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Colin Self
Colin SelfPhotography Eileen Emond

The joy of Colin Self’s futuristic opera

The composer, choreographer, and performance artist talks love, family, and happiness, and shares a new video for ‘Survival’

Colin Self’s artistic practise spans performance, choreography, sculpture, and music. Last November, the US-born, Berlin-based artist released Siblings, both their second album and the final part of a six-part operatic series called Elation (the previous installments of Elation were primarily performance pieces). You don’t need to be familiar with Self’s past work to appreciate Siblings on its own merits, though. It’s an ambitious record, an unlikely combination of lush and lilting songwriting, experimental sound pieces, and hyperspeed cyber-techno. At the core of the album is the voice: choral harmonies, processed vocal phrases, spoken word poetics, and Self’s own countertenor.

On Siblings, Self explores the role that non-biological families have played in their life. Like many other queer people, Self had to seek out these communities, and found the relationships and familial bonds they provided to be intrinsic to their happiness. Groups like drag collective Chez Deep and queer living space Casa Diva have fulfilled this role for Self before, while friends/collaborators Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst, who Self performs with as part of Herndon’s live trio, are also family.

Self performs at CTM Festival in Berlin tomorrow (January 30), with a show that they describe as “a quick and dirty experiment for me to have a choir that also works as a theatrical body: ‘Can we turn a choir into a moshpit?’, essentially”. Ahead of that, they’ve released a new video for “Survival”, which was shot in Ayerbe, a town in Spain, with co-director Santiago Latorre. We spoke to Self over the phone to discuss love, family, joy, and survival.

Siblings has been out for a few months now. Has anything about the response to the record surprised you?

Colin Self: The most unexpected thing for me, and maybe my favourite thing, has been people who live in small towns who related to a lot of the complex emotions of the record, and who were really feeling the feelings. A part of me wanted to make this record for people who were living in places in the world where being queer and living daily life is a struggle. It’s been an ongoing, crazy gift to have these messages sent, even in a language I don’t speak where I have to translate it.

What’s something you learned about yourself while making the album?

Colin Self: Oh my God, there are so many things, I don’t know where to begin. My friend Jam said this thing: “You have to make a record to learn something about yourself.” You have to create a mirror for what you have experienced in order to go on and make the next thing.

I think one of the craziest things (that I learned) in the process of making this record, and having it be out in the world and having people respond to it, is how immensely important these familial experiences have been for me in the last 12 years, how deeply they have informed who I am as a person. I started to write these songs and I was like, “Wow, the continuing thread of all this has to do with these relationships.”

Really, that’s the root of my entire adult life at this point, becoming family with people and knowing that it’s temporary. The people who drastically changed my life when I was 20/21 in Chicago, I don’t really get to see anymore, because that’s just how queer time works. We don’t have this biological chronology. I have ‘reverence without nostalgia’ for these relationships. I think that’s something I’m still trying to unpack now. How do I look back upon all of these relationships and experiences, not in a way of, “I wish I could go back there!”, but like, “I’m so glad that this happened, and I have to trust myself that even though I’m on my own, it will happen again in my life.”

You’ve previously said that critical theorist Donna Haraway’s essay A Cyborg Manifesto helped shape your understanding of yourself. In what way?

Colin Self: One of the biggest threads that she touches upon in the book is that cyborgs are composite beings, created through this non-binary conjunction of material and immaterial things. She repositions our concepts of what is natural and what isn’t. That very much made sense to me.

I think this comes back to Siblings, in a way. I’ve always felt that my sense of self comes from the assembly of others. I can’t quite articulate how complex I think that equation is. I feel very conscious of this when I’m with my people.

Siblings is the final part of this six-part operatic project, Elation. What that opera was actually about?

Colin Self: (When I was first making it) a lot of people were into the Mayan apocalypse and 2012. Living within that, I think, produces a very specific type of nihilism and apathy. I felt the need to combat that. As much as we want a quick meteor to hit Earth, the apocalypse is a slow, slow burn that will take probably hundreds and hundreds of years, and as such, we will need to create stories and ways of being that are conscious that the future will exist. We have to think about the years ahead rather than just revelling in mourning.

Donna Haraway says that creating joy is vital to the art of surviving on a damaged planet. When I’m pointing towards ‘elation’, it’s never been to deny that we are in really big trouble, across the entire world and in different circumstances.

Do you consider yourself an optimist or pessimist?

Colin Self: I think that’s a dangerous binary to fall into in this era. Naming something as optimistic or pessimistic negates so much complexity about what we experience. What we have to do instead is have a less individualistic concept of how we see things. When we begin to unravel the complexity of having five or ten people’s concepts of the future co-existing, it requires new language to be named. I had this question too with my friend: we have these words ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’, but we’ve yet to come up with a language for the thing that’s in between.

“I’ve always been a freak, and when you are a freak, you go around the world and find other freaks” – Colin Self

How do you find your people, these non-biological families?

Colin Self: It’s almost like a good and a bad thing that the answer is not so prescriptive. I don’t think I could easily point towards this, other than that I’ve always been a freak, and when you are a freak, you go around the world and find other freaks. And usually they’ve already found their assembly of weirdos. It’s so different, geographically and socio-economically, how and where people find each other. It’s kind of a mystery. Now that you say it, I’m like, “I have no fucking clue!”

Is there a particular piece of advice, or lesson you might’ve learned, from being within these communities that you think about often?

Colin Self: I’ve had multiple friends either commit suicide or die of a drug overdose. It really pushed to the forefront this lesson – this is gonna sound a little Mr Rogers of me – to live every day with immense love and compassion, because you never know when you’re going to lose one of those people that means so much to you. I have friends where I look back and think, “Wow, if I could have had one more week to hang out with this person…”

It’s funny, because we’re told that thinking that sort of thing is corny, but it’s the root of human existence – like, without love, what else is there?

Colin Self: What is it about any daily circumstance that negates our ability to prioritise compassionate care for others? (I just watched) the Mr Rogers documentary, and the goal was to let every child watching that show know that they’re capable of being loved and they’re capable of loving others – a lot of people might scoff at that. That’s not to say that trying to do so is also extremely complicated and riddled with sadness and anger and fear.

What can you tell us about the new video for “Survival”?

Colin Self: The song is about a border event, both in a literal and a material sense. I’d imagined that two groups of people would meet on either side of the border and make this decision to break through and free people on the other side at the expense of potentially being caught by authorities. When this seemed to not be possible to make for a video, I started to think of the emotional boundary or border, of feeling as though you cannot go on. So then I started to think about this other thread, the solitary journey, and how it can feel very challenging when you are embedded within relationships and families – places you feel comfortable – and you have a circumstance where you have to go off on your own, knowing that you have to take a risk in order to survive.

This was my first time shooting a ‘music video’ music video. I took this trip to Ayerbe with my friend Santiago, and he very much helped make this video possible. We were actually in his father’s old home in Ayerbe. His father grew up there, and he spent some time there as a child, but it was now this empty home. It felt like an appropriate place to search for this feeling of something that was once felt, that is now empty.

How do you come up with lyrics?

Colin Self: It really differs. Sometimes it’s like this thing where I’m literally walking down the street and a phrase will come out of my mouth. Tori Amos has this video where she talks about this lightning bolt that comes down from the sky, and it goes through your head and through your feet into the bottom of the earth, and you can feel yourself as this electric channel for something. That’s what it feels like, whether it’s words or a vocal phrase. I’ll sing a vocal phrase over and over again until words come to it.

I have a very deep writing practise. If it’s a good week, I can write every day. So sometimes it comes from thinking about what I’ve been writing. Or it’s lifted straight-up from a conversation I’ve had with a friend, or a text message thread, or a group text. In general, though, I have these moments where you feel it in your body.

Is there a lyric on Siblings you’re most happy with?

Colin Self: There’s a vocal phrase in “Stay With the Trouble” that I made with my friend Lain Kay’s voice. Some people think it sounds like “whip the nae nae”, some people think it sounds like “flip the painting”. It’s actually not anything. I think that may be one of my favourites, because they hear what they want to hear.