In the Mud With Céline Gillain

Céline Gillain’s unique sonic approach loudly comes through on her stellar new record, Mind is Mud. Relentless and intense rhythms lay a concrete foundation for otherworldly vocal experiments and ephemeral synth arrangements. Mantras slither through looping patterns to become ingrained in our minds as the music itself engages our bodies and makes us want to move. It’s a wild ride.

Céline Gillain and all the various things she is up to can be found via her links HERE. Mind is Mud is OUT NOW on cortizona.

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Going back, what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

When I was a kid, my neighbors had a piano and whenever I went over to their house, I enjoyed just making sounds on it. The mother, who was a musician, told my parents to sign me up for music lessons. I started playing the recorder and in an ensemble (we mostly played Baroque music) which is one of my first musical revelations. The language of music wasn’t spoken in my family so it felt like I could make it my own, define its contours and explore it freely. I was maybe 8 when the son of friends of my parents (who lived in Brussels and were kind of intellectuals) gave me a Mike Oldfield cassette tape (the 1980 album QE2) and I got really obsessed over one particular section (Taurus at 3:35). Listening to it in a loop unlocked something in my brain; that’s what music does, it creates room. I grew up in a small village in Belgium in the 80s, near the border with Germany. New music either came from fancy fairs in neighboring villages or from the Flemish or German radio. I remember the first time I heard New Beat, I loved it instantly, I recorded it from the radio on tapes. That’s when I discovered Technotronic which to this day is still one of my all-time favorite music. 

Did you always want to be a musician or play music?

I’ve always wanted to make music but it took time to allow myself to live this desire in reality, until just a few years ago when I was in my late 30s. I’ve been suffering from stage fright ever since I was a teenager. I dropped out of playing music because it was a nightmare to play in front of my professor, let alone in front of an audience. I still do today which is why I don’t play live often, it still terrifies me and feels kind of transgressive to be onstage. For a long time, I believed I didn’t have the right to make music because I didn’t have the technical skills, and on top of that, I was always broke and couldn’t afford gear. Everything changed when I got a good computer with the help of my partner when I started cracking programs and learning from tutorials how to use them. There’s still a lot of gatekeeping in electronic music, where the idea of being a professional is somehow linked to mastery and control. It’s still particularly challenging for women. I’ve had to deconstruct a lot to be where I am today. I’m still feeling insecure but it’s something I use in my music: doubt and struggle as raw material. Making music despite and about the invisible wall of fear feels like the project of a lifetime. 

What pushed you to take the first steps in playing and creating your own works? 

After studying art, I painted for years, and then in the early 2010s I worked with an artists collective. We did performances, improvised music, collective installations, etc. Having received quite a conservative art education, I learned from the others that art could be anything, which was very liberating. It was a kind of punk, DIY approach. As a group of 6 women, we could do anything because we weren’t self-censoring, feeling like imposters, or afraid of the hovering misogyny. It gave me a taste of artistic freedom I’d never experienced before, and made me realize how afraid and repressed I was. I quit painting and started contemplating that fear of mine, music felt like the perfect space to make something about/out of it. 

When did the initial ideas for Mind is Mud first begin to take shape in your mind? And how did the pandemic influence its creation?

I started working on Mind is Mud at the very beginning of 2020, at a time when it felt like a global, social uprising was about to take place. I was working on protest songs for the club in a project called Regroup, I wanted to explore the rallying power of club music in a very direct and physical way. I played twice to packed houses (which might very well have been COVID clusters) a few weeks before the first lockdown, and then of course everything was put on hold. It got weird, the isolation, the feeling of political impotence, the shitload of emotional confusion, the brain fog. At that time, I was teaching online and reading a lot of feminist science fiction and it started feeling like I was no longer operating in the sphere of reality. The title Mind is Mud comes from a phrase in the 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: ‘She tried to think about how to get out of here, but her mind was mud’. It also resonated with me because I have chronic migraine. Philippe Cortens, Cortizona’s label manager, is a fellow migraineur, we’ve connected in part because we share this condition.

How do you use intuition in your music-making?

It’s hard to answer that question, it’s like we lack the words to talk about intuition. I’ve known I could rely on my ear ever since I was a child, and this has been useful for finding my way in times of confusion. I have little knowledge of mixing theory so when I make music I just have to trust my ear as I go, which I guess sometimes results in unorthodox developments. There has been a virilist approach of technicality to sound in the field of electronic music, an obsession for control that has disqualified intuition. Intuition is a great ally in music making, when things start happening outside your control, accidents become opportunities. I was discussing it with a friend who used to be a midwife, she said ‘Intuition isn’t always right, sometimes it misleads you’ which really got me thinking a lot. She’s right, intuition isn’t infallible, it’s tricky. For me, making music is all about finding the balance between reason and intuition, between calculus and organicity.

There are so many aspects of Mind is Mud that are transportive, like it’s telling a story of some imagined, unknown world. It’s music that takes the listener to someplace else and creates these vivid sonic spaces to explore. How has music been a medium for creating and exploring new worlds and ideas for you? And how do you try to harness these transportive effects in your work?

The impulse to make music is always kind of linked to events that I find hard to deal with in reality, that are somehow too bleak to be accepted. If making music is anchored in reality, it also aims to create breaches. Working with a DAW allows you to build complex sonic spaces with just a computer, to play with scale (even if you live in a tiny apartment), and to explore the relationship between inside and outside, proximity and immensity in infinite ways. The computer, like the inside of your head, becomes this huge echo chamber. I’ve been a fan of writer Ursula K. Leguin for years, when I make music I often think about the dimensions and stories she invented. ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ has had a huge impact on my music and the dimensions I immerse myself in when I make music.

Can you talk a little about how you collage lyrics? I’m really fascinated by this idea and process.

I keep vocal notes and a notebook where I record and write down every phrase, word, and slogan, I encounter that appeal to me, from essays, the news, Instagram, TV series, self-help books, etc. but also words that get stuck in my head for some reason. Phrases that haunt me, movie dialogues I keep getting back to. All these words placed next to each other, taken out of context, eventually become lyrics. Sometimes I add elements myself and sometimes I don’t. For example, in the track Never Easy, there is a phrase from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a slogan from a cosmetics store window in Brussels, elements from the Wikipedia page of Autotomy, and some pieces of a poem I wrote. 

What surprised you the most about making Mind is Mud?

That the more I learn about music and music making the more I realize how little I know about it, and the magnitude of possibilities that realization opens. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome?

Before I encountered Cortizona, I was Looking for a record label and I met quite a few people, some of whom told me how I should handle my career or strategize. Someone asked me: who are you targeting with your music? And I received some unsolicited advice about my music that destabilized me. I lost a lot of time wondering if something was wrong with me because I lacked the ambition to ‘expand’. The non-stop commodification of music and ideas, the pushiness of this sort of bullshit entrepreneurial vibe in the electronic music scene, I find very toxic and problematic. And I’ve been struggling with relative precarity for a long time, the inflation didn’t help. The lack of security as you get older, it gets pretty scary. Working in the arts today feels like an obstacle course, the way the system works leads most artists to plateau in survival mode.  

What does the rest of 2023 hold for you?

I’m currently working on ANTENA, a year-long program dedicated to listening at M HKA (contemporary art museum in Antwerp), which invites visitors to listen with the body, to listen to the walls (be they physical or intangible) that delineate the spaces we inhabit as individuals and communities. And at the moment I’m also composing a mothertune, a sonic identity for Kaaitheater, the Flemish theater in Brussels. And I’m working on a new live performance as well because I have plans to play from September. Other than that I have no idea, I’m unable to project myself into the future or make plans beyond 3 months. 

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