We wander the earth by the path of exile. We are born trapped in a body that we did not choose, a city that does not belong to us. Identity. The word of the magic spell of partly secret, partly overt conservatism: personal identity, professional identity, national identity, political identity.
Elvin Brandhi is a Wales-born vocalist and sound artist who’s discography covers a wide range of projects: the father-daughter duo Yeah You, collaborations with Bashar Suleiman by the name INSIN, the Avril Spleen project with Joseph Jadame (Maltash), Bahk with Daniel Blumberg, as well as contributions to Drew McDowall’s Agalma and releases by C.A.N.V.A.S.. Her improvisations are a portal to a world with no prescribed frameworks, an opportunity to create without relying on the construct of the past experience. Her fast-changing geographies are as rapid and abrupting as her sound.
Our conversation with Elvin has been an ongoing mix of calls, messages, and memory glitches in the middle of her never-ending musical and physical journey. The Beirut-based photographer Walid Nehme captured the artist on a stroll during her stay in Lebanon. Elvin doesn’t romanticise her nomadism though: “I’m a gypsy. I like this lifestyle because I can travel and not pay rent but then without a home you must keep moving to not overstay your welcome anywhere and there’s no ideological aim. My life just fell out in this mess.”
“Wales is somehow the home I never had. I moved to north England when I was young, basic things like accent made me disassociate. Home was always a place to return to. Driving to Wales, feeling car sick, waiting for the red dragon to appear on the left side of the road. A ritual rather than a routine. Me and my brother once saw an ostrich in the middle of the motorway somewhere in the middle near Birmingham. Just standing in-between the fast cars passing it on each side, it looked un-panicked, was actually mid step but not sure how it would have been possible for it to cross safely… I would have disregarded this memory as an imaginative glitch but my brother also vaguely remembers. Real or not, the ostrich enabled faith in residual absurdity in the midst of systemic acceleration.”
The musician was born in Wales, raised in Newcastle, studied in Vienna, and seems to not have sat still for a single day. In a way, Elvin Brandhi is the very same ostrich stuck at the intersection of a multi-lane highway, somewhere between her native Bridgend and the rest of the world: “I am realizing that the only home is the habit and the projection of familiarity. There are just so many places (which start to be) now always feels like forever. I have many temporary bases, temporality is my base. A time home rather than a space home. Home is a process of context-body osmosis.”
Yeah You is a project which Elvin Brandhi formed in tandem with her father, Gustav Thomas. Yeah You decided to outrage the traditional recording process. Every day, they got out to parking lots, shopping malls, or just shuttled in a car around their neighborhood, recording biting noise-pop beats and a stream of monolithic, unconscious recitative on the fly. “It’s kind of a limbo of movement, the limbo of being in transit,” she reflects. “ [With Yeah You], we were not even in the father-daughter space. It helped us to get into a context-free environment. Thoughts unbound by function unravel in the midst of everything.
The singing inside contextual shifts is a way of creatively deploying self overstimulation. Perceiving and ingesting as much of the physical time and space as possible. A manic purge of live interpretation, ontological regurgitation. I should try this method while scrolling through instagram actually, see if the surplus stimulation can be appropriated in the same way! Unless the speed of virtual image flux would be pacifying rather than invigorating. Since the image posts are perceptually prescriptive, pre-interpreted, there’s no demand to decode them. A direct eye to mind hit, making intuition obsolete, you just like or dislike.
Yeah You are often called “freaks” and “pranksters.” The evidence of this comparison can be found in the duo’s Vimeo profile, where they have been sharing recordings of their live improvisations for years. In one of the videos for the track “Catagorically Impressive,” Elvin and Gustav jam right on the side of the road: while Elvin turned away from the camera improvises spoken word glued to her microphone, her father starts dancing, jumps over the bushes, runs out onto the road twisting his body like plasticine, and staring at the cars passing by. Another video titled “Iphone” posted on Vimeo seven months ago seems even more absurd. Gustav sits on the grass, his face illuminated by car headlights, and Elvin’s voice is heard in the background: “When you were born, who did you become? If you had not become what you became, what would have you become? When you turned fifty, what did you become?” Their dialogue smoothly turns into performance. “You are a victim of your own nothingness!”—sings Elvin.
With the help of lyrics and music, Yeah You express the spirit of the times, explore the rapidly changing nature of the modern world, and search for their place everywhere and nowhere at once: “It’s a process for us and a part of how we, as musicians, communicate different things and different emotions. I am actually the one that has never been good at talking, saying things to people in a normal context. That’s why I needed another way of speaking, an extreme way of voicing things. I needed that rhythm and space.”
Despite the harshness and aggressiveness of the sound, Elvin’s output in Yeah You and beyond is easy to listen to, like any original and convincing statement. For an artist, music is not a fixation of experiences, gains and losses. Instead, it’s an opportunity to break away from oneself and observe it from the side—shouting out random phrases, fueled by landscapes drifting by the car window, or catching oneself by surprise in the middle of Brussels at night with a microphone in hand. With each composition, Brandhi leads the listener to the possibility of immediate perception of music without ego—music not as a story expressed in sound, but sound as an independent form.
Nowadays we’re so used to a rapid change and the flux of information that it’s becoming more and more difficult to hold on to one idea, mindset, location, or even your own identity. This is the environment that our culture of endless scroll, dozens of opened tabs, and limitless possibilities has created. And when the ongoing travel comes on top of this constant dispersal, I wonder if she doesn’t feel lost in these ever-changing settings. “How you read my answer depends if you see losing the self as a positive or negative transition,” explains Brandhi. “Personally, I welcome the potential for de-subjugation from conceptual authorities burrowed in the psychic fabric I call ‘me’. Humans are adaptable—our identities have the potential to be universally compatible because we are not objects, we only exist as ongoing transformations that can grow without glitches if their contexts are consistent. But now, we are a culture of identity rupture. United by the right of the subject to disassociate, be inauthentic, disembody and free associate without limit…Unless you mean losing the self in a spiritual sense of achieved ego-death? I think that selves grow from the ashes, that you shed selves like a snake sheds skin, constantly and necessarily as a way of syncing into the rhythm of your environment.”
One way Elvin breaks creative as well as conceptual loops is through collaboration, undermining compositional muscle memory by breaking the tendencies on tendencies of another creator. “Conversation is the way I work. Even through sampling, you produce in dialogue with other producers, infectious aesthetics, all collaborations are different, the ones that work for me have grown naturally out of contextual character clicks and a shared drive for creative relief from uniform reality. They are never strategic but spontaneous and relative to an intimate social resonance, sense synthesis can never be purely practical.
One such collaboration is the BAHK project, created with Daniel Blumberg, a resident of Cafe OTO London, artist of Mute records and a visual artist whom Hans Ulrich Obrist described as “one of London’s most intriguing emerging artists.” Working at the intersection of free improvisation and traditional songwriting, Daniel uses vocals, piano, and guitar as his primary mediums.
“Many of our performances employ hesitation, stalling, and jarring, which triggers narrative distrust in the audience and reverses the role of the entertainer. We implement awkward energy, arouse suspicion, and flirt with cultural invalidity swinging in a pendulum of nervous exposition. We aim to generate and sustain a cloud of doubt, forcing the watchers to monitor every move. When we played in Rome, we played one double bass from opposite sides, executing a type of orchestral tug of war using the tension to demonstrate our intention to tear up the performer, and negated the choreographed persona by introducing ourselves as locked in collaborative tension. Increasing this friction, wesumonned immense energy. As if we had not ourselves reached a mutual starting point, we first had to wrestle with the tools of performance.” The duet with Blumberg is a dynamic creative collaboration that goes far beyond co-producing music. Their practice includes spontaneous performances, painting, and filmmaking. One recent example is a video work and silverpoint drawing for Bloomberg’s Silver Dinner series which was broadcasted via Homecooking in June 2020.
In May 2020, BAHK released the first track “We Never Landed” for the compilation called Hope You’re Well, from the Qu Junktions booking agency. The repetitive “We Never Landed” wrapped into Bloomberg’s trademark bitter-sweet vocals evokes the thought of an endless borderline state while the actual Bandcamp description says, “It is with pleasure that I assure you the flight has still not reached its destination nor does it plan to.”
The theme of detachment and alienation, the absence of a destination runs through all Elvin Brandhi’s work. Her desire to dislocate mentally and geographically is the driving force behind the generation of boundlessly unique ideas and projects. Yet another important chapter of her creative biography is cooperation with Lugh and Olan Monk’s C.A.N.V.A.S.. Established in London in 2014 as a series of performance events, C.A.N.V.A.S. became the reaction to a growing need for closeness despite geographic fluidity and the uncertainty of contemporary life, creating a hub that unites digital nomads from all over the world into new projects and collaborations. “There has been a growing sense of an unlimited surface of mutual influence, of reciprocated curiosity creating a global aesthetic melting pot,” tells Elvin. C.A.N.V.A.S and I have long been in dialogue over the benefits of this free form intersection, discussing ways to distribute and interconnect online without self branding”.
In addition to Elvin’s solo EP, Shelf Life, published by the label in 2019, C.A.N.V.A.S. released a compilation Apocope curated by Lugh, Olan Monk, and Elvin Brandhi herself. In the call-out for the compilation, the artists were invited to interpret the word “pop” and the word “remix” and exorcise themselves through intense engagement with a hit of particular personal significance. The unifying idea was rethinking the essence of the term “POP” together despite the dislocation and the physical distance of the time of the open call. The result of the collective work was a collection of tracks from curators, as well as selected artists—Alpha Maid, Bashar Suleiman, Billy Bultheel, Hulubalang, and Nadah El Shazly. Apocope became a harmony of the post-POPped voices of artists from different parts of the planet, a clash of different worldviews and backgrounds. “For Apocope, I invited friends and artists who have inspired me with their unique characters/ears making their sound irreducible to any specific genre,” explains Elvin. “I wanted to involve artists who pour their nerves into their production and would really meet the challenge of reconstructing pop.”
The list of compilation artists includes another constant creative partner of Elvin—Bashar Suleiman, aka Lil Asaf—a Jordan-based artist specializing in experimental and rap music. The artists are connected by a common project—the trap-core duo INSIN, which was formed during the Hizz residence in Cairo. Their similarities and differences sync up to form a hybrid voice reviving empathy and insurgence which is translated in their various outputs, such as SADSUN, released by Hizz, INSINCERITY dropped by Vienna-based label AMEN, and their recent album Inisint put out by Milan-based label and sound collective Realia. Each work of the artists feels like a spiritual lesson taught through extreme sounds of sample-based black metal and sensual emo vocal manipulation. INSIN is a completely different narrative to tell, one that subjects Elvin Brandhi to naked uncertainty, unfamiliar intimacy, and audible anxiety.
Currently, Elvin Brandhi is focusing on other domains, such as video, performance, and working further on collaborative albums. “Online festivals have meant that I am doing a lot more video editing, and audio-sound pieces. I have stayed productive since the amount of online jobs I have has gone up. These things actually take more time than live performances, I have had the chance to spend more time in places when I do move. The jet setting now is socially irresponsible,” says Elvin before talking about her new adventure. She has recently participated in Nyege Nyege residency which resulted in a few new collaborations that she will reveal soon.
“The distinction between the familiar and other evaporates once you flee the nest. As does west and east the more you move. It becomes impossible to speak about Africa as a place once you become aware of how distinct and complex each city is. You cannot apply this general terminology in practice. These words exist to cover up an abyss of not yet known realities. There’s more to disinherit than inherit from the experience of traveling. But yeah, Nyege villa is its own planet: an inter-galactic explosive chameleonic laboratory revolving around a core of local talents whilst being an incredibly international point of reference. I have been there multiple times and each time is different depending on who is around.”
Elvin Brandhi believes that when you are in places where you don’t speak the language, where you are an outsider, your perception becomes dominated by sound and interpretation of gestures. You get outside of perspective which forces you to be more receptive and sensitive to different layers of your environment that are coming from signs and semiotics. You can’t read the symbols, the language, the codes. “Movement and change and being to places you are not familiar with always felt… You know, being outside of the context, being out of the loop. We sort of look for rhythm in everything and I always try to break a routine. As soon as you get into a new place you have to tune yourself to a new place and that’s really interesting.”
The task of the artist is not just to destroy or pour out emotions, but also to form a new world. Following the trajectory of the non-stop movement of Elvin Brandhi, it seems as if she creates these worlds at every transfer point. Its purpose is not at all the search for a place to return to, but rather an absence as a return. Recalling the image of Bridgend that emerges from the most distant corner of consciousness, she says: “The experience of return is related to the landscape, the air, the sea—the coast from which my DNA was spat. I feel more like the sea is my home. A body of endless movement and becoming.” Places are like fata morgana, memories are like scattered beads, movement is a moment of absence. It seems that this is what the musician’s creativity is woven from; today is everywhere, tomorrow is nowhere.