Clara Engel’s Invisible Realities

Photo by Ilyse Krivel

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I appreciate that one of the descriptors Clara Engel uses for their music is ‘uneasy listening.’ When I first listened to their upcoming album, Their Invisible Hands, it didn’t feel apt. Further listens and a voice in the back of my head started questioning why I was listening to this so much because there’s an ancient energy to it that can, in fact, be hard to take. It’s also what makes Engel’s music special.

Their Invisible Hands shines brightest when Engel sings, but throughout the fractured folk songs is a light trying to crack through ages of hardened mud and decay. I’m not sure the luminescence ever finds the surface, but that’s not where the magic lives anyway.

This interview was done in early March. Clara can be found on Bandcamp and PatreonTheir Invisible Hands releases on April 15.

Okay, so going back a lot further, what were some of your earliest and most formative experiences with music and sound? 

I’ve been drawn to music, especially songs and voices, for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I sang folk songs with my dad while he played the guitar, and my favorites were “Oh My Darling Clementine,” “Frankie and Johnny,” and “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” My relationship to sound is a bit more fraught – I have sensitive ears and a very reactive nervous system, and it was even more that way when I was younger. I had to be removed from movie theatres and school concerts because I was distressed and plugging my ears (and probably crying, when I was really young.) I remember a teacher looking at me when I was ten or eleven as I was trying to surreptitiously plug my ears at a school orchestra concert and she said, “You just wait, you’re going to be a musician.” She was joking, but she was right. Music is central in my life and at the same time when the volume is too high, it activates my fight or flight response and gives me anxiety. I still often plug my ears during the trailers at movie theatres, and I’ve come to find being around silence and nature sounds is as important for my musical practice (and my wellbeing) as listening to music.

I’ve always been so drawn to your voice. Do you have any training or have you taken voice lessons at all? When did you start writing your own songs and what spurred that on?

I learned to sing by listening to and emulating other singers. I started writing songs after I heard Nirvana Unplugged and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume III when I was thirteen. Both of those albums led me to old blues and folk music – Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Skip James, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, Odetta, Hank Williams, The Carter Family…more. That music was a huge influence on me. The way a few chords and subtle dynamics can weave something so compelling and full of feeling, and lyrics can be as evocative and mysterious as poetry, was revelatory to me. It still is, on a good day.

You’ve got a new album coming out in April, Their Invisible Hands, and it seems like I hear or experience something new each time I listen to it. Your description of it as “a forest of scrap metal and sea glass” is perfect. It makes me wonder, though, what your approach is like as you’re composing and recording this music… do you get imagery like that in your head and try to recreate it in sonic form or is it something totally different?

I can attempt to describe my work after I’ve made it, but I wouldn’t know how to describe it before the fact. My intentions often get in the way, so I never fully commit to them. My process operates at both a mundane and a mysterious level where if I do the work and stay out of my own way, i.e. not let self-conscious, self-congratulating, or self-sabotaging voices take the reins, I can create something that takes a distinct shape out of my unconscious. A lot of the imagery comes from a kind of inaccessible part of my mind, an interior I can’t look at directly. The best way I could describe it: if you turn on all the lights and clap your hands all the elusive animals disappear, so you have to tread lightly and carry a small lantern instead. So I’m always trying to sneak up on the shapes I can’t quite see head-on. I’m sure I’m always in some way influenced by whatever I’m reading, watching, listening to, and what is going on around me as well, my imagination is a pretty permeable membrane.

There are a lot of disparate elements and dichotomies on the album that I think are really quite engaging, but it also has this almost ‘world-building’ feeling to it, like these songs are remnants of a forgotten place. How do you think art, but music and sound especially, can create worlds out of nothing and have those thoughts shifted at all over the past two years?

I don’t think they are created out of nothing. Human beings are very musically inclined animals – that’s one of our most endearing peculiarities I think. For me, music is a part of reality where time moves differently and life is less brutal and linear. I think music lets us dwell in places of speechlessness – sometimes grief, mirth, abandon, rage, and other impossible-to-define states. We don’t get to go to those places very often otherwise, in our everyday lives. Even if the imagery of my songs sounds otherworldly, I feel it’s very much of this world. This world has so many layers, some more tangible and obvious than others.

I really appreciate the way Their Invisible Hands has this great mix of more song-oriented pieces that feel a bit more straightforward, but then there are more experimental soundscapes mixed in too. It gives it all a narrative feel, I think, and as a person who obsesses over sequencing when it comes to their own work, how important is the narrative that builds out throughout the album to you? Do you try to sequence your albums in a particular way to convey certain messages or ideas?

I feel that sequencing is important but at the same time sort of arbitrary – I don’t believe there is one true sequence, even if it comes to feel that way after the fact. But I can get obsessed with a sense of flow when I’m finalizing the track order… I also notice that my mood and the time of day really affect how I feel about songs and song order. There is an element of just letting the work go that can be very difficult when you’re close to something. This is the first time I’ve done a full-length album with both songs and improvised instrumentals, and there are moments when the instrumentals let the words breathe a bit, so that was a factor in sequencing choices. My songs with words are pretty unconventional in the sense that a lot of them start as poems, and I think of the different sections more as stanzas than as verses. The words carry more weight than if I were writing them to serve the music, or as an afterthought. In that sense, I think my songs are more experimental (or more challenging to the listener) than my instrumental pieces.

What was the biggest challenge you had with Their Invisible Hands?

Recording in a creaky old house with other people around a lot of the time. I forced myself to stop pining for silence. You can hear little sounds here and there on the recording, especially if you listen on headphones. It is what it is: a global pandemic… my world kind of imploded. Also, I don’t have access to a separate recording space so I had to make peace with that.

You’re involved in other types of art beyond music, too. I was looking at the ‘merch’ area of your Bandcamp the other day, admiring the drawings. How do your visual art and music intertwine and influence each other?

They all emanate from the same source. Music has been more central for me for longer, and it’s only more recently that I felt a bit more comfortable calling myself a visual artist. I love the flowing feeling of ink, and I think that somehow relates to how I love long notes and cyclical and subtly morphing chord patterns.

This is kind of a random question, but as it’s a path I’ve gone down in the last year and am continually thinking about how to make it work, what has your experience been like with doing a Patreon for your music? What’s most rewarding for you?

Patreon is a weird beast for me. I really appreciate the people who subscribe, but I definitely am not good at engaging with my audience in the ongoing and intimate ways that the site tries to encourage. I’m very introverted in my process. If you subscribe you will get music from me, but I don’t hang out online or engage in more personal request-type things. I have nothing against that, but it’s antithetical to my way of being and working. I’m constantly trying to not get in my own way in my work, so I can’t even imagine if I felt at all surveilled by others too (however benevolent they may be) while I’m in the thick of working on something.

Shifting gears, how did the video collaboration for “Microgods of all the Subatomic Worlds” with choreographer Elizabeth Hernández and dancer Odeón Círculo Escénico come about? It’s an incredible performance and brings a whole different life to the song. 

That song is from the album Songs for Leonora Carrington that I released back in 2017 via a label called Wist Rec. The label does a series where musicians pick an artist working in any medium and write an album based on their life and/or their work. I picked Leonora Carrington because her sculptures and paintings really intrigued me, and I wanted to go deeper. Writing and researching the album was a rich and memorable experience, but almost immediately after the album was released, my father got very sick and then died unexpectedly. I didn’t really promote the album at all. Then out of the blue in 2020 I got a message from the Leonora Carrington Museum in Mexico, asking if I would be interested in having a choreographer create a piece for one of my songs from that album. It felt so good to have something kind of joyous and communal come out of that album that I initially released in such dark circumstances – it really gave new life to the project. Also, for it to happen after the long isolation brought about by COVID made it even more special. I love what Elizabeth Hernández created, and how it works with the song.

To finish up, what are you most hopeful for with the rest of 2022 to come?

I don’t know about hope, but I will continue to make art and music and see what happens next. The future is always mysterious, so I sometimes find hope in that (other times dread). I played the bowed lyre on Their Invisible Hands and I think it was a gateway drug to bowed instruments for me. I’d like to learn to play the Cretan lyre. I have another seedling of an idea for a new and different recording project, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet.

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