Laurel Halo sings with strange voices

© James Perolls
Suit: Atelier NA

Words by:

Laurel Halo is staying weird. Her delivery is often deadpan, she is self-deprecating, and prone to adopting eccentric accents when she makes fun of herself. You can hear the humour in her music. “When I’m working on a track, I always know that I’m heading in the right direction when something makes me laugh,” she explains. “Because that means that it’s completely stupid and silly; it means I’ve taken off my protective taste blanket for a second.”

We’re sitting outside a café in Kreuzberg, in a corner tucked away from the noise of Kottbusser Tor, on an afternoon that stays warm and sunny despite the frequent rain of the last few weeks. Our interview comes at the tail-end of a small round of press for the Michigan-born artist’s new album, Dust, out now on Hyperdub. Ranging from contemplative and sorrowful to outlandish and fun, the album is entirely unpredictable. Halo once said she was getting bored with basic harmonies and chords, and Dust makes it clear that she’s still on the quest for strange sounds.

On Like an L Halo recorded the sound of a wheelie suitcase being pulled across a moving sidewalk at an airport. Koinos features Eli Keszler on the glockenspiel, amped up with LFO so that it unnaturally detunes and loses its footing. The melody of Who Won? is exaggerated and emotional, Halo calls it a “pathetic sax melody.” She does a silly but spot on imitation of the sax line, laughing. “I wanted this track to toe the line between existing in this sort of noir, steam-through-the-manholes vibe or this thick, humid summer day right before the rain comes down… But at the same time, the sax is just wailing and doing its thing.”

At times, a track on Dust will slowly disentangle itself and, before you notice, the beat and the vocal will become mismatched. It is an effective organised chaos. “There are moments in the album that are beautiful, but there are also moments that are candid and imperfect. It’s important to not be afraid of that. It would be impossible for me to perfectly execute a genre exercise,” Halo says, smiling. “There would be a voice in my subconscious saying” – she adopts a buzzy, high-pitched accent – “‘Make it weird!’”

Dust was recorded over a two-week period at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in upstate New York, starting in January of 2015. Halo reached out to artists whose music she admires to contribute to the album, and ended up working with Klein, Lafawndah, Eli Keszler, $hit and $hine’s Craig Clouse, Julia Holter, and Diamond Terrifier.

The album’s lyrics, like Halo herself, are headsy. A few years ago, she wanted the vocals on her first album, 2012’s Quarantine, to sound ugly and strange. “It would have been too boring to have just a dreamy, pretty album,” she explains. That manifesto carries over: often on Dust Halo seems to favour sounds over actual words. I suggest it’s reminiscent of scat singing in jazz. “That’s so cool,” Halo replies, but she shakes her head. “I think it’s more that when I listen to songs with vocals, it’s very hard for me to grab on to the words. I get sucked into the quality of the voice and the delivery. So the way my lyrics sound might be due to the way that I listen to vocals on other recordings.”

© James Perolls
Shirt: Atelier NA
Pants: Antonia Goy

All that considered, Dust does suggest a relationship with jazz; there are hints of improv and jam session vibes at the heart of the record. “I have a deep love for jazz and the spiritual potential of the genre existing as a statement of resistance or a yearning for freedom,” Halo says. Her first taste of jazz music came from looking through her parents’ record collection. When she started at the University of Michigan, she became a DJ for the college’s radio station, WCBN, which had a massive archive of jazz records. Her love of the genre grew from digging, and today she counts icons like Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Don Cherry among her jazz heroes.

Halo jokes that she’s got a background in “fake jazz” but she has played the piano for most of her life. She can mess around with a guitar and some mallet instruments, and she played the violin for a stint. At U Michigan, where she was pursuing a music degree, she was part of the Creative Arts Orchestra, and because they had a pianist already, she auditioned on violin. “I very much don’t know how to play the violin, I just kind of faked it,” she laughs. But they let her stay on. One night, at a gig in a small venue in Ann Arbor, they found out that the bassist Henry Grimes was going to join them. “I was just terrified, I was so scared, like, how am I going to be able to not make a fool of myself?” She laughs at the memory, her self-deprecating humour at work again. “But he was very kind and encouraging. I learned that there’s no one right way of doing anything. You know that classic musician rule? If you make a mistake, just play through it. If you play a wrong note, just own it! I think I owned lots of mistakes during that concert!”

Eventually Halo dropped her specialty degree, and decided to pursue music as a passion project. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Halo was born into a creative family — art, not music. Her mother does ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and often works with clay. Her father is a painter. “There’s a level of communication that we were able to reach talking about expression that we might not have been able to otherwise,” Halo says, suddenly lowering her voice. “That was a really beautiful thing.” Art and creativity has helped forge a deep connection between Halo and her father: the artwork for 2013’s Chance of Rain featured a drawing by him. Dust offers up even more of a personal presence. A headless Halo features on the cover photograph, standing in front of a sign in Berlin, where she’s lived for the past four years.

The personal presence extends to the music, too. Although Dust might feel like it was born out of Halo’s more playful side, sorrow and anxiety exist in the record, both lyrically and musically. “I think in a way I’m searching for a sense of peace with my music,” Halo says. “So I hope that people get that same sense of healing from listening.”

Photography: James Perolls
Styling: Christina Van Zon

Dust is out now via Hyperdub. Laurel Halo plays the night programme at Simple Things, Bristol on 19 October.

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