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Origins Interview: Gazelle Twin

In this Origins interview, Nuala Davies discusses influence and the growth of creative persona with Elizabeth Bernholz, AKA Gazelle Twin. From Portishead to Braveheart, the two embark on a journey from where Gazelle Twin began to what it has evolved

N: Where did it start, what happened before you became GT and how did you get to that identity today?

G: I’d always made music since I was a kid; my first instrument was the recorder. I learnt at school but I used to play a lot myself, mess about and teach myself and learn new songs and write compositions on it. I loved playing music, and not necessarily learning about it but just playing and expressing ideas, I guess. It just never stopped.

I didn't study music at my secondary school, I was much more into art and theatre and English. I was still making music in my bedroom on my synthesiser and two cassette desks and just wanted to make songs like Portishead; like gloomy sort of rock and electronic music. That’s where and how I started to write songs.

I had a very musical family. My Dad and brother had a guitar; it was a pastime that we all had and I enjoyed re-creating soundtracks that I used to listen to, like, as an Eighties’ kid, Beverly Hills Cop, Knight Rider, and it just progressed from there; imitation, and then I noodled around and did my own stuff and would just make funny recordings on these cassettes; cutting up these cassettes with my own adverts and radio stations and my own little radio jingle.

When I left school I realised I wanted to be a composer. I was really getting into film at that time (my late teens) and I was listening to a lot of mainstream film soundtracks… stuff like Braveheart and really ultra-emotional things… all of the John Williams stuff… and all of the classic Eighties films… Star Wars, ET: I just consumed that all the time, as well as a lot of classical music that my parents were listening to; jazz and then kind of Eighties’ Goth stuff from my siblings, Hendrix… all music… whatever was going on in the house.

Some of it really scared me, especially the techno and house stuff that my sisters were playing, because they were a lot older than me. In the Nineties, they were going out and getting smashed and then coming home in really weird moods. I would see the aftermath with them playing music in the kitchen and doing weird dancing and it used to really freak me out.

N: Can you pinpoint a moment where you wrote a piece and realised this is my voice, this is how I want to produce music?

G: Yes, it was one of my sort of crafty synth songs and it was definitely like a Portishead- modelled song, terribly emotional and bleak. You know, just a little synth beat in there and some nice emotional chords. I remember playing it to a few people at school on headphones and everybody was like ‘yeah, it’s awesome, you should perform it in the Sixth Form when we do the Sixth Form show’ and I was like, maybe, but I didn't have any confidence and I didn't perform to anyone for years and years. But, I just started to develop that and then got really into choral music and religious music and started to compose my own choir; choral pieces with all the different registers of voice, just on to my Dad’s computer.

That was the beginning of me sequencing and using software to make music, but it was so rudimentary. It was a really old computer, with one of those beige straw microphones and I’d just chuck on loads of reverb, but I loved being able to create that and the compositions I did then, towards the end of my ‘A’ levels, made me realise I should study music and go to University and become a composer. So I had to study a lot more after school and college and finally got into University and got my degree.

So, it all started in a very DIY way.

N: How did you develop your skills in Electronic music - is it something you’ve built up over time?

G: I was always adept with computers, from a young age, and always had the latest computers in the house. From playing video games and finding my way round Windows MSDOS, which no one does now, it just translated into music software and I found it was quite easy to use that software and also to just having that ear… I knew what I wanted to create and it felt quite easy, so maybe I just had that ability without really thinking about it. i didn't really have anyone teaching me, I was just learning as I went along… trial and error.

N: For a solo artist, electronic music offers boundless opportunities for the sound you can create without having to rely on 10 band members to show up and play a gig. I wonder if you could talk to me about your relationship with improvisation and when you write a piece, is there a lot if improvisation involved. How does it work for you?

G: Mostly improv, actually. Just because of the way I started making music, just messing about and playing. I then obviously went into an academic situation where I learnt a lot, but as soon as I left that, I felt desperate to get back to just making music through feel and exploration because there’s a whole aspect of academia that just kills it for you sometimes.

I went back to how I’d always started a composition which was just to mess about and record:  hit ‘record’ and just go for it. I still do that now; I start often with the vocal, it might just be a loop or something. Sometimes I start with a beat or a bass line. It’s a process of exploration of repeated things. It’s the same with lyrics; often I’ve recorded songs where I’ve done one take all the way through, off the bat, and have sort of malformed words but they’ve kind of like stayed exactly and refined over time into actual words but that’s often how I work. I really love that approach because you get right to the core of something, whatever it is. It’s like the words are in there but you don't know what they are until you’ve worked on understanding them.

N: That brings us to Gazelle Twin today, through your University career and being a teenager and and making pop in your bedroom. Can you talk to me about the name: where did Gazelle Twin come from?

G: I was really stuck for a name. I had the whole idea for a manifesto for the project, which was all of the elements being very specific themes and not performing and changing identity with every release and me not performing as me. I just didn't have a name and I was going out of my mind and in the end, I just typed my name in to an internet anagram maker - my name at the time was Elizabeth Walling - and got about a thousand variations of mostly shit weird things; and then I just saw Gazelle Twin with some extra letters at the end and instantly thought, I like gazelle’s and I like the word twin and it had such a nice image and I thought that could maybe work because it’s kind of ‘animaly’ and I wanted, well, I didn't want it to be a ‘humany’ sound, or something referencing the World itself. I wanted it to feel quite ‘natural’.

And then, over time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that as a slightly religious teenager I was really into Solomon’s Son which is one of the Psalms (there are loads of musical renditions of it) and there was a translation of it that I found which describes the woman’s breasts as the twin fallings of the Gazelle and I was like ‘this is amazing, this is perfect.’

Totally, through pure chance, I saw that and thought ‘yeah, this is cool’.

N: I’d like to talk to you about the costume. It’s like this ambiguous identity on stage, which is really interesting and from watching you last night it’s sort of like this genderless, ageless, sort of jester character which has its own identity and you're sort of able to express yourself through that. Where did the idea come from? The first time you wore it, how did it feel?

G: I had it knocking around for a long time before I finished the new record. I knew I wanted to move on from the previous costume which was a blue hoodie with some twists; I wanted it to be a multiple character. Initially, I wanted a chorus of people, I thought I’d have multiple people on stage or even a man miming to my voice off stage, that was kind of my first idea about the new show.

But then I thought, practically, that’s not going to be that easy and I thought, well vocally, I can do that. I can imitate voices (I have that ability) and I can uses electronics to make that even more of a point, and then I thought well, I need an identity that’s going to be able to house and host all of those ideas and I’ve always been into the commedia dell'arte: harlequins and funny little costumes of characters and things including masks, obviously.

And it kind of just ended up being… I thought of jesters and thought about how they perform… you know that very traditional Shakespearean performance: A narrator who adopts these various personas and caricature people and is jaunty and poking fun and I kind of thought that was a brilliant vessel for all of the ideas I was having, but it all kind of amalgamated when I found an England cap in a charity shop. I don't know why, but I just picked it off the shelf and thought I really want this and I don't know why but I’m going to get it. I took a little snap of it on myself in the car and I thought there’s something in that, maybe not with the actual England logo, but there’s something that I felt… I was tuning into the sort of the vibe… the political shift

N: Its definitely got a class, a sort of a nod to social class

G: Yes, I mean I was really worried that it was like I was trying to be poking fun, or making a class statement because it isn't that, if anything it’s trying to represent the cliché of that, so you know, there’s that horrible word ‘chav’ which gets bandied around a lot and it’s used as a scapegoat often and there’s a kind of look that people demonise and I’m interested in that side of things, not trying to poke fun.

And I was seeing the St George’s flag everywhere and it just felt that things were kind of beginning to ramp up. While I was living in Brighton there were a couple of EDR marches there and I remember encountering one and just watching them smash up our lovely town for no reason, well, for what they thought was a good reason… you know, like total bastards, just drunk and off their faces and really scary men, just being toxic and… all of that stuff just got me thinking about the symbolism of Nationalism and the identity and the madness behind it all.

Again, it came back to the Jester and I thought it’s absolutely nuts; everything is mad and I feel like I need to mirror that madness and just be a total freak, a demon, an aggressor and provoke. And also, in a tabloid way thinking about this red and white, this red and white came rushing past my head. So… it all kind of made sense, this jester costume, it just all fell into place really.

N: I think it’s really interesting how the character sort of plays with gender when you're on stage because you've got this beautiful, natural very high tone vocal and then this rumpus. How does it feel as a female musician to get up on stage and sort of do that? It looks like you have a lot of freedom when you're up there and performing.

G: I do. You can go anywhere with it, which is the brilliant thing. As an individual, in normal everyday life, I’m not like that at all, but I might in private like to caricature or reflect on the my experience of other people I see, especially where I live now. It’s a rural kind of place with lots of bigoted opinions and that kind of thing. So a lot of it comes from that, and me just wanting to take the piss, but not really being allowed to legitimately do that in everyday life.

It comes out of nowhere sometimes, I just find myself doing movements, and think, what am I doing?

N: Where are things now? What’s next for Gazelle Twin?

G: Focusing on this tour. The album has just been released. We’ve done five shows now and all in very different places. Just keep on playing for as long as people want to hear it and for as long as we can manage doing shows, because we have a child now and my husband tours with me and we have to find a way to make it work one way or another.

The plan after this is to make something prettier, more hopeful, which I think might be healthy, for me at least, and maybe just do another proxy Gazelle Twin show, like the one I did when I was pregnant, a thing called Kingdom Come where other people performed my music.

I felt like that was quite successful: it was a big risk, but it was really interesting to see how that worked. It’s still touring actually, it’s been over two years touring and so I might try something very different to that but I’d just like to really toy with that idea again.

N: You write some music for film as well, don't you?

G: Yes, I’ve not actually done a film per se, I’ve had music in films and TV and stuff. Yes, I do a bit of commercial stuff on the side. Whenever it comes up, I’m always open to it, especially if it’s something that I like.

I got to do a song for The Walking Dead a couple of years ago, which was brilliant. They commissioned me to do a cover of a Brian Wilson song; it was brilliant. So, it’s sort of things like that, which I love doing. I’d love to score a film.

N: Could you tell me about the binary opposition of this pastoral imagery and the artwork; the idyllic countryside and then this very, urban-like creature. Does this come from your recent move from the city to the countryside?

G: Once I had the title Pastoral in my head, I thought it would be great to have an image that is kind of mocking that sort of traditional pastoral.. the romantic… the fruitful…the salt of the Earth… all that kind of bullshit.

I was thinking about classical music albums and how they’re packaged and branded and how our tourism is branded and nationalism and identity is branded and it’s just all the same and it hasn't changed since post-war. It’s all very… going back to the roots, this folkish kind of purity and the more I thought about that, I started to realise that the connections with that and fascism are really strong. You look at Nazism, which was desperately trying to claw back the good old-fashioned traditions, and I just wanted to mock that somehow and I wanted to trash it.

The urban aspect of the costume… it’s not really a comment on the ‘urban’ necessarily. It’s just that it’s a contemporary cliché and this is all about clichés… this is all about the falseness of representation of certain types of people and certain types of places. So, it’s kind of a mix of all of that stuff.

N: Thank you. Who would you recommend we listen to, who’s inspiring you at the minute, if you had to do a shout out to another artist?

G: Somebody I have gone out of my way to listen to would be Anna Meredith. She's kind of a kindred spirit, working in the classical world. She’s really crossing over and doing interesting things, really successful and she's an awesome person. Anything by her is really creative and full of life and really funny as well; and sarcastic and clever music.

I’ve got my old favourites, you know, Throbbing Gristle and then all the off-shoots… Chris & Cosey, Carter-Tutti, just that kind of staple stuff for me at home.

N: Do you find you go back to certain albums, certain pieces of music when you feel a certain way?

G: Music can be functional and that function can be emotional too. At home, I listen to a lot of ambient music because I find it functional, because I find it doesn’t scare my little boy, because some of the stuff I play he doesn't like; he just tells me to turn it off. So usually, it’s stuff that just eases us into the day and can tick the time along without feeling like we need to be doing something really intensely or that we need to stop or calm down. It’s just easy music. I tend to play a lot of classical music and it’s interesting to revisit it and see how that might affect what I do next, because I think it probably will.

A graduate of Queen's University Belfast, Nuala Davies has been working within the creative sector in Northern Ireland for the past ten years in a variety of capacities. These range from actor, singer, facilitator, poet and writer to Artist In Residence at The Cabaret Supperclub Belfast.

Everything is mad and I feel like I need to mirror that madness and just be a total freak; a demon, an aggressor and provoke

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