Gavilán Rayna Russom has lived more lives than most. The 45-year-old, Providence-born artist spent her teen years playing in psychedelic bands and rewiring mixers, before getting hired as a synthesizer technician at James Murphy's DFA Records in the late '90s. Russom quickly became nicknamed "The Wizard" for her electronic conjurings. Since then, she's served as LCD's main synthesist on all albums and tours, splitting time between Berlin and New York City.
Russom has released her own music since 2005, under the moniker Black Meteoric Star, as well as in collaborations with Delia Gonzalez and the Crystal Ark. Her technical prowess and ethereal, ecstatic compositions have left a distinct imprint on house and techno. She's released most of her music on DFA Records, but Russom's story as an artist stands apart from the storied New York scene. In the middle of LCD Soundsystem's most recent tour behind 2017's American Dream, Russom (previously known as Gavin Russom) came out as trans in a Pitchfork essay, shortly after making her first post-transition appearance with the band on Saturday Night Live.
The Envoy, Russom's first new project since transitioning, was released in November on Ecstatic. The 11-track collection of shape-shifting, melancholic songs, which abandon fixed pitches and scales, was inspired by science fiction legend Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: a work populated by agender beings called Gethenians. The Envoy is a reintroduction for Russom, one which sheds new light on her creative world.
Ever since she was a child, Russom has built sound spaces as a way of finding sanity and identity in a world that destabilized her own. "I've been conducting this musical practice for about 40 years," she says. Creating The Envoy while finally living as a woman was strange: "It was like, 'What do I do with this practice when I'm no longer holding onto it for dear life?'" The answer is serving others. "Having healed myself, I want to use the techniques I've developed and honed, to create musical space for others, in which they might find their own versions of sanity and identity," Russom explains.
Electronic music has become a brilliant canvas for trans artists like Arca, SOPHIE, La Neve and many others in recent years. But the genre's still haunted by the specter of the white male genius — that embodied by, say, James Murphy. Russom remains a member of LCD Soundsystem and is diplomatic about her experiences in the scene. "Electronic music is a place where I, as a trans person, was able to find a voice and a context," she says. "But it's also a place where I've absolutely struggled."
After coming out, Russom embarked on a "Ladies of LCD Soundsystem" tour with the band's only other female member, Nancy Whang. She describes it as a "tremendous shedding of skin" to finally have her collaborators use the right pronouns and name. Though it was always clear to Russom that she was a girl, internalized transphobia and an ambivalence to the notion of coming out meant that for a long time, she lived "in multiple worlds: double, triple quadruple life, which became a liability at a certain point." Her time in the DFA scene was "...symptomatic of the fact that I wasn't able to claim [my identity] and clarify it for other people. It was symptomatic of feeling like I needed to be a man in a male space, and be around men in a boys' club."
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When asked if we need more trans artists in electronic music, Russom emphasizes that "more" isn't the point. "What I really crave is not just more trans voices, but uncompromising trans voices," she says. "Trans voices that resist commodification. Trans voices that speak from the complexity of trans experience, voices that resist being simply incorporated into existing trends… I think trans folks are, in general, much more connected to reality than most people, and have the ability to craft a more sustainable world."
For listeners, The Envoy contextualizes what Russom's been doing with music her entire career. For Russom, it was an opportunity to take stock of the influences who've pushed her towards artistic and gender rebellion.
British performance artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti speaks the only words on The Envoy: a poem Russom wrote specifically for her on "Kemmer," (named after the period when Le Guin's Gethenians briefly become male or female). "Shells shed like ice/ Crystal speech in the tensions between," Tutti murmurs, over a quivering synth.
Russom had been a fan of Tutti's for years as a member of the experimental band, which also included Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle. Later, Russom began to realize that the way Tutti's solo music and performance art, which often drew from her experiences as a stripper and sex worker, embraced taboo and rejected the border between "high art" and pop culture had allowed Russom to do the same. "It was like a lightning bolt. I felt this immediate kinship," Russom says. "Her work deals with sexuality in such a complex way, without ever saying it. She's not saying 'oh, taboos are bad.' She's just being radically self-identifying."
"Kemmer," Russom says, is ultimately about the desire to speak. "The whole thing is a conversation with her, as two women who have very different experiences, but there are these key places where we're connected."
PAPER reconnected Tutti and Russom to speak about The Envoy and their collaboration to learn more.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: What was your approach, or starting point for "Kemmer"?
Gavilán Rayna Russom: Starting around 2013, I got really interested in how, using a kick drum, I could create clouds of sounds that move far from a fixed pitch center, which is something I'm very interested in challenging. I see a parallel between traditional modes of regimenting sound — like the concepts of "in-tune pitches;" traditional scales that go C, D, E; the concept of keys — and other aspects of political oppression and regimentation. My music models resistance by trying to move away from the concept of fixed pitch center and musical key, while holding back from being white noise based music. Because those regiments are all totally invented. "In-tune pitches" and musical keys are just inventions of a particular culture that has some pretty big liabilities, which is a rabbit hole I'll just refrain from jumping down it.
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So in this period, from around '13 to '15, I got close to where I wanted to be with a series of twelve-inches that use the kick drum as an anchor. The challenge for The Envoy was how to approach the same ideas but without the presence of the kickdrum. I knew that this record was going to be a beatless record. On "Kemmer," I approached that question by having a repetitive bassline that uses a lot of tamboral molding to mesh it with other sounds. So, the starting point was building an anchor, and then blurring and smudging the edges, so that the bass anchored these clouds. My interest in beatless music also comes from experiences I've had at clubs, mostly techno clubs where there's very strong beat-driven music. I wanted to take a moment of that dance club experience and use beatless sound to prolong it and draw it out over time. To me, The Envoy is still very much dance music, but a kind of deep-body, psychedelic dance music. With "Kemmer," I wanted to create something with real physicality, that speak speaks to the body, but not through the conventional use of a big kick drum.
Cosey: Was there a specific sound you were aiming for, or were you inspired by what your collaborators contributed?
Rayna: Something that inspired me is the language of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is so dense and descriptive. In Left Hand, "kemmer" is something that's referred to but never explained. It's always sort of behind a curtain of mystery, because the novel is from the perspective of a person who is an outsider to a culture. You never know what "kemmer" actually is, how it works, how it happens. The whole thing is just very sexual, in how it's just beyond visibility. That's the mood I wanted to create, drawing on how Le Guin evokes this intense thing just out of reach. When thinking about the sounds and the words of this record, I imagined what's just below the surface of experience. So the answer to the question is both. I was always moving towards The Envoy's sound, but then I had this intuitive sense that Cosey would be amazing. I wrote the text of "Kemmer" for her, because I felt like it would speak to her and she would be able to bring it to life. When I got back her vocal and heard the depth to which she engaged the text, that's when the track really got molded, and became this dialogue or conversation, between the instrumentation and her voice. There's Cosey and there's what she's saying, and then there's all this information in her voice, that speaks to deeply to all these ideas of sexuality, taboos, mystery, and nonconformity.
Cosey: How did you choose your collaborators on this record?
Rayna: Some of it had to do with conversations I was having with Sam [Willis] and Alessio [Natalizia] at Ecstatic, about how to develop this record. There was an interesting point after I sent them a rough version of the record, where they were like, "We would go ahead and put this out now. It's great. But also, let's have a conversation about what it would look like to go back in and develop these tracks more." I was really excited about that. I generally resist playing works-in-progress for people, so it was really nice to have a label that wants to have those kinds of conversations and give me real, interesting feedback.
So, one of the ways we did that was to bring in collaborators. I put together a long list together of people and Cosey and Peter Zummo made the most sense for this record. Partly, because it tells my story, in a way, to say, "Here are the people in my circle, here's who I look up to, in this generation of creators." It's a way of telling people who I am, in a way they can understand. Like, "Of course, Peter Zummo, Zummo With an X, reissued by Optimo, who collaborated with Arthur Russell." Like, "Oh, Cosey, right." It was a way introduce myself, because this record is a re-introduction. It was also about the musical textures. I work with Peter a lot, so I know what he does with brass and his extended overtone approach to brass. He's very tamboral in how he relates to brass. That fits very well with the way I compose. Cosey's approach to voice is also very tamboral. The way that her voice is mixed, especially on her solo records, is something I've paid attention to for a long time, when I've thought about how the voice functions best in an ensemble of electric sounds. Choosing Peter and Cosey was both about the story it tells, and how the sound fit and could bring something from outside to the record that I couldn't bring myself.
Cosey: How would you describe your use of sound as a means of representing yourself, and other themes that are important to you?
Rayna: There's so many ways to approach that question, so I'll do the easiest one. Something that I've come to understand in the last ten years, is that I began making the kind of music I make now, as a child. Partly because I am a transgender person who had an awareness of my transgender identity from before I can remember, but had no way to contextualize or express it until recently. There are other factors as well, like the fact that I'm a medium and was having witchcraft-related experiences that I also couldn't contextualize as a child... I was in an extreme amount of pain as a child. Before I had a consciousness about it, I gravitated towards certain sounds as a way of healing myself. I just noticed that, "Oh, I have this toy organ and if I hold down all of the chord keys on it, this thing happens." I now understand that feeling as harmonic density and temporal fluidity, but at the time I just knew, "Something happens, I feel better." So as a child, I learned how to create musical space in which I could heal, in which I could feel whole, and find identity. That was my practice from childhood. As I went out and tried on different identities and began unraveling this insane conundrum of being a woman who was being told that she was a man, I continued to gravitate towards aesthetic frameworks that really go back to my childhood. I started to gravitate towards technology that would do that and achieve it: reel-to-reel tape machines, and feedback, and then eventually synthesis.
Until I figured out how to take care of myself around my gender identity, I was really at the mercy of it. I was driven by this imperative that I didn't quite understand, and I held onto this practice for dear life because it was my only coping mechanism — to create these sound walls, in which I could feel sane. Then this remarkable thing happened, and I found other artistic tools, spiritual healing tools. I was able to gain a consciousness of how to actually take care of myself. At that point, I was in my early 40s, just a few years ago. I've been conducting this musical practice for about 40 years, I mean I started playing in bands, recording and DJ-ing in the late 80s. It was really interesting thing to have this lifelong healing and creative practice and then find new consciousness. It was like "What do I do with this practice?" when I'm no longer holding onto it for dear life, to give me sanity and identity. The answer to that question that I've found, is to do service to other people. Having healed myself, to use that practice, offer it as something that might heal or help other people, and use techniques that I've developed and honed, to create musical space for others, in which they might find their own versions of sanity and identity.
Cosey: Was your creative process for the album one about expressing thoughts and ideas, or emotions they invoke in you?
Rayna: In a sense, it's all of those things. I've done it in a way that I hope disturbs the notion that "thoughts" and "emotions" are actually different or disconnected or binary things. I'm intensely disturbed by the idea that the intellectual and the emotional are mutually exclusive or binary. Someone recently asked me, "What are you doing when you write poetry" The best way to describe it is, specifically in poetry but in everything that I do, is that I've experienced the world in a very vivid, intense, almost ecstatic way. Part of that is medium shit and part of that is just being an intense person who's had several unpleasant brushes with the mental health industry. Through my life, I've had very intense experiences of the world, that create powerful and dynamic sensations in my body. So when I write poetry or music, I'm trying to distill the physical experience of those moments into language, but leave it in a liminal zone where it's not completely concrete, where it still has an element of abstraction. I'm not pulling that intangible experience all the way into fixed language, but I'm using language to kind of hold it half in focus. It's similar to what they say about dreams: that when you're dreaming, you're getting bombarded with raw data and your mind pulls it into form. I'm interested in finding that liminal zone between raw, unformed, embodied experience and really specific, pinned down intellectual concepts of what that that is. So, there is an emotional component to the record, but it's also an idea. I think it's mostly spiritual, in a way. It's really about the spiritual power of reality, and presence. For instance, on the track that Peter Zummo plays on, which references the "discipline of presence," which is this incredible phrase from my favorite part of The Left Hand of Darkness. I think that phrase is a good description of what I'm going for in my work. Using these methods to create a vivid, emotional experience, in the body. I think that's why I respond so much to the novel so much. It's less a novel and more a description of experiences.
Photo courtesy of Guarionex Rodriguez Jr