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Space is the Place

Avant-garde electronic pop artist Glasser has had a musical and personal epiphany

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

It’s summer in New York’s East Village. A white cockatoo sits patiently on the shoulder of an old man deep in conversation in the last of the day’s sunshine. Just down from him, a younger group are sprawled on the pavement, dressed all in black and smoking earnestly. Everywhere lounge dazed souls — there’s at least one on every street, propped up against shopfronts hugging their rucksacks as if they’ve just landed in the city of dreams and are waiting for their new life to stroll round the corner. 

It might be 2013 in the rest of the world, but in the East Village it’s permanently 1967. Sure, today it’s awash with tourists bleeding their dollars into the ever-mushrooming chi-chi bars, sushi joints and organic supermarkets, but the aura remains. The area is a living, breathing monument to the layers and layers of myth, legend and gossip that history has heaped upon it, and the paths forged by Patti Smith, Andy Warhol et al attract new dreamers still.

High above the chaos, within walls heavy with their own layers (decades of paint and paper, whitewashed but very much present), sits one such dreamer in a vivid orange dress: Cameron Mesirow, the artist better known as Glasser. The large white sofa she’s resting on bounces the early evening light around the room. Oversized beaded necklaces hanging from nails and the abundant green of potted plants break up the white space. 

Mesirow is not new to the music game but it’s here, in her newly adopted home of New York City, that she’s made the album that will define her career. Interiors is astonishing. Sonically and vocally, it is wildly experimental – she counts Joni Mitchell, Autechre and Art of Noise as influences – yet the songwriting beats with a pop heart. It is potent, sexually charged and teeming with life. Make no mistake, this isn’t sex as male-gaze-pandering titillation, packaged in clichéd, chart-friendly couplets, but sex from a singular female perspective: intimate, all-encompassing, ecstatic. This is pop for consenting adults: music for awake minds. 

For Mesirow, though, it began as an album about space. “It’s all about spatial matters,” she reflects in the cool, white surroundings. “Space between myself and other people, space within my own self, and also my feeling of occupying space in the world. Especially since I moved to New York.” Her preoccupation with space springs from an anxiety she feels in urban areas. “I’ve always struggled with anxiety, spatial anxiety actually, but especially since travelling around the world when I did (debut album) Ring,” she explains carefully. “When I leave the confines of a room or a house or a building of some sort and I’m out in the world, I have a tricky time. Sometimes I have fear about crossing a street, a big wide street. I say this rationally, knowing that it’s not rational, but I have a serious panic that I won’t make it.” What does she think will happen? “The fear of not making it to the other side has to do with being afraid of falling down and not being able to get up and no one helping me. Thus realising my fear of being completely alone.”

When I leave the confines of a building I have a tricky time. Sometimes I fear crossing a street, a big wide street. I have a serious panic that I won’t make it

Certainly, the space Interiors occupies is a million miles from that of Ring (2010). Written in her former home of Los Angeles, Ring is a concept album with no beginning and no end, its dense instrumentals circling that sure, pure voice of hers. It got her pegged as a spiritual, hippy sort, an image she encouraged by performing in robe-like garments accompanied by band members in tribal masks. “Maybe initially wearing stuff on stage that was big or concealing or just crazy was a great way for me to feel like Glasser but then I moved beyond it.”

For Mesirow is Glasser now, and Glasser is Mesirow. While on Ring she tiptoed around the anxiety that has plagued her adult life, mentioning the sleep paralysis that shaped her music in interviews yet being coy on record, on Interiors she names her fears. The record is all the more powerful for it. 

Our external circumstances shape our inner world, and for Mesirow touring the world with Ring then moving to New York generated a constantly shifting landscape that aggravated her anxiety attacks. But the opposite is true too: our inner lives can change how we see the world. There was the solidifying of a new relationship that shifted her headspace – more of which shortly – and wise counsel from her best friend, long-time collaborator and artist Tauba Auerbach: “She said, ‘If you’re afraid of falling down, why don’t you look up?’” Mesirow ended up looking up so much in so many different places on tour that she noticed architecture she’d never seen before. When an anxiety attack hit she would manage it by putting her hand in her pocket and imagining the space inside it, and then imagining herself inside the room of a building she was looking up at. “Then it dawned on me that all of this was happening inside. I’m the moving building that’s walking around: I’ve got this house here to reckon with. Whether or not I want to, I’m always going to live here. There it is, that’s what my life is about right now, and that’s what my fear is about.” 

Her relationship with her house – how to feel comfortable in her own self — is something she had to reckon with early on. “When I was a kid I travelled so much by myself and I’d have headphones on the whole time, and I would get super into music. I really relished those times because you get so much deeper with yourself when the routine is gone. Everything is called into question. I love that; I need it.” 

Whether or not I want to, I’m always going to live here. There it is, that’s what my life is about right now, and that’s what my fear is about

The reason for the solo travelling is because her parents split when she was seven, with her dad eventually remarrying and moving to Berlin (he now works with the performance-art troupe Blue Man Group). At the time they were living in an artistic community in a rundown neighbourhood of Boston, Massachusetts. Both her parents were musicians – her mother was infamously a member of cult new-wave band Human Sexual Response – which meant she was surrounded by music and art from the very beginning. 

“When I was five or six my dad wrote a song called ‘Cameron’,” she recalls with a grin. “I remember it being ‘wow’, opening up the doors of perception basically. Some people do hallucinogenic drugs to open up the doors of perception; other people just listen to music.” 

As a kid her musical heroes were Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, the latter because she was “that kind of singular woman: strong and dancing, and being powerful and girlie at the same time. I took to that, I really liked that a lot.” Her pre-teen years were soundtracked by R&B and then, following two moves in California in the space of two years, she threw herself into grunge and then punk. “I had ownership over those choices. That decision when we moved to that next place – ‘I know who I am and I know what I’m going to be and I know what people are going to think about it.’ It was some serious attitude but it was born out of all the frustration of ‘who am I?’”

Some people do hallucinogenic drugs to open up the doors of perception; other people just listen to music

She jumps up to fetch a photo album, turning the pages with delight as she points out a photo of her heavily pregnant mother, her belly — with Mesirow inside — brightly painted for a fancy dress party. And here Mesirow is dressed up as a ballerina, and look, her mom is dressed as a ballerina too! 

There is much about Mesirow that is exclamatory. She often gasps with pleasure at a shared memory, and guffaws just as quickly. (She jokes about sounding like Marge Simpson when she laughs and demonstrates as much: she’s good at impressions.) Then, when she learns my best friend lives overseas, she exhales an empathetic pang of pain — the hollow sense of separation is an emotion she can easily draw on.

The idea of being haunted by emotions is something that plays on her mind. “I always think of lust and pain as phantoms that you’re living with or chasing after. They’re so hard to pin down and when you look back on pain it’s impossible to experience it again. Similarly when you look back on lust. They’re just phantoms.”

At the heart of Interiors is “Design”, Mesirow’s favourite track on the album. It’s ostensibly about devouring a piece of sweet, dripping fruit but the metaphor is obvious. “It’s a song about lust, and that feeling of consumption,” she explains. “Lusting after someone and having someone is like consuming them.” The description calls to mind Suzanne Vega’s “Undertow”, in spirit if not in sonics. “One change that has occurred for me is that I don’t feel as embarrassed about being a sexual thing any more,” she says. “Initially I was like, I’m not writing about love and I’m not writing about that. But I feel that when I avoid that discussion, I’m avoiding a real, living part of myself. That part of myself is very much alive.”

“Design” started out life as a poem. “I just wrote it out as I thought of it, from a real experience, just wanting to capture the experience in some capacity. The words came, and then the melody came.” As a whole, the album is by turns wet and rich, playful and dramatic. It jumps from wistful to lustful in the blink of an eye. “I wanted to have these constructed environments; I wanted to portray that construct that exists in the mind, like, ‘I’m inside of this,’ or, ‘I’m outside of that and I want to get in.’”

Of “Landscape”, which imagines being intimate with a lover as traversing foreign terrain, she says: “I remember when 
I wrote it I was thinking going back would be such a long distance. A long, lonely distance. Back to your own landscape when all you want to do is stay.” Because who wants to go home when that means without? “No sweet fruit there,” she says with a mischievous smile. 

Interiors was co-produced by Henrik von Sivers, who Mesirow credits as both inspiration for and “sort of the architect” of her album. “Henrik is a really intense sound hearer; he hears sound in a different way than I’ve ever noticed before.” The two live together in New York, having begun a relationship after collaborating on Ring and its ensuing tour. Under his recording name, Van Rivers, von Sivers has previously worked with Fever Ray and made techno specifically for playing at Berlin clubbing institution Berghain. “It made him a perfect person to build the rooms. I had stuff to create space with and Henrik knew how to build the room. We’re extremely different as creative people but, by chance, we complemented each other. 

I suppose it makes sense that someone I share space with would also be a great person for understanding the space I want to create with sound, but it’s also kind of funny because it’s so complicated and intimate.”

It might have sprung from fear, but Interiors is not an album about someone running scared but someone bold enough to name their fears and create an empowered space beyond them. 

“What I need to do is find a solution,” Mesirow says. “That’s the goal in my life, to find peace within myself. Writing about those things specifically, naming specific fears about crossing the street and things like that, those are all means for getting to that peace within myself but they’re not the ultimate solution. The solution may never be found and I’m aware of that and okay with it. I just think humans need work, and this is my work.”

Interiors is released on October 8 on Matador Records