Interview: Lauren Tosswill

Interview: Lauren Tosswill

There is a switch on Lauren Tosswill’s microphone. On/off. This binary transition has become synonymous with the ease of doing something (i.e. “…with a simple flick of the switch”), but Tosswill’s music is all about the forces that accumulate on either side of that divide. There is an immediacy to her use of sound sources – voice, microphone, belt buckle, sheets of paper, jam jar lid – yet as her voice quivers over the boundary of sound and silence, forcing itself through throat constriction and intermittent electricity, I am brought to contemplate those immaterial factors that influence whether sound exists or not. The accumulation and alleviation pressure.

Tosswill’s beautiful new album, titled My Home In The Year, is out now on Enmossed. All proceeds from the record go to Maine Inside Out: an organisation that uses film and collaborative theatre to instigate dialogue about the issues related to incarceration. Below, Tosswill and I discuss extreme honesty, dragging the microphone and the shift from silence to screaming.

I see that you had an album release show at The Apohadion Theater on February 24th, at which you did an imitation of a performance by Philadelphia musician Ben Bennett. Could you talk about what your performance involved, and what led you to want to use Bennett’s work as the basis for this set?

My performance starts out with me giving a preamble about how I will be imitating a work by Ben Bennett but with the addition of using a loop pedal to record my voice. I then narrate what I am experiencing and after nearly 3 minutes and 13 seconds, my loop pedal plays a pre-recorded sound of me humming a phrase of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”, punctuated by a comical horn-sound signaling the restart of the loop. Then, the recording of my narration from exactly 3 minutes and 13 seconds ago comes back and I start to speak over that. With each pass of the loop, an additional layer of voice is added and I have to work harder to be understood over the growing din of my layered voices. The first two and a half minutes of the piece lay a foundation that I gradually undermine. By the end of the performance I am doing something completely different than what the audience was perhaps expecting given the introduction.

Ben Bennett’s original piece (I believe it is called “You Feel Okay Right Now”) is brilliant and pared down and most importantly has all this space so someone like me can come along with a loop pedal and make it cartoonish and busy. Like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but maybe more like silkscreening a bunch of mustaches on an Agnes Martin. One of my favorite aspects of using the loop in this piece is when the pauses in the layers coincide. You hear this din of my layered voices and then they all disperse and sometimes just one layer of speech remains and thus is emphasized. One instance where this happens is with the phrase I uttered that ended in “my t-shirt that is tucked into my pants”. In every subsequent loop, “tucked into my pants” is always heard without anything else and so it’s given this huge emphasis in the piece. There is something wonderful about getting an entire room to listen very carefully to an unremarkable and silly snippet of speech.

I’ve watched the video documentation of your set, which looked incredible. Even with the added distance of watching it on my laptop, I felt a pang of discomfort as I occupied that space with you. The performance shines an awareness upon the very physicality of your situation which, in my own experiences as a performer and a listener, I’ve made every effort to shut out or forget. I don’t know how easily this lends itself to articulation, but what is it about this approach to performance that appeals to you? What sensations/thoughts are running through you as you engage the room like that?

After graduating from school I didn’t make very much work for a couple years. During this time I attended a lot of experimental, usually improvised performances. Through watching these shows, I developed some rules in my mind for what made a strong performance and I have used these rules to guide my own work. One of the rules is to be extremely honest about what the performance involves, including the space you are in, the audience, and your relationship to those things. If the work is in any way a denial of what is actually happening, if it does not account for people getting up to use the bathroom or your own personal flaws, then I think it can leave the work vulnerable to failure. But there is a strength, if not an indestructibility, if you somehow acknowledge all of those things we might feel inclined to put out of our minds when performing or watching a performance. I have also found that I enjoy watching performances way more when I realize, for example, that the guy texting on his phone next to me is also part of the piece because he is a part of what I am experiencing. It makes me curious about everything around me instead of annoyed that it’s not going how I imagine it should go. It makes me actively engage with everything.

I honestly don’t like getting in front of people and having their attention on me. But the only work I am interested in creating right now is mostly performance-based and so I have to get up in front of people. And I want to allow the work to reflect how uncomfortable and exposed I feel, along with everything else. It makes the whole package more interesting. With that particular performance on the 24th, my mind was pretty preoccupied with making sure I didn’t miss the musical cues I had created for myself because the timing was important to get right.

There’s a wonderful tactility to this record. I’m constantly seeing these flashes of material in my mind. Sometimes I can almost feel the residue of the music on my fingers. Could you tell me about the process of putting together My Home In The Year? What equipment did you use, and in what sort of location(s) was the album recorded?

I need things to be tactile in order to create. I have no idea how to make or manipulate sound except through very dumb methods like physically scraping or hitting something or shaking the mic in front of my face to bend my voice. The only equipment I use is my microphone, a loop pedal, and my amplifier. My microphone has an on/off switch which allows me to manually “sample” blips or moments of sound by quickly flicking the switch. I did record a couple loops directly into garageband on my laptop, but for the most part I had a handheld tascam recorder that I just placed in front of my amp.

Everything was recorded in a small art studio. All of the sounds in the album that were not produced by my voice were created from dragging or striking the mic against a small assortment of things: the wooden floor, a jam jar lid, my belt buckle, my clothing, sheets of paper, and a sheet of mylar. Oh and I did use a tape recorder to create one of the layers for “watch out”.

As I listen to My Home In The Year, I keep returning to the ideas of constriction and restraint. The record is rife with processes and techniques that seem to interrupt the generation of sound: the strained vocal sounds throughout “kes”, the stop-starts of “shape note” (which felt like performing through broken wiring). Sometimes sound makes it through, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know if this is a component of your experience as well, but is there a particular appeal in this tension/margin between producing sound and not producing sound?

I have a theory about where this comes from. Everything I do usually feels like a fight with myself. It feels like there is an unlocatable source of restraint somewhere in me. Because of this, I am usually exerting a lot of effort to accomplish whatever it is I am doing. I think this exaggerated force I apply to what I do manifests in the album as these qualities you are noticing. It is like the steam release on a kettle that has all this pressure building up behind it until it goes from silence to screaming, not producing sound to producing sound.

Are there any specific ideas or artists that inform the way you think about the voice and your relationship with it?

One of my favorite things to listen to is a kind of a cappella Christian choral music called Sacred Harp singing. It was developed in New England in the late 18th century and the notes are written with shapes and called “shape notes”. Often these songs are sung by folks who have no formal voice training and the result is amazing. The songs are a rough patchwork of voices that don’t blend seamlessly, but are nevertheless filled with conviction and strength. You can hear all kinds of outliers: people singing too loudly or off key or coming in at the wrong time. I have heard Sacred Harp songs sung by professional singers and they sound awful and dull. All of the magic and power of Sacred Harp comes from the rich assortment of strong, coarse voices. I think I have embraced that odd, off-kilter quality in my own work. I enjoy a disjointed range with things poking out and catching your attention but still somehow functioning within the layered whole.

I have no voice training. When I use my voice to sing, like in the February 24th performance, I am a person who is singing rather than a singer. I sing like someone who is singing to themselves as they walk down the road.

The one artist who definitely influenced my voice in the album is Fiona Apple in her album The Idler Wheel. The track “kes” from my album is very influenced by this growl I heard in Apple’s voice, particularly on her track “Daredevil”.

The record artwork is beautiful. What led you to use this image as the visual counterpart to My Home In The Year?

Thank you. The image is from a large woodcut I made that was very much influenced by the woodcuts of German expressionist Käthe Kollwitz. I think there is a consistent aesthetic throughout my work no matter what medium I am using, so my visual work feels suited to my sounds. There is a directness, intensity, and starkness in the image as well as a strange humor in the wry mouth that I think is also present in the sounds on the album. There’s also, in my mind, a strong relationship between creating images through the duplication techniques of printmaking and composing sounds through a loop pedal.

I’ve also been listening to another live documentation of yours, taken from a show in New York on January 10th. I understand that this the first time you did a predominantly improvised solo set. How did it go, and how did this performance relate/compare to the process of producing My Home In The Year?

I embarked on this journey of sound and performance with the ultimate goal of improvising live. However, I recognized that I needed to first build up a toolbox to draw from in order to improvise. So as a starting point I had to create structures for my performances that were more rigid than I would prefer as I figured out and developed my tools. For the January 10th show I didn’t feel prepared to do a mostly improvised set, but I was committed to try and I was happy with the results. All of the tools I used for that set were techniques I honed while creating the album, including: shaking the mic in front of my face to bend my voice, switching the mic on and off rapidly to get snippets of voice, and dragging the mic across objects, my body, or the floor. 

Am I right in thinking that you run zine-making workshops too? How long have you been making zines, and what do the workshops involve?

The zine-making workshops are the brainchild of my good friend, an artist named Emmeline Solomon. I was sad I couldn’t attend her zine workshops because I was too far away. So I decided to start my own zine-making chapter in my city about two years ago. Just like Emmeline’s, I run the zine-making sessions out of my apartment and they are open to everyone. I think nearly every session there are attendees who I have never met in my life. It’s very exciting to suddenly find these strangers in my living room sipping tea and making collages. Everyone who attends is tasked with making what is called an “instant book” from a single 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper. I then collect everyone’s finished zine, photocopy them, and everyone gets a copy of every zine that was made during that session. Emmeline’s work is the source of all of this and her official page for her zine project can be found here.

What music have you been listening to recently?

I tend to find one song I like and then I listen to it over and over. A recent song I obsessively replayed was Nina Simone’s “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”. Also Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby”.

What’s on the horizon for you and your music?

I would like to start putting together the next album. I am also resolving to plan my first proper tour that will take me along the east coast on my way to perform at a festival called Savage Weekend in North Carolina this summer.