The Queer Ecologies of Elysia Crampton
Steph Kretowicz profiles the experimental musician
“I always try to make myself read something before I do an interview,” says producer Elysia Crampton – through Skype, from an apartment in La Paz. “I spend weeks without really speaking to people so by the time I do, I feel like I’m all over the place.”
It’s afternoon in Bolivia, nighttime in London, and the opportunity to have a conversation with the US–Bolivian producer – who recently released her album American Drift on FaltyDL’s Blueberry Recordings – hasn’t been easy to come by. But given her current circumstances, living in a remote village about five hours out of La Paz in the province of Pacajes with her grandfather, it’s understandable.
“My grandpa has a farm with llamas, alpacas, bulls, cows and sheep. It’s just him on the farm so I started coming down, but then I would come back [to the US] because I had different things there,” says Crampton, who has hitherto called the state of Virginia her home. “But now – officially coming down here, so to speak – and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m going to go back up [to the US] anymore.’ I might just be here for the rest of the year. It really depends on finances at the moment.”
Given that Crampton has been so present online in recent years, it might come as a surprise that she might have been so comparatively disconnected. She’s a peripatetic artist whose lived experience includes a migration and heritage that crosses the so–called Americas. Her work and ideas emerge from and filter through a dispersed identity that’s both networked and anchored across social media platforms: music shared via Bandcamp and Soundcloud; thoughts and ideas in posts on Twitter and Facebook.
“I didn't get a proper laptop till kind of late – in my late 20s,” she says. “Once I was able to afford the technology, I started branching out. That was when I began uploading music and the more sampled-based stuff I was making for fun. I just wanted to share what I was doing with those that might enjoy it.”
This drive to share or “being-with” manifests itself in a body of work that goes back to 2007. Until recently, Crampton has performed under the moniker E+E, influencing a slew of artists with her early online releases (2011’s Bound Adam, 2012’s The Light That You Gave Me to See You). These releases function as sound collages built from samples of the artist’s broad influences, ranging from traditional Andean music mutations like cumbia and huayño, to avant-garde, jazz and noise music. You can hear her approach to these seemingly crude constructions – thrust together in a confusing, sometimes overwhelming but ultimately thrilling compositional chaos – resonate through the work of producers like Felicita, Jam City and J. G. Biberkopf.
Now there’s the ambitious American Drift, Crampton’s first “official” album. Its central themes are rooted in Spain’s ill-fated mission in Virginia but – like its double–edged title insinuates – applies to a colonial history that extends well beyond the Southern region of the United States. “Out where I’m living it’s basically like a ghost town, but on these holidays everybody from the outskirts comes and it becomes a party town,” she says, about the Christian festivities that happen around the village of Rosario, where she currently lives. “But they’re all celebrating Spanish holidays. You see glimpses – shimmers of this old indigeneity.”
As a hitherto US-based artist of mixed Anglo/Spanish and indigenous ancestry, raised in the Christian Adventist Church and identifying as a trans woman, it’s perhaps this complicated relationship with Christianity that Crampton embodies with what she calls her own “born again experience,” which led her to change her name and pronoun. “The thing is... if you would speak to me, you’d probably think I was an atheist and – like – an abomination to the church, but I try to give testament to my own real experience of being born-again," she laughs, when asked about her frequent use of Christian codes and signifiers in her speech.
Crampton recalls this period of enlightenment as less of a single moment and more a sequence of events that marked her spiritual and physical transition. “I don't really share stories about that time of my life with other people, mainly because it's still difficult to put into words.” She speaks of her formative years, where bullying by strangers and teachers alike led her to hide her pre-teen cross-dressing. “I never realized how extreme that was. I'd go to back and forth between these polar opposites, trying to erase this record of my inability to stay on one side.”
When it comes to constructing Elysia Crampton, however, it feels like attempts to do so would only fall short. In an hour and a half–long conversation, Crampton touches on queer theorist Eva Hayward, Aymaran freedom fighter Bartolina Sisa and black studies writer Jared Sexton. Her upbringing seems anything but generic, too: shaped by a semi-peripatetic life lived across Mexico, California and Virginia, and an early career trajectory working with disabled adults.
“My family has a multi-generational history with disabled adult care in the United States. This service work helped pull my immediate family out of poverty and strongly influenced my understanding of how identity is constructed.”
All of the theorists, scientists, and philosophers she mentions transcend categorisation. And for Crampton, they contribute to a perspective that’s at once universal and incredibly personal. “As a teenager out of school, I began to uncover classical psychoanalysis and philosophy in my free time, outside of working at a sorting factory. In fact, I got fired from that job because I would print texts using the company photo copy machine.”
I can go through that gait, moving with those cascades, those cadences, and emerge liberated in the music.
Right now, within the glut of references to miscellaneous theory, philosophy, biology, religion, Crampton is describing a recent discovery among her uncle’s old tapes. “I found the most beautiful thing. It’s this singer. She’s a typical huayño singer, like Alicia Delgado, who also was reportedly a lesbian, a campesina singer. This stuff sounds like it’s probably from the ’60s. The music is very minimal – charango, guitar and female voice – much like the music from Potosi. I’ve never heard anyone play the charango like that, either.”
Compare Crampton’s own music to this unknown artist, or even one like Delgado, and you can identify a sound that runs along similarly dislocated rhythmic melodies – albeit within different eras and approaches. Theirs are melodies that run both in parallel and in opposition to one other. They’re stable, but they could also fall apart.
“Sometimes I want my music to soften the hard edges of reality, not reproduce them,” she writes in a recent Facebook post, addressing comments that were taken out of context on the embedded power structures of high quality music production.
“Clarity can be overvalued," she writes, quoting Katie King. "A gaze intensified constantly in the same direction can fool the mind, make one feel as though they have the complete picture and therefore can make the best judgment.” It’s here, perhaps, where Crampton’s sound and public persona are at their most mutually effective.
“I’ve always been drawn to music because, in the context of art, you don’t have to nail down and cut away all that is usually considered auxiliary or excess,” she tells me. “Text was used to police the Andean body, but with music it’s about movement. I can shatter it. I can go back to when all my chemicals were formed in a Supernova and I can express that musically. I can express that explosiveness of being that I feel, that violence I carry with me – the ruthless trace of that violence that still lingers. Even if I feel like someone’s ripped me up and taken me to pieces, I can go through that gait – moving with those cascades, those cadences – and emerge liberated in the music.”