Starsha Lee release the video for their new track “Killing Heteronomy” on 9th July. John Clay caught up with singer, song-writer and photographer Sofia Martins Gray to find out more about the creative process behind their music.
Hey there Sofia, how are you doing on this rainy day in London?
Hi John! I’m doing some fire burns on Polaroids as I’m finishing a new series and catching up with an Umberto Eco essay…
Sounds like you’re characteristically busy. How’s the lyric writing going? Do you have anything to share before we discuss works both past and soon to be released?
Last week I realised that I need to re-write one of the songs for the next release. Sometimes I need to adjust my words to my current feelings, because if not, I have difficulty in singing the song. The rest are all written and finished. There’s this verse from the “Killing Heteronomy” song that sums up what I’ve been through these last five years… “Not a word, not a word, I’m going neutral, many hecatombs, many of those faces, many ending up in sequel”.
You have a balance of biographical references and post-modernist sensibilities in your work. Do you strive for such a contrast or, if it’s occured naturally, talk us through this aspect of your lyrics.
The lyrics have a personal aspect to them but I always try not to write them as a complete description of an event, but rather a conceptual exposure of an event.
My song “Postmodern” was written after reading some Duchamp interviews and re-reading Lipovetsky… it was in the same style as “Uncle Nietzsche”.
It’s that moment when your perception becomes numb after reading too much of the same author, and then a single and precise line comes to your head. It´s a summing up line. Those are summing up songs.
My considerations about post-modern art have to do with the lack of answers to the first avant-garde movements of the 20th century. There were fundamental questions made by the modernist artists that to this day have no plausible answers. Duchamp was indeed a very good chess player, he did checkmate to everything! Speaking about him, I’m thinking on re-recording my song “Marcel Duchamp” in the future.
…And your biographical thoughts? Do you feel there is a need for that balance in your discography, or has it been a happy accident so far that such a parity exists?
Yes, I’ve been open about having a damaging maternal figure in my life and its consequential damage. My childhood is something always present. I must say Starsha was created during those years, Lee was added in my teens.
Many of my friends in Portugal still call me Starsha.
In other words, this band has a purpose, it’s a revival updated by books!
Have you sought to process negative experiences of your mother through lyrics or has such processing been a bonus to your need to expel such thoughts?
I felt the need to write about it in lyrics, yes. In music she comes out as a more structured theme, whilst in prose or poetry the subject comes out in very symbolic imagery, she definitely introduced me to the panic of mortality. For many years I’ve been obsessed with words such as “corpses”, “concrete”, “metaphysical”, “temporality” – all dichotomies, two sides of the same coin.
Is there a danger in remembering the subject only in accordance with the parameters you’ve assigned them in the art, or can the artist leave room in the interpretation for updates based on future interactions or re-evaluation?
There’s a time when reality has nothing more to negotiate with memory. In art all subjects can be eternalized. There’s a danger in revivalism, yes. It can slow you down to the point you become an archeological existence.
Can you give an example of being an ‘archaeological existence’, and do you have firsthand knowledge of such?
By that I meant when your ongoing experiences are being filtered by the past. I know this sounds like stating the obvious as human beings are diachronic beings, but there’s a difference in the nature of how memories persist in you. The majority of people I know are not interested in doing archeology with their sensitivity because there is nothing relevant for them to overcome aesthetically in the past and beyond.
Does being in a rock band have benefits and negatives for your approach to lyrics? Feel free to pick apart a few of them.
Yes, first of all I have to translate my verses to English, then shape them into communication mode. Working with a rock n roll medium made me understand structure in a different way from a poem, for example. To me the chorus line is like a slogan that sums up the verses.
I thought it was a negative thing to be so blunt or pop, but when you read a few books about art movements and fashion tendencies, trying to avoid Pop is also a trend. I just want to be understood for the sake of the song.
It would it be easy to imagine that the lyrics are pre-written but put us straight: what comes first, the words or the music?
To me the words pre-exist the songs and then I adjust them to the songs. After that I’m particularly sensitive to drums, maybe because I’m a drummer’s child.
You mentioned your attachment to rhythm-centric singing in our previous interview via Rock at Night. Where does melody come into play when communicating the feeling behind your lyrics?
The melodic part comes from Crispin, I’m the angular part of things! I normally end up feeling attached to the melody and feel it like a phrase I want to say to people.
Like with “PostModern”? Using one phrase only to support a rock track isn’t done often.
Yes, on that song Crispin is in the back doing a melodic backing vocal. There’s another song where I did that, it’s called “Human, All Too Human”, that’s another one phrase lyric.
Is this something you’ll be returning to again, or is that an unfair question?
I always want to do that more often, I like Haiku-style lyrics!
To shift our conversational emphasis slightly, do you recall the singer, Cristina Monet-Palaci? Her delivery always adopted a sense of detachment that I detect in your own voice. That being said, it can be easy to reduce a singer’s worth by filtering their presence through the simulations of others, no?
Detachment is a very good word! And to answer the second question, it’s exactly by being filtered through Crispin’s work that I don’t think I’ve been understood correctly. I had this review once saying my “fragile beauty” was the same as Crispin’s ex-singer and I thought it was really unfair because how on earth can I do that on purpose? It’s not my fault I look fragile to that person’s eyes. But rock music has become a limited space now, you see the headlines on some magazines about new bands and they are presented as “look at this new band X, they sound like band Y”. That’s why I’m preferring Butoh, there’s no space for ego and comparisons, Butoh is a healthy art.
Being one of the few musicians I know who is equipped to refer to post-structuralism and philosophy in relation to music, I must say I’m really looking forward to future interviews that discuss those elements in the detail required. For now, your new single has a video that’s due out on July 9th. Care to discuss briefly your shot choice for the video and how your manifesto song, “Killing Heteronomy” benefits from those decisions?
It’s a performance video, as usual, I don’t think I know how to do it differently. I added very minimal steps of my Butoh experiments to it as an inner release, I’m shaking a disease there. “Killing Heteronomy” is a reflection on the concept of autonomy. I wrote these lyrics during a struggle with intersubjectivity. Preserving our identity is a very serious matter (and words are not enough to express this).
Can you identify how your identity can be preserved by lyrics, and is the sharing of the art what enables this course of action?
Art has the same effect as a psychoanalytic session because you’re not only exposing your subject but also understanding that subject. Art is understanding yourself and being clear is the best feeling one should pursue. There’s a reason why one feels the work of art is completed – because the subject was fully understood. Not logically, but aesthetically. Understanding is freedom.
… And how did you format this philosophy, over a period of time through self-analysis, or have you been swayed by a doctrine you may want to cite?
Any type of artistic work generates self-knowledge and therefore a point of view. I remember when I started to photograph there was something about myself that I needed to understand. I began with self-portraits because I was in need of performance, it took me years to understand this. Apart from my own experience, the fact I studied Philosophy and History of Art put me in contact with many authors and many artists, and then I came to my own conclusions.
Any practitioners that you’d care to mention here? It’s always interesting to join certain dots, despite the risk of redux or acknowledgement of the separation of entities. Indulge me.
Kant was crucial to my education, his “Critique of Judgement” is one of the most clarifying readings I probably ever came across. Also Clive Bell on “Art” and a book by Thierry de Duve that did wonders for my interpretation about art called “Kant After Duchamp”. Bless these people!
Thank you. I’m sure we’ll tie up some loose ends in regards to your lyrical content in relation to Starsha Lee in the very near future. If you’d like to inform people as to the date of your next video release, go right ahead.
We have the video for ‘Killing Heteronomy’ coming up on the 9th July.
Brilliant. Thanks for your time and your consideration. May your single release go swimmingly x
Interview by John Clay
Photography by Sofia Martins Gray