Elisabeth Elektra: 'Dressing up is a way of creating a world that's not this one, that you can be invited into through music'
- David Pollock
- 19 July 2019
Glasgow-based electro-pop singer discusses her new track, why she places an emphasis on the dramatic and the various threads that run through her music
'Music, for me, is a personal affair,' says Elisabeth Elektra, Glasgow-based purveyor of pristine, one-woman electro-pop symphonies. 'I'm really solitary in the way that I make it and the way I listen to it, which is usually on my own through headphones. Even when I go to gigs, I feel like I get into my own world while I'm there.' Her live performance – which will be seen in Glasgow this weekend, the launch party for her new track 'Obsidian', ahead of a self-released album later in the year – follows a similar solo format.
'It's just me, and I use a trigger box,' she says. 'I made the choice [to play without any instruments] because I'm a much better singer and performer than I am anything else, so being stuck behind keyboards while I'm on stage wouldn't feel like the right way to go about presenting these songs. To be honest, as an artist at the stage I'm at, I don't get paid enough to hire a band – hopefully that will change, but I think there's a whole other conversation that's really important about how much we value original live music.'
Instead, when she plays live the emphasis is on a sense of the dramatic; witness, for example, the incredible costume in the photo accompanying this piece. 'How I present myself – what wig I wear, how I do my make-up – it's all quite conscious, and I love costume,' says Elektra. 'Some artists can get up onstage wearing a T-shirt and jeans, my husband does that, but that's not where I'm at. I love dressing up, because it's part of the fantasy, it's a way of creating a world that's not this one, that you can be invited into through music. That's one of the magical things about music, that it's so transportive; however much of a production budget you have, you can make things more intriguing through costume and make-up.'
Elektra is originally from Hexham in Northumberland, 'but I spent a lot of time in Scotland because it's so close. I meet people who say they're from the north when they mean Leeds. That's not the north! It's not the north unless you can see Scotland.' Her sister is an opera singer who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, her brother 'makes techno', and Elektra trained classically in music, but didn't enjoy it. She spent a few years from the age of seven living in the French countryside, because her mum loved the country and the change in lifestyle, but returned home to England after the death of her father when she was twelve.
'As much as I connect to aspects of British culture, there's always something that's a bit amiss and that's probably why,' says Elektra (her birth surname is Oswell, but she prefers to use Elektra due to her belief in the energy of names). 'I always think about what would have happened if we'd stayed, who I would have become. I guess I was in France when I really fell in love with music, French pop music in particular. When I think of the French chanson, there's a real love of the song, and an emotionality to the way French singers can deliver their songs.'
From this tradition, she loves Jacques Brel and the huge-in-France Quebecoise singer Mylène Farmer. 'My favourite artists are those who give me permission to be a bit of a weirdo, like Kate Bush and Prince,' she says. 'More recently I've loved a lot of music made by women in general; not consciously, it's just what I gravitate towards. I love Iona Lee, I love Fever Ray, I love interesting, cool women making beautiful music. I really love great pop songwriting, so Lana Del Rey and more obvious stuff like that, as well.'
Around 2010, she was a singer in Keith Wood's Hush Arbor's project; a period she enjoyed, supporting Sonic Youth at one point, although she felt unfulfilled by not being able to sing her own songs. In the decade since she's released as Sargasso Sea and as Zyna Hel, which was essentially the same project as Elisabeth Elektra, name change aside. 'A friend of mine came to one of my [Zyna Hel] shows and told me that from the name she was expecting it to be niche goth music, even though they're big, catchy pop songs. There was a bit of a disconnect, so I decided to just change it.' She moved to Glasgow four years ago after meeting her now-husband, Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite.
Her music, she hopes, takes on its own mythical quality. 'It's funny, I always think of it as being happy and joyful, but then when I started to analyse it I realised the songs are all about death,' she says. 'The lyrics might be a bit poetic at times, a bit obtuse, but I think they're about all these things that we experience, like love and loss and longing and hope and, yeah, some joy – they come from a very real place. The record I'm going to release this year has a lot of threads running through it that come from the esoteric and, I suppose, the metaphysical, the mythical. But these are all metaphors for something that's very human, very tangible and real.
'I just really hope that my songs can mean something to people,' she continues. 'There's a lot of music that has meant a lot to me as a bit of a misfit in this world, and when somebody tells me something that I've written has an effect on them and they love it, that's the best feeling in the world. I love writing music, I could do it forever and never ever get bored, but where does the compulsion to then share it come from? I think it comes from wanting to connect in some way, and I hope my music does. People seem to have connected with it so far, at least.'
Elisabeth Elektra launches the single 'Obsidian' at the Flying Duck, Glasgow, Sun 21 Jul, with Night Tongue and The Academy of Sun.
Glasgow-based purveyor of pristine, one-woman electro-pop symphonies.