There’s Power In The Bottom: Queer Longing In Tsinder Ash’s ‘The Carbon Of Your Delight’
by Emily Colucci
Is there something about music that lends itself as a medium to explore tortured and painful yet romantic and erotic queer longing? From Perfume Genius’ melancholic songs like “Hood” to The Communards’ bizarrely manic renditions of torch songs and even, appropriated show tunes from Broadway musicals such as “On My Own” from Les Mis caterwauled in piano bars, music has a lengthy history as a repository for yearning. Maybe it’s the melodrama that only the auditory can capture that allows music to unabashedly delve into the dark corners of our minds that other genres have, instead, devoted to pride.
In her–often-used here at Filthy Dreams–book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love traces this legacy of longing in modern literature. However, the emotions of, as she interprets, “nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism and loneliness” can also be found in contemporary music rather than relegated to the separate and shameful literary past when same-sex desire was rendered impossible.
As Love writes of these backward feelings, “Of course, same-sex desire is not as impossible as it used to be; as a result, the survival of feelings such as shame, isolation and self-hatred into the post-Stonewall era is often the occasion for further feelings of shame. The embarrassment of owning such feelings, out of place as they are in a movement that takes pride as its watchword, is acute. It is also hard to see how feelings like bitterness or self-hatred might contribute to any recognizable political praxis” (4).
Of course, Love takes the question of the political relevance of “bad” feelings as a challenge as do many contemporary musicians including Tsinder Ash, a London-based queer musician, multi-instrumentalist and artist.
“I would collapse into you/like a dying star,” begins Ash’s EP The Carbon Of Your Delight, (available here on Bandcamp) which was released in March 2015. What follows in an all-consuming, minimalistic yet expansive sonic landscape that focuses on aching for eroticized self-immolation. With a stark simplicity of instrumentation with simple guitars and sometimes, a banjo, Ash allows his voice, as well as his evocative poetic lyrics, to shine through. Ash’s voice rivals only Anohni’s in his use of vibrato that conveys–at once–a delicate fragility and powerful strength of vision–a perfect combination to fearlessly lyricizing longing, grief and aching desire.
Some of you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, may recognize Tsinder Ash from his appearance in one of our favs M. Lamar’s Badass Nigga–The Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero video that was both shot and featured in Lamar’s last exhibition at Participant Inc. Not only collaborating with M. Lamar, Ash has also worked with iconic performance artist Franko B., who he can also count as a fan of his music (I spotted Franko B. smiling in the front of one of Tsinder Ash’s performances in a YouTube video. With his trademark tattoos and glasses, Franko is hard to miss).
Not only looking forward to a new EP this fall, Ash is also planning an upcoming full-length album The Ecstasy of Making Things Worse, which, according to the press release, will explore the Anthropocene “echoing this sense of foreboding, of bringing mortality to the forefront of consciousness. But amidst the doom there is a playfulness, an almost satirical slant on humanity’s propensity for self destruction.” Sounds uplifting!
As we anticipate these new releases, Ash’s The Carbon Of Your Delight deserves a closer critical look and listen. With its uncanny out-of-time sound, the EP is best heard with the blinds pulled, sitting in the dark–perfect for a late summer day!
Just the album cover invokes a combination of Robert Mapplethorpe’s two main creative interests–the marble-like flesh of the human body and tulips. With a tulip placed in front of his ass and his hand pressed against the skin of his back, Ash’s cover design invokes the utterly Bataille-esque combination of eroticism and death. The tulip is, at once, a sexualized symbol and a reference to graveside flowers.
From the cover image to lines such as, “I would cinder to charcoal/I would crumble to chalk/become the tool that transforms/your face from boy, into skin without essence/a nameless, genderless mold/on which fractal meanings dance/and only beauty takes hold,” Ash is clearly a fan of Leo Bersani’s notion of self-shattering from his seminal essay Is The Rectum A Grave? In a conversation on his website with fellow musician Clara Engel who also sings on the third song on the EP “The Sparking,” Ash describes his poetic focus on this transformative self-effacement. He says, “it’s because those moments of pure desire/beauty/ecstasy are the breaking point where we become radically open.”
Even more than this transcendence through eroticism, when you dig deeper into the four songs on the EP, listeners will find a well of longing. Just the sheer amount of the word “would” in the song’s lyrics indicates the precariousness of the possibility of the acts documented in the songs. These are moments of desire that have not yet occurred and in fact, may never occur. In the opening to “The Sparking,” Ash croons, “I would carry your bones/across darkening plains/to bring pieces of you/back home again” and later, Engel joins in, “To be with you at the sparking/where horizons meet the sea/I would never beg your pardon/ I would only beg belief.”
With this invocation of landscape–darkening plains, horizons meeting the sea and later, in the final song “Antipode,” the waters edge, Ash constructs a poetic environment reflective of the dark romanticism in his music. This mirroring of instrumentation with gloomy seaside references reminds me of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ (ok, what doesn’t make me reference Nick) last album Push the Sky Away. It’s no mistake that the album contains a song called “Water’s Edge.” Like Cave’s lyrical landscape, Ash’s constructed realm is dark and hallucinatory like a daydream–a world that resembles ours but remains more in fantasy.
This imagined space carved out by Ash in his four songs also seems to be the space of longing-longing for a person, desire, act or even, different world. What possible spaces do we create out of longing? And is there a generative political force within these gestures?
For Heather Love in the conclusion of Feeling Backward, she explains, “Many of the bad feelings under review here–self-pity, despair, depression, loneliness, remorse–are in fact bound up with pleasure, with precisely the sort of pleasure that gets regularly excoriated as sentimental, maudlin, nostalgic, self-indulgent and useless. I would suggest that part of the reason that these feeling-states continue to be denigrated is that they are associated with pleasures–even ecstasies–so internal that they distract attention from the external world. While melancholia or the sense of failure may borrow some prestige from philosophical accounts of negativity, when it comes to enlisting feelings for queer political projects, these ones are picked last” (161).
While typically associated with internal worlds rather than external, Ash’s investigation of these bad feelings render them externalized. And as Ash sings in his banjo-laden, dreamlike blues and folk-influenced “Weapons,” “There is power at the bottom.” The song begins with the lines, “Grief is coming for me/in a clatter of iron wings/a chorus forged in the fires of a bloody dawn.” Beyond this apocalyptic war-zone, Ash finds his own weapons internally. “You may strip my flesh/of all defense/you may leave my hope embalmed/but my weapons are/concealed in bone/I will not leave this world unarmed,” he continues.
The song finds Ash putting aside hope for these uglier feelings like grief, despair and melancholy, finding a, while not overtly political, power in the “bad feelings.” This reflects the final sentences of Love’s Feeling Backward. She describes, “Given this state of affairs, the question really is not whether feelings such as grief, regret, and despair have a place in transformative politics: it would in fact be impossible to imagine transformative politics without these feelings. Nor is the question how to cultivate hope in the face of despair, since such calls tend to demand the replacement of despair with hope. Rather the question that faces us is how to make a future backward enough that even the most reluctant among us might want to live there” (163).
Following Love and Ash’s rejection of the replacement of despair with hope or shame for pride, Dina S. Georgis in her essay Cultures of Expulsion: Memory, Longing and the Queer Space of Diaspora also sees longing as an integral political feeling. Her essay focuses mainly on the longing for home and belonging rather than a person, ideal or desire.
Like Georgis’ essay, Ash’s final song “Antipode” deals with a similar type of spatial longing. The chorus follows, “Oh Antipode, what earth has grown between us/that soil that tried to leave us/did go/Oh Antipode, for all the rocks beneath us/that joy that tried to leave us/did go,/ you did go/ you did go.” Ending the album with the “going” of “Antipode,” The Carbon Of Your Delight’s grand finale maintains the overwhelming sense of loss and longing that runs throughout the EP.
But as shown in “Weapons,” this does not mean it is without power. As Georgis writes in Cultures of Expulsion, “The implication of this means that we make a political practice of paying attention to our queer longings, that we reflect on the vulnerabilities which are awakened by such longing, and that we consider how the emotional and psychic geography of the human might re-invigorate our political imagination.”
Originally published August 2016 on Filthy Dreams:
CE: Alright. How shall we begin?
You’ve just come back from your mini tour, how was it?
CE: It was great! I think I get addicted to singing every night, so I feel a bit in withdrawal from it after. Do you get that from performing?
TA: Definitely, When I haven’t played in a couple of weeks and it gets you down if you don’t have that outlet, but at the same time performing takes so much out of me – I couldn’t do it more than a couple times a week.
TA: You seem to play quite regularly though. Do you find it easy to find/create shows in Toronto?
CE: For me the desire kind of feeds off itself: so the first show is the hardest, and then it gets much more seamless/less anxiety producing the more shows I do in a row.
I’ve never done a super long tour though, so I’m sure I would get exhausted at a point.
I don’t find it that easy to get shows in TO. I’m just persistent I guess. How difficult is it to get shows in London?
TA: London is a hard nut to crack, there’s so much going on here, but finding the shows that suit you/that are worth playing takes a lot of persistence too, especially if you’re not involved in a ‘scene’.
CE: That sounds potentially very frustrating. I really wish I could have attended your release show – it seems like you created a really beautiful moment there!
TA: Yes, the release was interesting and nerve wracking. The venue called for me to do more of a performance art style piece which I’ve not really done before. A lot of it was totally improvised, using multiple sound-sources, engaging with the audience and using an automated Gameletron which was set up in the venue.
CE: That would be a lot of work.
TA: It was. I’d love to expand the idea and do more things like that, but again it’s about finding the right venues.
CE: Definitely. The space has to be conducive to that sort of experience.
I think bars are a terrible place for the kind of music that I make. I’d love to play in an abandoned church. I played in a space in Montreal with a vaulted ceiling, and great natural acoustics – it made me realise how a lot of live music is kind of disfigured and imprisoned by the spaces we’ve confined it to.
TA: That would great, yes you really do need people to pay attention to your music, its rawness means that if there isn’t complete attention the whole point of it gets lost.
I wanted to talk about that actually, your aesthetic, in terms of minimalism.
I feel like the concept of something being ‘unfinished’ in songwriting remains a very radical thing.
CE: I am a ruthless minimalist. It really frustrates some people who I’ve worked with.
I find the idea of songs having to have a really set and boxed in form just doesn’t excite me.
TA: For sure. The fact that you leave room for possibility is powerful not only on a textural level but also a metaphorical one.
CE: Thank you. That’s what I hope for, and what I’m drawn to.
TA: Well now that you mention it, I remember way back when you sent me your track ‘Ghost Opera’ to play around with.
CE: That song has a lot of space in it – you added sax, right?
TA: I added like 10 sax parts, which is so typically me! Enforced minimalism is definitely something I have learnt from you. You didn’t use the sax parts instead you actually made the track even MORE minimal than it was originally and, of course, it worked perfectly.
CE: Do you identify as a minimalist? You do let the bones of your songs show (I love it). Like ‘Antipode’, that is a gorgeous track. Not that a person needs to be either a minimalist or a maximalist.
TA: I’m not sure. I feel like minimalism is more of a compositional technique or a discipline rather than a sound, so in that respect I consider myself a minimalist.
CE: Well put – I agree.
TA: This last EP was definitely enforced minimalism in sound though, more so than I’ve ever done before. I had my reasons for that.
CE: Your voice really sounds great on it. I was blown away by it live, and that recording reflects your sound.
TA: Yeah, I really wanted the album to showcase the vocals and lyrics, the instrumentation almost didn’t matter, by which I mean it mattered a lot in the sense that it took me a year to record four songs! But that’s because my writing process changed somewhat, do you find your process has changed over time?
CE: Yes, except I would argue that the instrumentation actually varies a quite a bit between the tracks.
TA: That’s true.
CE: I think my writing process has gotten more brutal in terms of how much I cut out – but it also feels like it’s just become an outgrowth of my being rather than a series of conscious deliberations. I guess it changes like how I change with the ageing process and the blows dealt by life. I’m not sure if that makes sense. How has yours changed?
TA: No that makes sense, I think mine changes according to what I want to vent at the time I suppose. I’ll write a poem or several poems which will eventually get set to music – those songs are the very thought-out ones that usually involve a lot of emotion.
CE: For sure. That comes through strongly on your EP.
TA: Yes ‘The Carbon…’ was very intentionally like that, but equally I love just picking up an instrument or a loop app and improvising, or making a beat and seeing what comes after. But that might result in something very different. In a way I find the improvisational process more interesting, it leaves more room for error and new sounds.
CE: I often find that I unintentionally write something intensely personal and emotional, but I don’t realise it till after the fact. Does that ever happen to you or do you find that intent informs your work in a more direct way?
TA: Absolutely, I find that all the time, especially when you write very abstract lyrics (which I guess we both do a lot) then you’ll come back to it months later after listening to the recording and find some metaphor that seemed meaningless at the time but in retrospect, considering your emotions at the time, you’re like ‘damn! I totally get that now!’
CE: Yeah. That happens to me a lot. I wrote a song called “Fox Got My Tongue” that I’m going to record soon. On the surface it’s a fable about a dove being caught by a fox and left to bleed by the road, but I realised it’s much more about depression and inability to communicate in a satisfying way.
TA: I think one of main things that draws me to your lyrics is this aesthetic you have of exploring the extremes of emotion. It’s like how the Japanese pop star Kyary says she wants to display ‘cuteness in a traumatic way.’
CE: I like that ‘cuteness in a traumatic way.’
TA: I love that quote. It’s a really random parallel but it made me think of your work.
CE: Yes, I feel like art fills a void. We’re supposed to avoid unseemly/excessive emotions, but they’re a huge part of being alive, so a song can be a rupture in all that seemliness, a place to feel fully.
TA: Exactly, you sing a lot about beauty and desire in a very violent way…
CE: Yes, I can’t fully explain why though.
TA: Well for me, and this is what I’ve been exploring in my work, it’s because those moments of pure desire/beauty/ecstasy are the breaking point where we become radically open.
CE: I like that and that connects to what I said about the rupture.
TA: For sure, and it’s also the same place from which art springs from I think. That moment of pure emotion/inspiration is in a very Wittgensteinian way ‘outside’ language, or rather Derridian as it points to an outside, which in turn forces us to become open.
CE: I think so too and I like the idea that we can never fully articulate the breaking point, only point to it.
TA: Precisely, that’s why the voice is so wonderful because it’s the most human yet inhuman tool. I think you explore that very much in your vocal work as well.
CE: I also love how singing can open up language – sung words can be kind of stretched and opened up, and given new lives in a way. Words are so important in my work, and I grew up reading a lot of poetry, but I prefer the sung word to the spoken word. Words are tremendously important in your work too – you have a strong poetic voice.
TA: I definitely feel like I’m more of a poet than a songwriter, the poems just get expressed through song. I think spoken word is difficult sometimes as it makes it easier for us to focus on the person not what they’re saying. Singing distracts us because it blurs the line between corporeal and incorporeal.
CE: I definitely feel both really outside myself/transcendent as well as really grounded in my body when I sing.
TA: You have to be very ‘in’ your body to sing the way you do, but also have an image of a headspace or ‘dome’ in which you can imagine sound to do its own thing elsewhere.
CE: That’s a very good image. I definitely go into an inner space when I sing, I think that’s why I close my eyes – it’s not a conscious choice but a natural thing.
TA: You’ve mentioned before the use of archetypes in your work.
CE: Archetypes? I don’t remember mentioning that, but I’m curious about what you mean.
TA: Do you feel you write about archetypes?
CE: I’m not sure. Friends have told me they’ve noticed recurrent images in my work – lots of water/sailors/disturbing or brutal body imagery. How about you?
TA: Well I was going to say for me your lyrics seem more like re-imagined fairy tales.
CE: I like that as well!
TA: They are Angela Carter-esque, but also about placing fairy tales in totally radical/re-imagined landscapes. The landscape is actually more important than the character. The character is just there so we have a point of reference perhaps? I’m not sure.
CE: That’s a really good insight. I feel like there’s something really cinematic in the way I imagine the worlds of my songs.
CE: There’s a timeless quality about your work/the choices of instrumentation you use. If you could write the soundtrack to a film where would it take place and what genre would it be?
TA: Oh wow, that’s a tricky one. I kind-of imagine doing something very dramatic but in like a minimal fucked up way, something akin to Scott Walker’s work perhaps.
CE: Cool. Are you a Jim Jarmusch fan?
TA: I was about to mention him!
CE: I love the music in his films so, so, much
CE: It would be cool if you and I worked together on a film score.
TA: That would be very cool. I didn’t really answer your question. I think because when it comes to collaboration I’m so used to finding a genre to fit the work, rather than applying my own genre to other peoples work. Does that make sense?
CE: Makes sense!
TA: You certainly have your own aesthetic, but you’re very open to exploring new textures. Is there a style or genre that you’d like to explore in the future?
CE: I’d like to try to make something electronic someday as well as something acoustic but with no guitars.
TA: That’s interesting, like with strings or brass?
CE: It’s hard to say. I tend to like weird chamber ensembles, so probably some odd combination of both. I really like the harp, too, and the vibraphone. I also like using just a few elements and getting the most out of them, so maybe just vibes, double bass, harp and a giant bass drum.
TA: That sounds amazing!
CE: I’m getting really inspired to actually do it now!
TA: I’d love to sing with a brass band one day, like an old-school British military brass band, it would be such a weird combination of aesthetics/times and periods/lifestyles.
CE: Oh man. That would sound spectacular with your songs and voice. I can imagine it.
TA: My family has a long military history so for me it would be an interesting way to re-imagine that (re-embody or queer it even).
CE: That would be a very cool concept record! How much musical training do you have? I would find it daunting to arrange my work for an ensemble.
TA: Near-to-none. I did music in school but hated it.
CE: Ha. Likewise.
TA: But, I feel as I get older it would be easier to become disciplined in that way, like learning how to score for different instruments.
CE: Yeah, especially when you’re working towards making something you desire to make and believe in. It’s just another means to the same end I suppose.
TA: It totally goes against my whole songwriting aesthetic/mantra but I’m sure I could try. I purposefully do not write down any of my songs.
CE: Even the words? You have so many different instruments (and tunings?) so you must have a good memory.
TA: The words will exist in fragments all over the place. Also each song is purposefully in a different tuning, which I also never write down. I have a TERRIBLE memory.
CE: Woah. So you live on the edge. I write down all the words and the occasional chord diagram.
TA: It means each time I want to play the song I have to totally re-learn it and give it new life. It also helps me move on creatively.
CE: That is a very living approach to performance. I like it and it must keep all the songs fresh in a way.
TA: Yes! But it makes playing live a challenge, that’s why so much of my work involves improvisation I guess.
TA: If you were to give one tip to surviving (both literally and mentally) as an independent artist what would it be?
CE: That is a hard one. I think trying to enjoy and live for making the work itself, rather than recognition or external rewards is essential for my sanity.
TA: That’s very important.
CE: Otherwise it’s just really easy to feel discouraged and worthless if you’re doing something against the grain and don’t have a niche.
TA: But forever being on the fringes of things has its advantages as well. I feel, it’s eternally frustrating, but at the same time gives you that space to do your own thing.
CE: Definitely. It allows you more freedom and makes you less tied to a persona I would think.
TA: For sure. So finally, what do you have planned for this year, you mentioned more EP’s in the works?
CE: I have one new album coming out this year, provisionally entitled “Visitors are Allowed One Kiss.” I would describe it as a slow-burning collection of songs, best listened to in the evening, somewhere very quiet, with no light pollution, and a view of a forest. Joiku Rauhala, a really amazing visual artist, will be designing the cover. Joiku is from Finland and they have a blog called Slight Inklings. Also, I would also love to tour more this year. How about you? Planning any North American tours?
TA: I would really love to do a west coast tour. I keep talking about it with people. I’d LOVE to come to Canada. I’m very in-between everything at the moment, I may not be staying in London for much longer so we shall see! In terms of music I have a couple of new idea’s for EP’s that are in the works.
CE: Sounds great! I look forward to hearing all of this! & this was a fun interview. I’m happy you suggested it.
TA: Well I hope we get together to work on something again in the near future whatever that might be!
CE: I hope so too!!
Clara’s vocals feature on ‘The Sparking’ on ‘The Carbon Of Your Delight’ by Tsinder Ash.
Tsinder is featured on the albums ‘Secret Beasts’ and ‘Ashes and Tangerines’ by Clara Engel.