Elysia Crampton first caught my attention a few years ago, releasing sample-based work under her E+E moniker: sacred-and-profane collages that drew equally from crunk, cumbia and classical, blasted with video game FX and spoken word fragments.
Crampton has since moved on from sample collage, describing it as “a mere portion” of her “concrescence.” When we speak via Skype, she describes moving from sample-based work to writing her own music as the “natural flow” of her musical evolution. “My interest has always been in narrative, especially with music. When you sample other people’s work it complicates the narrative that much more,” she explains. “If I take this flute from another song, it’s already storied and has this historicity to it.”
“There’s something about the corporeality of working with the original material — it’s like this new creature is actually created,” she says. “It’s different from generating from samples. With sampling, you’re so much more aware of the embeddedness of it.” That embeddedness, the “enmeshment” of using recognizable samples, became limiting. “It’s not a dishonesty to my experience, but it could narrow it more. There’s this narrowing in when you become more aware of yourself as an artist, and the outcome becomes more intensely original and more focused.” Crampton eventually realized that she could reference the musical genres in her background the same way she sampled music. “Music inscribes itself into you, and you carry it as you migrate, and it molds on to the other ones,” like cuneiform symbols layered to create new shapes.
The referencing of sampling also exposed her work in a way that she found very frustrating. Until recently, she didn’t have a press agent to help shape the dialogue around her music. “If you don’t put out a statement, people put their narratives into it. Especially with me, coming from a South American, Central American, indigenous background, those narratives tend to get lost. Not necessarily because of racism, but because of Euro-centrism and an American experience where those narratives aren’t really given light.”
In that vein, she has also struggled with the politics of appropriation that sampling touches upon. “The way we look at appropriation has changed so much, even in the last two years. To not acknowledge that would be ignorant — it would be lying to myself. Finding the political nature of what I was doing helped push that forward. Having my own voice on all grounds is important.”
Her latest work seems to come most clearly from a personal voice. A single released earlier this year (‘Moth / Lake’) and first official album, American Drift (out August 7 via Blueberry Records) are both part of her Shenandoah series, an ongoing conceptual work that explores the history of her Virginia home and the idea of brownness as geology rather than just culture. Released under her own name, the music strips away the samples of her E+E catalog to reveal MIDI orchestras and spoken word “transevangelistic prayers” that are just as emotionally captivating and rich with meaning as before, if not more so.
Crampton was born and grew up outside of Los Angeles, but moved nomadically around the US and Mexico before settling in rural Virginia at the beginning of the decade. She began working on American Drift about three years ago as a way to write about her experience of finding a home in Virginia. She describes the move as an encounter with nature (“or nature as it is constructed”), which was simplified to the thesis of an encounter with stone.
”For white hegemony to genetically occupy me in a space where I have equal amounts of othering, how the hell do I make sense of that?”Elysia Crampton
She was inspired by the work of José Muñoz, the noted queer theorist, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a writer and professor of medieval studies, who — despite their separate pursuits — both illuminated a similar concept. Muñoz referred to brownness “as more than a culture or a people, but as a locality – as mineral. That stuck so much with me.” Similarly, Cohen, a “friend of a friend of a friend,” explored encounters with geology in his most recent work, Stories of Stone: An Inhuman Ecology, albeit from a different perspective than Crampton or Muñoz. “He’s not necessarily exploring brownness, but he’s exploring how fickle and abstract taxonomical hierarchy is,” she explains. “Even how we question it and encounter it has been on its terms.”
The way that taxonomical hierarchy separates inorganic from organic underpins Crampton’s Shenandoah series. “When we look at ourselves in relation to the geological, you see how enmeshed and tied up we are with the inorganic,” she explains, using the pigment granules that make her skin brown as an example, or the way stone and skeleton are comprised of the same minerals. “It’s this incredible union of the lithic and the biological.”
Of course, those taxonomies are also personal. “It also goes back to the mestiza struggle, my mixed blood. [My heritage] comes together to give me insights that transcend my brownness and my whiteness, but sometimes it’s a battle between the two,” she says. “For white hegemony to genetically occupy me in a space where I have equal amounts of othering, how the hell do I make sense of that?”
Despite the album’s thesis, these deeply personal questions, and an accompanying artist statement that touches on colonialism, Christianity and topics such as “a transcorporeal and transmutagenetic movement,” Crampton is hesitant to explicitly explain the meaning of American Drift. “Of course I want to dialogue about these concepts, because I’m always trying to learn, but I also don’t want to pigeonhole the work,” she explains. “Maybe it’s why I go to music: you can be so specific that it’s too specific for language. Music doesn’t explode words, but it goes right through them.”
“People gravitate to this because it’s so storied, it’s a feeling. People fill that with their own nuances and life experiences, and their involvement in that affects me in some way, even if I’m not directly affected by what they’re experiencing,” she says of her connection with listeners. “We’ve become united in the work and it makes me a stronger artist.”
Our conversation continues to return to stories and narratives, which have captivated Crampton since childhood. “You realize how the political is how you narrate your own life, and how intensely personal and microbial the political is, and then you realize that narrative is really what forms history,” she explains. “You get older and you realize how fragile and amorphous history is, how the past is not really a set thing: we’re just in this present, surrounded by this big blob of becoming. Everything you do that has to do with narrative becomes that much more a risk and needs to be that much more thought out.”
Crampton has explored this narrative not only in her music, but with her writings on Twitter. Her tweets are equal parts poetry (“Tires like gargoyles’ hands grasping asphalt, the road a cauterized wound cut into rock, my truck trolls shenandoah mountain”) and political discussion (“cleaned up, well-produced electronic music often reproduces white privilege & the hierarchical lies of the expert-making university complex”). The latter touches on both capitalism in the form of the music industry and Crampton’s “personal struggle” with education.
”I never thought that I would have to create a new space like that, but maybe it’s part of queer experience.”Elysia Crampton
On one hand, “I see this music that my friends and I started doing just for fun on the side, because we work these miserable jobs and we never did life quite right, to make enough money to be professional artists.” On the other hand, “I see the better, hipper versions of what we do coming out: the more managed, more produced versions of it,” although she laughingly declines to “name names or throw shade.”
The way that commodity-capitalism chooses winners and losers in music is mirrored in the American education system. “I love educating myself, but I’ve always had this struggle, especially with the institution of it. It’s become such a privileged thing,” she sighs. “I used to be embarrassed to say I read this or that philosopher,” finding it tough to reconcile the lineage of continental philosophers and “all these isms and theological dick-sucking” with her brownness and her experience. To her, the education system reinforces the idea that you can only join a debate when you’ve read the right books, drop the right names, know the right statistics or use the right platforms. “I don’t like this futile thing, ‘It’s on Facebook or Twitter, so it doesn’t count.’ You’re the only one saying it doesn’t count.”
“That’s another thing about thinking geologically and disanthropologically: even simple things like taxonomy — the way we approach the world and study the world — it’s a lie,” she concludes. “It’s made up and it’s outdated. Even these things that we term as ‘post-human’ or ‘post-identity’, they are ways of identifying and navigating life that we’ve been doing from the jump. My interest in narrative has increased my connection and understanding to the past and my past.”
The narrative that connects her past and present, along with — as the title suggests — her connection to America’s past and present, drives American Drift. While she saw the world at a very young age, she never saw much of America. “I never really got to explore America until I got to Virginia and I got my truck and I started going everywhere. Until then, I never had a concept of it.”
“There was something about being in Virginia and the whole dynamics of whiteness,” she says, especially in a state that was the site of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, once contained the capital of the Confederacy and borders the nation’s capital. “I never fully saw myself as brown or accepted my brownness until I moved here, because everyone saw me as brown here. Maybe in L.A. I was light enough to not be Chicano, or because of our class, I wasn’t in the segregated part of town. But here, everybody made sure I knew I was brown. It opened a lot for me. It’s something I’m going to be making sense of my whole life. This ‘negative experience’ that involves racism and prejudices became this enlightening thing for me.”
That process continues with American Drift, and with her growth as an artist and performer as a whole. While she grew up playing in bands and enjoyed the high of playing live, the performance of her written and sampled electronic music has been “trial and error.” “I learned that clubs and bars are not necessarily my space,” she laughs. “I’m finally finding my place in this live setting that incorporates the use of spoken word as well as musical performance,” crafting a space that is part scholastic salon, part art venue and part club. “I never thought that I would have to create a new space like that, but maybe it’s part of queer experience,” she says. “You can’t do otherwise — your existence is curating a new space. If you don’t follow that through, you can’t live successfully or get the most out of life.”
“I’m hoping in the future, even in the next few years, we see spaces popping up,” pointing to what Ashland Mines (aka Total Freedom) was doing with his Wildness parties, the spiritual forebear to Venus X’s GHE20G0TH1K movement, as an example. “With new spaces we can engage with things in new ways and express new ideas and find a space for grievance to exit and make sense of life.” Beyond the complicated, complex questions of narrative, brownness, geology, politics, education, history or any of the things of which we spoke, that seems to be what Elysia Crampton is doing with her music, at her core: just trying to make sense of life.