Interview: claire rousay

claire rousay is an artist based in San Antonio, Texas, in the United States. Prolific in her output, her work can be described as sound art, experimental, avant-garde and musique concrète, with an air of humour that can be subtle or overpowering depending on the piece. The word ‘intimate’ is often used about her pieces, as rousay utilises everyday items and recordings of quiet conversations and spaces to create a delicate world that almost feels like too much attention could leave it shattered. a softer focus, her new album out this week on American Dreams Records, sees her collaborate with visual artist Dani Toral as well as musicians Lia Kohl, Ben Baker Billington, Macie Stewart and Alex Cunningham. We spoke to her over Zoom to discuss these collaborations and the album’s livestream launch as well as what it means to live alone in a pandemic, the idea of a rockstar in 2021 and the aesthetic choices that can define a person’s being.

How are you? “I’m doing okay, I actually just got my second shot for the Coronavirus. So I feel like shit today because it’s like the side effects, but other than that I’m cool.”

You live in Texas, what’s that like? “It’s beautiful outside.” Oh, I meant in terms of the virus and all that stuff. “It’s fucked. The governor just rescinded any of the previous laws that require masks in public. Yeah. So it’s bad. And everything’s opening at full capacity next week.”

Is there no public pushback or anything? “There is but it’s like an executive decision, right? Each state gets to decide, and the governor decides. So it’s pretty bad. A lot of people, a lot of local businesses and things like that are pushing back on it and saying that they are going to require masks as a patron of the place, but yeah. It’s fine. Like I was saying earlier, the weather’s nice, so people being outside and all that kind of stuff.” What’s it normally like in March? “It could vary, it could be anywhere from 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 95. It’ll be warm in like two weeks. It’ll be really warm.”

I have to start with this. I think it’s funny – you said that you were gonna lie in all your interviews. [laughs] “Yeah.”

Because literally the first thing I wrote down when I was making notes, there was something you said in the Tone Glow interview about living honestly. And I wanted to ask what that meant to you. “No, definitely. I mostly like to joke about lying in interviews, because, I don’t know, I feel like I have gotten past a certain point to where I have revealed so much about myself that anything that I choose very specifically to obscure or not reveal, holds greater importance to me, you know, publicly voicing my opinion for the last few years. So anything that I feel is something I want to obscure or hide, I like to focus on that because it’s fun to obscure things like your age, or wherever you are, or something like that. No, living honestly is still super important. I don’t think I was living honestly up until that interview, so not really at all. Just going with the flow in terms of, you know, friends and relationships and family and stuff. Just not really pushing back on things that I think I should have pushed back on.”

That’s all changed now? “More or less.” To a degree. “Yeah, I don’t think I have the self-control for living 100% honestly.” It’s a discipline. “Yeah, it’s a discipline for sure. It seems kind of learned too, so I’m getting there. I feel like I’m more myself. And I think that’s the most important part of it. Figuring myself out which is hard.”

You moved recently, is that right? “Yeah, I’m still in San Antonio. I moved into a house. It’s like an apartment building. So it’s nice – I’m petting my dog on the floor – but I got the house, I can have a garden and play with my dog and do fun stuff like that, since I’m going to be here way more than I would have been if I would have been touring, you know, so invest in the space. So you don’t feel so worn out.”

Is that a blessing or a curse, not touring? “Financially, it’s a curse. Outside of that, it’s actually really nice. It’s been cool to reset and take more time thinking about things that I’m doing, just in everyday life, which is kind of why I’m on that whole glorification of the mundane kick. Just because it’s so nice being at home and I feel like I’m being fulfilled more by more and more mundane actions and routine things. Right before I got on the call, I was making pasta. I was rolling up the dough so I could make it after we talk.” Oh like, making making, not boiling. “Yeah, and stuff like that. So every meal that I make now is a production. I spend an hour-and-a-half cooking dinner every night. And then I eat it alone. But it’s super nice because it’s super fulfilling. Learning how to do stuff like that. So it’s been a blessing. I learned how to cook.”

You kind of have to. “The weather here got like, really, really bad two weeks ago, and it froze.” That was when all the power went out and everything. “It was pretty crazy. And then at that moment, I was like, oh, wow, I’m really glad I know how to cook because I’m not gonna be able to order food or go pick anything up. So it’s a blessing.”

What was that like? Do you have a gas hob? “Yeah, my oven is gas and the stovetop is gas. So it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t have water for two days. But nobody on my street did because everything froze. But it was actually pretty fine. I was okay. My street was pretty well protected. The worst part was just sitting inside all day, being cold.”

Was that when your dog was out in the snow? “That was when the dog saw the snow. She fucking loved the snow, she was really into it. She couldn’t figure out why it was cold. So she would run in it because it looked fun. ‘Holy shit. This is cold!’”

I really enjoyed the conversation about religion, again from the Tone Glow piece. Not so much religion in itself, but just how it impacted your life. I find it interesting but very strange at the same time, because here in Ireland it’s very religious, historically, but it’s very different to what I understand American churches to be like. It seems to have almost taken over your life, would that be an accurate description? “Yeah, especially being in Texas, it was one of the bigger places to experience that kind of thing, where the church tries really hard to be contemporary and cool and stuff like that. There’s rock bands that play a church and it’s impacted me enough to where there’s a lasting part of me inside of myself that I’ll always keep in touch with. I’ll always kind of keep my eye open, like, what’s going on in that world? But it’s also super creepy and deceptive and all that. Using pop culture basically to lure people in, it’s not good.”

There was a website that recently described you as a South Texas queer powerhouse, and I wanted to know how you felt about that. “Who said that?” Out in USA. “Oh, yeah, I guess that’s a queer magazine. Yeah that makes sense. I don’t know. Powerhouse is a little interesting. Also, I don’t really know. I’m trying to distance myself from using queer as a music descriptor. It seems kind of…”

How is sound queer… “Yeah, I think it is queer. I think there’s a huge argument for it. But Sarah Hennies and Jacob Wick are people that can tell you about that. I cannot. I don’t know. Since everything is inherently political anyways, I suppose, like now in America with experimental music, everybody is hopping on that. Which is fine, because you definitely need to, especially to make a specific kind of change. But I feel like that maybe isn’t my job. So I just think distancing myself from the queer aspects, I guess, I don’t really have an agenda or anything, but the rest of it sounds cool!”

Do you consider yourself a powerhouse? “I was making a joke earlier, actually. My friend called me a rockstar. And I was like, ‘I want to be a rockstar’. So powerhouse, if that’s the closest I can get, I’m gonna do it.”

I’ve been listening to the Beastie Boys audiobook for the last week or so. It’s basically the two living Beastie Boys telling their story, but also, they have people like John C. Reilly and Snoop Dogg and Kim Gordon reading chapters from their book. “Oh, shit. That’s cool.”

It’s the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. But they’re talking about their trajectory and how they went from playing hardcore shows to shitty bars in New York to playing Madonna and Run-DMC shows, and that kind of existence doesn’t happen anymore. Like what is a rockstar? In 2021? “The closest thing I can think of is the whole intersection of emo music and hip-hop. That’s the closest thing we can get to a genuine rockstar at least. Because I feel like there are still rockstars, but there’s not new, young rockstars, right? Like Phoebe Bridgers might be the closest thing to a new rockstar, in my opinion, but she doesn’t really fit that mould. She’s way too tame.”

She’s not going to be throwing things out of windows or whatever. “Right? Yeah, totally. Although she did do the Playboy spread, which was very, very cool. I thought that was a rock-and-roll move. I think the kind of emo hip-hop, like SoundCloud-based world where people shoot off of SoundCloud, however many years ago, I think that’s the closest thing that we have to rockstars. Like Lil Peep, I think Lil Peep was a rockstar.”

Okay. I had a feeling Lil Peep was going to come up in this interview. “I fucking love Lil Peep.”

I got that impression! Because you put him in that Noods show. And then I saw you posting his videos. “Yeah, I was making a mix and I kind of got hooked on it again. That kid was like, he’s gonna be a rockstar.” Like Danny Brown said, he died like a rockstar. “Yeah, he definitely did.” I don’t want to make light of it. “Yeah, you know, he did the whole Kurt Cobain or whatever that one is. Better to burn out than fade away.”

On that note, that Noods thing, is that going to be a regular show or was it a one-off? “That was a one-off thing. I did one for NTS a while ago too, I wanted to have a regular show but I don’t think I have enough time to do it. But I have two more guest mixes for Noods coming up in the next month.”

Is that your own thing or is it for someone else’s show? “There’s two, there’s another solo kind of one-off thing and then there’s one for the Aerial Palettes show, which is ambient/drone stuff.”

Are you going to play ambient/drone or are you gonna defy expectations? “Fuck no. Yeah, definitely. I played a bunch of pretty good stuff. A lot of Judith Hamann, and Theodore Cale Schafer, my usual go-tos for mixes. Theodore taught me how to make mixes, actually, I honour him by including him frequently.”

Do you mean in terms of sequencing tracks? “No, he taught me how to make the very specific musique concrète kind of mix. So it’s like where you’ll make a DJ mix, just using records or CDs or whatever in real time, which is the fun part, but then you’ll go and add like five more tracks in Ableton to where everything is this amorphous sound collage blob thing. I was into that. I ran a radio show here on a community station for almost five years. So I think I got burnt out on it for a while. I’d come at it back from a different angle or something.”

Yeah, I know someone who does a nightly two-hour show. Part of me would love that. Obviously I physically don’t have the time, but I have so much music that I would be able to do it I feel. “Yeah, that’s the other thing. I listen to music all the time. So like, from 7.30 in the morning, usually when I get up until probably midnight. There’s records and shit on and you know, there’s a different sound system in every room, like the studio and then the radio in the kitchen. Usually, it’s just tonnes of music playing.”

Like moving between different stages at a festival but in your house. “Yeah, it’s awesome! Sometimes the record will be going and I’ll be turning it up and down and have the radio on and have something in the studio playing that I’m working on.”

What’s your studio like? “It’s just half a bedroom, basically. It’s messy right now. Super glamorous. But I am going to build a studio, not at my house but in kind of a warehouse space. I was thinking of just buying something. There are really small pieces of land here downtown with almost portable buildings on them, but not really. Just like a shitty fucked up building, but I think that would be a good way to do it. Just $5,000, have a studio.”

Put all that Bandcamp money to use. [Laughs] “Yeah.” Are you psyched for tomorrow’s [5th March] Bandcamp Day? “I don’t know. I don’t really have anything happening. I’m probably just gonna promote other people. But I mean, hopefully I’ll sell records, I guess, because I have like a thousand of them.”

The new one? “It should be cool. I’m excited. The last Bandcamp Day is on May 7, right?” As of now anyway. “This is one of the last ones I think. I think May they’re gonna say it’s the last one and then they’re gonna come back. But as it gets closer to the last one sales will pick up again because that’s what happened last year, like it was really big for three months and then it kind of took a dip. and came back at the end of the year.”

You have a livestream planned through Bandcamp. “Yeah, I’m really excited about that, actually. I’m playing with my friend mari maurice, who plays under the name more eaze. She’s playing violin and electronics, and then my friend, Henna Chou is gonna play cello. Like a band, it’ll be fun. It’s gonna be the first time I’ve played music with people in like, a year.” Are you going to be together together? “Yeah. They’re like, the only two people I really see anyways. It will definitely be the most cohesive/professional livestream I have done. We have a camera team and a studio rented, etc. Folks don’t seem to understand how much work and money it is taking up so hopefully we sell more than the current 20 tickets haha. mari maurice and Henna Chou are performing with me and their contributions will be partially arranged by me and partially improvised. We are trying to be safe and not be in the same room a ton so I had to pick people I knew how to play with already.”

I wanted to ask about your album that’s coming out, a softer focus, which I guess is the trigger for this interview. It features a number of other people. Did you work together or did they send you music – how did it come together? “So all of the collaborative stuff was basically, I would make a track and then think of somebody who generally, I know what they do, and would ask them to contribute something to it. The one that was the most freeform, in terms of collaborating, was the one with Lia Kohl. She played cello on a bunch of the tracks on the record. But I basically just sent her four of the songs, and was like, do whatever you want to do to it. I trust you, you can probably pick up on the vibe already. And then, with Macie Stewart, I wrote music out and emailed her a score. And then Alex Cunningham kind of did [something] in between those two, I gave him instructions, but he made some informed decisions. Which was cool. I like working with people who play strings, because I usually just use MIDI strings and it sounds like shit. So for somebody to record, you know, high-quality live violin or something like that for relatively inexpensive, I’m going to do it. Basically all my friends play violin at this point, just because I’m always looking for people to play stuff.”

It moves from almost nothing to – not to be trite or clichéd – orchestral sounds. And it seems quite natural in the way that it moves between those two poles. “Yeah, no, totally. I really like it. I think all of those performers also incorporate that way of playing into their own repertoire. What Alex Cunningham does, he’ll go from really quiet, papery sounds on the violin, like scraping stuff. And then he’ll do big drone with two notes over and over and over again. And I think that’s a really good kind of tool to just pop into my music for a little bit: his way of playing.”

Can I ask about the voice stuff as well? It’s almost vocoder-y – how would you actually describe it? “Um, yeah, there’s a lot of weird little vocal stuff on it. You specifically mean like the singing on it, right?” Yes, and some of the speech as well. “Yeah, so most of the speech stuff is just field recordings of me and my collaborator, Dani Toral [pictured above], making all the stuff for the record. Because in addition to the music, there’s obviously a huge visual component that the music really wouldn’t exist in the same way without. So I recorded all of our conversations – when we would have meetings and when we would make videos and all that kind of stuff, which has been really cool to use in the music, and now that I have the files, I can play it live and actually sample some of the same recordings. But as far as the singing stuff goes, yeah, I guess that’s my way of singing songs. I had some texts written that I wanted to use for the record. And I guess it kind of snuck its way in with the autotune. It’s pretty subtle, I think. Not as out-there as some of the other stuff I’ve contributed to.”

im not a bad person but​.​.​.’ – I have to ask about that. So do you ever look at Rate Your Music or do you just not go near that side of the internet? “I typically don’t visit it, but Joshua Minsoo Kim told me something about that piece on Rate Your Music and told me people are not happy.” Did he tell you that a guy wrote a 1,500-word rant about it? “No, but that’s cool.”

He subsequently wrote, like eight months later, another 1000 words where he’s revising his opinion on it. I couldn’t even read it because a lot of it is really abstract stuff about games and stuff. But yeah, I just thought I would mention that. I thought the track was hilarious. And I put it in one of my radio shows last year, I put the whole thing in. “That’s awesome. So wait. So he wrote again to change his mind or just to reiterate how much he hates it?”

I think he was reevaluating it, maybe appreciating it more. Understanding your art. Someone else was just mad and didn’t like it. But yeah, I thought it was great. “Thanks! That’s so cool. I need to read that then. I try not to read anything.”

Yeah, and Rate Your Music is a cesspit from what I understand. It just came up when I was googling. “It seems like a bad place. It’s not as bad as QAnon or something like that.”

Oh Jesus, that’s a bit of a leap. “No, but I I know some people that are into both websites in a very recreational cruising kind of way. [‘im not a bad person but​.​.​.’ was a] fun piece. I probably will never use the text-to-speech again. I think the thing after that, the Longform Editions piece, was the last time, but yeah. That was funny. I think. Yeah, I’m into it. I like how controversial that was, or was it controversial? I feel like people just thought it was funny.”

I mean, I guess if you have people writing, you know, 1,500-word diatribes about it. That’s an element of controversy. “I like that.” A smidge, a smidge. “I like that. Yeah, that’s what I get for being honest.”

To go back to the guest mix thing. Are you actually doing nine guest mixes in the near future? “Yeah, I am. A lot of them are just guest mixes on people’s regular shows. But yeah, I’m trying to think, I was asked to do almost 20 of them that would air between now and May. And I said yes to like, half of them. But they’re for the normal people, like Noods Radio, NTS, Dublab. But yeah, I’ve that and then I have like, seven interviews this week.” And you said four of them are today. “Yeah. It’s awesome. I mean, I’m cool. I’m not worn out. I know it’s really late for you. So thanks for bearing with me.”

It’s OK. As well as guest mixes, I wanted to ask about remixes because you did one for How to Dress Well, is that right? “Yeah, Tom asked me to do a remix. It was for his first record so he didn’t have any of the stems. So I took two of the songs and kind of just chopped them up and then added a bunch of my own stuff to it, just because he was using ‘remix’ as a pretty loose, loose way of talking about it.”

‘Rework.’ “Yeah, reworking. Generally with remixes I just take my favorite aspect of the song (a texture, lyrical line, melody) and slow it down then loop that… Kinda basic but I like longer sounds. For this remix I added a ton of my own instrumentation, looped parts of the song, added computer ‘voices’ on it. But that whole release is awesome, though. Everybody on it is amazing.” Is it only behind his Patreon at the moment? I was wondering why I couldn’t find it. “Yeah, he’s got a lot of work into it. I’m proud of him. It’s a really cool way of working with it. There’s an introductory text I think you can read before paying for it. And if you haven’t read that, I would recommend reading it. It’s cool.”

The only other person I remember seeing was Carmen Villain, I actually just interviewed her a few weeks ago as well. “Oh, yeah. We talked about that. Because her and I, we’re slowly talking about maybe working together on something.” Oh cool! “That should be fun. Yeah, we’ve mostly been trading pictures of our dogs. And sending tracks and stuff. But yeah, that’s really cool. That’s kind of how I met her – through the remix thing. Tom put us in touch and we talk pretty frequently. I liked the interview you guys did.” Thank you. “Because I asked her. She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it was really fun. I liked having the actual interview, talking and stuff was really fun.’”

Personally, I hate doing email interviews, because you put a lot of work into the questions because you don’t want to ask something boring and shit, but one of my favourite things about doing ‘actual’ interviews is having a conversation. “Yeah, no, totally. And I’m less rigid on where the conversation can go. Which is something I really appreciate. The whole reason I love doing interviews is because I like talking to people.”

And you’re living on your own for 18 hours a day. “It’s pretty crazy. When the snow thing kind of happened, I was at home. I was at home for over two weeks without leaving the property, even to go to the store or anything, because I had everything I needed. So I was at home for a week before the snow thing hit, and then I was stuck at home for the whole week. So by the time it was over, I was like, fuck, I haven’t seen a person in over two weeks. I don’t usually see people because of COVID. So it was like such a shock even just go to the store and like, get gas or something. Yeah.”

You said you were reading for an hour every day in the morning. I was just wondering what kind of stuff you were reading, anything you’d recommend? “Yeah definitely. So I have read recently… I’ll show you the books. I’ve been reading a bunch of different stuff. The last thing I read that was really, really, really good was Simon Morris’s Civil War, which came out on Amphetamine Sulphate, which is a really cool publisher here in Texas, in Austin, run by Philip Best of Whitehouse. I read How to Be a Good Girl by Jamie Hood, which is a collection of diary entries and poetry, which is really cool. She’s a friend. She’s one of those people that like, she’s a poet, and I play music, and our shit doesn’t really mix, but she’s better at what she does than I am at what I do. She’s one of those people that’s really inspiring. So other than that, I’m trying to think. I need to read this Oval book I just bought, by Elvia Wilk. more eaze recommended it to me, but I haven’t really dug into it. And then the last thing I just finished was this collection of Kink. Like short stories, a bunch of various authors, my friend Katie sent it to me in the mail. And I really enjoyed it. I haven’t really read a bunch, really, any fiction. Not that all of it is fiction, but anything fabricated I haven’t really been reading very much. So it was a nice break from the super dense non-fiction stuff.”

I started this book about William Faulkner at the start of the year, peak dad sitting in bed reading about the American Civil War. But I had to take a break because I don’t know anything about the Civil War, it’s all completely new to me, I don’t even know if it was dense. I mean, like Faulkner’s dense. “But like, I mean, just not having a context for so much it’s probably draining to actually read and then look something up and then keep reading. Imagine if you didn’t have a computer.”

Exactly. I think the last thing I wanted to ask you was about your name. Do you use lowercase as an aesthetic choice, or is it something else, more meaningful than that? “It started as something more meaningful, and now I like the way it looks, but there was a point. I just feel really weird about using my legal name to create work, but I’m not going to be one of those fools who has some stupid moniker that doesn’t feel like me. And my name barely feels like me, because it’s only been like five years anyways. Which is the weird part about being trans. Like, you’re never actually a whole person. It’s kind of weird. I used the lowercase just because anything that is marketed or monetised that has my name on it, I like it to be lowercase. And it’s something for me. Yeah, I prefer it. Most people don’t really respect it, because most of the time somebody has an editor that just refuses to do it, won’t let you run it that way. Which is fine. And some people just know me in different ways, I guess, I don’t know, using lowercase for music-world stuff, but with my friends, it feels more intimate if I can capitalise my name. And making that choice with somebody and trusting the full capital CR, which sounds so stupid.”

I mean, it’s a choice that you make. And it’s as meaningful as you make it. “Yeah, and trying to, you know, create a meaningful relationship and choosing to use it for certain people and not other people. It helps you evaluate your friendships and appreciate people more. I really like people who have unofficial names and different ways of abbreviating. They’re just like their person, I guess. Using lowercase letters was the closest thing I could get to a stupid moniker, so I’m just rolling with it for now. I know so many trans people with the most ridiculous names, but like, complaining about my normal ass name is – it doesn’t feel… I just tried to pick the easiest white name that looks like it would be my name. Some parent just exhausted from birthing you, and it’s just like, fuck it, let’s do a normal one. Instead of naming your kid Jumprope or something like that, which lots of trans people do, a lot of crazy ass names.”

Well do you think it’s because you are making the choice to redefine yourself, so you’re gonna choose something…? “Yeah. My friend Hedra Rowan’s middle name is Computer. Which is just the stupidest thing. She loves it. And I love it. It’s fucking awesome. But I’m not one of those.”

One of those transpeople? “No, I’m much too self-conscious. And not as certain in my transness and womanhood, maybe.”

If you had been living more honestly, when you made the choice… “I know! I would just be Popcorn Jumprope Computer. Yeah, lower case for now.”

claire rousay – a softer focus releases in digital, vinyl and CD formats on 9 April 2021 via American Dreams Records. Purchase it here. The album will be launched with a livestream set on April 10 – see details here.

Photos: Dani Toral

claire rousay: Website, Bandcamp, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...