Carla Dal Forno feels complete in the solitude of a big city and a home studio. Toying with soft self-irony, melancholic humor, and ethereal post-punk sound, the Australian producer and song-writer recaps her emotive experiences and sharpened production skills in each new album. Her latest album Look Up Sharp is a diaristic summary of her recent relationship with London.
The long-time associate of Blackest Ever Black, Carla has recently started her own imprint Kallista as an outcome of her vision for music, well documented in her monthly NTS show. Kallista is also a reflection of Dal Forno’s natural tact and modesty not to invade the musical space of anyone else and of the habit to do things her way.
Charlie Hoatson: It came as a sad surprise to many when Blackest Ever Black recently closed down. How’s that been for you as you’d been with them for such a long time and you’re strongly associated with the label?
Carla Dal Forno: They’d been planning this for a long time, and started talking about this at the beginning of 2018. So I had a long period of time before I finished the album, and I knew that Blackest Ever Black was not an option anymore to release it.
CH: So this is how you decided to start your own Kallista imprint, or have you been thinking of launching a new label yourself before?
CDF: I had not been thinking about it before Blackest Ever Black said they were closing, so I had to find another label, and at the time, I didn’t have any other label in mind. So the next thought process pointed towards building my own space for the music. I feel as though once you go to another label, you’re kind of stepping into their world and what they’ve curated.
CH: Are you planning on releasing other artists in your music space?
CDF: No one is signed yet. Currently, I’m not working with anyone else, but I might potentially in the future. I would just have to feel a connection to someone’s work.
CH: And do you feel that musically it could be connected to the direction of your NTS show?
CDF: Yeah, definitely. I think that would be the artists that I’ve been playing on my NTS show. That’s the kind of music I would potentially like to release, although I’m not sure if my label needs to release other people because there are so many labels opening up all the time. So I don’t think that there’s a vacuum in the market. But if someone did want to work with me, I would be open to it.
CH: You’ve moved to London around two years ago after you’d lived in Berlin for a while. How do you find living and making music in London?
CDF: I loved Berlin, especially in the summertime it’s a magical city. There are a lot of transient people there as well, there’s a whole scene. People aren’t sure if they’re coming or going. I guess it always felt slightly transient to me as well because I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t have a path to citizenship. I think moving to London felt very familiar being from Australia, which is essentially a colony. I really feel quite settled here.
CH: In Berlin, it often feels like people intentionally are not making any effort to settle down here. Although it might be useful for artists to feel uncertainty and freedom and not to commit to one place or one activity. It’s just that it becomes difficult to get a hold on people professionally or emotionally because often they are not focused or avoid any attachments. Is it different in London for you as an artist?
CDL: I think there’s a certain type of people in Berlin that feel transient like me, but then, for example, my bandmate works in Berlin and has a job, and I feel like his position in Berlin is much more stable because he has a more solid connection of work and routine. And I think that’s what my move to London has been like because I started working at the record store [Low Company in East London.]. And so it did feel more stable.
CH: So you needed this anchor.
CDF: Yeah. Also in London, everyone has to work because it’s so expensive here. So there’s much more normalcy to life rather than in Berlin where you meet a lot of people that only go to parties and perhaps do studio work during the week. Here it seems much more familiar because Melbourne, where I’m from, is also an expensive city where people have jobs and ‘a normal side to life.’
CH: At the same time, big cities like London, where everybody is working all the time can feel very lonely. But as you’ve mentioned previously, you enjoy working alone and feel comfortable being on your own.
CDF: I’m very good at being alone. So London doesn’t bother me that much. I’m not sure if it’s like this for everyone, but I think that as a person who makes art, you need a lot of time by yourself, and you need to be okay with spending time by yourself. I’ve been at different stages of my life: I have struggled with that more when I’ve had more people around, and I felt like I needed to be around people all the time. But definitely, when I’ve been in that kind of headspace, it did affect how much work I was making.
CH: So you mean you were getting less work done?
CDF: Yeah, I was doing less work and socializing more.
CH: How have people been reacting to your new album, Look Up Sharp? And how are the live shows of your current tour going?
CDF: It’s been really good. I’ve been touring since 2016. These days I feel very confident, and I think my sets are really strong now, and people are responding really well to the new album in the live shows.
CH: And how is the music community in London for you? It seems like London has a stronger post-punk scene than Berlin. Has it been helpful for your process?
CDF: I’m definitely not in the same band scene that I was back in Melbourne. I think the difference is probably working at a record shop. I’m just exposed to way more new music coming in all the time, and I feel connected to the scene through that way again.
Also, in my past tours, I’ve been able to get to know artists in different cities and ask them to play with me when I’m on tour, so that’s been great. It’s just nice to play with other people whose music you respect, and you fit into a similar world which hasn’t always been happening in the past.
CH: Do you feel like you’ve improved and strengthened your production skills with the new album?
CDF: I was kind of forced to because I was producing alone. The first album [You Know What It’s Like, 2016, Blackest Ever Black] was co-produced with someone else [Tarquin Manek]. He had more technical skills than I did and I learnt a lot from him. Since then, I’ve only been working on my own, so I felt like I would need to learn all the stuff that he was contributing. It’s been a gradual process, and I feel like if you listen to the Garden EP [2017, Blackest Ever Black] compared to this one, you can hear the progression in terms of sound.
CH: So Look Up Sharp is also your proof to yourself that you can produce everything alone.
CDF: Yeah, definitely. I felt like I had something to prove to myself. I’m not sure about this, but I feel like when a female is working with a male producer, sometimes people might assign different weight to what was contributed or who did what. I wanted to show that I had all the skills and ideas to be able to do it myself.
CH: And what did your previous work with the bands Mole House and F-Ingers bring into your work as a solo artist?
CDF: I think Mole House taught me how to write songs, and I started learning to play guitar when I started working with them. I wrote my first ever songs with that band, so that’s something that I carried with me. You know having two chords means you can write a song, right!?
Then with F-Ingers, it was basically all improvisation, which was also a very important thing to learn. So I could learn to be in the moment and commit myself to that, it was quite a scary experience; you are kind of vulnerable. Anyway, you have to commit to that and listen to what else is going on in the room. I try to bring this experience into my solo work quite a lot, as well.
CH: What influenced your decision to detach yourself from playing in bands and start working solo on your ethereal lo-fi sound?
CDF: I think it’s one of those things that developed over time, it wasn’t necessarily part of a plan. It was a process of learning as I went. When I was still playing in bands, I can recall times of having to go into the studio with other people and managers. This made me reflect on the idea that this just wasn’t for me. I don’t want someone else to have that much control and say on my sound. So even though I didn’t have that many skills in recording and producing myself, I was determined to make a start and figure it out as I went along. In the beginning, that meant setting up a recording studio essentially on my kitchen table.
CH: So, are there any artists you could name who made you realize what kind of music you want to produce yourself and feel comfortable about it?
CDF: That kind of DIY music, where you can tell that people have just set up a 4-track in their bedrooms. I guess I was listening to a lot of Hype Williams before I started recording myself. That was a kind of contemporary influence at the time. I guess some more ’80s related influences from when post-punk was happening. Also Flaming Tunes by Gareth Williams and Mary Currie, the album that Blackest Ever Black reissued in 2012. I thought to myself this is fantastic music. It still has a lo-fi quality, but I’m totally fine with my stuff sounding like that, as well. I didn’t want to have a highly polished, overly produced, commercial sound to my music.
Also, while making Look Up Sharp, I was listening to a lot to A.C. Marias’s album One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) [Restless Records, 1989. The album Angela Conway made with the members of Dome and Duo Emo]. The Marias’s album was something that I felt was a really great body of work, though I don’t necessarily think my sound is comparable to theirs, but it was certainly something to work towards.
CH: In one of your previous interviews, someone described your music as having the ability to go from “extreme empathy” and then directly kind of switch to “unguarded romance”.
CDF: I find lyrics that have a personal nature most interesting when you are exposing something that may make you feel vulnerable. I find acknowledging romantic feelings just as scary as acknowledging feelings of antipathy towards someone else. It’s all just a process of figuring out how you are feeling about someone else.
CH: There is also a lot of humor in your music, not only in lyrics, but in the whole attitude towards production and your self-image. It’s especially noticeable from the perspective of the electronic music scene where a lot of artists have a very serious-(looking) image. Is it something you intentionally do?
CDF: I think sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it’s not. Perhaps it’s a cliché but I think Australians are self-deprecating. So we learn how to like make fun of ourselves. Emotions and feelings are always so serious, especially about other people. But once you step back and have a look at the situation, a lot of the time, it’s really funny because we get so worked up. Over time you look back on the situation, and you go, “Oh my God. My response was so enormous to this one person or one feeling or one situation.” So I think writing lyrics is about hindsight and self-examination. I think you have to be able to see the humor in your experiences.
CH: Are you planning to release new music anytime soon?
CDF: I’ve got some tracks that didn’t make it onto the album, and I’d like to keep working on them. Also, I feel like I’m quite at the beginning of starting a new project, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be. [With Look Up Sharp] I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. Only when I got to the end of this album I realised that it has really been shaped by my experience of moving to London and living near the city. Only once I had all the material together, I could piece together a narrative and see what was emerging. I respect those artists who can come up with a concept before they even write an album, but I feel like that’s counterintuitive to me.