Tone Glow 031.5: Lafawndah
An interview with Lafawndah for a special midweek issue
Yasmine Dubois aka Lafawndah is a culture-mashing drone diva. She’s London-based but was born and raised in Paris to an Iranian mother and Egyptian father, and her sonic touchstones spread far beyond any of her familial or geographic roots. Her new album, The Fifth Season, draws from the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop. Almost every track draws direct inspiration from the work of others. Opener “Old Prayer,” for example, is a remarkably straight-ahead cover of Lili Boulanger’s “Vieille prière bouddhique,”and it’s followed by “Don’t Despair,” an extended take on a Beverly Glenn-Copeland song. Raphael Helfand spoke with Dubois over Zoom on September 16, 2020, discussing passive cultural sampling, Scott Walker, and more.
Photo by Charlotte Krieger
Raphael Helfand: How are things in London? I know England is having a bit of a spike right now. What’s the mood like there?
Lafawndah: I don’t read the news currently, so I’m sure you’re more informed than I am.
The mood is that it’s very sunny, and everyone’s in the park, eating pizza and drinking beers and being very joyful and bright. That’s the vibe I get.
Have you been out and about, or have you been staying in?
Umm, I have officially been staying in.
What has your day-to-day been like during the pandemic?
Since I got here, I have photo shoots, interviews. I’m seeing friends, I’m working on a video, I have meetings. It’s pretty full-on.
How long ago did you get back to London? Where were you before that?
I was in Paris before that. I just got back to London maybe four, five days ago.
Well, we only have 30 minutes, so I’ll jump right in.
You’ve created a bit of a mystique around yourself. You haven’t done many interviews with major publications, and there’s not much information about you online. Are you hoping your listeners will create their own imagery and mythology around you, based on your music alone?
I just think it doesn’t matter as much as the music. That’s it. That’s my answer. I’d rather you spend time with the thing that I give from me to you than all the noise around it and the photos and the interviews. It just feeds an economy that I’m not really interested in participating in. I’d rather you listen to the music and watch the things I put a lot of time and effort into.
Sorry for being part of that industry.
No, it’s okay.
(nervous laughter) In your past work, you’ve left yourself and your music open to interpretation. You even released a remix album for Ancestor Boy, giving other artists control of your work. Are you a believer in the death of the author? Do you think the intention behind the music matters or that the end product and the interpretations that can be drawn from it are the only things worth exploring?
The death of the author… I’ve never thought about that. No, I think the thing that’s interesting to me is just that I love collaborating, and I love when the music I make is an entry door to many other things, whether it’s more music from other people or an idea or a movie or a historical event that you didn’t know, that I also didn’t know about that long ago. But the thing that’s important to me is that the music is not the end; it’s the beginning. So when I invite other people to reinterpret, it’s not so much to have a take on the death of myself as an author. Sure, once it’s out, it’s not really mine; it’s yours. And there’s an intentional invitation from me to give it to other people to reimagine things. Then the album, instead of becoming an end goal, becomes the beginning for something else. I like that idea.
Do you want people to understand the intention behind what you’re doing, though? You do a lot of intense mining from cultures all over the world, and you’ve said in the past that you feel you really need to digest whatever you’re using in your music, that you’re not just sampling. Do you feel it’s important that people get that?
I don’t think they need to know all the labor (briefly laughs). The point is not to flex about sources. The point is for the music to stay with you and live with you and hopefully also make you imagine in ways you weren’t imagining before. That’s what’s important, not so much anything else.
Do you think it comes through when an artist hasn’t done that work? Can you tell when someone is sampling from something that’s not theirs and that they haven’t fully processed?
I feel like I can tell, but I also feel like it’s because I’m very sensitive to that. I know for certain that a lot of people cannot tell the difference, and that a lot of people are unbothered by that. It’s not only what you borrow from where, but also how you express an emotion. Whether you went through it or not doesn’t really matter. How you express the emotion is what music is. I can hear very clearly when it comes from a place I believe in. It’s really hard to explain that. It’s not a science; it’s just an intuition. Music that I don’t believe, I usually say it’s “corny.” That’s how I use that term. But I know for a fact that most people are not sensitive to that—either do not care or do not feel the difference.
It’s very easy now, with all the algorithms we use, to passively consume other cultures. Do you think the average listener can tell the difference between the authentic product and something that’s just an aggregation of popular sounds?
It’s the same answer. I can, but I know for a fact that most people are either not interested in the difference or can’t tell the difference. I definitely can, for sure. I think when music is embodied—and we can talk about samples all day long, but I’m not only talking about samples, I’m talking in general about music that is embodied by someone—it’s very clear when that is the case versus when it’s just a mood board, trying to make “dark” music or “weird” music. I know the difference between a mood board and embodiment. When music is embodied, I won’t even question where it comes from, because however you did it, you did it in a way that is very much yours, and I’m very sensitive to that. But these are just my criteria. I can’t apply them to most listeners. Based on what’s popular and what people enjoy, I can tell that they either don’t care or don’t know the difference.
I know you’ve traveled to specific places to immerse yourself in a sound, like when you went to Guadalupe to record your zouk EP. Do you think you need to experience a culture in person to gain the right to sample it, or do you think that connection can be made on the Internet and still embody the music?
Ummm, I don’t know if it’s about going somewhere. I think the question that’s interesting when you have everything at your disposal, and you come from Western culture—it’s not the same when it’s the other way around—is why? Why do I take this? Why does it sound like this? I think you need to be able to know that answer for yourself. If it’s just because you like it, it’s probably not gonna be enough. If it fits the whole vision of that thing you’re doing, and that vision is an embodied vision, then no one cares if you take a sample of something that comes from elsewhere. We won’t even want to know. We won’t even question it if it fits a hole. The question that needs to be answered is, “Why do I make music that sounds the way it does?” If you can’t answer it, maybe that’s a problem.
You said you don’t read the news much, and that you’re not a fan of the music media industry, so I’m assuming you don’t read much music journalism. But I was wondering if you think the same principle applies there. Do you think writers need to fully understand why they like or dislike whatever they’re writing about for their criticism to be meaningful? And when we’re writing about stuff outside the “Western canon,” do you think there’s more of a responsibility for us to know what we’re talking about?
I don’t know. I think it’s important to be aware of who you are in the world. You can feel that in the writing. If someone knows their place in the world, and they talk from that place, that’s cool. Those are the points of view that seem like they’re talking the truth. It’s important to know who you are, what your power is in the world, where you’re situated in comparison to other things, other people. It’s an issue in music and art and cinema when the power is over here, and we talk about things that are made elsewhere. We have a certain expectation or understanding of the history from over here, and the things we consider authentic musically could be very limiting to the people who don’t come from here, because it’s still a very Eurocentric and Western-centric point of view and narrative.
On the new album, you’re the one interpreting the work of others, rather than offering your own work up for interpretation. And your interpretations are much more direct from the source than anything you’ve done in the past. I know that the album is based on a concept from the Broken Earth series, and that at least four of the songs are interpretations of other artists’ work. Your choices are really diverse, and some of them are surprising. How did you pick the artists you did? Were they just the ones you were listening to or reading at the time, or was there a more systematic reasoning?
There was definitely no systematic reasoning. The album came together in a way that was out of my control, to be honest. The last one was very much about having control over everything and wanting everything to be for me and from me. It was very me-centric. Your first record, you need to do that. Of course, it was also to open my life onto the world. But there was a lot of control, and it was me deciding pretty much everything. I finished that record, and when you spend so much time on your first record, which I think everyone does, you have a moment of flotation. I didn’t feel like I was lacking things to say creatively, but I had this moment where I was like, “Now what? I’ve done it this way and I’ve said these things. Where is it going?”
The only thing I can say about the new album that was extremely intentional was that I knew for sure that I wanted to lose control. I wanted to change up the process completely. I didn’t want to sit in front of my computer, in front of a blank page on Ableton. I wanted to be with musicians, I wanted to improvise, and I wanted to bring in the electronic production aspect of my work after losing control, to take control back again. So I had a strong intention of how I wanted to set that up. But as soon as I was in the studio with these people and it was all happening, something interesting happened: the record made itself. I set up an intention to lose control, and then it happened. The record needed to exist in the world, and somehow it chose me. There was no, “Ah, it would be so great if there was Lili Boulanger!” It just came together through things I was interested in.
It all came together like glue, but only because I decided to let it move through me. These things all came from somewhere, but I don’t know why they ended up being together in this moment. I mean, I think I know now, but I didn’t at the time. I finished the record in December, and people around me were quite surprised that I already had an album, and I was like, “Yeah, it’s so diametrically opposite from the last one. It just used me.” The other one was so much about me needing to make an album and needing everyone to hear it, so much will and power. I pushed it to exist. It was not an easy process at all. It was me against the current to make it happen. But as soon as I decided the next one was about losing control, everything fell into place. And when I was done, it was a big surprise, even to myself.
And then COVID happened, and now I understand that the album was premonitory. It was announcing what was gonna happen. The fifth season literally happened in the entire world two months after the record was done. So now I understand a bit better why I had nothing to do with it. It just had to exist in the world in this time, and I was luckily the messenger.
A lot of your inspiration on this album—Jemisin, Tempest, Camus—was not musical but literary. What appeals to you about musically interpreting poetry and prose?
It happens in quite strange ways for me. I don’t really feel like I decide. There are things that need to exist. I was talking to my partner the other day about how I don’t do covers that much. And the few covers I’ve done, it’s never been about me loving a song for so long and being like, “Oh, I would love to cover this song.” They’ve always been songs that just came through me from one day to another. I hear them once, and there’s something really obvious about the fact that they need to live a second life through me. I think it’s the same with texts or poems. The [Kate Tempest] poem has an existence of its own, but somehow it was very obvious that it needed to be a song. Kate was very kind to trust me on that and let me do my thing and rearrange the poem. It wasn’t like, “Oh, that would be so cool to do that. I’m thinking about it.” I was on tour with them, and I was at the merch stand while looking at their show, and I just picked up one of the books they were selling, and I literally just opened to the page with the poem. I closed the book and I know I had to sing that text. It was obvious.
Well it turned out really amazing. I love that song.
There’s a sentence in the promo for The Fifth Season that says the album “anchors [you] as a descendant of forebearers Brigitte Fontaine and Scott Walker.” I’m making the brave assumption that this rings somewhat true for you and isn’t entirely PR nonsense. They’re obviously both icons, but I’m particularly interested in the Scott Walker connection because I have an unhealthy obsession with him. What’s your favorite work of his, and what do you try to take from him into your own work?
Well, I did a cover of “Bouncer See Bouncer.” The thing I really like about his career is that it’s like if Justin Bieber was suddenly making… Scott Walker (laughs). Having a career where you start by being so polished and candy-like and then getting weirder and weirder with age, and experimenting more and more, is a very interesting trajectory to me. I really admire the time he has taken in his career. I know it’s a different era, but I really admire artists who have an answer to the pressure of doing things in a certain way and have always been on their own trajectory.
To disappear for 10 years and then come back with the weirdest record and disappear again and continue to experiment with sound… I’m really attracted to the lyricism in his voice and the way he tells stories. The language of his writing is insanely beautiful. It really sounds like nothing else. But I also love how it’s this beautiful, lyrical voice paired with this insane production. There’s a lot of friction there. I don’t know, I like weirdos. I like one-offs. I like people who open doors instead of follow a highway. I would say the same for Brigitte Fontaine. They are people who—there wasn’t anyone before doing that, and there probably won’t be anyone after doing that. But they open possibilities for those who come after them. These are my favorite kinds of artists.
You said there was a lot of collaboration on this album, and it was less of just you alone with Ableton. But you also mentioned how it sort of prophesied our current moment of doom and solitude. I think that even without the lyrics, it feels much darker and, ironically, more solitary.
I don’t agree with “darker,” but that’s just me. I think there’s tension, but I think there’s a lot of light, and I hope people hear that. If it’s the soundtrack of a moment in people’s lives, it’s the music of the day after the end. Yes, there are ashes, and you can see things smoking in the back. But you also are at the beginning of something that’s very beautiful and exciting. I react not too well to the word dark because I find it a bit one-dimensional, and I’m not interested in that emotion in itself. I’m interested in how we overcome that. I’m interested in tension, but I’m not interested in making dark music. But that’s just me. You can feel however you want to feel about it.
I guess what I meant is that it feels very lonely. Were you lonely while you were making it? Was there a sense of impending doom, even back in 2019?
No. We composed the music and improvised together. It’s true that my writing process, for the vocals, is always quite solitary. I retreated from the group and spent a week or two writing and recording alone, but that’s always been the case. It was also the case for Ancestor Boy. But that’s also why I’m saying that this is a prophetic record. And it has nothing to do with me. I’m not giving myself props by saying that. But it is prophetic. So no, at the time, I wasn’t necessarily feeling like that. But it announces a feeling that I think we all share now.
The record was actually supposed to come out in May. It was ready at the end of December, and it was supposed to be announced in March, literally at the beginning of everything. We were all in shock about the timing of it. It was very strange. We decided to push it because we thought it wasn’t the time. There was too much death and darkness to divert people to it, to take attention from that. It felt in bad taste to release it in that moment, but the truth was that it was really made for that. Not that we’re not in it now, but it was right on time for the collective feeling that I was not feeling when I made it. So that’s why I don’t know why it ended up sounding the way it did, other than that it was just on time for people to feel some kind of companionship.
Do you think now could be an even more appropriate time for it to be released, now that there’s somewhat of a sense of coming out on the other end of the apocalypse?
Yeah, I think it’s perfectly on time. It felt very right at the time when it was supposed to come out, and it also feels right now. The focus is more on the light part than on the doom part, and I think that’s even better.
Purchase The Fifth Season at Bandcamp.
Photo by Ib Kamara
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