Interview: MYRA DAVIES

Photo: Ken Potma Here is the interview with Myra Davies following the release of her new album SIRENS (Moabit Musik, 2017. It was recorded with the little help from Beate Bartel and Gudrun Gut. So, we discussed the new album, the way she composes, about the world as she sees it, about the constant change and moving...

THE CALL OF THE SIRENS

Sirens is your latest album. Amazing piece of art, with yours powerful, inteligent and subersive lyrics and music made by your Berliners friends, musicians Gudrun Gut and Beate Bartel. Were Gudrun and Beate your first musical choise?
I’d nearly forgotten my first plan was to do a CD with my old friend, Kevin Crompton (aka Cevin Key of Skinny Puppy, Tear Garden , etc.). Then Skinny Puppy had a successful release that led to a long touring schedule. My funding wouldn’t wait so I offered the project to Gudrun.

Can you tell us, what was your approach to the working process? You've already collaborated with Gudrun Gut (whom I appriciate a lot). How important and inspiring is for you this female support in which Gudrun is the greatest?
Our method was simple. I sent texts as I wrote them to the composer who was available. Their primary inspiration was the text. I did most of the vocal recordings with the composer. Some I did on my own. Gudrun and Beate mixed their own tracks. In post production, Gudrun took the lead and SIRENS went out to the world via the infrastructure she built of labels and related systems. Gudrun’s support was central and fundamental.

SIRENS is a special album. It's not a classical spoken word project, because the musical background is so coherent with the text, so dynamic and overhelming. Sometimes it seems and feels like a powerful theatrical piece with many meanings, issues, topics. Explosive mix of lyrics and the sensual colour of your voice..( and then the lights go in...pure drama) What do you think?
Thank you. Dynamic synergy between words and music has always been a goal for me. I took that from Wagner. I’d love to do a SIRENS music theatrical with community participation in a residency somewhere.

One of the strongest poems on the album is Siren Calls, a kind of maifesto, where you write: "Siren Calls, whatever yours may be, Stir the Soul. /Give it up for Jesus. Give it up for Rock & Roll. Give it up for Love?" Am I right?
For me ‘manifesto’ suggests a more strident tone but certainly this track has a political agenda. I realised it was a ‘gloves off’ piece when I wrote it and wondered about how it would be received. But Feminism has re-emerged and women are open to its message. Acceptance is displacing contempt even in surprising corners. The time was right. The piece began in a thought of Coleridge’s Ancient Marriner. That led to imagining a female version of an old captain, weathered and worldly, sitting on a dock talking to youngsters soon to go to sea in their turn; voyaging being a metaphor for the course of adult life. The Narrator ‘appropriates’ the male hero quest to evoke a vision of self actualisation as a life choice for women. Traditionally girls have not been encouraged to imagine their own actualisation as a life goal and in reality, this remains an oppositional and marginalising choice for most women. But forces of change are at work here - massive forces… American Market Capitalism has discovered women and is now busily developing female quest narratives for mass dissemination. Hollywood is promoting alternatives to “happy ever after”. If this commercial product displaces ‘happy ever after’ in the imagination of girls, the effect could be huge; a cultural ‘sea change’ * (*old expression meaning paradigm shift) with global consequences for social relations. Of course, merchandisers are only interested in piquing our imaginations so we will buy shit and social consequences down the road are irrelevant. But for us, it will be interesting to see this play out. There might be some gain in it.

Have you ever ‘given it up’ for something?
Oh yes, I’ve had obsessions. For three years, while running a ballet company in the early Eighties, I was a workaholic. Work obsession is often seen as virtue but it’s not. It’s addiction. I’ve also experienced erotic obsession, also addiction. I went into therapy and took that very seriously. Obsessions are usually a symptom of personality disorder. They are associated with arrested development and fuelled by bio-chemicals. Step One is recognition, so they say. But one needs a 2 to 4 good psychotherapist to reach Step One. A few years in university can be worthwhile just for the free psychological services, though unfortunately, this stuff may not surface until the thirties or forties.
Trauma recovery is an important subject for me and many damaged women. Glamorous and photogenic as it may seem, there’s nothing cool about an adult frozen like Snow White in arrested development. We’ve all seen them, or been them. The solution is to emerge into maturity but “Grow up” is not as easy as it sounds.

Photo: Ken Potma

Several tracks on SIRENS feature great male artists, e.g.occupy Wagner, Cage. Where are the strong female artists? Everywhere Cage is all about unsung (unseen) female artists and much, much more. All over and over again. Feminsm in this very moment?

Where I cite a big name male artist, my story is not about him. The Cage track is not about Cage. He’s not there. The story is about a young women taking on a bunch of pretentious young arty men who have appropriated Cage’s celebrity for their own egotistic ends. The story reveals the denigrated position many young women occupied in the Art scene at that time and still occupy today, especially in the music scene. But Cage is not involved there either. (in fact at the time, Cage was a Buddhist senior citizen in a long term gay relationship and uninterested in his celebrity.) On close read, my stories about Canon culture are about women navigating a world that does not recognise us as subjects in our own right but only relative to male hegemony. That is our condition and it renders our identity and social position unstable. Consciousness of this is important. The theme of ‘instability of the female subject’ addresses our position at Step one; recognition something is wrong. When the female subject faces the fact of her lack relative to the culture, then she can to confront that reality as a subject. Lack defines us. The inequality is hidden until the consciousness emerges to recognise the cultural hegemony as in accessible ‘other’. We are not part of it and that denies our subject-hood The protagonists in my stories (Big Guys) are manifestations of cultural power that excludes female self actualisation.Exposing the Canon in this sense, is part of the project of the emerging female voice. Only we can chart our position and give ourselves authentic voice.

Is deconstruction of man myths necessary to see invisible women / female stories hidden behind?
Yes. Big Guns such as Wagner, are crafty in building female characters to serve their agenda, while seducing us into illusions that lead us into being complicit in our own undoing. Many old Canon works of Art are zombies that still stalk the land, delivering obsolete values into our time directly and through their countless spawn. WE need to open them up and do the autopsy. It’s an important project.

In a track Do Ya? you explore so many names from our culture past. Extravagant and beautiful mix of chosen names, such as Hedda, Big B., Johnny Depp, Matrix2 and Tristan, Percival... it's all the same message – immortality can be yours. These are topics on which we can write or rethink over and over again. What do you think? The lyrics list works of high and low culture together as if they were the same. What is really the relationship between high and low culture?
No line separates High from Low culture. Influences flow up and down, back and forth, between social strata, ethnic and national cultures, etc. The only clear distinction I’ve seen between High and Low culture: High Culture (including Haute Couture) can’t do street hip. It tries and it flops. Such a shame, we’re not past yearning for immortality. The military and religion keep that lamp burning. It’s still useful to control people. Again, we are complicit in our own undoing. The idea of Immortality is theatrical cheap sentiment. How life works is obvious. “Eternity is so over.” Mobilis in Mobili. (Book recommendation:The Denial of Death. Ernst Becker, 1973. It’s free online now)

Is there any hope for our colonised minds? Do you see progress on the feminism front or is the situation the same, or getting worse?
Yes. Feminism is back. In our 2008, interview on my Cities & Girls cd, I noted little evidence of feminism in the public sphere. In 2017 that’s changed. Media, leaders and ‘stars’, everybody’s talking about it. This apparently sudden flowering is rooted in continuing effort by little individuals all over the planet, doing their bit under the umbrella of post modernist and post post modernist feminism. I see my work as part of this project that continues through ebbs and flows in popular interest.
For individuals, the best strategy is long term to align with the future and make personhood a life project.
In terms of daily life, I see new opportunities for empowerment on many fronts. Practice of Mindfulness can release us from absolutist and binary thinking. Caring for the brain as a physical organ, makes a difference. (Personally I need at three workouts a week to maintain a good head space. I use Body Project, UK interval training workouts on YouTube.) The notion ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ has been proven false. We now know, a healthy brain can generate new neural connections at all stages of life. Research in brain plasticity and cognitive dissonance shows us how we think, mistakes and all. (*Dunning-Kruger effect) By understanding our irrational tendencies, one can put a leash on the inner idiot. Our ability to see ourselves and the outside world critically and realistically is expanding daily and new knowledge is online. This is a source of personal power. We can raise the bar.
If we all curated two serious thought fb posts per week, in addition to cat and dance videos - yes, I like those too, that could make a difference. Reality is by far the most exciting frontier. Check this video by NASA Astronomer Michelle Thaller: “We are Dead Stars

That’s all good news for the feminism front, though we can’t forget the war on women remains life threatening for many. Violence may increase in consequence of change. At least these days, its harder to keep it a secret. I admire the many women who have come out online about their abuse. Their courageous action is building critical mass. Meanwhile, the opportunists are climbing on the wagon, expanding the commodification of female desire in ads for cars, houses, vacations, etc. Equal pay won’t be worth much if we end up like hamsters in a wheel; work work work, buy buy buy to feed consumption addiction.
(Footnote: Dunning-Kruger Effect is my favourite cognitive dissonance theory. This is the tendency of people unskilled at a task, to think they have above-average ability to perform the task. It’s related to tests showing the more ignorant people are, the surer they are of their opinions. Where test subjects knew nothing, they didn’t recognise a blank spot. Rather they filled the gap with nonsense and then spoke with confidence on the subject. I’d like to see those results by gender.)

"We are our choices" is a quote by J.P. Sartre. Do you agree?
No. “Mobilis in Mobili” is my answer. And this line is not original to Sartre; Seneca the Younger (died AD 65) said it. I doubt he was first. Sartre is annoying.
I don’t believe that humans ‘are’ in the sense of arrived at a stable state of being. Life is process. If your every action, thought and feeling were documented over time, I doubt the data would provide a reliable prediction pattern.
This idea of settled identity was popular in the Nineteenth Century. Stefan Zweig’s last book ‘The World of Yesterday’ (1942) contains a wonderful description of it and of the imprisoned condition of girls and women in bourgeois Vienna before all was swept away by the wars.

How strong are you in your decisions, opinions, actions?
I hope not strong in the sense of rigid or dominant. I favour rethinking and change of direction. My opinions change. I’ve made bold choices, unsure of consequences. As a middle class western woman, I’ve had more choice than many. I try to make full use of the freedom I have.

How different is Myra today, compared to the person she was in 1980, 1990, 2000?
I don’t think about who I was. Generational nostalgia bores me. I’m a shape shifter, interested in now and what’s next. I have reinvented myself many times. I have a friend who, whenever I introduce him to someone, tells a story of meeting me in1980 while I was running the ballet company. He wanted me to release dancers for a film he was making. The way he tells it, I was a Maserati in a leather mini skirt that scared the hell out of him. I guess that mattered then. Now, I couldn’t care less. My memory of that woman is vague. I didn’t grow up until I was Fifty. Who knew the best was yet to come. It’s well worth the effort of surviving to get to the later chapters.

You are Canadian. I can capture a glimpse of that divide country in a piece Armand Monroe. How do you feel and embrace the differences between Europe (Berlin) and Canada?
I migrate annually. It’s stimulating. The destination is not as important as leaving. I’m a big fan of leaving. I think we should leave often and treat our identiy as liquid rather than solid. A woman’s stake in most groups, certainly in the family, is limited by gender. I’m also sceptical of group markers such as nation, race and ethnicity. If I ever merge with a group, it will be a more inclusive pool than any of those. Keep moving, is my motto, "Mobilis in Mobili" and never forget the beautiful freedom in learning to enjoy being alone.
Comparing Canada and Europe (Berlin): Canada is comfortable but the deluge of American influence is oppressive. I also have Irish citizenship and I’m a big supporter of the EU. European cities are designed to live in them. Public space in Canada is used for transit. Marketisation of everything pervades Canadian culture as a result of American influence. I find that stifling. Also I don’t like cars. It’s a relief to be in Europe where the market is counterbalanced by Social Democratic values and public transport makes a car unnecessary.

Do you plan any concert tours in Europe and what are your future plans, Myra?
There are no plans to tour on SIRENS as a music project. These days, I’m interested in performing for fun, social bonding and going to places that interest me. Though not actively looking, I would do small performances for literary and new art festivals and mentoring residencies. If you happen to see a spot like that for me in your area, give them my name. I’ve never been to that region and I’m curious. The most important thing I’m doing at present, is looking for new direction. Time to reinvent myself.
The 2017/2018 season is full. This fall, I’ll likely go to Istanbul for the Biennial, mainly to support Turkish artists. In early 2018, I’ll be in Los Angeles working on a theatre project with a Canadian Director. April, I'm in Tokyo with family, then northern Thailand to check in with a musician friend living in a traditional village. Late May, I will return to Berlin to work on a memoir of the old days in the Berlin underground, written at the time (80s/90s) and never published (too many disclosures). Now I can let it go. I just want to add a layer of hindsight.

(Rock Obrobje, avgust 2017)

Varja Velikonja

black & white photos by Ken Potma