Writing Songs about Weird Things: an Alicia Edelweiss Interview
Alice Edelweiss talks on music, life and excitement
Vienna-based musician and street performer Alicia Edelweiss is about to release her first full-length album “Mother, How Could You”. Alicia spent the last four years travelling and busking in various countries. In 2015 she did three European tours, both as a member and supporting act of the folk-punk band Old Trees. She’s recently left the band to fully focus on her solo work. “Mother, How Could You” will be released on CD by Austria’s Glowing Records, Bulgarian DIY label Kontingent Records will be handling the tape release. We already shared the news about her debut album, now here’s a vast interview with Alicia conducted by Ivan Shentov seconds before she left on her European tour on April 11, 2016. Thanks to Franzi Kreis and Florian Razocha for the photos.
Hello, Alicia! Your new album “Mother, how could you” is out this month and you’re also doing a small Euro tour. Where is this taking you?
I will go all around Europe! From the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea! Across the Adriatic Ocean up to the North Sea! On my way to the Sofia gig in April I will play 4 gigs in Romania and Bulgaria. Then the second Balkan tour will happen in May and lead me to Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Croatia and Slovenia!
Then I will fly to my beloved Portugal and have a mix out of touring and holidays for around three weeks. Some days after my return to Austria in June I will begin the last tour through Germany, Holland and France. So it’s a kind of fragmented tour you could say, but I am glad I will have some short breaks in-between!
The CD is going to be released on this Austrian label called Glowing Records. It was recently founded by a friend of mine to support his live Drum and Bass/Hip Hop band “Glowing Eyes” and to help out all of his friends by getting them on the label! So basically it’s a bunch of drum’n’bass DJs, some electronic bands and me! I am producing all the CDs myself, but the label is helping me out with some of the tour booking and promotion and all of this stuff. It feels so good not to have all the burden on my shoulders anymore but to work as a kind of team, so this collaboration is probably going to be an on-going thing.
Then the Cassette Release will run over the Bulgarian Noise label Kontingent Records! They release mostly Noise music, often all hand-made releases, and I got in touch with them after my show in Sofia last year. I feel super excited to have the album on tape, cause I never really had a tape player or tapes myself, but now I will surely get right into it.
It’s really funny the album will be released on a Drum and Bass and a Noise label and I feel really honored that such cool and nice people are helping me out and think my music is worth it to be supported!
Your first EP is called “I should have been overproduced”, and now you are about to release a full album with 10 songs via two different labels. Tell us more about the songwriting and recording process in Mother, how could you and maybe some funny stories about the songs and their meaning.
Well the songwriting happened over the last two, three years. I kind of collected the best songs I wrote since my EP or rather the ones that finally felt “finished” and complete. Then while recording, the songs did change also, because I had the freedom to experiment and once I actually dreamed of what was missing in one song. I was still wondering about “My three Walls”, it’s a very slow, kind of CocoRosie-style song with accordion and e-guitar. And I just didn’t know how to end it, it didn’t feel finished. And then I dreamed of sheep moaning, and I woke up and I knew “I need to put some sheep at the end!! The sheep I recorded last summer in Wales!! Yes!! It’s brilliant!!”
That was a pretty cool feeling, inspiration coming when you need it. When you are creating all the magic happens by itself. Sometimes I try to plan too much before and think I can create a piece of art in my head. But usually the best stuff just comes while you are right in it. So yeah the whole process took a really long fucking time! All in all I recorded these songs during a period of over a year. Most of the songs I had already been performing for quite a while. Some songs I had never played live, because I hadn’t found the right instrument or the way to perform it that felt good and showed the true self of the song.
Is your new album “overproduced” when you compare it to your older recordings? I know it’s recorded in a DIY manner at home, and I always like to know more about the process of creating something beyond the boundaries of the rules of the music business. How long did this take, what equipment did you use, did you have some prior knowledge of sound recording, or you just learned your way through it?
To be honest I would say that the actual sound quality of “I should have been overproduced” is probably better compared to the new album! We recorded it in a small studio of a music school in Portugal with good microphones, though all at the same time – voice and guitar.
This new album I recorded mostly with my Zoom H4n in my parents’ house, an old ragged laptop and Audacity. But yeah, I see this album actually as “more produced” because I put a lot more time and effort into it, but still it’ll never reach the level of overproduction! It’s too raw and though I recorded several extra instruments and sometimes second voices to the tracks, it has still stayed incredibly simple in my eyes. Every song just got the minimum amount of “extra-stuff” – stuff I wouldn’t be able perform live – what it needed.
I had no clue about recording, that’s why I wanted to do it. I had bought the Zoom cause it seemed very handy also for live recordings. And hey, it’s a microphone, so why buy a condensator mic that is made especially for recording if I’ve got a mic already? Sounded good enough to me, so I decided it was good enough for the future listeners! But I had to remind myself constantly of this – “If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough. If I like it, it’s good enough. The opinion that matters most is mine!” – I really struggle sometimes with this topic in my head.
But I absolutely hate this quality-fetishism, people trying to create things in the highest quality possible, and what for? I still don’t get it. It’s just so people buy and buy and buy. The content is not going to get any better by that! I fucking love the raw sound of the first albums of many musicians. And that’s why it was really important to me to home-record as well.
Well, anyway, I had shitty headphones, so I always tied thick woolly tights around my head so you wouldn’t hear the sound through them. I didn’t have one of these things you put in front of the microphone to block off special noises, and I tried to make one myself, but kind of failed and didn’t know why, so I just recorded the voice further away from the ZOOM. I think you can hear that when you listen to the album that the voice is not very close. I recorded each instrument and vocal track separately and I was all on my own, so it took ages and I was faced with many technical problems I hadn’t expected.
Like this I fought myself through each song. I often thought “Why for fucking’s sake am I doing this???” But somehow I just couldn’t see any other option. I really didn’t want to record with anyone else, because I wanted to have time and space to experiment, to decide all on my own for once. And that was the great fun in the process. To be the one who edits and cuts and can record a track again and again without stealing anybody else’s time and without any deadline.
You are from Austria (Vienna) but I know you do travel a lot besides touring. What is the best place you’ve been to and the weirdest place you have played a gig?
I just traveled around Europe so far. I kind of felt at home when I came to Portugal, because I made great friends there. And it was actually also the end of my big traveling times. I decided I wanted to stay in a place and have a room and just focus on my new dreams. The weirdest gig I’ve played was perhaps in a cellar of a really posh house in Vienna. It was really dirty and dusty and the owner locked it up the next day because she was scared of the ceiling falling down! I played in almost total darkness behind a stone pillar so nobody could see me and people were just standing and feeling weird I think because it felt so uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
Tell us more about Portugal, where you have lived and played for some time?
Oh, Portugal! I don’t know why I am so obsessed with it! I think it’s because I met such nice people who made me feel at home! There was no language difficulties, cause everyone speaks perfect English there and they have this incredible welcoming culture.
But I must say, when I came back to Austria I was really relieved to be able to walk through the streets alone or sit in a park, without being catcalled constantly by old bored mustached men lingering around in street corners. But I heard it’s just way worse in Porto, where I was mostly, than in the Southern cities, like Lisbon. Suddenly I somehow appreciated the coldness and indifference of Austria! Well, I worked in a hostel, I lived in a house doing construction work, worked in an eco-farm and did wwoofing in Portugal. And for a while I was renting a room in a shared flat with lots of painters! For some reason I felt it was just so much more chilled and relaxed than Spain, where I also spent quite a while. People talked more quietly, didn’t shout all the time. Also busking was way easier than in Spain! Even the police is a lot more chilled and I didn’t have to be on the look-out anymore, like I had to be in Spain.
Your new album starts with a song called “Unfriendly People”… and I know that besides a touring musician you are also a street performer. How is that different as a setting compared to playing an organized gig in a club or a venue? Do you get chased by the cops a lot? Also do you make a lot of money, haha?
I used to travel mainly while travelling, now I busk mainly in Vienna. But I never felt so good busking here, it’s always weird in your “home-town”. You are not the foreigner anymore, you understand people being rude to you and you will be affected if the police fines you. There’s not this careless attitude of “Hey, I’m gonna be gone anyway tomorrow. I just need a minimum amount of money for some food and then I’m gonna hitchhike to the next place.” Here in Vienna, where I have decided to really do the busking consequently I get myself a street license every month. The places are shit, but you will have good ones on 4 days for 2 hours each. Then there’s also some free spots, also not very good, but useful. I actually stopped playing in the places where it is illegal, because it just got too tiring for me always having to be in alarm mode and having to stop when the cops came. I never got fined though, but I want to feel relaxed when I play. I like to mark my territory while I play, build a small comfort zone, put things on the ground, make it look nice, and for that I want to know I can stay there for a while.
Money-wise it depends. For sure I can say that I make more money if I enjoy the playing. If I am thinking of the money it goes relatively bad! Right now at this time of the year, I’ve been earning on Kärntner Straße (the biggest shopping street for tourists) in two hours something between 20 and 70 euros depending on how I am feeling, if I have CDs and so on, but mostly something in the middle.
Oh and to answer the other question – how the settings are different: On the street I really love playing acoustically and being able to scream my lungs out without having to be bothered by technical stuff. I also don’t have to satisfy anyone really. Perhaps also knowing that some people really look down on you because of what you are doing, gives you even more freedom. You know you can only make a few people happy on the street, most people will not bother to listen or will be too afraid to listen because they don’t want to give you any money and will try not to even look at you. Like this you will end up not giving a fuck. On stage I often feel I have to make a really good show, because people have taken their time to come and there’s this pressure to want to satisfy everyone! At the same time now busking feels more like my job, because I get paid for it and I have a routine. And doing gigs feels more like a very wobbly thing, sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid, but it is more like living my dream. I can do crazy things that I know would just be a waste of energy on the street. I can talk about what the songs mean to me. I can make people laugh at concerts, which I have never managed to do on the street, because people just don’t listen to what I am singing about.
How would you describe your music and lyrics to someone who has never heard it?
I kind of write songs about weird things that happened or didn’t happen to me and then I try to feel it really hard and get really emotional about it. Then from time to time I scream the lyrics cause it’s great fun. When I perform I like to stroke chicken soft toys to emphasize my profound lyrics. Sometimes I play on guitar, sometimes on accordion, then on the piano and when it fits I throw in a bit of synth bass from my Kaossilator. I normally see it as a compliment when people think that I am slightly mad after hearing my lyrics. I like to exaggerate everything! I don’t sing about anything important really.
I used to play this song called “The Cockroaches and Me” which contained the word “anarchist”, so all the anarchists really liked it. But actually I never dared to tell them that it was really to be taken literally about anarchist cockroaches and my at that time dislike to anarchist humans. But if I was you, I wouldn’t take my lyrics very literal! At times it might be disturbing!
What are your plans after this small Balkan tour?
After this small Balkan tour I will return to Vienna to release the album! Then I will go on a big Balkan tour in May and then on a Portugal tour and then on a West European tour in June! Then in summer I would like to have no appointments at all, travel around, do a lot of busking at street festivals if possible and save money to buy myself a van and a driver’s license! I reckon if I want to tour and have people with me and play with a band, I really want to have a vehicle. It’s also awesome travelling light and with public transport, but can be kind of exhausting. To be honest, I love having lots of costumes and weird things and instruments with me that give me more possibilities how to create a show and it’s frustrating not being able to pack all of the stuff into a backpack.
Hey, and what ever happened to Old Trees? It seems like the band split up shortly after the 2015 tour, what’s the story behind that? How can you compare being in a band to making music and touring as a solo performer?
The last tour we did was last September with a folk-punk band from the States “Moon Bandits”. The plan of Old Trees was actually to record a new album with the new band line-up, but I kind of knew that I just couldn’t put this amount of energy into Old Trees now, to write new songs and record them etc. I would have to postpone getting my solo album finished and released again! I had kind of made it clear from the beginning of when I joined, that I might not stay forever, actually I only wanted to go on the Balkan tour, but then I kind of loved it and thought I might stick around for way longer and went on the next two tours as well. But I felt I just had to move on and focus on my stuff now. So after our last concert in Berlin we kind of broke up. Gos, our washboard player felt like she wanted to move on with other projects, so she went back to Warsaw to the Occupied Gardens and Gui, the guitar player, who founded Old Trees stayed in Berlin, where our tour had ended, and I went back to Vienna. I think Gui has been through so many different Old Trees line-ups, they just didn’t want to look for new members again, so that’s how it ended so suddenly.
It was great making music with other people, being like a team, supporting each other, not feeling you are all alone there on stage. I wasn’t used to that! It was good to decide on the music together, how we would play things, what felt good. But at the same time I also love playing and making music solo so much because I don’t have to make any compromises and don’t have to be scared of anyone rejecting my ideas or thinking I’m being too silly. I was playing my solo stuff with a friend here in Vienna and actually now that we stopped playing together I found out that he had felt uncomofortable playing some of my songs. I would love to play in a band again and build it up from scratch with other people who want to make something similar and with whom I connect musically. And now I am playing with some people who enjoy to play in my solo-project, but I really don’t know if it will last for long, we’ll see.
I haven’t really been on a big solo tour yet! On the bigger Balkan tour I will travel with a drummer and a visual artist and the rest of the tour I will do totally alone and I am a bit nervous about that. It’s scary for me playing to a totally strange crowd without anyone I know inside.
We’re expecting the release of two videos that support your new album, and I know one of them is featuring your parents dressed like a monk and a nun, and the other has a crucified guy in it! Tell us more about these videos and please, tell us more about your parents being involved in all this!
Both of the videos were so much fun to make! The one with my parents to the song “We’re all fucked up” was filmed in Wales! I came on a camping holiday with them by the seaside and brought all my camera equipment in the van. I kind of knew already what I wanted to film before we left and told them of my plans. First I thought it would be more in a silent movie style, now it totally turned out to be like some British comedy home video or something like that.
Well, my mum once participated in a live performance doing an interview with me dressed as a nun. So I knew she wouldn’t say no to this. She is up for a lot of things and she even once asked me if I would go busking with her, but to be honest I would still be slightly embarrassed busking with my mum dancing around playing her recorder, so I kind of talked myself out of it. Then my dad, well, I wasn’t too sure if he would be up for it so I was really surprised when he said okay, and turned out to be a really really good actor! I think while we filmed it I didn’t tell neither of them that I would make a music video and put it on YouTube. After it was edited I asked them if it’s okay with them, hahaha. They told me when they were following my instructions they didn’t quite realise that it would look so funny in the end. They were irritated at times, cause it was quite hot and they had to wear these long costumes while cutting long grass and pushing wheel barrows full of rubbish. It took me again 1 ½ years to finally finish cutting the video – I tend to be slow with these things! And when I showed it to them, I swear I heard my father laugh like I had never heard him before! I am so glad that they like it and the film has their consent you could say!
Yes they are both very supportive. My dad persuaded me to join the school choir when I was ten, so I think he really wanted his kids to sing. And three days ago when I went home for Easter he told me that he had also done busking in a period of his life when he was broke trying to pay the rent! I don’t understand why he never told me? Well, anyway, my parents both love to sing, but of course they wanted me to study at first. When I was still traveling around they were a bit worried and from time to time when I came back my mum tried to convince me to start studying again. But when they saw me starting doing gigs and having a clear vision of what I wanted I think they started to trust that all will be fine and that I know what I am doing.
Do you have any newer songs that we will hear on this tour and are not on your album?
Oh yeah, 50 percent of what I will play will probably be new songs! I don’t feel like playing a lot of songs anymore, some songs just don’t have this timeless feeling to them. That’s the thing with this album, I performed many of them already so many times it’s like they are the old songs really. I can’t wait to record the new album!!
You are usually incorporating different weird costumes and stage antics in your live performances, making it pretty theatrical and sometimes grotesque. Are those connected to the lyrics of the songs?
I don’t think so much about symbolic connections when it comes to the visual part of it. I like to just do anything that looks and feels good and silly to me. I love it even more when these things have no connection at all to what I am singing about! In “The 11th Commandment” I started stroking my soft toy chicken all the time while talking because it was the first time I performed a song without an instrument and someone else was playing so I could perform freely. And it felt weird not holding a microphone or anything, because I was performing it almost acoustically the first times, so I just took the chicken to hold something in my hands. It has absolutely no meaning to the song, but it became part of the performance! And now I feel weird when I can’t stroke the chicken properly but have to hold a microphone at the same time!
Also, I’ve always wondered about the story behind that weird golden hat that’s something of a “signature” Alicia Edelweiss outfit! Do you still have it?
Yeah, it’s sitting in my wardrobe with the chicken right now! My mum bought it in this really cheap supermarket you have everywhere around Austria and Germany, called “Hofer” or “Aldi”. I’m truly sorry there’s no better story to tell about the hat! She gave it to me just before the Balkan tour with Old Trees and I’m really surprised that it’s still doing so well despite all it has gone through and its cheap quality!
What’s the story behind the name Alicia Edelweiss? Is this your given name, or is it a moniker (pseudonym)?
Actually Edelweiss is my birth name. But in Austria it just sounded incredibly stupid! It’s our national flower, you know. My parents were a bit naïve and didn’t realize that you just don’t call your daughter Edelweiss by first name! Here it’s a name for beer and bottle openers and lighters and restaurants and hotels, but not for humans! I think they had to put up with a lot of scorn and laughter introducing their baby to Austrian folk! My mum stopped calling me Edelweiss in public, but just called me “Del” instead. And when I was five they told me I could pick a new name. So I chose Alicia and we changed it officially. Some years ago when I had to choose an artist’s name, it was a kind of “coming-out” to call myself Alicia Edelweiss. It had been one of our dark family secrets…