Claire Rousay: “I’m really interested in universal human experiences”
„If I know that somebody does something a certain way, that’s kind of how I choose who to play with, rather than what sound I want. Being able to give up as much control as possible is really nice.“
In the fall of 2022 Claire Rousay spent a week in Cologne as part of the Week-End Festival´s residency program. Cologne based journalist Hanna Bächer met up with the Canadian musician for an interview.
Hanna Bächer: It’s nice that we moved the interview because I spent most of last night and this morning listening to more of your music. Usually, when interviewing someone, I try to listen to every release they ever put out, but with you I feel like I made it through 2%? I’m still trying to grasp the scope and the variety of things. The last record I listened to before I came here was “Never Stop Texting Me (with More Ease)” and just before that I had listened to the record you did with Michael Foster “Mail & Tool & Turmoil”. They’re so …
Claire Rousay: So different. Yeah.
Do you still see yourself between these two poles, being a drummer that gave me some Robyn-Schulkowsky vibes on this recording and working with someone like More Eaze who makes pop?
I think most of that music still exists inside of me, but there is definitely a point where it started, to now. There’s been a trajectory of changing between instruments and ways of viewing how to make work, as well as continuing to respect the things that I did and looking forward to finding other things that I’m interested in doing. A lot of the work is influenced by the people I’m collaborating with. I play a part in that, obviously, but like playing with Michael Foster, I’m not going to sing with Autotune and play electric guitar. I’ll probably play the drums and he’ll play saxophone. But with More Eaze we both really like pop music. And then working by myself is really nice
too, because I can just ask any of those people to collaborate on it. So I could ask somebody to play more freely improvised saxophone and somebody to sing with Autotune and then I’ll put it on a record that I’m making. But it all exists inside.
Can you imagine fully returning to the drums?
I actually do a lot of drumming still. I don’t do it as much anymore, but I still get asked to do shows with more free improv type music. It’s a little bit strange for me now, now that I know that I have access to so many more tools and ways of making music. It’s a little bit hard to think of myself as just playing drums, but playing in a group where that’s the best musical choice, I have no problem contributing in that role.
So, when you collaborate with people you adapt to what their thing is and that brings out certain aspects of your musical self? Can you remotely access these parts by imagining collaboration, like do you sometimes write for someone and then as if you’d write a letter to someone it would turn into their thing just because you have an image of that person on your mind?
It’s different playing with or writing for an instrument versus writing for or collaborating with a musician, because there’s a history with a person and you know what they can do and what they can’t do. You know what they’re really good at or what they can do that nobody else can do. So the way I choose people to work with is based on what their interests are and what they like to do, and the things in their creative process and artistic process that I’m really drawn to. And I try to bring those things out of them when we collaborate on something that I’m more in charge of. If there’s an equal collaboration, [when] it’s not me writing the music or giving instructions, then it’s kind of up to the other person to decide what they bring to the table. But when I’m choosing somebody to play on music that I’m working on, it really is based on the person rather than the instrument or even technical ability. Like today [at the residency], instead of recording any music, we just recorded an interview. Talking. Whereas yesterday we recorded music. You get to know somebody and then realize what parts of their practice and their playing you’re most drawn to and then say: “yeah, bring those out.” Or do this instead.
Can you explain this process of interviewing people? It’s rather unusual, to take the instrument away from an instrument player and then work with just the person.
The way I think about it is, you have an instrument that you can write for, you have a musician who plays that instrument and then you have a person who is that musician. There’s these layers, right? The most basic layer with the least personalities is the instrument, and then the person who’s playing the instrument and the way that they interact with the instrument. And then above that, there’s this person who also has a life outside of performing and collaborating. So it’s interesting to interview people or take their instrument away from them. I think I get to the place that I want to be musically when I’m interacting with people and not musicians.
When releasing music on Bandcamp yourself, you have a lot of control over it and usually, too, when composing. How much control of these different situations do you need to have to feel comfortable? Do you want to let go of control sometimes?
It depends on the people that are playing the music. Sometimes they understand what I like to do and my process, and sometimes we’re even friends. So those people, the way that we interact, they have way more control than somebody who has never listened to the music before, or doesn’t really understand how I’m working. But I always like for people to feel like they’re contributing something that’s honest. So if I’m asking somebody to play something that doesn’t feel right for them, I want them to tell me. Or I want to at least know that that’s not something that they feel the best playing. So I do like to have control, especially when I’m recording by myself and even after recording with other people I like to edit things. But live, like if we’re recording live or performing, I usually choose people based off of what I want their performance to be like. That way I can give up control. If I know that somebody does something a certain way, that’s kind of how I choose who to play with, rather than what sound I want. Being able to give up as much control as possible is really nice.
In regards to sounds that you use or objects that you would use as instruments, which role does control play when it comes to that? Would you sometimes decide to record a certain technical device and just be open to whatever it does? Or maybe set up an algorithm and let something play according to it and be surprised by what it does? Or do you just collect field recordings and piece things together after?
I like to record as much as I can. It’s just like anything else, you are interested in certain things at certain points in your life. For six months, I might be really interested in the sounds that the train makes. So I record as many trains as I can. Then, I at least know that I’m starting with a sound that I like and am interested in and I can either manipulate it or let it play out or interact with it in the way that I feel best interacting with it. But at least
I know, I’m starting with the train sound. Field recordings are quite unpredictable because you never know what’s going to actually happen. So I try to not feel like I need to have too much control over it. Just because there is such a random element to it. Anything could really happen when you’re recording. Things outside of yourself. But I definitely do things like setting up certain situations, like I go into a certain room or I go into a certain building. You can expect that in a coffee shop you hear the sound of people making coffee. And if you’re trying to record the sound of a cup going to the table, you know that at some point, somebody’s going to be grinding the coffee beans and it’s going to be loud. So you know what to expect, but you can kind of narrow down the possibilities of what’s going to happen based off of a choice that you make. And I think the control is that I make the choice of where I’ll be and then I just let it play out.
Does it matter to you whether sounds are identifiable as coming from a specific source? I find there’s this moment with field recordings where I wonder what something is and listen with particular attention, but once I know it becomes this image in my head and I care about the sound almost less, so I sometimes prefer to not know what the source is.
I’m really interested in sound and sound association. But, another layer to that is much like the “instrument- musician-person”, that I’m interested in sound and sound association and then emotional associations with sound. So, two people can hear the train go by and they both associate the sound with the train. But one person’s emotional association is, “I lived next to a train for ten years and it always woke me up in the morning way earlier than I wanted to”. And the other person’s association is, “I had a partner who lived far away and every single time I hear the train, I think about them going away”. They both know it’s the same sound, but the emotional association with it is so different. A lot of the time I try to use sounds that are easily recognisable, in addition to things that aren’t as easy to pick out, because I think sounds that people are familiar with bring out more of a universal response. And I’m really interested in universal human experiences and things that everybody goes through.
In the Hearing Studies that Ruth Anderson and Annea Lockwood compiled, there’s one exercise where you’re supposed to think about sounds that you associate with danger or sounds that bring you pleasure and through that figure out what triggers negative or positive responses. Like the train that would take your loved one away. Do you have similar kinds of triggers or emotional associations with instruments? And what makes an object an instrument to you?
I was really interested in playing the drums and then I was interested in percussion sounds more than the actual percussion instrument. Because there are so many instruments that are percussion and so many drums that are drums. Then you can think of it as, any object is a drum. And any object could be an instrument if you use it in that way. So the intention is really what makes something an instrument or not. Just as intention makes a human action good or bad, malicious or caring. But I don’t look for certain objects to use and then try to get a sound out of it. I just observe what objects make what sounds and then decide, that’s the sound I want to use. So it could be as easy as an empty plastic water bottle. You grab it and it makes that crinkling sound. That’s much easier than, you know, a really good sound that I like, the sounds of moving a really heavy object on the ground and you hear that screeching sound. Very high pitched. Finding something that weighs a lot and finding people to push it is much harder than finding a water bottle. So it really is just what fits a situation best. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of sounds or a hierarchy in terms of which object is more musical. You could have somebody play violin and somebody play water bottle and I think they’re both equal.
I find that when I speak to people who are experienced improvisers, there’s a lot of attentiveness in conversations, because they’re used to looking for signs. And you have this large interest in conversations. During this residency you were interviewing your collaborators, asking questions about pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
Yeah. I try to ask questions that are kind of on each end of the emotional spectrum. When performing live I do this thing where I walk around the audience and see if people want to participate in the show. Because if I’m playing by myself, it’s still fun to have other people performing with me. So this is basically just a studio version of what I’d do live. Where, as I go into the audience I have a question or two questions in my head. And I ask somebody, can you tell me about a time you felt uncomfortable? And I use my phone to record it with bluetooth on, and then I use the bluetooth to drop
it to the computer that is on stage and into Ableton and it will start looping it. So they tell me a story and I can immediately send it to the system and it starts playing back to the audience, this person‘s story that just told it. And I could go to the next person and ask them something that’s just as emotionally charged, but maybe on the opposite end of the human emotional spectrum, like, can you tell me about somebody that you love? Then you have all of these very weighted stories that are happening at the same time and I can go to the stage and mix them in and out. So what we were doing here is a version of that, asking somebody a really personal question and then amplifying it. Almost like putting it on a stage. Because other people have experienced it, too. So just like everybody knows what a train sounds like, but it could emotionally have a different meaning for them. I think talking about uncomfortable experiences is the same way. Stories make different people react differently.
…like you did in the Crying piece as well, where different people read the same text. The musicians you collaborated with here are all string players and you work a lot with strings on your recordings. Why?
The aspects of the music that I contribute are less pretty, less pleasing sounds. Like, I’ll spend an hour making sure I get the right recording of rocks being moved around on the ground. And I’m like, what if I had somebody play a really pretty melody on top of that? It’s the same thing as being really uncomfortable and talking about somebody you love, mashing those things together. I think sound association with strings, especially if you’re playing
in a major key and you have this thing propelling you forward and these huge crescendos, people associate that with “pretty music”. So when I can combine that with things that I do, like electronics or really harsh field recordings, it creates this music where these two different things exist at the same time. I just try to make things that feel like real life. You can have a really good experience and a really bad experience in the same day.
Yeah. Did you have an acoustic idea about Cologne before you came here?
Maybe in comparison to other places, is it easier to make music in a place where there’s no music that you associate with it? Or does it sometimes weigh on you to go to a place where you already know a lot of music from?
It’s about people. So, I arrived in Cologne and I didn’t know anybody. And a lot of my music is based off of human interaction. And the first thing I did when I got to Cologne was meet somebody new. And that was the only person I knew here. So you build off of that. Starting from nothing and just adding one person into your life at a time.
Human interaction first.
Yeah. Definitely. Music second or third.
The Week-End Residency by Claire Rousay was supported by the RheinEnergie Stiftung Kultur