Words: Niloufar Haidari
Photography: Vitali Gelwich
Photographer's Assistant: Robin Lambert
Stylist: Ben Schofield
Make Up Artist: Daniel Sallstrom
Hairstylist: Virginie P Moreira
Alejandro Ghersi has spent a year exposed, both on record and in the flesh. As Arca, he's ignited shock and awe by cracking himself open and projecting a world of human complexities, at once bloody and otherworldly. In doing so, he's become one of music's most essential figures, trampling boundaries under foot as he strides toward greatness
Arca opens the door of his Stoke Newington home wearing a red crop top, little black shorts and thigh-high, black PVC boots. It’s an elaborate outfit for a Monday afternoon, but by this point I might have been disappointed if I’d been greeted with anything less. The genre-bending artist, real name Alejandro Ghersi, has become almost as famous for his gravity-defying footwear as he has for his fiercely indefinable music.
Ghersi is quick to point out that he doesn’t spend his life in heels. Today the 28-year-old wears this particular pair as a form of protection against the exposure that is implicit with being interviewed. What about their growing size? “It's not a coincidence,” he admits. As well as today's use as social armour, the boots also act as a defence mechanism on the battlefield of Arca's live performances. “Now that I really think of it, the more intimate and vulnerable the music becomes, the higher up, physically, I have to feel in order to be able to face it. I raised myself up with heels, then I raised myself up with the boots, and then I raised myself up with the stilts, and the last show that I did this year [in LA with Kelela and Total Freedom] I asked for Olympic rings so I could be suspended. It's like a form of shape-shifting – I needed to grow taller in order to go deeper into myself.”
On his self-titled album, released in April of this year, Arca went deeper into himself than ever before. On opener Piel, the first words Ghersi sings are “Quitame la piel de ayer”, which translate to ‘take my skin of yesterday off'. As Ghersi discovers what's underneath, listening to the album can at points feel like you are staring into an open wound, but these visceral tales are sent heavenward with Ghersi's voice. Vocals aren't new to the Arca project. But on past albums, 2015’s Mutant and 2014’s Xen, they were always under heavy distortion or slathered with electronic effects, as if being channelled to you from space. With Arca, Ghersi had reclaimed them, singing in his native language of Spanish.
“My relationship with my voice is so symbolic because I stopped singing at 17 when I left Venezuela, and I started singing 10 years later [on this record]. I never thought my voice was pretty enough.” As a teenager, Ghersi produced dreamy synth pop under the name Nuuro with moderate success. His move to New York at 17 gave him the courage to pull the plug on the project, which he regarded as untrue to himself. “I think my life was very hard to live for a period, and I'm teaching myself that it doesn't have to be that hard anymore,” he explains. “And the only way for me to even accept that my life was hard to live was through making art, and through making this album.”
As he began to synthesise his wonderfully amorphous sound, Ghersi initially worked behind the scenes. He produced music for the likes of Dean Blunt, Kanye West, FKA twigs and Björk – who’s described their collaborative bond as the strongest musical relationship she’s ever had. Of Björk's new album Utopia, Ghersi co-produced 12 of the 14 tracks. In an email sent to Crack Magazine, Björk offered her thoughts on working with Ghersi: “It has been incredibly lush to follow Alejandro grow for the time I've known him. It has been a steep glorious curve! His musical DNA is fierce and stubborn but also full of effortless genius flow. And he so rarely carries a talent for both being a luminous visionary and having telepathic capability of knowing other's musical needs and being able to create them. I am so excited about his future!” While working on her 2015 album Vulnicura, Ghersi helped Björk on her journey in a new musical direction. At the same time, Björk encouraged Ghersi to make use of his vocal talent within his music – the result is Arca.
The record was created in Ghersi’s home, following visits to Abney Park Cemetery, an infamous North London cruising spot a few minutes’ walk away. “It means so much to me to have that place,” he adds dreamily. The room we’re sitting in feels like an extension of outside in some ways. Natural light dances across natural wood, and flowers both fresh and dried adorn the fireplace at the centre of the room. Ghersi lights a candle, breathing in the smoky scent. He describes his experience of creating the album as being akin to a trance-like state. The songs were summoned from deep within his subconscious. “I barely understood what was coming out of me. I would just hit record and improvise. The intentionality comes in later for me, where I have all these songs and you build a visual universe and strive towards making it understood.”
The haunting, operatic vocals are inspired by a style of singing called the tonadas. These are loosely defined as the work songs of the agricultural labourers of Venezuela’s llanos (vast central plains). “There's a way of singing tonadas, it's full of longing,” Ghersi explains with his eyes closed. “They were always slow and sad, they were the songs where yearning and melancholy were expressed. They shaped something inside of me, they were something that I just related to. I think why they mean so much to Venezuelan people is because there's a joyfulness and a cheerfulness that defines the character of Venezuela. But this longing and sorrow, which all humans have, found its way out through the tonada. I like to think that anyway.”
This inspiration is most evident on Reverie, in which most of the lyrics are directly taken from famous Venezuelan folk artist Simón Díaz’s Caballo Viejo. Díaz himself was a huge inspiration for Arca, who tells me the artist was a sensation in Venezuela, with his own children’s TV show running alongside his successful career as a singer. “He had so many different sides, and I really related to that. Maybe this is my projection, but there was so much delicate, painful longing in those songs. Maybe I recognise in Simón Díaz the split; he disowned his sorrow and could only come into contact with it because he had to, and he would do that through his tonadas.”
As Ghersi says this, my mind darts back to a time when he created his own split. In 2014, Ghersi's alter ego character Xen – a warping figure digitally-rendered by close collaborator Jesse Kanda – served to embody an album of the same name. Ghersi has spoken about how the character, officially genderless but addressed with female pronouns, was instrumental in letting him explore ideas of identity and femininity. Whereas Xen fractured identity into pieces, Ghersi cracked himself open for Arca. Throughout his live shows and music videos, imagery from Kanda revelled in a startling, intense, and often-confusing sensuality: metal grates and rose petals; Ghersi’s angelic voice rising out of his bruised and battered face in the visuals for Sin Rumbo; Arca embodying both bull and matador under a pink light as he stumbles about bleeding on cloven-hooved stilts in the visuals for Reverie.
“There's a lot of imagery in the album and the campaign where I'm wounded and injured, and in hindsight it's so clear that it was important for me to symbolically communicate that because I didn't actually know where it was coming from,” he says. Just as Kanda's visuals painted the rawness of the album in fleshy extremes, the act of performing saw Ghersi work through it physically. “This year was one of the most important years of my life,” he tells me. “This album and the live shows were such a mirror – they mirrored a lot of confrontation I've had with myself psychologically and emotionally. I think I was blocking myself off from feeling a lot of different things. I just had to be brave enough to not give up. I would finish the shows and feel so drained, and I had to learn to save some for myself. The moment where I learned to do that, I started to enjoy the live shows even more and the shows got even better. I was letting the pain and the pleasure co-exist.”
Arca often touches on the delicate balance between pleasure and pain. The longing felt for a lover who does more harm than good, the anguish caused by a lover’s carelessness, the literal image of a bleeding backside in the video for Reverie. At times it seems he has chosen to present queer sexuality in a way that is severe, almost monstrous. He mulls over the idea for a while, telling me he prefers the word ‘mutant’ when discussing queerness. Like X-Men? “X-Men was so influential to me. When you think about the premise – people who have powers that are so misunderstood that just want the best for everyone – that's gayness.”
Ghersi is familiar with the feeling of otherness. He remembers watching cartoons as a child and being unable to identify with the main character (“Batman and Robin? Whatever Batman, I was so into Catwoman”) and later the only other gay person he knew about had been asked to leave school because of the disruption caused by bullying. “I think we all have parts of ourselves that we're uncomfortable with, or that make us feel like freaks. But some people, for survival, need to tuck it in more than others. If you're in a country where, for instance, being gay is not as problematic, maybe you don't have to use as much energy to tuck that in.”
He ventures that he thinks everyone is queer in some way: “What queerness is as a word, what it represents, is ideological. The word itself is trying to define something that is undefinable. The word queer has shifted meaning because it's allowed it; it's whatever doesn't fit in.” Just as his music dances euphorically around restrictions, Ghersi values the power in his own ability to morph and change. “True generosity to oneself I think can be in expressing, but I very much resist becoming beholden to a form of expression,” he explains. “Musically my albums change so much. I think if I don't repeat myself I don't feel trapped by expectations. As long as I can keep morphing, then I feel happier.”
Now that the shows are coming to an end, Ghersi has permanent scarring on his knees from dropping down on to metal grates. But he isn’t bothered by them. “I'm glad for those scars because when I look at them I remember that I don't have to do that anymore.” There has been an overwhelming sense of catharsis to the project; the feeling that we are witnessing someone heal in real time. In our increasingly frantic and time-poor lives, really letting yourself process anything at all has become a radical act in itself. “I think dancing between extremes is probably the best bet you have to know all the different sides of yourself,” he elaborates, “so I don't believe in rigidity or only wearing these boots or only wearing sneakers. For me, it's really important to be able to do both. I think the older I get the more I take it on as a mission to not deprive myself of feeling any kind of way; to let myself feel sorrow, and anger, and joy – that one's hard. Just to let yourself feel.”
Arca is out now via XL Recordings