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Grouper makes music to be alone to

Oregon artist Liz Harris shares a track she made among Portuguese ruins, and talks about the ghosts she discovered there

There are some albums that were made to be listened to alone. Grouper’s Ruins is one such album, made to be heard in the most solitary state possible: think middle-of-the-night, underneath-covers, headphone-wearing kind of alone. After all, experimental Oregon-based artist Liz Harris made the record, released via Kranky in 2014, several years ago during one of the most solitary periods of her own life. Staying in a remote Portugese coastal town named Aljezur among actual ruins, in a house with no power and only a piano to keep her company, she let her soul rattle uninhibited into a battery-powered recorder.

The result is an album in which the solitude is almost tangible. You can hear it in album track ‘Lighthouse’ streaming for the first time below: while her expansive surroundings buzz and croak around her, Harris sings with an emotion so raw and so familiar that she scarcely needs to raise her voice above a whisper to have you completely arrested, like a lighthouse appearing faintly on a pitch-black horizon. Before her intimate live show at St John at Hackney church next week, Harris spoke to Dazed about how she learned to take care of herself while watching the ocean and living with ghosts in Portugal. 

This album is rooted temporally and physically. What can you tell us about your time in Aljezur in 2011? What kinds of things did you think about on your daily walks? 

Grouper: This trip coincided with a time where I was just beginning to revive some vital part of myself, to be present in my own body – as a person trying to care for others, as someone engaging with the world. I’d been through a really heavy break-up years prior, and following that, had got very lost in a work/alienation void. When I went to Portugal I had just started trying to date again. Just starting to pay attention to world news again. All I could see were monstrous reflections. On a broad scale, of humans, how we treat each other (war, torture, capitalist greed and neglect). Closer in – all sorts of faults of mine, how much work lay ahead for me to do before I’d feel more human. I felt like a true failure. I felt angry and critical.

That anchorage seems to come through not only in the album’s texture – as it’s all recorded in the same way – but also in its themes. It feels like you’re trying to make sense of emotions by making them into ‘stuff’: objects that can be held on to or smashed. Do you visualise problems and feelings this way? 

Grouper: I definitely have to see my emotions in order to make sense of them. I’m instinctually moved to transform them into poetic landscapes, the weather patterns that act upon them. My emotions are a storm – for me and sometimes for others. They seem to come from outside of me, and often don’t necessarily have a logical source point. Just a downpour I’ve been caught in that I have to find a quiet, dry place to wait out. That’s the logical thing to do, though I still often find myself, in attempt to control them, taking notes from outside, trying to force unruly data into an equation. Predict the weather – and then what, run away beforehand? Annihilate it before it arrives? I enjoy playing with patterns. There’s a beauty and calm in it, also a real absurdity.    

You’ve spoken before of suffering from insomnia. Was this a sleepless period for you? Does that have an impact on your creative process?

Grouper: I think that I slept really well, actually. Except one morning when I was woken early by a storm. It lasted all day; cut the power through the following night. 

Lack of sleep affects my wellbeing, which must in turn affect my creativity. I’m sure sometimes it’s a positive effect/affect.

Right after Portugal was when I began the period of travel and performance that made me really sick and sleepless, which ruined my body for some time. My brain stopped adjusting back and forth to different time zones. Too much stimulus. And stress. Alone on the road, coming home to be alone there too. My voice just got quieter and quieter, the energy drained from me. I stopped sleeping, unless I took mega doses of melatonin or 5HTP. In Japan I broke apart. I made a choice to take care of myself as soon as I got back. I went to a naturopath who pointed out that I was severely anaemic and probably had been for 20 years, and that I had no vitamin B in my body. I started going to therapy, and moved to a quiet town. I slept almost 11 hours a day for about a year.

“In the ruins I walked through on my way to the beach… there was something still there moving around the buildings. I could feel it” – Liz Harris

Thinking of failed structures and ruins, it’s striking how the tracks bleed into and reference one another, existing outside of the lines. In what ways do you think your surroundings impacted on the structure of your work?

Grouper: It was a huge relief to be without phone or email, at times without power (my recorder was battery operated). Being in such a beautiful, calm and minimal setting helped the drawing-out process that was already beginning to happen on its own. Being near water always helps with this for me. Watching waves and rivers move can bring such relief, a kind of bloodletting. Strong, medicinal metaphor. In the ruins I walked through on my way to the beach… there was something still there moving around the buildings. I could feel it; forced myself to pause my walk and sit quietly on the bricks each day, get to know it. 

What relationship did you feel ‘Made of Air’ had to the rest of the songs that made you include it?

Grouper: For the final arrangement I wanted a parenthetical structure. This album is a kind of closing. I don’t know what that means yet, I’m just writing what I see. Most of Ruins is quite recent. ‘Made of Air’ is one of the first things I ever recorded. It was initially done on MiniDisc. I re-recorded and processed it live on to tape about six years ago in an attempt to salvage some version of it that didn’t have digital clipping, then rediscovered it later. I like the idea of a circular rather than linear closing – an end that returns to the beginning. 

Grouper will perform live at St John at Hackney Church on April 23. Get tickets here