Exposure: Zyna Hel
Electronic pop artist on No Wave, favourite female musicians and Stuart Braithwaite's pyjamas
This article is from 2015.
The name may not ring a bell just yet, but it might soon. By the way, it’s pronounced like Xena, her teen idol, the princess warrior, and that’s Hel, as in the Norse goddess of the Underworld. Occult-loving, dark electronic pop artist Zyna, real name Elisabeth Oswell, who mixes sparse machine beats with a classically trained vocal, has an upcoming single, ‘Catacombs’ produced by Blanck Mass, live shows at Stereo and Wickerman festival, and a moreish Twitter account full of RuPaul love, class struggles and Frida Kahlo wardrobe appreciation. We caught up with her, midway through unpacking in her new flat (she’s just moved to Glasgow to live with partner, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite) to talk new music, current government and inspirations from the past
On her music:
I like the occult and disco. Friends have called me a disco witch, which seems to fit. I hope my music sounds slightly spooky, a bit ethereal, with some futuristic, cosmic sounds. Dark electronic pop basically. I’ve been playing live as Zyna Hel for two years, but I’ve got hardly anything online, because I didn’t want to share too much too soon. I’m a massive perfectionist. I’ve been working on tons of stuff [with producer John Fryer of This Mortal Coil; Andrew Liles of Nurse With Wound, and Ben Powers of Fuck Buttons, amongst others] but I really want my first album to be as good as I can get it.
On the visual side of her work:
I’ve already got endless Pinterest boards of inspiration for the first video, which should be out in a few months. I studied music performance and visual art in Brighton, so I’m very aesthetically driven. The visual side of what I do is hugely important, but that does not mean that I want to achieve a certain level of beauty or something, more like I value self-expression and creativity. It bugs me that very talented women often get reviewed, but they’ll mention their hair or clothes before they discuss the instrumentation or songwriting. Talk about women’s appearances often precedes talk about their accomplishments; as a feminist that annoys me. I’m a feminist that also happens to enjoy shiny clothes and make-up.
On the No Wave scene:
I’m pretty fascinated by the 80s No Wave scene, and these people all sharing this impulse to create. Kids that just did what the fuck they wanted, even if they couldn’t even play an instrument. I just watched Industrial Soundtrack for The Urban Decay at The Art School, which has people like Throbbing Gristle, NON and Test Dept in it. I loved it and actually found it really inspiring. And in Britain, good music was still being made under the Thatcher regime. There was footage of protests from the early 80s and it struck me just how similar the slogans were then and now. But it seemed so encouraging that amazing artists still managed to thrive. That’s exciting to me.
On the recent elections:
I’m so disappointed that this government is in power. They show no signs of supporting the arts. I cried all weekend after that result. Still, that industrial music documentary gave me faith; they can try, but they can’t kill art.
On her favourite female musicians:
I love artists with a strong sense of identity. Obviously Kate Bush: who doesn’t love her? Patti Smith, who I hope to see in Glasgow soon. [Berlin-based synth-pop group] Ballet School: Rosie Blair is an amazing performer. Kim Gordon: she’s a hero. I supported Sonic Youth years ago with my old band Hush Arbors. I would totally recommend her book. People said she overshared about her relationship with Thurston Moore; I say she’s entitled to be outspoken, I love her all the more for it. Glasgow’s Sharp Tooth are amazing too. I played with them and Tuff Love at a TYCI night not long ago.
Less than a week of us living together and Stuart was already wearing my 101 Dalmatians pyjama bottoms. They’re blue, he really suits them.
Zyna Hel supports Outblinker at Stereo, Sat 13 Jun; and plays the Solus Tent at Wickerman Festival, Sat 25 Jul.