In Wilmesdorf, south west Berlin, there’s a wide-open green space hemmed by lush trees that almost hide the surrounding city skyline. It’s officially named Preußenpark, but to Berliners, it’s better known as Thai Park. On weekends, local Thai women set up makeshift stalls on the grass with colorful blankets and parasols, selling fresh salads, buns, and noodle dishes that they toss and fry right in front of your eyes. If the weather’s good, you can occasionally catch them there on a weekday, too.
On a Tuesday afternoon in the first week of June, Laurel Halo and I get lucky when we stroll over from Fehrbelliner Platz station, her bright blue coat mirroring the color of the clear sky. Laurel orders two papaya salads in German. The electronic artist has lived in Berlin for three years now — she moved from New York, after growing up in Michigan — and the easy pace of the city contributed somewhat to the loose-limbed feel of her new music. As she puts it, “Berlin is the kind of city where you can afford to take your time.”
Dust is the electronic artist’s third album for the pioneering label Hyperdub, following 2013’s sprawling techno LP, Chance of Rain. But the new album’s closest counterpart is Laurel’s critically acclaimed 2012 debut, a vocal-led ambient pop record that trod the uncomfortable territory of trauma, memory, and sickness. On Dust, Laurel once again places her vocals in the foreground, and eases her production into the shape of off-kilter songs. But the effect is more dynamic: grooves shuffle in and out of focus, acoustic percussion and piano chords meet woozy synth lines, and multiple voices appear to converse with one another. (The album also features vocals from New York-based electronic pop artist Lafawndah, London-based experimentalist Klein, and Berlin-based writer and artist Michael Salu.)
“I wanted to have a positive-sounding record, for it to sound more relaxed and less anxious,” Laurel explains. “Every time I write a record, it’s partially a process of healing. It’s important to have fun through the process of healing, rather than tying those knots even tighter.” It’s a feeling that permeates not only the sound, but the language of the record.
When you last foregrounded your voice, on Quarantine, a lot of critics described it as being more vulnerable or human than your other music. Do you think Dust is vulnerable?
I think this record is vulnerable, and there are moments that are personal. It’s an inherently vulnerable thing to sing. Lyrically, Quarantine was not so dissimilar from Dust in that the lyrics were a mix of personal and impersonal. But people got really hung up on the personal aspects of it, and it was almost a bit like, random strangers coming up to me [saying], “Are you okay?” So I wanted [Dust] to be a bit more mysterious or obscure.
But I’m also in a different place than I was in when I was writing that record. A lot of the personal stuff [on Dust] has to do with how to lose anxiety, and how to lose fear, and how to feel less afraid to be myself. Coming to terms with flaws, both my limitations and my potential as an individual.
What was your starting point for writing these lyrics?
One of the songs is an adaptation of this poem [Servidão de Passagem] by Haroldo de Campos, who’s probably one of the most famous concrete poets. I definitely feel like I was taking a bit of a concrete poetry approach, in terms of constructing the songs with them not having very specific or linear narratives. Coming from different perspectives, either in terms of the narrator, or jumps in setting or tone — having a song schizophrenically jump between dark messages and then something that’s obliviously happy.
Two things were pretty interesting to me — [one was] this book of minimal poems by Aram Saroyan, poems that are two or three lines long, and they’re just so evocative. What I took from that was, How do you use as few words as possible to convey a really strong message? Another thing was this book of Sappho translations, by Anne Carson. What I love about those are just all the things that are left unsaid, because there’s so much power there, when a line is cut off. We have so many experiences like that in real life, where you will never have a full moment of communication that you want to have.
Did you inhabit different personas in the lyrics?
Yes. I was just interested to have songs that break the hard and fast association between a song and a singer, or a song and a voice. These songs aren’t all from my perspective. I wanted to have some kind of conversational feel to the record.
What is the lead single “Jelly” about?
It’s about saying “fuck you” to a bully...It’s like, I’m going to rise above, and I’m going to shut your noise out, because I don’t need to listen to it. I want to leave it purposely vague, as to whether it has to do with an external bully or an internal bully. It’s just the process of dismantling and defusing negative voices, and turning them into something positive. But in this demented way.
Why the title Dust?
To me, it connotes a sense of impermanence, or a connection to earth, and the ground. Or an act of uncovering, cleaning. Coming to terms with these layers that have settled onto you, and what these layers are. Dust doesn’t really have a specific place or origin. At the same time, there’s also the concept of “eating one’s dust,” and being past something. The idea of being in a car in a very dry heat, and the speed of the tyres kicks off a bunch of dust in your path. And “once the dust has settled.” There’s a lot of weight to the word “dust,” in terms of a process of change, or a process of becoming, or a process of resolution.
“How many black women do you have playing at your festival? How many gay men do you have playing at your festival? You can’t tackle one kind of oppression without tackling the other ones as well.”
10 or so U-Bahn stops away from Thai Park lies Berlin’s peaceful Landwehr Canal, lined with cycle paths. A couple of hours before lunch, over an iced coffee in a secluded, shady spot by the water, Laurel told me about discovering electronic music as a teenager. Michigan has a rich musical history, but back then, she felt excluded by the scene. Oblivious to our conversation, an older man cycled past, catcalling something about “sexy girls.”
“Oh, okay,” Laurel deadpanned from behind her shades. “You have a nice day, too!”
Before his breezy interjection, she had been explaining that her earliest DJ experiences came from programming a radio show on her college station, WCBN, at the University of Michigan. “[Before then] I was scared to go into record shops, because there would be some surly guy behind the counter, and I didn’t know anything about music,” she said. “It took several years of going record shopping to lose that fear of not having the answer.”
If electronic music can feel clique-y to outsiders and newcomers, the feeling is often intensified for women. Laurel says she didn’t have women role models when she started out DJing, and that’s partly why it’s important to her to be a female presence in the club now. “Just being able to see a woman onstage, not another guy — it’s an inherently political statement, being a woman in a sexually aggressive club environment.” Lack of representation and sexual harassment are just two of the many invisible barriers between women and electronic music, and Laurel is vocal about all of them.
Earlier, you said something interesting about how the club isn’t a totally escapist place.
Yeah, you can’t check your background at the door. When I play live in a club setting, there is this feeling of release, or of being outside of my head. But then, it’s tricky, because I’ve DJed in environments where guys will just come up to me, because I’m a woman, and put their arm around me, or somebody will have their hand dangerously low on my back. And it happens to be a friend of the promoter, so I can’t say anything. What do I do in that situation? There’s still so many problems inherent to clubbing if you’re not a specific type of straight white male.
I was playing in Detroit last week and this Italian guy comes up to me, and he’s pretty drunk, and he basically leans into me and grabs the top of my thigh, and was like, “I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your set!” He didn’t realize that he was drunk and invading my personal space. I had to push this guy and say, “Can you just sit back a little bit?” And then he’s saying, “Why do you have to be so tough right now? I’m just trying to give you a compliment!” Having to navigate these nasty sort of sexual politics in a club is a real thing, and it’s fucked up that I literally just performed on stage for two hours, and I still have to placate some shitty dude because he doesn’t know the definition of personal space.
The thing is, you consider the historical background of house and techno or a lot of different club music, and it’s a black and often gay culture. That’s a whole other issue, when you consider people’s places in the club, and their roles, and who gets booked to play, and why. I have problems with sexism, as a white cis female, but you know, my struggle is nowhere near that of other people. The club space for me is one experience, and it will be something totally different for somebody else.
Do these kinds of experiences ever put you off wanting to play club sets?
I would say yes and no. I’m leaning more towards no, because I still love making this kind of music, and if my presence can change some bro’s mind, then that’s really important.
You recently played at Neon Falls in Chicago, which had an all-female-identifying lineup. Do you think events like this are a good step to changing that pervasive culture?
The short answer is yes. It goes back to the idea of creating the type of club environment that you want to party in. I’ve seen this very linear relationship, where the more women you have on a lineup, the more girls are going to be in the crowd. [But] it can just be a basic commodifying thing, where it’s like, “You’re a woman, so we’re just going to put you together [with other women].” Then [gender] becomes your selling point, and I think that’s where it gets complicated and not good. But I think as a promoter, if you have the right intention, and the right presentation, you book artists based on the type of crowd that your party already draws. I definitely respect all these collectives that are active right now, like Siren, Discwoman, and Apeiron.
A tricky thing is, it doesn’t just end there. It’s not like, “There’s female collectives now, sexism is over, yay!” It’s a process of normalizing. It’s very easy for people to be like “We’ve got our token few women playing this festival,” [but] that’s so not enough. It goes way beyond just questions of whether there’s enough women. How many black women do you have playing at your festival? How many gay men do you have playing at your festival? You can’t tackle one kind of oppression without tackling the other ones as well.
The weather in Berlin changes fast and with little warning. After a sun-kissed afternoon of drifting between trains and park benches, Laurel and I dive into the nearest bar as the heavens open and rain begins to slam against the pavement. We’re in the eastern district of Kreuzberg, known for housing expats and artists, but in this particular bar it’s just us, older German men, and tankards of beer. We sit under an awning where we can smoke, and Laurel, holding her pint aloft, quips that her responses are only going to get pithier from here on out. But the conversation only becomes even freer and more sincere, punctuated by big, true laughter.
That same relaxed sense is palpable in Dust, which she says was “the most fun I’ve had making a record.” Its composition began in upstate New York in early 2015, where she had a two-week residency at the isolated arts center EMPAC. Working between a black box space and a concert hall, with percussion, piano, and a digital mixer, she spent time recording a wide-ranging palette of zany sounds, making acoustic noises sound synthetic, and vice versa. Those freewheeling sonic experiments formed the psychedelic and adventurous basis of Dust. Dazzling synth and saxophone melodies and incongruous samples zig-zag across this album’s surface. “I didn’t want to make an album that sounded too serious,” reflects Laurel.
Dust may come as a surprise to anyone who viewed her as a humorless artist who deals only in the somber themes of Quarantine, or the dancefloor grit of her 2015 EP In Situ. On previous records, Laurel kept her tongue firmly in cheek with track titles like “Nah,” or the smiling murderous schoolgirls that adorn the cover of Quarantine. But on Dust, this dry comedy comes into play in the music itself, via samples of laughter and porn-like moans on the clattering “Moontalk,” and a deadpan rendition of some of the most commonly spoken phrases in the English language on “Who Won?”
“We’ve become so stratified by our definitions of taste,” says Laurel. “It limits people into making choices because they’re scared that [the alternative] would be too far outside this one kind of style.” Dust, with its rich tapestry of sounds and a tone that leaps between irony and sincerity, is a new style for Laurel Halo. Where her previous music tapped into isolation and sensory deprivation, this album embraces collaboration, and sensory overload. It’s the sound of running like hell out of your comfort zone; a joyous smashing together of textures and worlds.
There’s always been humor in what you do, but it feels especially present on Dust. Do you feel like people have missed it before?
Maybe it hasn’t been so deliberate as it is on this record, like with sampling laughter, or having overly emotional saxophone lines. I feel like I know I’m going in the right direction with a track if it makes me burst out into laughter, because it’s just so stupid, or unexpected, something that catches you off guard. That’s a good thing to aim for.
[Critics missing my humor] was a combination of the music itself and maybe how I talked about it. [I was] afraid to talk to journalists in person. We can sit here and hang out and laugh, and I think my personal levity comes off a bit more. [By] refusing to let people in, and only doing email answers or not doing interviews, I think it creates this aura of being obscure and inaccessible. So the humor might not come across as readily. But comedy is something that’s very inspiring to me. I watch a lot of stand-up. The timing of comedy is very related to the timing of music. Those cathartic moments of laughter within a stand-up special, versus cathartic moments of lyrical or musical revelation in a track.
Which comedians do you like?
I’m a big fan of David Cross. He had this ‘90s sketch comedy show called Mr. Show, which was really big on non-sequitur. One sketch would just psychedelically mutate into another. I like Chris Morris, Charlie Brooker. I think Black Mirror is very darkly funny, the first few seasons. I like The Eric Andre Show. Have you seen that show Rick & Morty? Again, it’s just this completely absurd psychedelic humor that makes no sense, and goes from one place to the next. I also think Keeping Up With The Kardashians is funny; this sad, fucked up kind of funny. Like, “It sucks to be so famous.” I love that show. I think a very easy reason to love that show is because it drives home the point of family. Especially if you have conflicts in your family history, watching that show can feel good, in the same way that Ru Paul’s Drag Race can feel good because it’s this element of family and togetherness.
This is your most collaborative record. Did you feel more ready to approach people to work with you?
I’ve been working alone for so many years, [I thought] It can’t hurt to try. That’s pretty much it. It still was a lot of working alone — apart from Eli [Keszler, percussionist and composer] and Lafawndah being up at EMPAC, a lot of it was just email.
[The process was] like cracking open a hermetic seal. I still need privacy — if I’m going to sing I need to be completely by myself. [It’s difficult] to navigate how much you want to present of your private self into the world. And inherently, writing songs is exposing an aspect of your private self. I hope that through the process of making this record, that I do work more with other people, and that it becomes less scary to make a fool of myself in front of other people. Because it’s so fun. Like, Why didn’t I do this sooner?