When I call Elysia Crampton on Skype it’s 9am on a Monday morning, possibly the least desirable time to conduct an interview. Crampton, however, is looking and feeling fresh. “I love waking up early,” she gleams. “I’ll stay up all night just to be awake in the early morning.”
Elysia Crampton is a drifter. At the moment she’s in Sacramento, California. Since living between Southern California, New Mexico and Bolivia, she spent the last year or so in the rural town of Weyers Cave in Virginia, population 2,500. “At the time it was exactly what I needed,” she says of the experience. “Dating there was different. Having lived in LA as a sex worker, and the access to privilege that got me from the amount of money I made, really made me into a type of person I didn’t want to be. So it was nice to just re-calculate.”
Crampton’s music is a reassessment in itself. On her debut American Drift, an album that helped define the sound of electronic music in 2015, Crampton dealt with the idea of finding home while in flight. The idea of drift also brings to mind tectonic shifts, and in many ways Crampton and her sound are emblematic of this. Her output is in line with the placeless, personal and highly political music from the likes of Arca, Lotic, and the borderless collective NON – an increasingly difficult to define but radically vivid, visceral and assured force that’s changing the landscape of electronic music. Crampton’s new album, Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City, is described as an homage to such artists – likeminded friends from around the world and the record’s collaborators, Chino Amobi, Why Be, Rabit and Lexxi.
Demon City is an ‘epic poem’ that is melodic and harsh, violent and calm, and ornate and ominous all at the same time. Inspired by her Bolivian and Native American heritage, it is an album concerned with collective solidarity. “In my original material there is still the labour of the others before me,” Crampton elaborates. “Ancestors and sisters and comrades and interests and other cultures I reached out to when I was younger because the society I lived in gave me no language to access my own fantasy space, or gave me narrow narratives for that.” In the past year, Crampton has been dealing with her grandfather’s death and caring for his widow Flora, an experience that has led to a sharing of her oral histories and femme legacy. The album is dedicated to her, as is Flora’s Theme, a track she wrote for Adult Swim’s singles series that sounds like an alternately benign and threatening underwater alien abduction.
Demon City is almost entirely instrumental, a conglomeration of sounds that split and shatter through the violence that has informed Crampton’s political and personal history. As a trans woman, this is further heightened for Crampton, as trans identities have often been tied with increased violence as a result of transphobia. As an artist, Crampton acknowledges violence as part of the queer experience, and puts this back into her work. “I think I was making trans music even before I willfully identified as trans. Coming from a Native American perspective, I use the term ‘two-spirit’ now more than I use trans because of the narrowing in what trans has come to mean, specifically in the United States. What I like about the term is that it recognises the ‘already-was’; the indigenous pre-colonial legacy that my own queerness comes out of.”
In a larger sense, the impetus behind Crampton’s work is survival and liberation. In her words, it’s “a way of coping with the anxieties that were produced out of the compromises and the terms of survival, which have to do with huge things like structural racism and historical erasure. Liberation is the project, and I just hope that whatever I put in – even if I’m criticised for being pretentious – that we can arrive further along, somewhere I can’t necessarily even imagine yet. Despite everything we’re moving forward. I never thought I’d see a time when Pitchfork are writing about Bartolina Sisa!” she exclaims, referring to the 18th century Aymaran revolutionary explored in Demon City track After Woman [For Bartolina Sisa]. “And they’re doing that because we created these narratives and put them in our work. Creating your own narrative is so important.”
“I just hope that whatever I put in, we can arrive further along, somewhere I can’t necessarily even imagine yet”
- Elysia Crampton
Applying a narrative to her own homogenous sound, Crampton defines her work as ‘folk music’. Crampton’s use of the term is closer to its original meaning, in the sense that it involves the construction of a common identity that is constantly being made. For her, the term ‘folk’ ties in to ideas of narrative, history, community and the past, and is related to the future as it transfers from generation to generation.
The concept of the future is something that Crampton finds hope in. Musings on deep future influenced the making of Demon City, something that she says was difficult but “a beautiful challenge.” She continues: “I try to think of a future where we survive. The present already makes no space for indigenous and black life but also in a wider sense [the future] makes no space for any of us, logically and scientifically speaking. The sun will die. We’re going to be gone. But I’m hoping that because I push myself, others will push themselves too and we can arrive somewhere really cool.” In her own future, Crampton has tour dates coming up in Italy, the UK and Scandinavia, and is also going to be teaching classes on queer indigenous and pre-colonial history from Native American perspectives in Oslo and Barcelona. She hopes the project will be a means to repairing the violence that disproportionately affects queer people of colour. Asked where she sees herself in five years, she is optimistic but modest. “I’m hoping this will be working out,” she concludes, “and that everything I’m surrendering to gain the agency that I think I need will pay off in some way, in terms of being a bridge to something that keeps on getting better.”
Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City is out now via Break World Records