Ela Orleans: 'Sometimes the most primitive idea is the best'
- David Pollock
- 26 April 2019
credit: Tamyra Denoon
With her retrospective collection of songs out now, the Glasgow-based musician discusses the album's background and her own musical history
Movies for Ears, the new album by Ela Orleans on Glasgow's Night School label, has a series of dates as part of its description (in this case, 2001 to 2012). Does this mean it's some sort of greatest hits record? 'Yeah, don't use those words,' says Orleans on the phone in a Polish accent which is gently thoughtful, but coarse with barbed – possibly Glaswegian by osmosis – humour. 'Or I will kill you.'
She doesn't object to the popular music connotation of the phrase, it seems, as much as the idea she's picking favourites from her own catalogue. Instead, Movies for Ears is an exercise in personal cataloguing and in making a necessary introduction. To people in Scotland who are passingly familiar with her music, Orleans is well-known because she was nominated – and one of the favourites – for the 2017 Scottish Album of the Year Award, for the previous year's Circles of Upper Hell (Sacred Paws won in the end).
Yet that record was her latest of a dozen albums since 2008's Low Sun / High Moon, and before that she had a career during the 2000s as a member of Hassle Hound, as well as an ongoing career as a composer of various soundtrack pieces; her 2017 live score for Canadian artist/filmmaker Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee is a thing of great, haunting beauty, for example. As an auteur she's one of Glasgow's most exciting and authentically original artists, yet for many years she was so underground that the wider cultural radar rarely picked her up.
Anyway, to Movies for Ears, which is a line a Polish journalist used about one of her early projects, and which she says sums up what she does better than any other description. It is, she says, a record of her music prior to Glasgow, where she arrived in 2012; although she lived there before, waiting tables and serving members of Belle & Sebastian in the West End between 1997 and 2000, following up friendships made during student exchanges (she was born and raised in Oswiecim). Eventually, the precarity of being a pre-EU Pole in the UK took her back to Poland and then to New York for a number of years.
'(The album is) more like, you know when people make poetry compilations?' she says. 'It mainly came from a very practical idea, because whenever I played a show it's difficult to offer the people who come to it something they could take home which would remind them of the show, because most of the songs I play live are on records which are sold out. So it's a sort of primer and also exposing that part of me that I'm probably most known for, which is pop, even though I'm looking more now as I age into more bespoke music.
'It's just somewhere always in me, making little tunes and constantly humming something into my phone. I love pop songs, but I never really wanted to make a record of just pop songs, because music means more to me than just something you can sing along to. But I felt like I needed just one record that felt it could be a retrospective of my development as a musician and songwriter.'
The music within is loveable and timeless, a nostalgic sonic environment which recreates classic sounds in a particularly off-kilter way, as though they're being listened to with your head submerged or in an avant-garde cinematic flashback scene. Orleans doesn't listen to other music when she's writing, but instead reads books and watches films (a PhD student in music and film at the University of Glasgow, she loves Wenders, Cassavetes and late Godard). In this music, we can hear the sound of old Hollywood ('Elegy'), surf psychedelia ('Something Higher' and 'Myriads') and drug-razed 1960s garage rock ('Planet Mars', 'The Season', 'In the Night'), while the mantra of her dreamy, European-accented voice reminds of Stereolab or Nico.
Among the key tracks here, she picks out 'Walkingman', the first song she ever wrote. 'At the time, people were telling me this sounds like Pink Floyd, and the first impression is probably the most accurate, because I was listening to a lot of Syd Barrett at the time,' she says. 'It was very primitive, but that's something I still miss, because sometimes the most primitive idea is the best. It was also my first attempt at writing, which was based on reading Robert Walser's The Walk; I just realised how much literature and film and visuals can be involved in writing music as well.
'I guess 'Neverend' is another important song for me, because it was finalising my years in New York, which were happy, bittersweet years which marked a huge development for me as a musician,' she continues. 'I had lots of opportunities there to be part of certain mentorships; I met Lukas Ligeti, son of the famous György Ligeti, who introduced me to African musicians; I met all the people from the BMI workshop, and David Shire reviewed my work. I got such a boost of confidence there, and that song was kind of a goodbye to New York – I had to leave because of health problems, and I didn't have any health coverage – and to my friends and the people who inspired me.'
Of her depression, Orleans traces it back to her youth. The daughter of a musical family ('my aunt was a teacher in a music school, my mum was training to be a pianist, but because of the postwar poverty she had to get a job'), she went to music school to study violin at the age of eight. 'But then I had to stop because I had concussion and it completely prevented me from training further,' she says. 'I had a misunderstanding with a wall, it was a funny story, I ran into it – but the repercussions after that were really quite tragic, because I had to stop playing music, I had terrible migraines, that was the start also of my depression. Yet somehow I'm grateful for that, because it probably made me who I am and I quite like that now, although it took me time to come to terms with it.'
Back to the album, and 'Something Higher' is a song she does warily describe as 'probably the biggest hit, just looking at YouTube or Spotify. It was more available to women and men, although men are more the recipients of my music (on sales statistics), which kind of saddens me, but maybe that's just the reality which will be changing over the next few years. But that was probably the one which appealed to a wider audience; I wasn't sure why, but now I feel it's the message.' The lyric is based on an Elizabeth Browning poem. 'Although her poems are really quite positive and beautiful, they have a dark side, a feeling of doom that really resonated with me.'
It's tempting to place the same sensibility upon Orleans' own art, but it wouldn't be fair; the pristine oddity of these songs is borne of humour and uplift, and the power of music to give real life the quality of a film we all experience. 'I can't help but feel she's always looking for a sense of belonging, and it seems to inform all the music that she makes,' says friend, champion and past collaborator Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels and Monorail. 'Glasgow must have more of that belonging feeling than most cities, because she's spent the most time here, an exotic bird in a rainy city she maybe finds a little bit of comfort in.' Our talk turns to Glasgow, and she says it's the warmth and support of the people around her which keeps her here. 'It's not the support that provides you with financial or press glory or whatever,' says Orleans, 'but it's very important that I feel I'm at home, and that I'm welcome.'
Movies for Ears: An Introduction to Ela Orleans is out now on Night School. Cryptic presents: Ela Orleans, Kings Place, London, Wed 8 May.
The Polish born singer-songwriter performs experimental pop with psychedelic elements, often with accompanying projections of her own home made films.