It was just over two years ago, in July 2009, when Elizabeth Walling saw the light. Or rather, she saw focused beams of light that we usually call lasers. Jammed into the Corn Exchange in Brighton to experience Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray project in all its starkly silhouetted, costumed and unrelentingly creepy ambition, her eureka moment came with the realisation that with on-stage anonymity came potency and a freedom to be as dramatic as you like. With her first band A Scandal In Bohemia, a “crazy, manic, OCD, electronic funk jam improvised thing”, having recently dissolved, Elizabeth had shifted her attentions to a solo career but found herself becoming disillusioned with the music industry and with living and performing in Brighton. “Same old venues, same old people,” she smiles wryly. “It’s a great place to be, to perform and work out ideas, but I got very bored performing the stuff that I was writing at the time, as ‘myself’ with just a few band members. It didn’t feel dramatic enough.”
Seeing Fever Ray changed that. “I had been wanting to go really deep into a whole warped identity concept, but at the same time I didn’t want to just go sporting silly outfits for the sake of it,” she explains, “and then it all just went shhhhoooomp in my head. Like, okay, you don’t need to show your face at all, and you can really have a lot more power, in a way, if you’re not obliged to chat between songs, like ‘Hi guys, did you like that song about the apocalypse?’…It just all made sense to me in that instant.” And so Gazelle Twin was born, or rather reborn from its more primitive origins into a high-concept, multidimensional art piece. Craving simple things like structure and melody after three years of A Scandal In Bohemia’s freeform entropy, where songs weren’t ‘written’ in any conventional sense (though some of her solo works were adapted by the band), Elizabeth chose to channel her magnifying ambition and ideas into exploring audio and visual avenues over which she had total control.
The Gazelle Twin moniker arose from an online anagram generator that discarded something like ‘lab hi’ from her own name (which she says she didn’t use “for obvious reasons, as it just didn’t seem very interesting”), and by chance contained a coincidental reference to The Song Of Solomon, a “kind of racy” book in the Old Testament (previously set to music by the likes of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Sinéad O’Connor) in which a woman’s breasts are compared with the “twin fawns of a gazelle” – “I thought that was kind of cool and had a nice duality to it,” Elizabeth smiles. It’s worth noting, too, that just as Fever Ray is no mere character, Elizabeth sees Gazelle Twin as not just one thing but “more like a phantom thing that can change”, adding that “it’s a part of me that is quite alien and withdrawn from my normal life” and that she’s still learning about it even as her creativity feeds it.
Growing up in the Yorkshire town of Harrogate, which she describes as “a small, floral spa town where there was F all to do except get drunk in the park and be a bit of a goth, and talk about leaving all the time, which I did eventually”, Elizabeth dabbled in a bit of formal flute training as a child but it wasn’t until she had finished her A-levels that she decided to pursue a career as a musician. A self-taught singer and pianist up to that point, she had to go back and “do all the boring theory stuff”, gravitating towards choral and orchestral compositions in the process, and it’s this grounding in contemporary classical theory that lends Elizabeth’s music a striking, modern elegance. That elegance is one of three things that first stand out when listening to her Gazelle Twin debut, The Entire City, released earlier this summer; the vein of spirituality that runs throughout the lyrics and a Fever Ray-esque use of androgynous, pitch-shifted vocals complete the trio.
But before you all rush in with cries of copycat, Elizabeth insists that the use of treated vocals felt like a natural development for her. “I’ve always been very fond of choral music, particularly male tenor voices and counter-tenor voices. They fascinate me, and I kind of had that in mind for the album, to have a strong contrast of male voices like a Russian choir, very masculine and low. Unfortunately I didn’t have anyone like that to sing with so I ended up just doing it myself, pitch-shifting my own vocals into reverberating choruses. Fever Ray obviously does it a lot on her album, and I just really love the whole weirdness of it. It’s a great way of almost cutting through your femininity as you can’t really hide it unless you’ve got a really masculine voice, and it’s useful for adding texture.”
Describing her songwriting process as starting out with beats, bass and phonetic sketches of lyrics “almost like a lump of clay that makes absolutely no fucking sense” then chipping away until something starts to cohere, “usually a bit cryptically and symbolically”, Elizabeth admits that things often get quite spiritual. Despite this, and having grown up “in vaguely Christian surroundings”, she’s a self-professed atheist, saying that any residual religion was lost when she moved to Brighton to go to university and became “quite immersed in philosophy”. “I’ve always been fascinated with existence and civilisation, and the fact that it’s all quite strange really,” she laughs.
It’s tempting to view The Entire City as a concept album with a narrative arc of gods and monsters, but Elizabeth is a little reluctant to concede this. Though she had picked the title long before she’d written the bulk of the album, in the end she had around twenty songs to choose from so any thematic progression she says is purely an unconscious by-product of the album’s dynamic journey in terms of how it transitions between the grandstanding, cinematic feel of the bookending songs ‘The Entire City’ and ‘View Of A Mountain’ through some relatively spare inclusions like centrepiece lead single ‘Changelings’.
Though it takes its name from a series of panels by surrealist painter Max Ernst which Elizabeth describes as “quite intense and abstract…not really a city as such, but more an organic mound of wood and rock”, The Entire City is not entirely recondite in its subject matter; Elizabeth’s own process of acclimation after moving from a small town to Brighton (which, together with neighbouring Hove counts as a burgeoning metropolis of just over 250,000) is woven into its details. The accompanying visuals, too, are very much inspired by Elizabeth’s personal experiences. The recent video for ‘Men Like Gods’, for instance, contains footage she shot at a pagan festival she went to in northern Sardinia earlier this year.
“I was researching costumes online when I found a video of some tribal-looking men wearing masks and animal skins around a fire, and after doing more research I found that it was part of a festival that happens a few times a year. The pinnacle of it is the end of winter – as it is with most European pagan festivals – and it’s marked by this incredible procession which involves cattle and livestock, and deals with daemons and survival in weird kind of ways,” she explains.
“Each village has a different style of costume and different rituals, so I want to go back some day. There’s one village which apparently has a man dressed as a ram with freshly severed horns and smeared with blood, and their ritual is to basically beat him up like he’s an animal and drag him around the town with pretend entrails pulled along behind him which are then ‘eaten up’ by the women. It’s totally like ‘What the fuck?’ but it’s incredible and thousands of years old, and a really serious generational thing.”
Attendees of Gazelle Twin live shows needn’t worry though; there’ll be no disembowelling on Elizabeth’s watch. You might want to bring an extra pair of underwear though, if the audience reaction to her Gazelle Twin live debut at Shunt Vaults (RIP) in London last April is anything to go by. “Everyone was really freaked out as we were playing on a six foot high stage in an enclosed room filled with intense lights and smoke, just visible through an archway; I wanted it to be a bit like that scene from ‘The Fog’ where all the ghosts come back into the church. To the audience it looked kind of like we were hovering above the stage to an intense drone backdrop, and everyone was asking ‘Is it a girl? Is it a guy?’ – I really liked that.”
When Elizabeth takes to the stage at Electrowerkz in London tonight for an “album launch” show, she’s planning on making an even bigger impact. “I’m a big fan of bands who move and have a choreographed unison, like in a Prince show where everyone’s jamming and then suddenly they all just have one movement together and it’s the best thing ever,” she laughs. “There’ll be a lot of visuals too as my ambition for each show I do is for it not to be just another gig. I want to be able to go into unusual venues and kit them out so that walking in the door is almost like walking into some sort of dream. I want people to come out of it and say ‘What the hell?’… Obviously, there’s a limit to what I can do in some places.”
A key element to the staging of the live show is the installation of an interactive version of The Entire City, a sort of “virtual world video game” which Elizabeth commissioned from a Dutch company called Champagne Valentine to bring a more immersive element to music sold in digital format. “It’s very goth. It’s got a giant eye,” she laughs. “As this album was initially intended to be digital only I really wanted a fun techy thing to provide a bit more enjoyment, more of an experience. If all you’ve got to show for the music on your computer is a 300×300 jpeg, what’s the point? You might as well just have a plain white square.”
Speaking of walking into a dream, the story goes that Elizabeth’s digital distribution company were so impressed with the album and all its visual extras that they offered to give it a well deserved physical release on both CD and vinyl – quite a feat for a woman who admits to not having invested a great deal of time in consciously cultivating a fanbase. Of course, when an album is as breathtakingly expansive and impressive as The Entire City, it can take only a whisper or two to build into a roar: Hi guys, have you heard this awesome song about the apocalypse?
Vote for The Entire City in Wears The Trousers’ Venus Prize poll here.
‘Men Like Gods’
‘I Am Shell I Am Bone’