Makeda is the avant-garde minimal electronic producer we didn't know we needed. Hailing from Australia, she takes on colonialism in her new EP Venus Leak out today, 29th October. "You said to yourself I was Brown, but not Brown enough to experience that kind of pain." repeats a computer programmed voice on Professors, Lovers, Critics to striking single notes that create a sense of foreboding akin to psycho. Track 2 also features echoed loops of laughing. We talk about toxic masculinity, the power of tin pan drums and literature.
Hi Makeda, your degree is in Fine Arts in Fashion and you worked at BLESS that has collaborated with the likes of Margiela. Now we are talking to you in the role of musician. Do you feel like you've changed path?
When I left fashion around 2014, it was the only future I’d imagined having - it felt like a betrayal to myself. I'd been in the music world for a while at that point - doing radio, promoting shows and making music. I grew up with family in the industry - my uncle tour managed Bjork among others and had great stories. It seemed right to explore what I felt was a freer medium next.
I love the yellow leotard you're wearing in the Cloud video - it throws you into a contemporary space whilst the images of eyes remind us of the watchful eyes in The Great Gatsby published in 1925. Why did you choose to open with these images, what was your thinking behind them?
The concept for Cloud was lifted from a dream I had in lockdown. To give context, in late 2019 early 2020 I spent a few months in Eora (so-called Sydney), road-testing the idea of relocating from Naarm (so-called Melbourne) . When I went home, I had every intention to pack my stuff and leave. Then covid happened, and I was dreaming of any escape - imagining Eora, thinking about my hometown Meanjin (so-called Brisbane) . In Eora I’d been vivid dreaming most nights, and one lockdown night I'd had a dream of a place that was somewhere between Eora and Meanjin - a sparkling waterway with sea life, little clothing, a bridge which lapped down into the water creating a wave pool scenario and low flying planes dropping happy passengers in the water to swim.
The yellow costume was made for me by a Naarm designer called Eethyn - I initially wanted a skating dress, as I figure skate - but we settled on a the leotard as it looked like something you might wear for a swim in the void. I can't credit myself with the eyes concept - that was James Caswell the director's idea!
From a photoshoot to rollerblading in the city, the story contains unnervingly disparate scenes, similar to the use of what sounds like traditional drums and synth keyboards. Did you intend on making a comment on tensions in binary, by creating a fluid hybrid space that contests the old ideas of black or white, woman or man, old or new, fashion or music and leisure or work.
I probably did this inadvertently - a lot of what I experience is binaries, especially my moods - I have bipolar and ADHD. So naturally that influences what comes out emotionally and creatively. I don't intend to contest or make a comment on anything through the visual concept of the video, though - it was an expression of ideas and concepts that were related, and tied into the dream storyline I mentioned. My objective was to create a world that feels representative of how I experience everyday life, and the personal epiphanies I have from time to time.
Your debut EP Lifetrap talks to issues with white Australia, but at a superficial glance the cover looks funny - the mouse trap looks like something out of Tom and Jerry. The new album's artwork is similarly graphic - do you intend to create a playful surrealist visual world?
People who know me know that I'm playful, a joker, totally goofy. My music is another story entirely, as it's representative of my internal world. It is intended for deep listening.
In the context of Lifetrap, the cover is almost meant to offset the themes I was writing about (White Australia, and also personal things I was processing). The content felt difficult to process - problems that were deep set and - I agree - surreal. The cover was meant to convey the concept of entrapment - be it in a situation that feels personally unresolvable or, as I wrote about on Island Life - the modern day enslavement that played out on Manus Island.
In saying that, the more personal moments of my music often include an intended cheeky undertone - be it in the track title, the melodrama of the lyrics, or particular sounds. So in some ways the cover art is also a conscious effort to convey the silly, bombastic side of what I do.
It seems to me you have an overall minimalist approach in sound. Why is that?
That’s like asking why the sky is blue - I guess I listened to too much Steve Reich during my postgrad music studies?
Tell us more about living in Naarm.
I don't live in Naarm anymore, but I did for seven years. It happened by accident - I went on a holiday and ended up in a relationship. Naarm has a healthy creative community and there's a well of opportunities, funding and respect for artists. Coming from a suburban existence, I learned a lot - people are intelligent and appreciate the finer things. When I first moved there in 2013, it was a cheap place to live - so you could be all of those things and survive on little money. After a few years of living in Naarm, I begun to notice the crazy wealth and class divides - it is a conservative place in many ways, and in 2019 when I was looking to move the place was changing rapidly - venues closing, rampant gentrification. I am currently back in Meanjin - which appears to be changing in a similar way. Nature is more accessible here though so you can escape that reality from time to time.
Are you interested in the language we use to refer to place? It's obviously a good way to reclaim a space, but why is that?
It’s not something I think about daily. Simona Castricum (a brilliant Naarm producer) is someone who writes brilliantly on this. She is a doctoral candidate and is curious about owning space through architecture and how public space is designed to include or exclude certain bodies.
I think of musicians as contemporary poets: who use the language of words and notes. Is there any poetry or prose that inspires you? Where did your few lyrics come for for Venus Leak? Are you reading any books at the moment?
The last thing that kept my attention was Ottessa Moshfegh’s bibliography, who I think is incredible. The characters in her work are all deviants. Her writing is kinda perverted and ugly, and reflects a vivid lucidity of life that feels very true to me. As far as poetry goes, I’m not a connoisseur - but I really connected with a David Robilliard book I purchased from ICA a few years back, I revisit every several months almost for the same qualities in Moshfegh’s work - although its more obviously humorous.
On the more sensual end - Lucy Van is an amazing poet from Naarm - she had a record with Laila Sakini a few years ago that was very special. I love HTRK - Jonnine’s lyrics eat me from the inside out and have such presence. So do Joni Mitchell's. James Massiah, a London poet/musician is someone whose work i’ve been following for a while - his New Poems (volume one) distilled lockdown and the desire to connect perfectly to me.
As far as my lyrics go - I’ve always loved words and personally found it an effortless medium to work with, but struggle to put them into song structures. The lyrics from the EP are a conscious effort to connect with my increasing desire to do something more melodic and structural. The Venus Leak lyrics come from the painful but rewarding experience of growth.
Another Trance, track 3, is the first of your voice that we hear, and the emphasis seems to be on the language you can get out of instruments. What are are you and they trying to say?
It is essentially conveys the ecstasy of shedding a poisonous and shame-filled exoskeleton.
Can you tell us more about your involvement in J’OUVERT, an exploration of the Trinidadian 4am street festival, which celebrates the slave liberation of 1838. What is the history behind the tin pan?
J’OUVERT was a collaborative project that I started as I wanted to learn more about my familial connection to the Trinidad and St Vincent (island countries in the Caribbean), as well as forming a deeper historical understanding. The project is named after the early morning festival that leads into annual Carnival celebrations in Trinidad. As a child, my grandmother would send me postcards from home, she’d make an annual pilgrimage back during UK winter to visit old friends and attend carnival. This was early internet - so those visual memories had a lasting impact.
As an artist who’d only ever performed solo - I was craving to work with and learn from others. I wanted to work solely with Caribbean artists in the beginning, but it was somewhat difficult as we’re a rare breed in Australia - although the first performance was with an amazing steel pan player Alvin Rostant, who grew up in Trinidad and played all over the world. I worked with many different dancers, performers, musicians and a costumier in the few iterations performed of J’OUVERT.
The history of the steel pan is an interesting one - they were originally converted from 40-gallon drums dumped by US army in Trinidad during WWII. There was a period in time where drums were banned on the island - bizarrely, colonisers believed that secret messages were being transmitted through rhythm. They were used alongside song to spread important news quickly in village squares, and colonial forces didn’t like that as it was autonomy for the enslaved. What I find cool about the pans - and Trini culture in general - is that living in Australia where people don’t really ‘get’ Caribbean culture, they’ve influenced so much popular music we hear, and it’s the exact influence these slave owners were hoping wouldn’t happen.
The title Venus Leak makes me think of Di Petsa, the fashion designer I interviewed about her collection and brand that celebrates feminine bodily waters in all their forms. Have you seen her work before? Did you intend to talk about the feminine body in this EP?
I know her work - big compliment! As someone who worked in the spaces between fashion and art, it was very cool to see truly captivating and original design - a rare feat in any most mediums. The title of the EP is a reference to the body in a gender non-specific way. Around the time I’d been thinking about naming the record, I’d been listening to a podcast where the American host pronounced the phrase ‘veinous leak’ as ‘venus’. The topic of the podcast was erectile dysfunction. It seemed like synchronicity as parts of the record were written musing on bad experiences with straight men - thinking about the recurring experience of watered down personalities, leaky promises - diluted versions of what these humans could be without toxic masculinity. The intention wasn’t to talk binaries, but anyone experiencing straight men on a regular basis will have some understanding of this. Other than that, I was also thinking about Venus de Milo as a figure of grace, and femme folk of all creeds holding an undeniably special planetary power.
Leak could be a dribble of water or a digital share that's unwanted. How does fluidity relate to the internet?
The internet is a place where multiple identities of the same body can exist simultaneously - you can’t conceal them, they could be exposed at any moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person, government, organisation etc - a leak seems to occur exactly when you least expect, but usually when it’s needed.
What do you think about the statement sex sells.
A certain dullard filmmaker has a quote "everything being about sex, except sex - which is about power" [Oskar Wilde quoted in the series House of Cards]. It’s apt to me. Anything promising power is saleable.
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