Interview: Isnaj Dui

My first experience of Isnaj Dui was actually when I performed on the same bill. It was a few years ago now, but I vividly remember her looping flute melodies over the buzz of jack cable interference. Yet the mood of her performance is even more potent in my memory: the equivocal majesty of the flute, both blissful and rife with siren-like warning; the uneasy, lovingly handmade rhythmic structures, which feel like sculptures of masking tape and crumpled cardboard sides. 

It all comes rushing back when I listen to her latest album Poiesis, which came out back in October on Rural Colours. I’m captivated by these flute refrains even as they haunt me with their glints of ominous prophecy, watching them tip toe through the debris of crushed noise and electricity leak. Through a cocktail of homegrown experimentation and wry, noir-dwelling charm, Poiesis fast becomes a record that lingers. Below, Isnaj Dui (aka Katie English) and I discuss claustrophobic assembly, tactile damage and noodling in a corner.

For some reason, the production of this new album draws me to thoughts of home. Even amidst some of the more unsettling motifs, there’s something warm and refuge-like here. Where did you set up your equipment, and what did the recording sessions look like?

That’s nice to hear as I’ve recently taken to preferring a more claustrophobic way of assembling the tracks. A few years back it was all about creating large expansive work, loads of reverb and all that, which was fine for then but at the moment I’m more interested in bringing people in and making them feel at home, but also like I’m lurking behind them, haha! The recording setup is very basic really – just me in my loft. I use essentially the same equipment as I do live, with the acoustic instruments going through a multi-effects unit and a loop pedal running into Cubase. I try to keep things as live as I can and edit as little as possible; I much prefer to just re-record something rather than edit out little mistakes, or just leave them in if they make sense.

Do you still use your notebook to capture your initial thoughts and ideas? I’d be intrigued to know the form that these notebook etchings take. Are they snippets of writing, musical notation or something more abstract?

Yes, I always have my trusty notebook to hand! Sketches vary depending on the complexity of the piece or what the driving force behind it is. Sometimes the melody drives the piece and sometimes it’s more rhythmic so that has an effect.  It will usually be a vague outline in musical notation for the notes and rhythms used and I’ll put square brackets around specific loops. That’s followed by a little drawing of the shape of the piece or general written notes, whichever is most suitable. The more I play a tune live, the less I have to have written down – for instance, “Diffraction Gratings” is now condensed to “Pitch 4 x8, clicks + boom rev 7, flute pitch 7 + bowed dulcimer”. It’s just enough to give me a little nudge when playing live but usually I’ve practiced enough that I’m on autopilot by that point, so the notebook is really just a comfort blanket.

One thing that’s often struck me about your music is your utilisation of stereo width (or the lack thereof). I often feel a certain agitation within your music, and I’d put at least part of that down to the way in which each instrument seems to be imposing upon the personal (and harmonic) space of one another. Is there any reason that you’re drawn to this more “slight” stereo image?

I think it’s something that’s come about naturally, partly from technical limitations of recording equipment when I started out, which then became a sound I quite enjoyed making part of the recording as it lends itself to that claustrophobic quality, even with the more drifty expansive pieces. I only tend to add a little panning if there are a lot of flute layers, just so that they can be distinguished a bit easier, but other than that I tend to leave things as they are.

You utilise sounds that feel as though they’ve been blemished or scuffed. That crackle/crumple running throughout “Blind Spot” is both beautiful and horrible. How did you make that particular sound (if you’re able to divulge), and what is the appeal in sounds that carry a sense of damage or being unrefined?

Ah yes – that was the dulcimer played with a comb and put through a pitch shift effect. That came from just wanting to make something a bit crunchy and percussive sounding for the start point of a track. I like the tactile nature of something that sounds crumpled or damaged because it’s nigh-on impossible to simulate that electronically, but at the same time although it very clearly exists in the real world it’s left uncertain as to what it could actually be, because it’s been processed a bit or produced in a less obvious way.

One of the tracks here is titled “Occam’s Razor”, which is a problem-solving principle put forward by William Ockham. Wikipedia (sorry!) tells me that the thrust of the principle is that, “among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” I’m aware that the album is, in part, a product of some of the uglier facets of the world at present, including last year’s Brexit vote. I don’t suppose this track title is in any way related to that?

To be fair I got a lot of my Brexit frustrations out on the cello parts to the last Doomed Bird of Providence album, so Poiesis is the tail-end of that haha! I never set out with a concept for an album – my music comes about as a reaction to how I’m feeling at that moment but I’ve never wanted to force an emotion onto the listener. There has been a lot of ugliness in the world recently that has no doubt had an impact but there have been things in family life and life in general that have had an effect too.

I’m terrible with titles, but “Occam’s Razor” was an easy one as a couple of years back my good friend and littlebow partner Keiron Phelan said that my work was very much adherent to the idea of the more simple and straightforward the better. I’d decided I wanted to name a track “Occam’s Razor” as a nod to that comment and that track was most fitting as it’s the simplest track on the album.  By happy coincidence it also turned out to be Keiron’s favourite!

There are some exquisite melodies on Poiesis. As I write this question to you, the flutes on “Acrobats” are swimming back and forth across my head. I know that you’ve always had a fascination with harmony, but has your relationship with melody changed over the course of Isnaj Dui?

It’s not a drastic change, but I think I’ve become less bothered by including something a bit catchy in the melody. Gigs really bring it to my attention as sometimes I’ll be on an abstract, arty bill and I feel like Little Miss Popstar as my pieces are songlike in many ways, but equally I’ve played electronica club nights where I’m the abstract arty type noodling in a corner, even though I could play the exact same set at both! I always like a challenge and to write things that can crossover from being a bit arty farty but also accessible is something that I enjoy playing with. Brains love patterns, so I think if you have something fairly stable, such as a hummable melody, then people are much more open to awkward rhythms, harmonies etc as at least they have something familiar to latch onto while all this other stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t dream of listening to goes on alongside it.

The artwork for the record is lovely, and I’ve been turning it over in my head for some time now. It could be a cog, or an aerial view of a fort, or some sort of obscure time-keeping device…what can you tell me about it?

Well I cursed myself initially for the title, as it gave me very little to go on for the artwork. Usually when I’m working out a design for Rural Colours sleeves I’ll look to the title and work on an abstraction based on that, but there’s nothing illustrative about Poiesis. I love using Morse code if inspiration is a bit thin (it works so well for rhythms too) and did a layout of Poiesis. Initially I had it as a linear design but played around with it and the circular layout worked best, incorporated in both the central design and around the edge. As you say, it looks kind of machine like and I love cogs and clocks so that kind of stuck and made sense. It’s another take on the Occam’s Razor approach I guess…

What albums are you listening to at the minute?

I’ve not been very on the ball with new music this year but have enjoyed Sufyvn’s Ascension EP and last year’s Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest is still a big favourite. I saw Penguin Cafe Orchestra performing Union Cafe at The Union Chapel in December and it was wonderful – I’ve loved Penguin Cafe Orchestra since I was little and my dad recorded Still Life at The Penguin Cafe off the telly. It’s still magical for me now.

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m already working on a new album so will be continuing with that in 2018, alongside any other projects that come along. I’m also working on a recording of a soundtrack to the Jean Renoir version of The Little Match Girl which I performed at Other Worlds Film Festival in 2016, so hopefully that will see the light of day in the not so distant future…