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All Eyes On

Elysia Crampton: Experimental Producer Who Talks to God

Home is a tricky concept for Elysia Crampton. Half-Bolivian by descent, the forward-thinking electronic producer has lived in California, Virginia, and Montemorelos, a small town outside Monterrey, Mexico. She has the greatest affinity for that last location, but she hasn’t been back in years — and from what she sees in newspapers, the place she calls her hometown bears little resemblance to the “free” locale she lived in as a kid, riding her bike through the surrounding countryside.

“Maybe five years ago, there was this really big shift in the control of cartels,” she says on a recent Skype call. “I just saw these photos of a pile of heads… that was my hometown.” There were problems with organized crime when she lived there, too, but since the town was a bit more removed from urban life, she says the drug cartels weren’t as active there. “[Seeing those photos] was sad,” she says. “I don’t remember it that way at all.”

Now she’s living in Weyers Cave, Virginia, but she’s ready to get out of there too — even though she’s said that the wild Southern surroundings have influenced American Drift, her first album for New York producer FaltyDL’s Blueberry Records. “My tether had become an old family business, an Italian restaurant, that we’ve been trying to get rid of for a while,” she explains. “I was going to take it over, but with that type of business you have to be there all the time. I don’t want to be that girl. I swear we’ve sold it like three times, but it never really worked out. This time we’re kind of abandoning it.”

Crampton’s not sure where she’ll be headed — maybe to a town in Bolivia that doesn’t have Internet — but for now, she’s focusing on her art, which feels similarly without a home. Over the past half-decade, under both her own name and the moniker E+E, she’s issued a series of dizzy, disorienting compositions that feel both out of time and out of place — not so much that they belong to another era, but that they lack spatial and temporal referents entirely. Like a wave of up-and-coming producers around the world (most prominently the Venezuela-born Arca, but also pretty much the entire stable of Berlin’s PAN) her work takes rap and dance music semantics — puttering drum samples and airy synth work, for instance — and scrambles the diction. Tracks like “Petrichrist,” with its blaring midi horns and woozy psychedelia, conjure the sort of discombobulation that you might feel if everyone around you spoke a language just slightly different from your own. The phonemes feel familiar, but the meaning is harder to grasp.

It didn’t start that way though. After a childhood of piano and keyboard lessons from a cool teacher who was “queer and bi and just all-around crazy,” Crampton started exploring extraterrestrial edits of pop songs, which she describes in surprisingly casual terms considering the buzz she generated among experimentally inclined music fans. “I’d just start with an a capella and put something together,” she says. It’s an absurdly simplistic explanation for results as ornate and fertile as her rework of Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me,” a slinking, soporific take on the maligned pop star’s electro-R&B jam. A series of characteristically clanging percussion elements and nauseating synth lines turn the hit into something devoid of its distinctly 2012 context — it’s pop music, sans signifiers.

But if she sounds nonchalant about it now, it’s because she was then, too. She rejects the idea that she was mysterious or reticent to interact with the suddenly fawning press in those early days — it’s just that the edits and remixes she was making from 2008 to 2011 weren’t as personal as the material she’s working on now. “I didn’t want to be caught taking it seriously,” she explains. “Obviously people who like the work take it seriously. But [the songs] are not mine. They are and they’re not. I couldn’t call it mine totally because it belonged [in part] to the people whose work I used.” To that end, she’s not bluffing. With the Bieber edit as a notable exception, most of the relics of her work prior to 2013 have been scrubbed from her SoundCloud account.

After a couple of years of refurbishing others’ a capellas, Crampton realized people were suddenly paying attention. “A few years go by and suddenly you become aware that [this music] has a life of its own,” she explains. “That it has been affecting and having relationships with other people despite me not wanting it to be anything more.”

Then, there was an awakening, a moment of rapid personal growth that she describes in near-sacred terms. “In 2011, I had this religious, like, born-again experience, so writing became this way of… communicating with God,” she says, struggling to translate what her music has taught her about herself, especially as she’s grappled with her gender identity and her place in an American society that’s still unwelcoming at best, and violent at worst, for trans women. “It’s not like praying,” she tries. “It’s felt less one-sided than that. It’s informed me so much about my life, especially with transitioning and the spiritual side of transitioning and myself. [Music’s] always revealing and it’s an ongoing thing.”

So she wrote, communed with God and with Virginia, and after a series of lower-stakes releases she returns with American Drift, which is out August 7. It’s a philosophically dense scrap sculpture pulling influence, according to Crampton, from critically ignored sources as disparate as crunk artists, local geographical features, Bolivian metal, and queer theory. “I try to pull from these shadowy places, from these shadowy legacies that have made me,” she says. “[I’m] pointing back to these names, to these people of influence, to bring them to light and to recalibrate them with myself into a history that kind of shatters right out of this history that we’re in, that kind of ignores those bodies, rejects those stories.”

It’s this sort of politically engaged, personally rooted art that’s left Crampton at the borders of a number of scenes. She’s not quite a dance producer — the message is too important to be relegated to the club or workout playlists — and her work’s just a hair too intentionally abstract to make her a full-on academic, even though she was recently invited to perform and speak at Yale. “I love performing live,” she says, “but right now the music I make and just the way I do it, it was never working.” Part of that disconnect comes from an aesthetic that’s diametrically opposed to club music’s rules (“It has to have a clean BPM and the drums have to be machismo-engineer-nerd perfect”) and part is a conscious rejection of the space as it exists today, where she says she can feel “isolated.”

“Clubs [are] not enough,” she explains. “I want the club to evolve, especially in America too. The space can actually facilitate more — where it’s kind of scholastic and people can talk big and think big, but it’s not sponsored by a museum. I would hope to see that evolve so that people who don’t fit into that paradigm can really uncover their voices.” She repeats this sort of aspirational talk throughout the rest of our conversation, envisioning utopia, hanging onto hope despite claiming to be a “very pessimistic person.” It’s possible to imagine a better world, even if she’s not exactly sure where she’s going to be living in it.

Listen to American Drift up above in advance of its August 7 release on Blueberry Records.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Montemorelos is in New Mexico. It is in Nuevo León, Mexico.