There’s a common and tired cliché in music journalism that goes along the lines of saying an artist’s music can transport you to another world. Sure, this canny descriptor can feel incredibly accurate for some artists who have expressed their vision in vivid ways with swaths of potent imagery and soundscapes pertinent to different periods or locations, but ultimately it all boils down to the listener’s ability to connect with the art in question. With the music of South London artist CIX, the desire to make that connection is evident, yet the music is not trying to transport you to another world, but two different ones.
Drenched in as many futuristic sonic features as there are references to medieval paganism, her new EP, Waif is a victory in the ability to merge disparate styles to glorious results. The imagination runs wild across the six tracks, evoking both gorgeous and eerie atmospheres from a plethora of reference points, both within and beyond music. There are obvious touchstones in contemporary creators of forward-thinking pop, although while CIX wholeheartedly embraces some elements of this, there is a definite ambivalence and rejection towards other parts, demonstrated in the gravitation towards elements of folk. There are close similarities in the way she melds the ultra-modern with the pastoral to the work of artists such as Eartheater and Gazelle Twin, though it can be said that there is something distinctly unique in the way CIX has employed these influences to create something original.
Havin released her previous EP Unwomen on the Bleak Spring label, she has now found an equally perfect new home with Bristol-based experimentalists Spinny Nights; a place that provides ample space to innovate and is known to nurture and encourage leftfield ideas. There were early flashes of the the EP’s brilliance seen on singles ‘Denature Me’ and ‘The Spell is Broken’, songs that lay down some of the recurring themes of sexuality and fantasy, but these tracks only scratch the surface of the journey that Waif will undoubtedly take you on. Speaking to Wax in an incredibly erudite and noticeably passionate manner, CIX discussed the processes behind putting the record together, the importance of the multitude of contrasting influences that pushed her work in this direction, and how she sees this continuing on future endeavours.
From listening to the EP, you can tell that there’s a lot going into the music from all sorts of different influences – can you describe your general process for creating music?
The music, concept and lyrics begin from sites of heterogeneous origin, such as writing a poem under a tree, or playing a tune on a recorder, or weaving together a texture of percussive samples and software and so on. They’re synthesized together through moments of vision, and inner experiences of which bind together the disparate materials and impose a clarity of purpose. The vision in this sense works towards a certain retrospective form of causality; a transformative relation towards the past, whereby the vision that only becomes apparent at the end of the work is discovered to be the unifying concept. It had always already been there. Nothing brings me more pleasure than the reconciliation of the alien and the homely, which I try to achieve through a tension between an apparent incongruity of sound, experienced by the listener as total inertia in a sensuous world.
I was wondering what your general musical background is as well as there’s a large variety of instrumentation on the record.
I had tuition in violin, piano and saxophone when I was 12, and when I was a teenager I basically just played guitar and drums. When I stopped doing that at around 16, I started learning to produce music by making cover songs. At the moment I’m trying to get back into playing instruments, especially wind instruments as I feel that they work really well as an accompaniment when I’m playing live. Wind instruments are almost like another form of the voice.
I sensed you might have had quite a strong background because of the way things are pieced together – the arrangements appear as though written by someone who has a great knowledge of the various sections of the orchestra, and they fit together beautifully.
I’ve never studied music at university level though, or properly studied production either – it was all kind of self-taught. I listened to an interview with Tricky recently where he was saying something about how he never wanted to be taught or ever be told what’s right or wrong, and that he just wanted to intuit.
There’s a lot of interesting lyrical themes, were there many things you set out to intentionally explore or did some of them become more apparent as you alluded to earlier?
I’d say that the lyrics in general are the result of intense personal experiences which had precipitated extreme affective reactions in me. This prompted me to dwell on them, and their knots became worked out in a cathartic form of expression. This linked up to larger ideas and preoccupations to which I’d been enthralled for longer periods of time, and which have navigated and guided whole periods of my life. I feel incredibly lucky to have found ways of living where I have a great deal of time, and a state of near absolute freedom to think, because there’s so much to think about.
The key themes in relation to the release overall are the metaphysics of sex and power, which is a huge inspiration for lyrical content. Another key theme is the process of self-rediscovery, and when one is failed by ideologies, one must find a new way to view the world. I’d say that my ethical standpoint is the absolute rejection of totalitarianism, which I define as a resistance of life itself to its conquest and capture by politics. I want to carve out this space of intimacy, in which we are free to experience reality through our own eyes, ears and hands, rather than have our personal lives dictated to us by demagogues.
You’ve got quite a mixture of organic and digital sounds in your music, though more of your influences appear to come from contemporary sources. Do you ever intentionally borrow from older styles, as there appears to be elements of baroque and medieval music throughout?
When you say about the cross between the organic and the digital, that’s kind of crucial to understanding what I’m doing. It corresponds to a key tension in the project as a whole, my intention being to produce sound which is at once radically contemporary and radically traditional.
With regards to the electronic side of things, what I’ve always been fascinated with is the technique, and the near infinite potential for creating music with computers. It’s a total liberation of productive forces, and almost like a futurist augmentation of traditional technique, and in that respect that’s why I listed contemporary influences like Charli XCX, Hannah Diamond and SOPHIE. I see that movement as being at the cutting edge of technological reality, and producing a sound which is completely appropriate to the world around us and is intensely energetic but I find it in some ways quite sterile. It’s the music both of the optimism and disappointments of cyberspace.
The antithesis of this sterilising force of pop is folk in its pure unadulterated sense; folk aesthetics in their vital commitment to the beauty and pain of nostalgia. In that respect, I think I’m most influenced by my teenage experiences, where the one band that stands out would be Pentangle and a lot of other British folk revival like Archie Fisher. I feel with that side of things, it’s a lot less about particular artists and more about a mood and a spirit, and making that coexist with the contemporary. Personally, I want to evince this ghost of folk in a contemporary way, and using the machinery of our spiritual alienation and our cultural dispossession to create something which is simultaneously bucolic and pastoral while remaining historically appropriate. I think the two artists that have influenced me most in this respect are Björk and Grouper.
What are some of the external influences on your music, coming from outside of music itself? I noticed a few things such as samples from the Final Fantasy video games on the track ‘Peer Review’.
I like a lot of video games, especially things like Resident Evil; I know a lot of it is reiterated tropes and it’s quite corny, but it’s so good visually. I also love the soundtracks of Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy too, and I love the way that it’s clearly a representation of medieval European fantasy but at the same time it’s from an overtly Japanese perspective, and in that way it denaturalises and alienates the genre of fantasy from itself. It’s like our own mythological fantasies made alien to us, and we get to consume them again.
With horror, I think that the aesthetic of horror in a philosophical sense is integral to what I want the music to do. I’d like it to induce a rapture of the sensible and transcend the world of secular post-modernity. I want that to go up face to face with unbearably traumatic and often very violent images so that moments of the most sublime and transcendent beauty can make their emergence. I love the juxtaposition of horror and very delicate beauty, and when that ceases to be a metaphor and becomes literal magic. With specific regards to horror in film and folk horror there’s three touchstone images; one is a moment in Midsommar after the failure of their ritual suicide. Another would be the moments of pure maniacal evil in the character of Richard Horne in Twin Peaks: The Return, and the other would be the ending of the original Wicker Man. I’d describe these as truly exquisite moments and the kind that I wish to capture in sonic form.
Paganism is kind of the basis of my worldview as a whole but it’s difficult to make the explicit musically, but it is always there and perhaps more apparent in the visual elements of my work. I listen to a great deal of religious or religious-inspired classical music, and I would like my project to be inspired by pagan religious music. Even though there are no explicit religious references in the lyrical content, it’s rather in a sense that it’s implicitly pagan in the same way that the Western classical music canon is implicitly Christian. My highest aspiration is not to produce counter-culture, but culture as such.
You say that you don’t touch on it much, would you say that that’s more of a goal for the future of the project and to allow yourself to develop a greater understanding of your relationship with it?
Yeah, definitely, although I find that it’s many things, and I have to approach it laterally in order to get something that’s artistically good. If you approach it too literally, then it’s just corny.
In what ways do you personally feel you’ve developed as an artist and adapted the ways in which you approach your art since your 2019 EP, Unwomen?
I’ve definitely got a lot technically better at producing music since then. I’ve not listened to it in a while but I’m aware that it’s horrendously compressed, although at the same time I think I managed to use that as a way to maximise volume and get a nice sound out of it. I think previously I was more adamant that I didn’t want to be taught how to do things properly and I would work in a more deliberately naïve way. For example, on some of the earlier tracks I wouldn’t even use headphones to record the vocals, and I’d just be playing the track out of speakers and doing the vocals right next to it. I’ve also been playing live a lot more since then, so I’ve been writing more the intention of knowing how it will sound live and how I will perform it, and how the music will interact with elements of performance. I also develop a lot of vocals around live shows, so I won’t really develop them until I’m preparing to perform a song live, although I might have a vague idea. Also, WAIF was written as a whole EP and was intended to be performed all at once, so I didn’t really start recording the vocals until I’d written down the whole thing.
What is the current approach to live performance and what’s the setup you usually have?
I have all of the backing tracks pre-mixed, and then I use a wireless MIDI controller to control all of the vocal effects. I’m also going to be using a recorder as well – in the new stuff I’m writing I’m using a lot more actual instruments, so I’ve got that and a clarinet that I’ll bring with me as well.
I also wondered about your use of samples and wondered if you did any field recordings for the EP?
Sometimes – I do a little bit but mostly I take a lot of stuff from YouTube. I’ll hear something in a completely random video that I’ll want to hear again in music so I take the sample from it. If I do do field recordings, it’ll usually just be quite spontaneous and just recorded on my phone if I’ve heard something. A lot of the time, if I want a specific sound effect, I’d rather search through YouTube than a whole sample library. I love Carl Stone and plunderphonics and that kind of stuff.
Where do you see the project heading next and what aspects of your work are you most looking forward to exploring?
Aside from the stuff I’ve mentioned about having more real instruments, I want to pursue more authentically medieval sounds. Rather than introducing archaic elements into contemporary music, I want it to sound as though I’m introducing contemporary technology to medieval music, which could be really interesting. In the stuff I’m writing at the moment, I’ve been really influenced by medieval troubadours. In September, I’m going to be playing at this niche festival in Athens which centres around that kind of stuff, and I’ll be playing in a traditional Greek amphitheatre. I’d also really like to try working with set designers for live performances too and having some music videos made with live action directors. That might be a little beyond the budget I can get though, who knows.
Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Joanna Quilty
‘Waif’ is out now via Spinny Nights. You can purchase or stream the release via Bandcamp.