Breaking down traditional boundaries, imagining new identities: An interview with Lyra Pramuk
Lyra Pramuk fuses classical vocalism, pop sensibilities, performance practices and contemporary club culture in what can best be described as futurist folk music. Citing musical collaborators such as Holly Herndon and Colin Self, collaborations with the visual artist Donna Huanca, freelance writing projects, and an ongoing international performance schedule, there are a variety of creative nodes that feed back into Lyra’s practice.
In Prague at the SHAPE workshop, you had an interesting lecture about your vocal influences. Can you maybe describe them here and their importance for your own work?
I think it’s interesting to be quite honest about which artists or tracks have inspired me. I often take the “feeling” I get from music I most love and try to reproduce that embodied feeling in my own demos, whether that’s through a certain emotion conveyed in the singer’s phrase, or through a rhythmic or textural idea, or something else entirely. It could be a feeling-feeling, or a musical feeling. Listening to music is an enjoyable and important part of my practice!
Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins has been a big inspiration for me in terms of re-thinking ways of using language, text, and the physical voice within the framework of accessible melodic lines. The mid-twentieth century experimental soprano Cathy Berberian opened many windows for me in terms of how musical and aesthetic references can be evoked sonically through singing and extended vocal technique. I’ve learned a lot about devotional song through the study of singers like Abida Parveen and Shobha Gurtu, and while I’m not Muslim nor Hindu and did not grow up in either of these musical traditions, the sheer beauty and power of these songs have inspired me for years to think about my own forms of spiritual devotion within my own practice and personal spirituality.
In one interview you mentioned that when you were 16, you wanted to pursue music professionally and that you practised for several hours, learning to sing in several languages. The teenage years are some of the most formative for our later life. Can you talk about this period?
So the practice and many languages didn’t come until a couple years later, when I went to music conservatory. I was actually pretty lazy before that, haha. And I am trying not to be lazy now, but not always successfuly. Anyway.
In my teenage years, I was living in my small town where I grew up, and knew I needed to move somewhere else to continue my education and career and explore new ideas. So I think I was very focused in those years on channeling some sort of energy and seriously thinking about how I wanted to be involved in arts and music culture. But of course, the entire frame of what was possible grew for me once I started traveling and studying more.
The formal music education where I grew up was based on classical, jazz, and marching band. So this is where I started from, while also being into electronic music production, which I’d worked on with my brother since we were 13 or 14. In a way, I’ve been fusing that formal education with my love of pop and electronic music since adolescence.
You’ve been open on social media and also in your performances about your personal realm, about your transition, some of the difficulties you’ve been through. How important is this transparency and openness to the public, as an artist, in your opinion?
That’s a personal choice for each individual. But I do believe that transparency, when one has the energy for it, helps us to understand each other and helps us to break down traditional boundaries, imagine new identities, and enact new ways of relating to each other. And not just impressive or good things, but also difficult things. I was interested in virtual identity, simulation, and science fiction before I even knew any queer people or knew what queerness was. I think that the more I am able to realize and act upon the fact that I am a post-human cyborg, enmeshed with software, hardware, hormones, and a meta-identity built upon the ideas and concepts I believe in and am hyperlinked to, the better I am able to express myself, relate to other post-human agents, and engage in some form of community that feels real.
Another thing you mentioned at your Prague workshop was to be nice/kind, which is something that tends to be forgotten in this scene, which is focused mainly on the self and its promotion.
It’s hard, since the nature of this industry forces us to focus on ourselves in a lot of ways in order to make ends meet. But of course, we are all in this together, especially in the experimental music scene. Whether you get my music or my life or not, or whether I get yours immediately or not. That’s what’s cool about this scene, we’re all different. There are layers of understanding we can slowly unwrap for each other. It makes me feel sad to think that we live in a world where it’s easier to chase social media clout and isolate ourselves like solitary “bad bitches”. But we forget that’s not always how we’ve been; that’s how the platforms are designed. The first step is to be aware that the social media platforms and algorithms are not designed to connect us, they’re designed to addict us and capitalize upon us. Our souls are being harvested through the screens of our phones by a few powerful tech bros who probably couldn’t care less about us. We need each other more than we need them.
You’ve collaborated with Holly Herndon and Colin Self, artists pushing the boundaries of contemporary music & performance, who also somehow reflect the sociopolitical context around them and utilise the latest technologies. Can you talk about why you chose to work with them and how the whole experience was for you?
I think it was natural to work with Colin and Holly and I’m extremely glad they found their ways into my life and wanted to work with me too! I had known of Colin and Holly’s work independently and admired them both before we even met. I’m lucky to have both of them to discuss so many topics with, it makes me feel that I’m not alone in contemplating so many aspects of the world. We actually first met when I was visiting Unsound for the first time in 2015!
At Unsound, you are opening for Sunn O))) – renowned for their intense, guttural vocal live shows. Can you talk about your performance there?
I am honored to open for Sunn O))), they’re so inspiring on so many levels. For my set I’ll be premièring some songs I’ve finished writing this year, which, as with many of my songs, are recorded and produced entirely from my voice. Ben Frost and his sound engineer Carlos Boix have helped me put together a multi-channel system, so we’ll be spatializing and re-amping some of the vocal stems, which I’m very excited to try for the first time. I hope it will be a nice healing ritual, going into Roly Porter’s set and finally into the deep, soulful abyss of Sunn O)))’s set. I’m so appreciative of Ben and Carlos’s support for my live show, and really grateful to play Unsound in this context and be a part of this lineup <3
Lyra’s playing at Unsound Festival on 11 October. Photo by George Nebieridze with hair and makeup by Sarah Hartgens
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova