On Dust, Laurel Halo’s first album in four years, the enigmatic producer has embraced collaboration, working with Eli Keszler, Klein, Julia Holter and others. Steph Kretowicz wonders what drew the typically solitary artist to reshape her sound and embrace vulnerability for the first time.
“Say hi. Say hi. Say hi!” Laurel Halo is holding up her cat to her webcam, baby-talking demonstratively and momentarily straying from a digression into contemporary politics. “Wanna talk? Wanna talk about the preconditions of fascism?”
The Michigan-born Berlin transplant has just released her third album, Dust, on Hyperdub and for the first time her sharp wit and droll sense of humor is at the center of her music on record. It comes through in a dazzling, subaqueous melt of words and voices, singing, laughter, a Wurlitzer. Lead single ‘Jelly’ opens with clicks, jerks and the sound of chewing, followed by the layered, high-pitched delivery of a voice dispensing cruel insults: “and u are a thief / and u drink too much.”
The album features contributions from performers Klein, Lafawndah, and Julia Holter, writer Michael Salu and experimental musician Eli Keszler among others, in a record that is equal parts contemplative, strange and joyful. For anyone familiar with the introverted and sometimes oblique catalogue of Laurel Halo, it’s a full frontal approach that’s completely unexpected. “That was a big hang up that I had to get over with writing the record, was to not worry about making music that was vulnerable, or silly, or emotional, or fun because these are things that you can’t take seriously. At the end of the day, fuck that.”
It’s been three years since Laurel moved to Berlin from New York, and nearly two since an earlier double EP release, In Situ, came out. Her first solo long-player was dropped via London’s Hyperdub in 2012, and followed a handful of EPs and collaborations, released via influential US labels Hippos in Tanks and RVNG Intl. Those earlier records featured blown-out lo-fi and cerebrally induced techno numbers along with the artist’s voice filtered through echo and reverb. Quarantine swerved left of that processed approach, presenting Laurel’s Auto-Tune-free singing while being lobbed jarringly over the album’s watery current of longing and defiance.
2013’s Chance of Rain was dark and without vocals, and the last full-length album to surface for another four years. “Probably, releasing something every two years is the bare minimum to stay on people’s minds,” she says about the slow pace she’s been producing her own solo material, between collaborating on a series of live performances with Japanese vocaloid Hatsune Miku and recording ‘telepathically’ with her peers on Terepa. “I think it takes a very special kind of talent to be able to churn out consistently good music.”
“There’s already so much dark music out there that it’s really important to make music that offers solace.”
When asked about the timing of releasing an album with so much positivity at what feels like a global crisis point of political extremism, Laurel pauses conspicuously. “There’s already so much dark music out there that it’s really important to make music right now that offers solace, or positivity, or empathy, or connection,” she says after some gentle prodding, “and I think that there was a deliberate intent of wanting to connect with people in writing songs in a way that you can’t through just instrumental music. I think it’s tricky because, basically, all the songs were written and recorded before Trump even won the Republican Primary. And it’s interesting to read from the lyrics in the context of the gas-lighting, monolithic, horrific, neoliberal surface-hell that we find ourselves in, either in the US or the UK, and how it’s sort of reflecting in many other parts of the world concurrently.”
Moving focus from this concrete and narrow-minded political present, Dust is more evasive. It’s an intricate and playful voyage into the complexities of consciousness and perspective, while evading any attempt at becoming boxed in or personified. There’s a dazzling moment of merry delight in the rumba rhythm and clipped big band samples of ‘Moontalk’, and the gloomy surrealism of Michael Salu’s spoken-word in ‘Who Won?’, reciting Laurel’s own absurd one-liners (“what’s the phone number / what’s the password?”), while enveloped by a camp, noir melancholy.
“Well, I’m glad that you are just listening to the lyrics because then we don’t have to talk about the music at all,” Laurel Halo quips before pointing out that an anatomical reading of the words in her songs alone is not necessarily the best way to interpret her music. “I worked with a specific constructed method where I had lines, and [was] randomizing the lines and finding the poetic out of something non sequitur or hanging; where you have these disjointed moments or something that is heavily emotional and then something that is completely about the weather or something super basic,” she says about the process applied to her lyrics, inspired by the fragments of surviving text by Archaic Greek lyrics poet Sappho, as well as concrete poetry. The latter approach to writing is more concerned with the shape and arrangement of words than their actual meaning. “I would hope that, as a listener, you could get something out of it on a lyrical level, or just a straight-up musical level without the lyrics. If anything, they’re just sort of this obtuse borderless map that is essentially a chaotic mess, but I like chaotic messes,” she says, pointedly repeating and reclaiming my own clumsy description of the album, then following up with, “Pithy statement time!”
“I think these very dualistic, gendered ways of looking at somebody’s music is dull and stupid.”
The thing about Laurel Halo is that she’s very aware of herself and her audience, and she’s suspicious of the press circuit while not being afraid to express her opinions, always tempered by humor. “I like comedy. I think comedy is very important,” she says, then giving a rundown of the recent spate of stand-up specials premiered on Netflix. “The best one I saw by far was David Cross because he touched on all of this messy identity politics in a very smart way.” Politics is a subject that figures strongly in Laurel’s life, less directly but still very presently in her work and more so in her flashes of biting social commentary revealed in conversation and on Twitter. “I don’t know about you ladies but I behave RUTHLESSLY in the pursuit of my AMBITIONS due to my evolution to that which is MANLY,” is one of her more recent caustic statements delivered in 140 characters or less. Her Instagram account handle is @lol_halol.
“Just pick the most flattering ones,” Halo deadpans about what quotes might end up in the interview, while fact-checking statements online mid-conversation, and retorting to a perplexed inquiry over her wary secrecy with, “Why are you such a secret?” Her withholding should never be misconstrued for dismissiveness, though. It’s just that Laurel’s representation, as a woman in a male-dominated field like electronic music, is riddled with complications. “I don’t want to say ‘the media’ but I’m going to say ‘the media,’” jokes Halo, in her typically dry manner about the consistent and frustrating efforts to label her self and her oeuvre. “They want to make a big thing about the leap between singing and not singing, as if one is an embracing of my inner feminine self and the other is a presentation of external, outwardly presenting ‘taste’, which is inherently masculine. I think these very dualistic, gendered ways of looking at somebody’s music is dull and stupid.”
Having followed Laurel Halo’s work since her early days, the question of how to conduct and then construct an interview around an artist who is so aware of how she’s represented is tricky, and the way she produces and talks about her music reflects that. “We’re living in a time of tautology – ‘it is because it is because it is.’ There is literally no escape from this infinite surface,’” says Laurel about a certain strategy of elusion she’s both exhibiting and mirroring in her work. “I think that there’s something useful in not implying linear narrative, or doing something that is sort of willfully not from a single perspective but from multiple perspectives. Because it makes it more slippery and it’s less of an easy hand, it’s less of an easy answer. It makes it more porous in this way that it’s something that people can latch onto.”
“For me it’s been really important to get away from the artist as a brand.”
There are things to grab onto on Dust for sure. The album is scattered with these ‘pithy’ statements and in-jokes, phrases and fragments, phone message tones and cinematic score samples, all woven together like a puzzle with real and false leads. There’s the Greek title that translates to ‘Common’ and a German one that means ‘Ass-kisser’. Some of the verses on ‘Moontalk’ are sung in Japanese, mockingly congratulating a familiar though unspecified subject: “You win / Your win / You have won / Congratulations”.
It’s a record that’s loaded with clues, while never quite fully revealing itself. “For me it’s been really important to get away from the artist as a brand and how to be able to move forward but not feel like I have everything in a perfect sound package, or a perfect identity package. I can write songs that are vulnerable and I can also make tasteful beats, or whatever, and be understood in the same breath. Maybe, that’s a misguided effort but I feel like it’s something that’s worth aiming for.”
As if to prove that point of conscious evasion, the conversation wraps with an innocuous question about which airport the album cover photo – of her legs in front of a sign that reads “Dust” – was taken, only to provoke an unexpected roadblock. “I’ll respond with a simple chin stroke,” she says, before adopting the second person and anticipating my reaction: “You willfully obscure prick.”
Steph Kretowicz is on Twitter