The way Clara Engel articulates the lyrics “an angel from Madagascar/ picked me up in a motor car/ we filled our bodies up with stars” from the titular song in her new EP made me Google the following: angel+madagascar+looks. Tried it? It led you back to this page for sure or to some photos of frog eggs which does not even have an infinitesimal relation to images of dungeons and wicked spell-chant gatherings “Madagascar” gives to me. The artist, Clara Engel, has spooled characters and environment throughout her career (you need to catch up on her discography!) with a singular, bewildering flame burning with inner grit. Her music challenges you; it speaks of lands, of people encompassing lifetimes and realities that would otherwise sound preposterous if not done with passion and presence like she has in her voice (or voices) left alone with a guitar or a piano. When you do, when you listen to her and not just hear her, deep inside you, an experience occurs; for a moment angel+madagascar+looks was not even needed to get your imagination working. It is called art and Clara Engel makes it happen for you and me.
Before the release of Madagascar EP under Vox Humana Records, I was given a wonderful opportunity— an interview with Clara Engel.
While listening to your songs in Bandcamp, I was struck by the power each of your song has in them. Some of them come off overwhelming, honestly. I wondered what sort of process do you go through in writing such moving songs?
Clara Engel: I don’t understand my process. I don’t have any special system or method, but once I have a fragment of something, I like to let it develop and take shape, and then I pare it down to what feels essential. My songs are often described as stark, but that’s what sounds best to me. I leave the bones showing. They often start from scavenged morsels – a line in a book, an overheard conversation. For example, the seed to my song Farther Than Portugal was planted when I turned on the radio and heard someone say “it’s raining in Portugal.” The cadence of that sentence struck me, even though it’s quite mundane… then it morphed into a love song.
Clara Engel: My work is very visual, and so is a lot of the poetry that I love. I definitely am very interested in work outside the medium of song. Stories people tell me, photographs, films. I joke around about wanting to write a musical of some sort, but I’m not really kidding… I find the potential that theatre has for creating a kind of a meaningful space, where we have this ritual of rapt attention, really exciting. Also, I don’t like having to hush people, or to have it be part of my job to silence them, that’s kind of tiresome. I’m very drawn to spaces in which silence is what is expected of the audience.
So you are thinking of a sort of performance art where audience can be part of what you are trying to achieve? Am I right on this?
Clara Engel: I haven’t thought of anything that interactive, really. It’s more just that the audience always plays an enormous role in how effectively I can put my songs across. It’s just kind of embarrassing and depressing if everyone is talking and laughing. It’s harder to conceive of that being a big problem in a more theatrical context.
With the kind of music, I am interested what’s your feelings with the current atmosphere in music particularly popular music. Can you tell me about it?
Clara Engel: I like a few songs that are on mainstream radio…as in, if I’m forced to listen to it, I can usually find a way to appreciate some of it. But I find a lot of it bland, canned and watery, like a bad soup. I prefer stew. I like murkiness and varied textures and timbres, and a lot of music on the radio sounds quite homogeneous and sterile to me.
What is/are the inspiration/s behind the songs in “Madagascar” EP? Do the songs work cohesively in your vision or are they separate, individual tracks?
Clara Engel: I’ve never made a concept album. Every song is an independent entity. I only see broad commonalities when I step back and listen to an album. Accompanied by Dreams was recorded almost a year after Blind Me and Madagascar. If each of those songs was a film, they would all have really different narrators and landscapes.
It’s a good thing you say that, for mostly when I waslistening to your records, I was consciously trying to in a way “touchdown” on some sort of theme or coherence. I find it inevitable especially on such serious work you have done.Clara Engel: It’s fun to think of songs as having landscapes. In terms of themes and coherence, I definitely spend a long time editing and honing them down, they are all a lot hairier and unwieldy to start with. My work is less serious than it might initially come across as being. I think Lick My Fins and Margarita’s Got Limousines are pretty funny songs, for example. I’m serious about making the work, in that I’m committed to it. But I think a sense of play and a sense of humour are necessary for survival.A sort of a cliche to ask but how do you classify the music you are creating? I have a hard time attaching your work to a particular genre so hearing it from you would be very helpful, hahaha.Clara Engel: It pleases me that you have a hard time attaching my work to a particular genre. I’m not very attached to the idea of genre, period. It’s useful insofar as it makes the world legible. I guess words themselves, naming, is an example of genre at work… but taken much further, it starts to brutally simplify and compromise complex entities like songs, and persons.More of Clara Engel on her Facebook, Bandcamp and Twitter.