This is the first dispatch of The Notes and The Words, an ongoing series of articles by Camilla Aisa exploring the artists and music of Independent Project Records.
We’ve heard plenty of stories of artists having to adapt to solitary work in the past two years. This is not one of those stories.
After years of collaborative music making, in 2018 New York-based artist Alison Clancy decided to go down what she likes to call the solo rabbit hole. The restrictions of the global pandemic could only encourage this new approach further. Today we have Mutant Gifts, an EP (her first with Independent Project Records) that finds her playing instruments, inhabiting places and conjuring their revelations, recording and handling primary engineering and production on her own. “I was always a very collaborative artist”, says Alison. “I love that energy of connecting with people and making friendships through music, but it felt like it was time to face myself”. Collaborations eventually came near the end of the project - the addition of a cello, some final mixing -, but Mutant Gifts is the sound of Alison coming to terms with both her muse and technology. And while the latter could feel somewhat intimidating (she grew up in a solar-powered cabin in the woods of Nevada City, California with no electricity), it also proved an exciting new kind of collaborator. Alison spent a lot of time with computers and pedals, getting to know the sympathetic heart of machines. “I took the time to discover a very personal aesthetic and find distinct sounds and textures that I feel are beautiful”.
Add wires to loops and solitary late night sessions and many will expect a lack of communication. Some inward-looking muttering. Mutant Gifts invites us in for…quite the opposite. Take its opening track, for instance: ‘Dreamland Tokyo’ is Alison’s way of celebrating the many possibilities of creative friendships and intercontinental closeness. It was written with artist/director Esteban Haga in mind, when he returned to his native city, Tokyo, after working with Alison in NYC. “His quiet presence made me feel very calm and open, confident in doing my thing”, she looks back. “The track was inspired by the desire to continue a creative relationship with him. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but this music was my way of projecting my energy to my friend who was there”. What they had filmed together in NYC before Esteban’s return to Japan is an evocative video for the EP’s titular track Mutant Gifts. It features Alison and cellist Brent Arnold inside St. John’s Church in New York, the same place where the song was created and recorded.
In fall 2020 Alison was invited to be an artist in residence in the West Village church. With attendance heavily reduced due to COVID-19 restrictions, this meant being able to observe sung prayers from up close and spending long nights making noise in a beautiful building (a most rare thing, if you ask New Yorkers). There’s no denying the presence of the setting, no matter one’s religious or non-religious affiliations; the very sound of Mutant Gifts makes it palpable. Alison was inspired by the particular depth she could feel in what was being practiced there during the day. The rituality was surprisingly comparable to that of her life as a dancer: “I love ballet because it's a physical prayer that you do very consistently day after day”, she enthuses. “Rituals can invite a certain kind of knowledge, they allow the people who practice them to notice differences. You do something consistently and you notice small differences: in the environment, in the air, in yourself”. As Mutant Gifts plays, listeners, too, find themselves inside St. John’s. “A church is a place where people bring the most tender parts of themselves”, Alison considers. “They come with worries, hopes, grief, or celebration. I felt the energy that so many different people’s intentions had invested in that space, and I tried to be open to it, and let it pass it through me in the hours I spent there in the middle of the night”. Through guitar, looping setup and microphone Alison would riff off the spirit of the place, building a sonic conversation with it and surrendering to a flow state. It’s an open dialogue that continues and expands with each new visit.
Equally welcoming of listeners’ interpretations is the title. The concept of mutant gifts stems from Alison’s collaborations with dancers from the Flex and Bruk Up communities. She found them inspiring for the tangible emotional connection their work embodies. Codified both in technique and language, their art often speaks of mutations. It’s about transforming for survival, something that resonated with Alison long before the world found itself dealing with a mutating virus. “Mutation feels very visceral”, she explains. “It feels like a sort of transcendental shedding of your skin to become something new. It can be seen as something grotesque, but it’s powerful. There's been a process that I've gone through in the last few years of shedding a lot of aspects of my previous identity. I always wrote music, and I was invested in playing instruments in my early 20s - but I wasn’t performing as a musician much. Now, working solo, I had to dig into my musicianship: it has felt like a process of going back and reshaping my fingers to be able to play guitar better, or reshaping my focus to be able to use the technology. I'm not just dancing around and singing, I'm really digging into the work of carving out an aesthetic. It’s challenging, but incredibly freeing”.
There are lots of bands and collaborations under Alison’s belt. Before that, there were rock stars on big stages. Her mum used to sell merch at arena shows, and on the weekends she would sometimes go along. She was a little girl that security staff knew well, free to wander around and even venture right up by the stage. She still has a visceral memory of looking up at Tina Turner’s legs as they shimmied. A fitting initiation for someone whose love of the arts would always have a special interest in their performative aspect. Alison’s proper start in music would come years later, when she was at the Tisch Conservatory of Dance. Music theory classes felt intimidating but decidedly enticing. In her final year Alison took a music composition class for which she had to compose some music and then speak a poem over it. “I was so anxious. At the time I was known as the mute girl, I didn’t talk to anybody. I procrastinated and procrastinated, but when I finally did the assignment it felt so good. And then I was sneaking into the lab every night. Ever since then I've been making music as much as I can”.
Talking about Alison inherently calls for numerous words. She’s a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, and for even longer than that she’s been a dancer and a choreographer (she has danced at the Metropolitan Opera for the past twelve years). It really is impossible to separate one from the rest, despite our tendency to put things in boxes and favour exact definitions. They simply refuse to be separated. For almost her entire professional life Alison has started most days with ballet class - here’s dance - with live accompaniment - here’s ubiquitous music. “One of my strengths as a dancer is that I'm very musical”, she ponders. “Maybe I’m less precise in my line or my shape, but being engaged in a musical relationship is very much a priority for me as a dancer. And then when I started making music I didn't really have the typical vocabulary that a well-trained musician has, but I already had a lot of musical sensibility of how I wanted music to feel in my body. I'm very thankful to a lot of my early collaborators that were patient with me, as I tried to communicate about music in these more sensual ways rather than technical terms”. Working at The Met has taught her about the power of a body living inside an image, as well as the relationship of sound, story and the world that’s created around them. “My way into music was very physical: when I first started singing I wasn't thinking about music in terms of pitch, it was kinesthetic pathways of how I was trying to move the sound from my emotional body through my physical one. In my dance training it's been really helpful to study Chinese medicine, which attributes different emotional states to different organs. Years of trying to survive a very rigorous professional life led me to develop this psychosomatic map within myself. With ballet technique I’d use it to go from the outside in, and when I was first trying to sing I would come at it from the opposite direction, going from the inside out”.
The eclecticism of Alison’s professional life is fittingly reflected on her music taste, which in turns translates into a strikingly singular sound. Mutant Gifts evokes new visions more than precedents. It doesn’t try to imitate a favorite existing sound - what Alison’s songs do is channel her many-colored listening habits (dark metal, Brian Eno, freak folk, trip hop, years spent on stage hearing operas, Julia Kent’s minimalist compositions for cello, Cat Power, Björk, tropical music for New York winters), as well as all of her artistic lives, and weave a yet unexplored mutation in return.
“As an artist I’m always thinking: Why make music? What am I adding? What's the purpose of this? There's not a practical one, I’m not building a house. I’m creating something that’s more ephemeral. A friend once said something that has stuck with me, something I aim to do: I'm trying to write the soundtrack for the life that I want to live”.
Tobias Walka, Esteban Haga, Jamie Nelson,
Howard Schatz, Daniel Jackson, and Andrew T. Foster.