When she lived in an artist's house in the Alps for two years, the French avant-garde composer Félicia Atkinson became a real nature person. She takes pieces of nature that fascinate her so much to her hotel room, a stone or a twig. Or she simply incorporates nature as material for her music. Still, nature wasn't the only thing that plays an important role on Atkinson's new album. She recorded much of The Flower And The Vessel while pregnant with her first child. As a result, the album became a search for the answer to the question of how we should take care of people and nature, and what happens when you add something to that nature as a person.
Written by: Loulou Kuster
Photos: Stine Sampers
“The Flower and the Vessel is my most ecological album to date”, says Atkinson in Antwerp. “I have become very much a nature person. In the Alps I was overwhelmed by the power of the mountains. My time there changed me a lot. When I tour now, I look where the parks are and I consciously look for nature. Observing plants, animals and skies has become such an important source of inspiration for what I make. At some point in the process, I was in the Pacific Northwest. There was so much rain and there were countless trees. It was like being absorbed by nature. I was caught by the romantic idea of how a person can disappear in nature and then come back to the 'normal world', it's like standing still in time for a while. When I'm on tour I always take something from nature with me. During shows I often have stones with me. Sometimes I just hold them in my hand, sometimes I actually use them. That gives me a certain grip, a feeling that I have a connection with nature, wherever I am.”
"By looking at something small you can understand the big picture. But by also doing something small, you can achieve a bigger goal."
“During recording, I often wondered what happens when you add something to nature. That could be a piece of art, music, or in my case, my baby. That question is also incorporated into the album, as an unintended common theme. The work and life of (the French author and director, ed.) Marguerite Duras has also meant a lot to me. The Pacific has meant a lot to her because she grew up in Indochina. I know the Pacific too, but from the other side, because I'm often in Oregon and Northern California. Still, I feel her presence in a way. I was in Kerala in India in November and I remember we were sailing on a boat through the rain and it was like stepping into one of her books. That is also loosely incorporated into the record. In the film India Song she made, there was a song that I couldn't get out of my head. That part is also in the song 'India Song' on my album, as a direct reference to Duras. As a teenager I discovered her books and I was immediately captivated by her lyrics. They helped me to become myself, but also to become a woman. She has a certain kind of power in her pen that allows her to describe exactly what is going on in your head.”
Not only the question of what it does to add something to nature was an important issue for this album. The Flower and the Vessel is also a feminist record for Atkinson. “I have tried to investigate how you determine who you are, as a person, but especially as a woman. How can you recognize who you are? How can you split yourself into different positions? What is it to be one? What is it like to be several? Having a child is of course also a form of splitting yourself up. I haven't figured it out yet and I never will, but by making music and composing I am getting closer and closer to answers. It's also about the experience, to try different things to see if you figure it out. I think that's what fascinates me most in life: how a question becomes an experience. So I never get an answer to the question of who I am as a woman, but I have experiences and it is possible that those experiences are the answers. I also strongly believe in the idea of microcosm and macrocosm. By looking at something small you can understand the big picture. But by doing something small, you can achieve a bigger goal. This album may be something small that I have added to the world, but it adds to the bigger picture.”
When a friend of Atkinson's accidentally stumbled upon a 1960s DIY book about Ikebana in a thrift store and showed it to Félicia, she was inspired by the philosophy of Ikebana, which values symmetry and harmony between nature and materials.To build her album, Atkinson uses the philosophy of Japanese flower arranging. “At ikebana you can wander through streets or parks and when you see a beautiful flower that you can pick, take it with you to incorporate it into your piece later. As long as there is a certain coherence between the material. I actually make my album as Ikebana. When I'm strolling through the streets, in the mountains, or walking in a park and hear something beautiful, I record it and put it into a song. They are all loose blanks that later have something to do with each other. I also record music in a professional studio, but that variety works best for me and my music. The gamelan you hear on the album, for example, are also recorded with an iPad app. I find those apps so fascinating because you can transform the sound in many different ways until you have exactly what you want. And there is so much audio fetishism these days, you have to record everything with super expensive equipment, they have the most expensive synthesizer and everything is recorded in the most luxurious recording studios, but actually we have everything digital. At the same time, I have also recorded a number of things in expensive studios, so I keep a certain balance. Using a gamelan was also important to me, it has had such a special and important role in French music history. That's what I find so funny: Debussy once heard the gamelan in Indonesia and it touched him enormously. Now you just have the gamelan in your handbag everywhere. It is sometimes criticized that people make music in this way, but I actually think that is very narrow-minded. I think that's like telling a writer that he's not a real writer because he wrote his book on the computer and not with a real pen. We are now living in 2019 and things just change, I think it's wonderful that this is now possible.”
"Men steal things from other artists so often and no one really cares. I feel like as soon as you do that as a woman you instantly become a bad student."
For Atkinson, it's important to occasionally go back to where her music comes from. Many influences come from the French music she heard as a child, from Eric Satie and Claude Debussy. She still regularly listens for days to the French composers and analyzes their music by reading along with their sheet music. “Satie is actually more badass than Debussy. The funny thing is that Satie also plays a lot with his sheet music, then in the margin it says, for example: “play in a strange way” or “play the piano with a distance”. I love that. What I like about Debussy is that he creates landscapes in your head when you listen to his music. I also try to create those landscapes in my music. I see my music more as a landscape than as a story. It's like painting, you go to a certain place and you see a landscape, you look at it, you process it and then you make a logical whole of it. When I compose music I try to do it the same way, I try to find a certain logic in the sounds I have and I make a landscape out of that.”
Atkinson creates these landscapes not only by recording and using sounds she finds, but also by incorporating poems into her music. Not only her own poetry, but also that of others can be heard on The Flower And The Vessel. “Musicians always use a lot of other artists, consciously or unconsciously. For example, if you listen to Serge Gainsbourg, you hear so much Chopin in it. A while ago I read the biography of (the experimental American writer, ed.) Kathy Acker which mentioned how she stole from everyone. That got me thinking, for example from a feminist perspective. Men steal things from other artists so often and no one really cares. I feel like as soon as you do that as a woman you instantly become a bad student. I'd rather borrow a piece from someone than steal it. For example, I also almost accidentally used a piece of text by David Antin. I was doing research for a book that had me reading David Antin's work and at one point I was reading in his notebooks at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. There I was so touched by a piece that went like this: “Turning, turning the way birds do, one by one”, that I wrote it down in my own notebook. When I later flipped through that for when I was writing the lyrics for The Flower And The Vessel, I still loved it so much that I used it as a tribute to him.”
Not only does Atkinson borrow from other people, for the last track of her album she has teamed up with Stephen O'Malley, guitarist of drone metal band Sunn O))). A combination that does not necessarily seem obvious. “I listen to a lot of rock music myself and I actually wanted some guitar on my album, but I don't play guitar at all,” Atkinson explains. “Stephen had released a record a while back on our label, Shelter Press, and not much later he approached me to ask if I wanted to be on his radio show on Red Bull Radio. He asked if we could record a track, which I could do with whatever I wanted. That was exactly what I needed. The making process of that track was amazing. We sat in his beautiful studio with all cool instruments and good microphones. I played some keyboards and he found guitar riffs to go with it, or vice versa. There was only a time pressure behind it: it had to be finished that day. That's very unusual for me, because sometimes I can spend a month or a year on one track. Now I had to get super focused. Stephen has a fantastic musical ear, so he only needs to hear one small thing and he already knows what to do. The fact that I suddenly had a sound engineer and all this expensive equipment to work with was a real luxury for me. It has become a special addition to the record.”
The Flower And The Vessel is out now on Shelter Press. Félicia Atkinson will be playing at Le Guess Who? in Utrecht. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.