrop for the tapestry of voice and textures. Her third album ‘Commotus’, although drifting back towards electronica, was a marked step forward in terms of complexity and execution. Part of the change came from a new balance in instrumentation, with a heavy emphasis on bass, but also a distinct complication to the psychological elements of the tracks, with a palpable sense of unease drifting into the mood. And all this came bound beneath the incredibly striking cover image of a Texas dust storm from the 1930s, a photograph of a terrible and exciting moment where the beauty of the image somehow lulls a false sense of security.
Explaining the shift to bass Lucrecia confesses that “On this album I got a little bit obsessed with the bass because of how I wanted to be able to play it all live. I wanted to be autonomous, but also not fake where everything is playback. I wanted to be able to create something that was kind of honest. There is also this sensation of limitation because bass is a really limited frequency instrument. So I started to think about it and with some processing I could create other sounds. Live I play back the drum parts, but some drums are made with this effect that takes the frequency of the bass and then it creates a dynamic pattern with the low pass filter and the results sound like an old drum machine. I am using like pitch shifters and reverbs and delays or whatever to keep this frequency expanding.”
The psychological presence is something else that is critical to the music. Lucrecia dismisses any sense that the songs are haunting (or hauntological), despite the fact she talks frequently of Colombia and misses the greenery. Instead, she offers an alternative explanation: “Prior to this album, I was really stimulated by sound, by new music and old music and so on, but with this album I was really stimulated by film makers. I was watching a lot of Luis Bunel, Ingmar Bergman movies, Godard movies and so on. In this surrealistic kind of film, you never know what to expect, they do whatever they want to do with you, especially Godard with the sound. The narrative doesn’t go fluidly. Or Pere Portabella, for example, introduces changes of narrative. I was thinking a lot about that when I was making the album. I don’t want to make a piece that is absolutely perfect. I want to make something that, at some point, it makes you say to yourself ‘What the fuck is happening here?’
The change of narrative is a fundamental to the album’ potency and Lucrecia’ creative process. ‘Commotus’, Latin for ‘woken or ‘provoked’, begins simply enough, with two straight forward tracks that appear to introduce the characters of a film. It is the arrival of ‘Turmoil’, in which she sings of the devil, that shifts the narrative of the album and the song, merely by introducing a simple shimmering surf guitar chord. From then on the album becomes more unpredictable, throwing up contrasts in mood and between melody and abstraction, all gradually unravelling in a hazy and cinematic second side that recalls dub as much as post rock and electronica. There is a Bergman-esque feeling of personas at play, something that Spaniard Miguel Marin uses to great effect in his Arbol group, in which Lucrecia also sings live.
The sense of discomfort and narrative change also relates closely to Lucrecia’ academic training in geology, the cover image of the dust storm on ‘Commotus’ and also the beautifully bronzed landscape that adorns ‘Congost’. She doesn’ hesitate in confirming that “It is always metaphorical in the end. There is this geological thing, which in Spanish is called diaclase (joints), where the rock really fractures without moving. Just that image starts to make messy things in my brain, or these things like the batholiths, which are always making me question how these things can be possible? How did they appear from under the ground and change the whole perspective and change the landscape?”
When she talks of the cover image she denies any analogy with the current crisis in Europe and Spain, since the Texas ‘black blizzards’ were a consequence of mismanagement and a provoker of the depression, but instead offers a simpler explanation: “It [the dust storm]is not something that destroys radically everything around you, but it is more like a thing that is there that makes you think and changes your comfort. But depending on your personality, it can make you react in a different ways, like do I just collapse, or do I choose to react in a good way and work on it? It is a thing that is more questioning you rather than threatening you.” Later she is more explicit, capturing the mood of the music and how she translates herself as an artist on stage and in the studio: “I am always looking for becoming. Like developing and going to another place to see what happens. I am always trying to find the uncomfortable situation.” In this way Lucrecia has been a success, creating a particular musical geography, each album like a melodic batholith penetrating the surroundings and creating in the landscape that new and therefore uncomfortable situation that forces you to respond and question. And for this reason it is always worth being a little bit afraid of Lucrecia Dalt and what questions she might ask next.