Heavy Pop of Olan Monk

  • Interview
  • Jennifer Moore
  • Photography
  • Frederico OM
  • Styling
  • Ana Silva
  • Fashion Design
  • Alves/Gonçalves

olan monk, lisbon, 2021 © borshch

Jennifer Moore: I truly love the songs from your new EP Auto Life recently released through C.A.N.V.A.S. Where did these new songs come from? Why did you decide to release them now?

Olan Monk: I wrote most of these songs in Porto while preparing for some live performances which took place the summer before the pandemic shut everything down. Since then, I’ve just been re-arranging them for different live set-ups—mainly around guitar and voice, with some other instruments finding their way into the arrangements by way of friends and collaborators, each of which really gives the songs a new life. October 2021 seemed as good a moment as ever to let them into the world. The idea was to release them alongside a return to live performance, and I was lucky enough to be able to perform them a couple of times before the year would end—at London’s Café Oto and at Lisbon’s Cosmos.

what would happen if the idea of individualism in pop culture kind of died away to collective experiences of music

I decided to release this music now but it all began before the pandemic. I wrote these songs while imagining what would happen if the idea of individualism in pop culture kind of died away to collective experiences of music, and how ghosts of these idols might stick around for a while or re-appear in this kind of spectral way. Auto Life was written as the epitaph engraved on the tombstone of the ‘solo act’ in performance and all the cult-like personalities which have come and gone from this role. For the past few years, I have been living in Portugal and writing a PhD thesis about solo performance and collective contexts for performance and music-making—the community as a collective body and the longing to become a part of this body. I submitted this PhD thesis earlier this year, and I wrote and recorded Auto Life at the same time as researching these ideas and writing about solo performance. These songs came from that process. While questioning the myth of solo performance, I may have brought some ghosts to life, or allowed them to inhabit me in some way, by speaking through me.

olan monk, lisbon, 2021 © borshch

JM: That is perhaps difficult timing in ways, to have been focusing with your PhD on the subject of communities and collective musical contexts as the global pandemic and practices of isolation took hold. But perhaps the situation presented a somewhat ideal context for summoning such ghosts of bygone times. I remember taking a car trip with you in May 2020. We talked about the way the beginning of the pandemic had been shaping our practices and overall ongoing relationships between our surroundings and the directions of our work. You described to me the feeling that your studio practice began in your childhood in a rural community in the peaceful environment of Connemara. I remember you describing your circumstances of being there but not being from there at the time and how that experience, in particular, gave way to your studio practice. Have those early years shaped what you still seek out now?

OM: Connemara is a rural Irish-language speaking region in the West of Ireland. The part where I lived for most of my childhood overlooks Galway Bay and out towards the Burren. It really is the middle of nowhere—or at least visually, it can deceive you into believing that. There’s actually a lot more going on out there than might be immediately obvious. As a child, I moved there from the city and lived there until adulthood. Over the past decade, I’ve lived in a few other cities—a somewhat inevitable choice migration based on my interests and the pursuit of education and employment, but Connemara still feels like home. I think it will always be a spiritual home—a place to return to.

there’s something about water that calms me, by extinguishing some of the fire in my energy

This landscape had a profound effect on me growing up. The bogland is a wet marshland formed thousands of years ago by decaying organic matter. The area I’m from seems to expand almost infinitely in some directions, yet you can feel that there’s also this depth below you. It gives the illusion of silence and has allusions of death, when actually there’s so much life there, so much happening in the ground in terms of animal and plant life. I’ve really lost my sense of self in this environment, which gives way to a sense of calm or a feeling of freedom. When you’re in the middle of the bog, you kind of disappear. Living here, I started making and recording music as a teenager, and it’s a feeling that I try to return to whenever I set up a studio elsewhere to record music. I tried to join my urban and rural experiences when I shot the video for Fameless with Paul D’Eath in the winter of 2020. There’s an absurdity to my own presence in this landscape singing this song to no-one, against the landscape’s much more enveloping visual presence—which eventually absorbs me back into it.

Now that I live partially in Portugal, I still have this attraction to watery landscapes. I think that this comes from growing up on water-logged land overlooking the bay. There was always water everywhere. There’s something about water that calms me, maybe by extinguishing some of the fire in my energy. When I was making Auto Life, I was experimenting a lot with auto-writing and flow, usually just setting up and recording the songs through improvisation, without having pre-written any lyrics. I was also reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva while working on the release, and this made its way into the energy of the songs, which express themselves through thinking-feeling and intuition.

olan monk, lisbon, 2021 © borshch

JM: I have never read Agua Viva, but it has long been on my list. I think you can really feel that automatic-writing approach and energy in many of the songs across your album. I would love to begin each morning with automatic writing but usually only manage to do that in bursts of about three weeks at a time. I remember you mentioning your fire placements, I share a similar affinity for certain watery places. A passage comes to mind from Bachelard’s essay Water and Dreams: ‘But the region we call home is less expanse than matter; it is granite or soil, wind or dryness, water or light. It is in it that we materialise our reveries, through it that our dream seizes upon its true substance. Dreaming by the river I dedicated my imagination to water, to clear green water, the water that makes the meadows green… it does not have to be the stream at home.. Water at home… The nameless waters know of all secrets. The same memory flows from all fountains.’

My birth chart is, unfortunately, water-clogged left, right, and centre, and perhaps that’s one reason I return over and over to such spaces, bound by some kind of need to outpoor or balance or renew the soul. It’s something I am often compelled to practice in solitude, as though the water and I cannot exchange confidences in the presence of others. I know you also deeply enjoy time spent in solitude. You often touch on the idea of the Monk—how you might play with this symbol or archetype, the identification with a solitary figure reckoning with isolation, your experience of it and desire for it and yet you express the impossibility of the self as ever existing in isolation. How have these ideas informed your approach to and relationship with making work?

The name Monk brings forth the solitude

OM: The name Monk brings forth the solitude that can be found—or at least that I have sometimes found—in making music. The Monk as an archetype is an impossible figure, trying to reach a level of ascetic devotion that is beyond the realms of this earthly world, an ascetic aesthete. If you take my stage name in full, it’s more balanced. The Monk thing is an impossibility, an abstraction, and my first name betrays all that is personal to me, and as such—aesthetically flawed if you take it on an abstract level. Although I started making music on my own in this kind of flawed monk-like way, locked up in a studio and kind of pouring myself into recording these songs or more abstract instrumentals, as time has gone on, I’ve tried to make my music-making more collaborative. Music, for me, is entirely a social practice. Making music on my own is otherwise just a kind of therapy. But it only really comes to life when it’s shared with other people. When I started playing music as a teenager, it was always so that I could play in bands. Making music on my own was a part of this, but it only really came to life when I played with or for other people.

My collaboration in partnership with Lugh O’Neill as a part of C.A.N.V.A.S. has been my main involvement in a community around music over the past few years, and I’m really grateful for this. It undoes the ‘Monk’ aspect of being a loner and making this really obscure music. I like to think what I’m doing is more pop than that. It’s heavy pop, sure—but it’s still supposed to be accessible and enjoyable to other people. Otherwise, for me, there wouldn’t be any point in sharing what I make.

olan monk, lisbon, 2021 © borshch

JM: That really resonates, the idea of music somehow transcending itself a little when other people become involved in forging it. Working on music with others is something I’ve only felt confident enough to do once or twice in the past couple of years, so I am still new to the high it can bring. Music has a home in my life, both in social and solitary contexts. I yearn for a balance between both, much like a balance of solitary time and time spent in the company of others. Your first release for C.A.N.V.A.S. in 2018 was a collection of mainly instrumental recordings under the title Inis, an old Irish word for ‘island.’ This coincided with the distribution of a preceding release called Anam, an Irish word for ‘soul’. Does the idea of the island and the Irish language still relate to the work you are making now?

OM: Making up what would become the double release Inis/Anam was a series of disconnected studio sessions and time spent living in a few different places. I’ve spent a lot of time on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands on the edge of Galway bay. This was an inspiring place for me when I was growing up, separated from the mainland where I lived and facing the vast Atlantic Ocean on one side. The idea of the island as a symbol for separation and isolation repeatedly appears in my practice and research. I’m interested in how the island relates to the idea of our interdependence, in that the island—or the individual—as a utopia seems hard to hold up in the contemporary world. Like most islands, we all seem to depend on each other more and more, and the myth of our isolation in individuality seems to diffuse.

I think it’s interesting that in both of our practices—and I’m thinking specifically of your recent album Channels of Time here—our use of the Irish language often seems to be in relation to landscape and environment, as though the Irish language is a place in itself, or that it’s so fundamentally embedded in our landscape, that there is no way to truly speak of that landscape in another tongue. I’ve definitely tried to use it in other ways, as a code, as a contemporary crypto-tongue. In the track ‘Na Madraí Go Léir’, which came out earlier this year on C.A.N.V.A.S.’ Apocope compilation, which myself and Lugh co-directed with Elvin Brandhi, I was using the Irish language to obscure my expression, translating the lyrics to a pop song that might otherwise be immediately recognisable into an ancient language only spoken by a minority of people.

JM: Yes, I think I am perpetually trying to reconcile or understand the relationship between my passion for Ireland’s natural landscape with an approach to art or music making. Despite not being raised a ‘Gaeilgeoir’ (a native Irish-speaker), I have always been drawn to the Irish language and have spent some summers working ‘as Gaeilge’ (through Irish). It is an incredible feeling to listen to and participate in the language, especially in social contexts. Something I would love to do with 2022 would be to spend more time working on it and living through it. I have a lot of pent-up energy and desire to be around and with people in 2022, both socially and collaboratively. So much of my work has not come to happen in the way I would truly desire this past year, especially as the global pandemic has so greatly pushed community practices out of our lives. How does your involvement in C.A.N.V.A.S. influence your own songwriting, recording, and performance practice?

my emulation of and interest in pop idols and pop music is not in irony

OM: Working with friends in a close context has been the support structure that I needed to keep making and releasing music. Trying to maintain these close friendships built on collaboration from a distance became a project in itself, and this has only been further tested and stretched to its limits over the past few years that we’ve been living through.

Although I’m wary to speak too much about C.A.N.V.A.S. without Lugh’s voice here—I believe that at its roots are friendship and the desire to extend this friendship through to new collaborations. Lugh brought me to reading some texts by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Byung Chul Han, and it’s interesting that they each seem to speak of friendship as a common root to both freedom and meaning. In this way, there is no individual freedom or meaning, they only really exist through shared experience. To really sustain ourselves, we need to find ways to build stable and evolving communities around what we do—in our case, music, art and performance. I don’t think I would be making or releasing music if I hadn’t been able to play a part in co-creating a community around this practice. And for this, I am truly grateful. I guess exploring the other side of this through Auto Life could be taken as ironic, but it’s not. My emulation of and interest in pop idols—always already undead—and pop music is not in irony. I love this music—yet I question the context and conditions through which it has come to exist and continues to change shape, inevitably informing my own songwriting, production and performance practice.

olan monk, lisbon, 2021 © borshch

JM: This all really resonates. I was talking to a friend recently about the balance of both maintaining a personal practice and also a collaborative practice of working with other artists to persevere or initiate infrastructures—material or immaterial—that support the community. Not an easy balance especially in these times but you really reminded me of the nature of these aspects existing almost as two sides of a coin when you say that you wouldn’t be making or releasing music if you weren’t able to play a part in co-creating a community around this practice. I truly share this sentiment. If some people had not welcomed me into the communities of DIY art and music in Dublin, there’s no way I’d ended up developing my own practice or participating further in forming part of those communities. Do you feel your practice being pulled in any particular direction since Auto Life has been released?

OM: Right now, I’m concluding a research project which has taken a few years to come to this point and working with some recordings towards what might become a live record. I’m not sure where exactly this next year will take me, but I’m increasingly okay with that.

JM: ‘Life is full of changes, you just need to ride with it,
Watch it as it changes,
Life is full of questions you don’t need to answer them,
Where you gonna be in three years time?’

As I presume is the case for many listeners of Auto Life, some lyrics that particularly stood out to me are these lines from ‘Fameless.’ These lyrics have served as somewhat of a melodic mantra to me in the months since I first heard them. They feel especially resonant throughout recent times but equally pertinent across all time and stages of life. Again a passage from Bachelard comes to mind Water is truly the transitory element. A being dedicated to water is a being in flux. He dies every minute; something of his substance is always falling away. It is a thought I often return to, how to remain grounded in movement, throughout the constant of perpetual change. If your work could take you towards a sense of groundedness or home, where would that be?

OM:  Back to the ocean.