Interview by Charlie Clark
Catching a glimpse of the ethereal Damsel Elysium, you’re transported to an otherworldly realm full of flowers and ruffles. Despite their ornate, decorative style, they have a quiet stillness. Stillness and quiet pervade Damsel’s music, whose experience of being neurodivergent informs their work and what they want to communicate to their audience.
Lyrical and romantic expression is also at the heart of the avant-garde artist’s musical and visual art practice. Vogue has described them as ‘London’s Most Stylish Experimental Sound Artist’, and they recently featured in FKA Twigs’ Tiny Desk session, which are sure signs that this artist is destined for big things.
Working through experimental sound, fashion and visual arts, Damsel creates worlds within worlds to render the most accessible experience possible for their audience. But they don’t enforce anything on their audiences, who can take what they will from their art and performances. As an introvert, seeing another quiet soul take up space in such luscious, colourful and sculpted ways is inspiring. The belief that you don’t need to be the loudest in the room to draw attention to your work makes Damsel an unusual figure in the contemporary scene.
Their interest in creating silence and stillness within music spaces points to an exciting new direction for the industry, one where care and a slower approach might be taken more seriously. Creating spaces for stillness is integral to their work to counter the crazy stimulating experiences of everyday city life.
Damsel’s recent single, Echoes of Lalia, was released as part of SA Recordings’ series The Hearing Experience, which invited experimental artists to explore their relationship with the act of listening. The title is a play on words of echolalia, meaning to repeat words or sounds one hears. The track builds on Damsel’s experience of being neurodivergent in our busy world. Using the double bass, violin, and original field recordings, Damsel weaves worlds of sound that centre nature and our connection.
This March, Damsel will perform at the Southbank Centre with the London Contemporary Orchestra as a part of Purcell Sessions, with costumes designed in response to their EP by emerging costume designer India Ayles.
Calling themselves tree whisperers and threading their interest in nature’s mysteries throughout the work, Damsel question how nature ever got pushed to the sidelines in the first place. Fascinated by alternative forms of communication and ancient ways of connecting to the earth, Damsel Elysium bring a nostalgic and holistic approach to artistic production.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Who is Damsel Elysium?
Hello! I always get stumped at questions like this…who am I again?… my name is Djenaba, and I also go by Damsel Elysium; this entity is of the earth and dreams, an explorer of the spaces in between and the translator of inexplicable things. I work with visions, the tactile and sounds; my greatest tool are my hands. In this world, I describe myself as a visual and sound artist, but I am really exploring and documenting my world with anything that interests me. For a long time, it was the double bass and trees, and that’s how people began to know me, but that’s not the only thing I work with or even continue to do. I’m currently drawn to the piano, movement and passing conversations in the street.
The artwork you make feels so personal to you. How do you communicate your world through your work?
Well, I guess I don’t know anything besides my experience. I’m doing what everyone else is trying to do; find answers. Some people dig deep into themselves or the earth or technology or a holy book. My fascination with the world is deeply rooted in how I see and interact with things as an autistic neurodivergent person. Sound is like taste and touch and electricity. Light and colour are alchemic. I like to see myself as an alchemist, actually; my communication is through the natural and physical elements and combining them. Tactility is so important in what I do.
A lot of your work draws on and recentres nature. Could you tell us a bit more about what pulls you to this? What is your own relationship with nature like?
I find it funny that we even need to ‘recentre’; the whole problem is that we have forgotten what we are, nature itself. The relationship is with myself. Nature is speaking all the time; we have to know how to listen to it. I am no expert, but my sound work explores those possibilities and documents my understanding. The more I understand a tree and listen to its ancient heart and wise words, the more clerical I view myself, and the more I deeply understand what time is. It’s a feeling in the stomach as I lie against the trunk of a tree, the cloud disappears, and an ocean of light flows through my head.
This sounds so zealous…But I hope that when my debut EP’ Whispers from Ancient Vessels’ arrives in April, one may see nature as the protagonist, the forefront of the piece, weaving around ideas of symbiosis and human co-dependency, alternative communication with the ‘nonverbal’, and recognising the anger and violence and fluidity that the earth also carries as well as its vulnerability and beauty. It’s an attempt to un-white-wash nature.
Fashion and style seem to be a big part of the world that you’ve created around yourself as an artist. What are your main influences when it comes to designing your looks? Are there any designers you’re particularly excited by right now?
I love the word ‘adorn’. That’s the word I feel when I put on beautiful things; that’s how I end up transforming into other versions of myself and my experiences. Maybe I was a Yule tree in a past life. Everyone knows how much I live and breathe Simone Rocha, but I am also excited by Chopova Lowena and Wed studio and so many young and upcoming designers. I have always been deeply invested in historical clothing and theatre/dance/opera costume of the past from as young as I can remember; it’s definitely a special interest.
When you can see the time and intense detail that some old dresses have, the lush natural fabrics, the almost invisible hand stitching, the tailored fit – it’s so captivating but also sad, you know? I think about fast fashion clothes of today and how inhuman and impersonal it is in so many ways than one. I have dedicated quite a bit of time to researching around historical costumes, and I hope to bring it a lot closer into my sphere of work and fashion persona at some point. Hopefully, make my own pieces…maybe even an exclusive collection of some kind?!
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson talks about her motivation for writing lying behind a futile attempt to write the inexpressible. In your work, you explore alternative communication. What’s your relationship to the inexpressible?
As an autistic black non-binary person, my battle with trying to explain myself to others is constant and deeply tiring; it’s especially frustrating when I go non-verbal, and my hands and eyes are my only instruments to communicate, and all I get from the other is blank, confused stares, so at a certain point I was like ‘you know what? I don’t need to explain myself to anyone anymore’ I have my own language that I understand, and maybe others do, maybe they don’t – but that’s not the point; it’s that others gain what they need to gain from it. Returning to music was the best decision I ever made. My violin is my voice box. My double bass is my diary. They understand me.
You’ve spoken about how you aim to make your work as accessible to all audiences as possible. What does this accessibility look like? What could we see more of in the music industry to enable greater accessibility for all?
It’s a process for sure. Certainly, something that’s not vivid in my mind yet. But with each project I do, I hope to get closer to it and incorporate it into my work and professional settings. I am currently in a stage of realisation; that the performance/touring and record industry is highly unsustainable and harms artists and audiences alike. In physical ways and mental ways. It’s taken me a while to prepare, and I still get nervous about it but providing an access rider for myself in working spaces so that I feel safe and can deliver work efficiently.
I know not everyone is aware of my neurodivergence, but it’s made me realise even more how toxic the industry practices are, not just for me but for everyone. The tour life is inconsiderate of energy and time. I’d like to see silence and stillness before gigs begin; I’d like to see audience interactions as integral parts of the show. I’d like people to recognise artists as humans, not performance machines. I’d like gigs to be quieter. With my work, I want it to be able to be interpreted in more ways than just audibly so that disabled people and neurodivergent people can experience the same work safely.
Why should there be a standard show that doesn’t consider everyone in that space? My first point of call or ‘rebellion’, if you will, is listening to my body wholeheartedly, resting as much as I can and learning to say ‘No’ more to things I’m uncomfortable with, even if there’s no clear explanation. People don’t really understand that; because we’ve normalised uncomfort and pushed the body. As I said, a process, a very long one.
The Suzuki Method of music education teaches that music can be learned by young children like any other native language. In the way that speech is learned before reading, music can be taught before being able to read sheet music. Do you see music as a language? If so, what would you be trying to communicate?
As someone who struggles with reading western notation, it’s become my mission to show that music is possible with and without it. That it truly and simply is just a tool for what already exists and is already complex and beautiful. I see sound as language and music as its sister. I recently made a podcast with Clod Ensemble’s Ear Opener about what decolonisation in music looks like, the podcast was an hour long, and I feel like I only scraped the surface. So to continue that work, I’ve been applying it to my own practice. What does decolonisation look like in my work?
As I kept asking that question and fighting to read classical music, there was suddenly a switch in my body; why was I forcing myself to read and interpret music that was perpetuated and successful for only one group of people? Specifically, white men? The way I understand sound is so different. It took me so long not to see it as a fault, so now I work almost solely with improvisation, remembering phrases through sound patterns (the shapes, colours or sensations I get from particular notes/chords/textures), the shape of my hands, muscle memory and recently found interest in graphic notation.
Your latest single, Echoes of Lalia, is part of a compilation drawing together experimental sound artists exploring the act of listening. What does the act of listening mean to you?
I recently started reading Pauline Oliveros’ Quantum Listening and gasped in awe as she put into words exactly what I’ve been doing and experiencing throughout my life. I’ve called it ‘Extrospections’, where you simultaneously listen to everything everywhere. From the smallest bug walking on a leaf to the cars a street away, zooming past and shaking the walls of your bedroom. Being exposed to that level of detail all the time can be overwhelming, especially when I also experience physical sensations from the sound.
My life of listening is so constant and so loud that I’ve had to move away from the city (It’s been my childhood dream). Even the quietest spaces are loud in some way, and I can hear it all and imitate the sound accurately. That’s what Echoes of Lalia was about. The title was a play on the neurodivergent experience of Echolalia, the phenomena of repeating words or sounds we hear. The single explored the city and its chaos through my ears, hands and body; how I experience sound when it’s pleasurable and overwhelming when I hear music in it, when my ears remember the sound and reinvent it.
What is more important: to take or not to take yourself too seriously to be creative?
A battle I still have yet to figure out. I think a healthy creative is to have both. I’m certainly on the serious side, learning to be more fun and free.
One for the road… What are you unafraid of?
I’m unafraid of sadness and depression now. I used to beat myself up for it, but now I embrace it, I see it as my body resetting itself and revealing truths.