French electro-acoustic composer and visual artist Félicia Atkinson has been active since the 2000’s in various sonic guises and formations. She has co-founded Shelter Press with Bartolomé Sanson and is currently based in Normandy. She has collaborated with musicians including Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Chris Watson, Christina Vantzou, and Stephen O’Malley, and with ensembles including Eklekto (Geneva) and Neon (Oslo). “For Félicia Atkinson, human voices inhabit an ecology alongside and within many other things that don’t speak, in the conventional sense: landscapes, images, books, memories, ideas.” (Thea Ballard)
“Building a record is like building a house: a structure in which one can encounter oneself, each room a song with its own function in the project of everyday life.” From the liner notes accompanying your record Image Langage. Looking back at your work, what sort of houses would you say you have built? Are the individual pieces of the structure more important, or is it rather the house as a whole, with its history, genius loci…
At the moment of writing, my own house is in the process of being re-insulated with hemp and linen; all the walls are bare and some part of the roof. But soon my walls will be filled with the grasses that grow in the fields nearby to keep the wind out of the house. The only two rooms that are not torn apart now are the kitchen and the living room with the fireplace. Heat is something important and raises so many environmental questions.
Sometimes I see music like this: something that can heat your heart and gather together. Very ancestral powers of togetherness.
There was a huge storm last weekend here in the coastal region where I live and many roofs, electric power poles and trees were destroyed. It made me think about architecture.
I think we will keep building and re-building until the next time. Nothing is permanent, but it’s interesting to wonder what enables you to stand, whether it’s your bones, the structure of your walls, the river you follow, the wind, a hand…
There is an embedded dichotomy between the inside x outside in your work. Can you elaborate on how it relates to sound?
Well, sound travels. From outside through your ear and skin to the inside of your body and mind. And then it goes back again. To find ideas and inspiration I need to go out, walk, listen, be in motion. And then I go back and write, draw, record; it is a state of flux, a bit like the tides. I think we are constantly in between these two states. Somehow music passes through you, but then it also leaves you, it is a moving energy!
You mentioned in an interview that you were drawn into music by experimental poetry. Spoken word and voice remain important in your oeuvre. Can you talk about the importance of the voice and poetry in your work?
I love reading, but also listening to people’s voices.
Poetry is a way for me to acknowledge that the world can’t be totally understood, that the world is multiple, that you have to rethink the meanings of things all the time, that words don’t have the same meaning depending on many things, so much depends on context. You have to read and question yourself, and read again. And question yourself again.
I love this in poetry. That it can take several times to get it. It’s a long term relationship with words.
What I find dazzling about poetry is that most of the time it’s the opposite of a statement, it’s a perpetual question. I feel full of questions!
Your latest release is inspired by the artist Georgia O’ Keeffe. What importance has art, literature and culture and its history and development in general have for you and your work?
I am always wondering how people live. What it is to have a life’s work. Whether it’s an artist, a scientist, a cook, a gardener; How, during a whole life, people bear their work. How it affects their way of living. How it can become a whole ethic, or not. That’s what interests me the most, I think.
Interestingly, the impact the work of others has on you is not literal – rather, you mention a certain “deviation”, a certain creative dérive from the original, let’s say.
I think works communicate with other works.
See how Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage has inspired many people. Jarman is not there anymore, but every day his films, his music, his writing and his gardening have an effect on people. I feel moved by it.
And I absolutely love the situationist word “dérive”, absolutely. I often “derive” from art to music to gardening, etc.;. One practice feeds the other. It’s an ecosystem!
You mentioned that you’ve never really had a studio per se. That you’ve worked on the road, or wherever possible. Can you talk about your compositional process?
Most of the work I do is improvised. Which means I separate the moment when I think/research from the moment when I create. It’s two different phases of one process. For example, when I play live, I never know what I’m gonna play on the piano or say with my voice. But the electronic part is recorded, and lays a path I’ll follow, a structure that will draw the architecture of the form in which I’ll perform. Most of the time, I record with my phone (voice, field recording) and record the electronics with my laptop and keyboard in the room I happen to be in. But I also love “real studios”, it’s just that it’s very rare that I have the opportunity to get into one. One day I would love to build one in my garden.
In one interview you said: “Also, as a woman, I feel it’s important to re-interpret, re-phrase things or sounds that were made by men, and perform a «sex change» operation on them.” Do you think this has changed when you compare it to the period in the 2000’s when you were starting your career?
What I meant is that a sound or a phrase can have multiple genders. I also like the word “ interpretation”. It doesn’t mean you modify what the writer meant, it means you perform it in a different way, like an actor performing a theatre text.
I love this idea that sometimes a text can inhabit different bodies.
I can read Kerouac out loud even though I am not a man. It will sound different and therefore maybe have a different meaning, the text detaching itself from the writer to open itself up again to the performer or reader. I am interested in that flux/superposition.
This is why I love text. Because you can choose who performs it, and there can be many voices.
The music situation is certainly more open now, but there is still progress to be made in different fields. For example, social rights for musicians/composers that would allow musicians/composers from different classes to make a living from their art so that you don’t need to come from a rich background to make it work.
Speaking from what I know, for example: I am a mom, and it’s complicated to have a career as a 42-year-old musician, a female who is a mom, because the system was not made for us 40-something moms. We are the oddballs in the room. It’s a subject that is not very interesting for people. But musicians should be able to educate their children well and travel (or not travel) with them safely. I think the fact that your fee feeds your family is something that should not be annoying.
More in general, I think experimental music should not be about image and self-promotion and should be more about being open to different kinds of fragilities and strengths.
This is why it’s called experimental! Because it’s the opposite of mainstream, because it’s about trying, experimenting; taking risks. It also allows you to make mistakes in your music. But also to feel a bit safe there while doing so, to feel a community of audience and crew who together hold a kind of safety net, so that when you take that risk, you are not alone when you land.
That’s what I think is the most precious thing in this scene. Most people care a lot about each other and we should always keep that in mind.
Experimental music should not be so much about self-presentation.
I think what I first liked about experimental gigs was that they were where the shy/odd, weird people would go.
You co-founded the Shelter Press imprint with Bartolomé Sanson. How important is it for you to support the work of other artists, how does it differ from working on your own career?
Community! Reciprocity! You know, we do most of our work at home. We don’t have interns, we don’t have staff, we don’t even have a fancy office.
Bartolomé has a great capacity to work; he is the structure that makes our Shelter Press stand. I am just the co-pilot since we also have a child to raise together. And I feel very lucky to be surrounded by the artists we work with. We have mostly known them for a long time, and there’s a real relationship between us and them.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Let’s touch wood! In 20 years, I will be 62. At last, the end of our mortgage ahha!
I hope I’ll still be able to make music and art, and still have decent enough fees so I can pay the doctor if I need to go or repair my roof. Our son will be an adult!
One thing for sure is that I won’t have a pension, which is why this house we are living in, the garden we have, and the community around us are very precious.
I hope there won’t be a global war and that we’ll find ways to establish peace in the world, and that we’ll take better care of our planet than we do now.
I think about this every day, and it’s a process that starts now. We need to be kind and hospitable despite everything, to respect this old spinning rock that we’re only visiting for a while.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Image Eleonore Huisse