"On Monday June 4th, a doorway will open for the first and final time. Evelyn Drach, mystic, storyteller, person unstuck from history, will transform The Box [Walker's Court, Soho, London] into a temple..."
In the rarest of interviews, Evelyn Drach and I discuss her reincarnation, her new album "Up With the Smoke", and her live performance at The Box in London
Up With the Smoke" is an incredibly cared for and thoughtful project, presenting to the listener ideas, dilemmas, and riddles applicable to almost any time period or place. It is delightfully brooding and meditative, perfect for pacing! I dream for a hallway long and haunted enough for me to pace back and forth while listening to lyrics like “On the Seven Sisters we made a diagram of shared loss, each shape, each band, a subtle corner of history secreted from collected memory, quieted…” Was this a story you have been wanting to tell for some time or did it just creep up on you in a fever you had to see through?
Thank you so much for diving so deep into the record. It is as you say, filled with dilemmas, some profound and others trivial. I have always been interested in those strange moments where a quotidian object triggers a complex thought process or when it becomes imbued with new meaning because of the needs of the person who interacts with it. A moment is endlessly complex, within a split-second a whole history is lived.
‘Seven Sisters’ is a meditation on this but its also a very personal story about facing my own ancestry and seeing its part in a wider narrative. Its about looking at a crumbling rock face and knowing that its history lies in the surface yet our humanity prevents us from seeing the blinding truth as it slowly plummets towards the ocean. It is also a song about love but not in a typical way. About learning how to see the world through someone else's eyes and the way that love can help you to transcend your narrow perception of yourself and breath a collective experience.
Who is Evelyn Drach? Where/when is she from? And what are the chances I might bump into her at my local grocery store or laundromat? Is she in any way related to Ivan Drago, the villain in Rocky IV?
Yes, you are likely to bump into her at your local grocery store or laundromat, or your late grandmothers house, in the cemetery, even the local dump, outside the office block, riding the skytrain or the subway…
In truth, she or rather I, am particularly interested in everyday collisions and bumping into you or anyone else could be the beginning of a story that could span years, even decades.
As to whether I am related to Ivan Drago, I couldn’t possibly say. Ancestry is so complex, our family roots spread so wide and deep, how can I even determine one body from another, let alone decide who may or may not be considered family.
I don’t know when exactly Evelyn came from. There are strange family stories, snippets of memory passed down generations. My family is partly Transylvanian and in this lineage there was a woman, a mystic, a storyteller who was said to delve into the minds of others in order to understand how to help people. She was a healer, but these stories are fragmented and abstracted and like many such stories time plays with them and the woman slips from the past into the present, inhabiting a new form in order to continue her ceaseless quest.
After listening to "Up With the Smoke" it is fair to say that one cannot deny your talent for storytelling. Some artists might find it difficult to reconcile the authority of narrator with the vulnerability inherent in all expression. I feel that you handle this quite well. I get a sense of vulnerability on "Follow Me". Evelyn asks, "What's the cause of a flower's death?" The answer is "Someone desires beauty in their home." Was there any point in the process of producing this album where you felt vulnerable? How did you deal with that? Does it come through anyplace in particular on the record?
There is vulnerability throughout the album and strength, probably in equal measure. It’s so difficult to make something real when you think about the potential audience that might one day experience it. When I made this record I had no audience in mind, it grew out of years of strange experiences and out of a love of language and story and playing with words and meaning. The whole record is a quest and somehow an unresolved loop, every time I am close to an answer there is another question, every time I feel confident I trip into vulnerability. There is love that grows from loss and loss that grows from being overly confident. I am always trying to tread an extremely thin line that keeps me in that strange middle place where everything is challenging and exciting.
For me ‘Predator and Prey’ is the most paradoxical track in this way. It lures you in, seduces you into a place and then completely flips so that its unclear who in the narrative is empowered and who is the victim. This dichotomy is endlessly fascinating, power and powerlessness, the rational and the mystical, what we think we know and what truly exists.
Often when I am working on a body of musical work, there is a piece, a song, that sets the entire thing into motion. There is one catalyst that I get really energized by, and I begin to build a universe around it, although in the end it may not seem central. Was there a spark that started it all for you? If so, how did you go about branching out from that initial spark?
I think thats such a beautiful way of explaining a creative process. I love the idea that a universe would form around one song. For me the process was a bit less linear and slightly unstuck from time. I wrote ‘Follow Me’ in 2012 but I never knew how to frame it until I had finished almost the whole of ‘Up With The Smoke’ and then suddenly I saw its place as if it had always been there at the heart of everything else. The title track ‘Up With The Smoke’ is probably the one which relates to that spark you’re describing, it was the point when I really began to dive into a sound that felt like my own. But the spark for this album was the holy deathly city of Varanasi where I spent 6 months watching cremations, seeing bodies turn to smoke and other people inhaling the smoke in an endless loop. Life and death simultaneously in one place surrounded by a city of endless contradiction caught between the spiritual and baseness of humanity, the river and the land. But thats another story for another time.
The production on this is really wonderful and feels quite deliberate. The deeper into the mix one delves, the more one discovers of this lush soundscape complete with ambient percussion, violins, the laughter of children, and even panflutes. What was the production process like? Who did you work with? Was it a journey? Was there ever a point where one of you had to draw the line on the inclusion of a sound or instrument? Or was everything fair game?
I co-produced the record with a brilliant producer Raz Olsher who became a great friend. The record began in a very different way, it was much more conventional at first but as we worked together I found myself pushing more and more into the abstract, bringing in old sound samples from places I had lived around the world and including spoken word from fiction I was writing. The process became like making a tapestry, the question of including a sound or an instrument always came back to meaning. If something didn't have a conceptual reason to be there then it had to be removed. We brought in a host of amazing musicians to play on the record. Ebe Oke contributed experimental elements of electronic soundscapes, Lucinda Chua wrote an hauntingly beautiful cello part for ‘Follow Me’, Sol Bailey-Barker sung on ‘Never Let Me Go’ and was my main sounding board throughout making the record, Duncan Mortimer and Harriet Poznanksy played violin parts and Harriet and I talked about music like painting throughout making the record (just to mention a few of the contributing artists). I would write the songs and lyrics on electric or acoustic guitar and then in the studio explode them into miniature worlds.
I am moved by lines like "This is how you lose her, that leopard in the sun." I love the vocal harmony in "An Archipelago Rises" as you sing "I recognize your skin. It's the same skin I wear when I'm afraid." Did this project challenge you to become a better or rather different singer and songwriter?
I really tried to push myself in every way on this record. I pushed my use of language, my voice, most of all I challenged myself as a storyteller. Each track has its own voice and tells a fragment of a larger narrative. Now when I listen through the record I don't feel like its myself, its the stories and voices I have channeled and borrowed.
I am excited for all the lucky people who will be treated to live performances. Are these events going to be quite private? What is the philosophy behind the private show? What excites you most about making "Up With the Smoke" an experience beyond the audio? Do you have any surprises in store?
The live performance is crucial, once released the record belongs to the world. Once its out there I have no more control over it, it could be listened to by anyone and anywhere. The live show is an invitation into my realm, a moment to step sideways in time, to release the strings of reality. I am prepared to sacrifice myself for my listeners, to stand bare and be everything I happen to be in that moment, vulnerable, strong, profound or ridiculous. Its a privileged to perform for people to share a brief moment which is disconnected from so many of our daily troubles, to offer another way of seeing.
I want to be able to give as much as I can to every person in the audience and a small private show allows this. Each show is different, different sets, smells, interactions, in each show I tell part of a story which has never been told before and will never be told again. I cannot tell you anymore though, the rest is for the audience to discover.