“SHE'S PART GIRL, PART BOY, PART ANIMAL, AND PART DEMON.”
26 March 2015
As Gazelle Twin, musician Elizabeth Bernholz makes “darkly experimental” music that filters her personal experience through a singular sound.
Her latest album UNFLESH was described as “as immaculate as a hotel in a JG Ballard novel, and just as scary” (PopMatters) while The Quietus listed it as the Best Album of 2014. Ahead of her live performance at April’s Progress Bar, she talks to Nione Meakin about teenage anxiety, classical composition and the freedom of anonymity.
Why was it important for you to create such a separate – and distinct – stage persona in Gazelle Twin?
Freedom mostly, so that I am not limited to just one visual identity. I’m pretty much a ‘normal’ person in everyday life and I was never interested in trying to cultivate a mysterious persona offstage. When I perform in costume/character it’s only related to the album and those themes at the time, and only for the stage or screen. Gazelle Twin is a projection of ideas and a sort of philosophy for me. It’s a blank face, a puppet to project a series of characters or themes, or emotions, onto and these change. In terms of UNFLESH, the character is very specifically a possessed version of myself as a teenager. But I wanted her to represent something more universal too. She’s part girl, part boy, part animal, part demon…
You wanted to be a boy when you were younger and you’ve described how hard it is to ‘be a female in a world that’s fucking hard to deal with when you’re trying to be honest and natural’. Is gender on your mind when you write and perform?
I also wanted to be a bird, a cat, and a horse, but this was all part of my need to escape from being a human!
When I decided to become a performer, all these identity crises I had from an early age returned in a big way. I wanted to find a way to avoid the pressure of being judged on appearance but it seemed totally impossible as a person with more than a degree of self-consciousness. The last thing I wanted was to indulge this negative stuff in my work and create an embellished version of myself to boost my confidence or attract an audience. I wanted to remove those options altogether. Being anonymous felt like the only answer, and it has offered up so much more than I thought it would.
You’ve described your creative process as ‘psychotherapy of the body’ and talked about being in a trance-like state when you make music. Can you describe your situation when making UNFLESH?
This was very much the case when writing UNFLESH. In a way, I was doing what actors do, using emotional memory to get into a head space and just start recording whatever came out. But at the time I wasn’t really sure what I was conjuring up until it was all out there in front of me. I’ve always improvised as a musician, it’s kind of how I do most things, so it was nice to combine those two elements. It really worked this time. I was killing some demons and enjoying the process. It’s quite an ancient thing really – to wear the costume of your greatest fear. It means you can own it. In this case the demon I was trying to purge was puberty, and ultimately – myself as a teenager.
Do you feel we underplay the terror of puberty – our changing bodies, dawning sexuality?
Yes I do. I think most people want to move on from it as quickly as possible, parents and children alike. It’s led to this strange split in society where children seem to be treated as one species and adults another. I think when that divide isolates or disengages people then it causes problems. [Where The Wild Things Are author] Maurice Sendak said that there is no childhood, and he didn’t write for children. He didn’t think there was much point in censoring the way the world is for children because we all find out the truth sooner or later. It’s pretty brutal, but I think it’s a good way to approach the world, and people.
You’re open about suffering from panic attacks, anxiety, body dysmorphia…do you see these conditions as part and parcel of who you are as an artist?
Yes, I have been able to be quite open about these things, which I have found really relieving. I don’t think anyone that experiences these things is resigned to it being a thing to endure all the time. It’s much healthier to have a way to deal with it, and lessen the impact. It constricts the creative process otherwise. Whilst you can’t easily change your DNA-based traits, you can certainly manage them…
It sounds as though you value your frequent illnesses for forcing you to spend more time in your mind?
Ha ha, I did at the time of writing UNFLESH, yes. I would get quite bad flu or viruses at least five or six times a year. I then discovered I had coeliac disease so went through more discomfort whilst my body readjusted to a diet without the evil grain. It took three years to get anywhere close to normal. In that period I spent a lot of time at the doctors or having pretty invasive tests at the hospital. All these experiences were very rich. I find it’s best to embrace the uncanny moments that illness creates, rather than allow it to turn into something very negative, which I am sure it can do for lots of people. But then I do have a weird imagination and seem to get off on strange feelings and atmospheres
You studied classical composition; does that background inform your work or do you find yourself rebelling against it?
I’d say that my passion for it, rather than my education, is still the foundation of everything I do. I had a really strong exposure to classical music from birth – it was always in my life. I was privileged to have had that, and to have only discovered popular music a bit later. I think it changed the way I learned to write and make music. Very often, class issues get in the way of classical music and I see the same stale traditions I have always thought were a problem now, but it’s no reason to avoid it.
Your music draws on references from David Cronenburg to Max Ernst. What have you seen / read / heard recently that’s made an impact on you?
I’ve almost finished reading High Rise by J. G Ballard. It’s amazing how thematically connected I feel to his books. It’s such a visual assault on the mind, and yet also these incredibly relevant comments on modern life and the very distinct British class system with this middle/upper class urban tribal war taking place in a London high-rise. I think it’s one of the most visually affecting books I have ever read.
Did living in Brighton influence your work at all? It seems, if anything, rather at odds with it – this seaside party town full of tourists and hen nights…
I can’t say that it has or hasn’t. It was just a place I lived. I think what it did was give me was a lot of experiences, and a lot of freedom to try out some crazy ideas. Had I remained living where I grew up in Harrogate, I fear that I would not have had the creative stimulation I have had in Brighton or being near London. But I may be wrong. Maybe it was all in my head anyway.
Where do you see yourself going next in your work?
I’m working on new ideas for album three. Apart from that I am working on side projects, including a film score and some other bits. I’ve had a really amazing year, which has brought many opportunities, so I am looking forward to making the most of those before I settle down to multiply…
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