From Claire Rousay, Field Recordings for a Modern World
One spring evening in San Antonio Experimental musician Claire Rousay was sitting in the driver’s seat of her parked car, smoking cigarettes and sipping a well-hidden drink as she picked up the Zoom H5 field recorder, which was never far from her. “I follow my whole day every day,” says Rousay. “When I’m at home, I have a pair of stereo microphones in my living room and a field recorder in my bedroom. I’ll probably have 18 hours of field photography … I’ve been recording basically all of my life. “
She transforms these found sounds into musique concrète, which localizes grains of feeling in everyday life – a slamming car door, a lighter that ignites, the clinking of an Apple keyboard in the middle of the text. What a songwriter could convey in poetry, Rousay recalls with raw audio. You could call it sound art, but it’s viscerally vulnerable. More appropriately for Rousay, who refuses to confirm her exact age but identifies as a “Millennial Sun, Rising Zoomer”, her work has been labeled an “Emo Environment”.
Last fall, Rousay published the 20-minute composition “It Was Always Worth It,” for which she shot the content of real love letters she had received over a six-year relationship using a robotic text-to-voice program. In a year that lacked new, intimate conversations of the unguarded caliber of 3 a.m., it was a heartbreaking revelation. In a world of endless distraction, Rousay’s is an art of paying attention. Her impressive new album, “A Softer Focus”, is her first to draw melody and harmony (“the pleasure of making music” as it is called), and although she has released 22 releases on Bandcamp since 2019, feels it like an album at arrival.
In her art, as in her life, Rousay seems intent on breaking through the perceived super-seriousness that her work might mean. She calls karaoke “an intimate soul enterprise” (her favorites are Taking Back Sunday and Lil Peep) and lights up when she speaks with equal awe of that of composer Pauline Oliveros book “Deep Listening ”(2005) or her long-time favorite band Bright Eyes. “Being a real person is what interests me most,” says Rousay. “Be present and open.” Proof of this enduring commitment to honesty can be found last spring in “I’m not a bad person, but…”, another text-to-voice piece that ends with a bold admission: “I think ‘Avril Lavigne’s album’ Let Go ‘is better than Coltrane’s’ giant steps’. “
Build on it In an unconventional style, Rousay produced “A Softer Focus” in collaboration with the artist Dani Toral from San Antonio. The couple met there in middle school – after Toral did Moved from Mexico City and Rousay from Canada – but were soon in constant motion, with different Tours and residences until the pandemic forced them to stay there. In addition to the floral cover, Toral made a video, took photos, designed a t-shirt, named the record and several songs, and created 30 ceramic pipes to accompany the release. The common thread, said Toral, is a “radiant” feeling of comfort. The pipes, inspired by Mexican folk art and a book on the history of ceramic instruments from 2006 entitled “From Mud to Music”, were a particularly fitting addition. “I love clay because it has a lot of memory,” says Toral. “It holds up every touch you put into it.”
Rousay’s pieces work similarly, and for “A Softer Focus,” she even recorded Toral in her backyard ceramic studio by modeling one of the pipes, playing it, and thinking about the process – infusing her conversation into the music. On the album, Rousay and Toral also find the stress of Instagram for visual artists in this dialogue – the fear of having to publish not only your work, but your life as well. “We smoked joints and talked,” says Rousay, “and I think the intake is like six joints deep.” It’s a detail that reflects the ethos of presence and growth of the entire project: Toral had never done digital art before, and as Rousay puts it, “I had never actually made an audible recording. The only thing known was the feeling of being in the zone. We learned together. “
ROUSAY grew up in a strictly Evangelical Christian household in Winnipeg, Manitoba – secular music was banned – and was 10 years old when her family moved to San Antonio. She drummed during the service before breaking away from Christianity and instead looking for meaning around her. After dropping out of high school at 15, she toured with an indie rock band and turned to free improvisation after discovering jazz. She traveled as a solo percussionist and played 200 gigs in 2017 alone.
The impressive swarm of “A Softer Focus” can feel like an amalgam of all of this. On the highlight track “Peak Chroma” – named by Toral to bring about “the highest saturation of a color” – Rousay adds a pitch-shifted vocal line, which is about listening to the “latest Blackbear song”, a reference to the Florida emo rapper and Justin Bieber co-writer Matthew Tyler Musto. It is a deliberate nod to a realm of contemporary pop that Rousay finds “infinitely more experimental” than many artists would allow. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she says. “Experimental music is as limited as it is. There are so many wrong rules that the whole thing isn’t that experimental anymore. What can I do to change that? “
Around the time she was using Emo Ambient as a descriptor, she decided she was no longer avoiding her unique conflict of interest. “I couldn’t do it anymore, just say: ‘Oh yes, I really love Stockhausen’ – are you kidding me?” she jokes. “I don’t know how you can get through life when you are so selective about parts of your personality.” Ultimately – and in another nod to Oliveros – Rousay says that her greatest influences are likely to be in the sounds of her own surroundings.
“Sitting on the back porch and listening to the sounds of my backyard – that’s what counts,” says Rousay. “But if I hear Fall Out Boy every Friday evening after 11 p.m. when I’m drunk, that’s it. Some people have the cicadas in their back yard. And some people have Fall Out Boy. “
Rousay has both. And this duality of almost meditative silence and serious emotion runs through “A Softer Focus” as well as “It Was Always Worth It”. “I know things have been difficult lately,” proclaims a dispassionate automated voice, “but I want to remind you that I love you and that I work hard to be with you. You have a big heart. You are so loved Even if it weren’t for you, all you need to do is remember to love yourself above all else. This is the most important love you can experience. “
I asked Rousay when she began to feel that self-love is the most important kind. She says it was two years ago when she came out as a transsexual. “I have a very stressful relationship with my immediate family,” she says. But she speaks with conviction about where to find satisfaction: “Enjoying simple pleasures is a big part of my job,” she continues. “I love lying in my garden and picnicking with me, me and me. So much fun making a cute meal for yourself and getting the sun on your face. I don’t understand why this is always left out. “Capturing the gentle rustle of these little moments is Rousay’s way of amplifying the joy that is inherent in them.
Recently, Rousay took her dog Banana for a walk along the San Antonio River. She had brought her recording equipment – headphones, a couple of microphones – and at one point she and Banana sat down for a drink of water. The audio can hear the rush of the river, the ringing of bananas collars, birdsong, and the hum of traffic in the distance. There are also traces of Rousay SMS, sniff, take a deep breath. “I cry because I’m so invested in this moment,” she says. “To have a dog who loves me, to be physically fit and to walk in a park when the weather is perfect, to own a field recorder that I was too poor for a while …”
“There have been so many points in my life where I would not have been satisfied with simple joys,” says Rousay. “But sitting with headphones on and listening to what the microphone picks up – that’s the closest thing to any kind of inner peace I’ve ever experienced. Even if I’m essentially not recording anything. Because I am in the moment. When you slow down and actually think about what is happening, it’s beautiful. “