Eartheater: The Former ‘Barefoot Freak’ Making Time-Traveling Folk Music
Alexandra Drewchin releases her second full-length collection of cyborg compositions this week
At the entryway of Alexandra Drewchin’s apartment building in Ridgewood, Queens, an art installation is starting to stink. A latticework of bricks made out of Jello sits in the window, casting an eerie neon light into the doorway as relentless exposure to the sun has caused a noxious green mold to grow on the outer edges. The more damaged pieces have started to melt and drip, blurring into one another, and threatening the structural integrity of the whole piece. It’s only a matter of time before the whole piece will be a puddle on the floor.
The 26-year-old songwriter, who lives several floors above the ground-level gallery space, answers her front door with a warning about the smell. “The artists were like, ‘It’ll get really soupy and they fall down, but we’ll come clean it up every other day,'” she explains, laughing. “But they didn’t tell us it was gonna get moldy.” And yet, sock-like odor aside, the rotting psychedelic mess is a fairly appropriate analog for the circular compositions Drewchin’s been making for the last four years as Eartheater. Unidentifiable biomasses grow unaided on synthetic materials, and heat and light cause boundaries to blur and component parts to meld together into a seeping stew that’s affecting, despite its occasional ugliness.
Both of her full-lengths to date — February’s Metalepsis and this week’s RIP Chrysalis — explore those aims to their futurist extremes. They’re bizarre assemblages of electric guitar and synthesizer samples that bleed and swirl into one another with the boundless energy of psychedelia, at once feeling like ancient rite and unabated innovation. But for all the horizon-gazing that she does in her music, sitting at a table in her bedroom that bears little more than incense, a notebook, and a pipe, she explains that this music is rooted, paradoxically, in her past — sorta. “If we can mess with time,” she says. “Let’s not make it linear, you know?”
Drewchin jumps first to her childhood, growing up on a rural farm in New York state (“Like, ten miles away from a store where you could buy milk”) where she was homeschooled by her English mother. She started playing violin at the age of three, the influence, she says, of her Russian artist dad “holding the hammer above my head.”
This “educational experiment” turned her into a “tangly-haired barefoot little freak,” at home with her three brothers and their chicken and sheep, but ill-prepared for the pressures of public school, which she was forced to attend as of her sophomore year of high school. Her parents split, and her mother sold their farm. “That was my first year in school ever,” she explains. “[Dealing with] the over-sensory input… I was like ‘What?‘” Soon she found herself picking up on her abandoned impulses toward music-making as a sort of “self-prescribed anxiety medication.” She pauses, looks down at the table, and grins, cognizant of the cliché that’s coming. “Music saved me,” she says.
Some of these songs would form the basis for the mutant standards and abstract mantras that make up Metalepsis, and to an even greater degree, the more personally intimate RIP Chrysalis. But it took moving to New York as a late teen and letting herself and these straightforward folk ballads — raw material of the songs she makes now — get chewed up by the whirring gears of the big city before she’d feel comfortable releasing any of the lilting material out into the world. Drewchin played her songs in Central Park and found herself casually involved in the major label music wheeling and dealing after writing some songs for a film directed by a woman she met on the street. She tried to make records in big studios, but nothing really stuck; the result of her own insecurities and the “slimy” people she worked with. “I had these mentors that I was hanging onto because I didn’t have anything else,” she says. “I was a leaf floating.”
Her career was directed by chance encounters and her sound came no closer to crystallizing. Disinterested in the straight-laced Manhattan music world she was drifting toward, she started digging deeper and realizing that there were whole other worlds for her songs to explore. “I started going to [famed punk venue] ABC No Rio and then I started finding all the DIY spaces,” she explains. “Suddenly, my scope was just expanded. I had a massive identity crisis. Or, like, a few of them.”
Going to shows by Detroit noiseniks Wolf Eyes and immersing herself in the psychedelic techno-babble of Brooklyn experimentalists the USA Is a Monster sparked changes in Drewchin’s work. She adopted the moniker Eartheater and disassembled the simple sway of her adolescent poetry. “I was allowing myself to bust out at the seams,” she says. “To push my limits, to discover that my whole body is my instrument — not just my lungs and my voice box and my mouth and my brain.”
Those extremes manifested themselves in a stint with the interstellar improvisers in Guardian Alien, whose live shows often found her writhing on the floor, wringing ungodly noise out of broken synthesizers and her own slowly blooming voice, capable of evoking chattering anxiety and impending doom over clashing guitars and leader Greg Fox’s drum maelstrom. It was pretty far from the music she’d been making since she was a kid, but it sent her back to her notebooks with fresh eyes, looking for trippy resonances, abstract rhymes, and all sorts of other weirdness in the midst of her archives. “I finally learned how to have a voice that I’m really confident in,” she affirms. “I stopped doubting myself.”
What emerged were songs like “Infinity,” digitalist reimaginings of her old material that shift her focus from herself to the cosmos and then back again; wrapping musings on the meaning of, well, everything, into celestial recordings that dive from placid drones to journalistic spoken-word monologue and back again. But that doesn’t mean that she’s done tinkering, refixing, opening and closing loops. Even that track is reworked on her new record as “If It In Yin,” a slowed-down and spaced-out exploration of the “universal information” mentioned in the original track’s lyrics. The effect’s as if you’re watching her erase, strikethrough, and rewrite her own personal mythologies, almost in real time. “I still feel like I’m in a place where I’m constantly learning.” she says. “I’m stretching and pushing myself and finding more inner elegance.”