The Divine Feminine: Elisabeth Elektra Interviewed

Glasgow pop auteur with a sense of the magical...

Somewhere on the way from past to present, the world stopped believing in magic.

When the things that we wished for didn’t appear, it became difficult to retain faith in what we couldn’t see. Magic was dismissed as trickery and illusion: the pastime of spooky eccentrics and silly hippies. Witchcraft was inextricably bound to the power of women, suffused with sexuality – and always, with shame. Women were burned alive for the crime of it. For some modern feminists, the practice of witchcraft has been an important reclamation of identity.

Elisabeth Elektra still believes in magic. And in the ceremony of performance and costume. Glasgow’s “femme witch” used her private divinations as source material for crystal-powered pop that celebrates the divine feminine, co-producing the record with Julian Corrie (Miaoux Miaoux) and Lewis Gardiner. But her futuristic, powder-pastel aesthetic is more Gilda the good witch than gruesome.

Diving into her dressing box with artistic collaborator Marina Feeney, the sparkling jumpsuits and silvery wigs form part of her own personal ritual, allowing her to connect to a wilder part of herself when she’s performing.

Ahead of the Valentine’s Day release of her new single, 'Crystalline', we meet to discuss mysticism, the discipline of songwriting, and how spiritual practice can be an act of resistance.

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So, this is your first release under the name Elisabeth Electra. How does it feel?

It isn’t a new project, because it’s still the same songs. I’d been using the name Elisabeth Elektra in my personal life for a while, and I didn’t really want to be called Zyna Hel anymore. It’s the wrong energy. And it just seemed to make sense to use the name I’d been using in my actual life. So it feels truer to me.

The costuming, and that visual element that takes it to another place… where does that come from?

I’m a Leo? (laughs) But I’ve always dressed up. My dad was a businessman who designed diving equipment. His friend’s wife would go over to China to get me these dresses. I was tiny at the time, four or five. Every year, they’d bring me these dresses with really big bows. Little princess dresses.

And I was just obsessed with them. I’d wear them in the mud and everything. I’ve always loved to dress up: I had a dressing-up box. For me, going onstage without that would be an extremely odd experience. It doesn’t feel fake: it’s very me to do that, and I guess it’s the transformation.

My dissertation was on the concept of liminality in performance. Like carrying the bride over the threshold. That’s the liminal point – you’re carrying from one state to another. I studied an Ndembu ritual. The tribe were one of the first tribes studied by this academic guy, who actually coined the phrase ‘liminality’.

He was a white guy, so take it with a pinch of salt. But something that he said has always stayed with me: “a ritual throws the elements of daily life into disarray”. Within that, there’s the power of transformation. Lots of rituals use extreme make-up, or costume.

When you take things, and you make them a little bit ‘other’, it shifts your consciousness out of daily life and – for me, there’s something transcendent about that. It takes me out of the everyday and lets me connect with something else.

Another part of you?

Yeah, or something intangible. Something spiritual.

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What inspires you in terms of your aesthetic? It’s a little unicorn Kate Bush, but with a toughness about it too. And lots of gemstones.

I’ve worked a lot with a friend of mine, Marina Feeney. She’s very magical. We met on Instagram. We were just kind of immediate friends, you know? When I first met her in person, she said to me “I knew we were going to be friends”. That’s how i felt too. Marina’s been a big part of the aesthetic. It’s grown out of me, and her as well.

Like a creative partnership?

Kind of. It’s subtle. We haven’t sat down with a mood-board or anything. The first time we shot together, we were in Paris. She was already doing an installation as part of Paris Fashion Week, and a lot of that informed what we did together at first.

The first time she came over here, to Scotland, she was relating to all these things that I love. Like ‘aura crystals’. They’re usually quartz. Put them into a vapour chamber and they can bond at really high temperatures with metals and come out with this kind of sheen. I have a load of them. And a lot of it was about using those crystals, who’ve gone through this alchemical process, as a point of inspiration for me. Really, i’m just a giant crystal. But I think it’s very specific to the energy of this record. I don’t necessarily think that it’ll be similar the next time round.

How would you describe the energy of the upcoming album?

I’m driven by my emotions to the point that it’s almost detrimental and I need to rein it in. The songs on this record are songs that I’ve written and decided belong together. It felt like they were right, but there was no other logic or reason.

Maybe you wouldn’t think this, but a lot of the album is about death. Obsidian is a pop song about grief. 'Crystalline' is definitely about something that transcends lifetimes. One of the songs on the record is about my dad. The chorus goes: “I’m not the body/ I’m not the mind/ I am the love inside.”

A lot of beautiful things can come from loss. It might not feel like it at the time, but it shapes you. I was 11 when my dad died. And if you’ve lost a parent young, then you’re always older. When that happens, you’re different.

It’s something that I’ve thought about for ages. It is sad, but it isn’t wrong. The more that i could make myself ok with the fact that death is part of life, the more I realised that it isn’t wrong. If I were to put an overarching theme around it, then I’d say loss… and magic!

When did you realise that song-writing was a natural, expressive outlet for you?

I remember saying to my mum, at the age of 13, that I really wanted to write songs but I just wasn’t sure if I could do it. She was like, really? I thought it would be easy.

So I started to write stuff, never play it to anybody and then sing it to my friends when I got drunk. I was in a band for a bit, singing. We had a couple of really big shows, supporting Sonic Youth. I’m a huge fan, and I was so nervous before the gig that I woke up shaking at the thought of meeting Kim Gordon.

But as happy as I was, it wasn’t satisfying for me to be singing other people’s songs. I realised that I had to do this, but I felt like there was something ‘locked’ inside me. I actually went to an energy worker to release a lot of heavy stuff that had been going on for years. And then, all of a sudden, it just happened.

I never take it for granted. I love writing songs more than I love doing anything else. If I had to pick performing live or writing songs, it’s writing for me. All the time.

How frequently do you write?

Oh, all the time. I sometimes go through phases where I’ll write like 20 songs in a month and then I’ll maybe write ten in a year. I love writing music, and I like to do it as often as possible. But I do think that there’s something to be said for the discipline of the Stephen King approach. You know, getting up every morning and writing from this time to this time.

It’s like building up a muscle.

Totally, yeah. And you need to become comfortable with the idea that sometimes you’ll make things which are shite. You can always go back and edit it. People get so paralysed, because they think that everything they do has to be like Leonard Cohen. I think it’s a practice – you’re always working with it.

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You produced the record, didn’t you? Had you done any production before?

I co-produced. And no, never. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just had this collection of songs, and I went to work with Julian Corrie (Miaoux Miaoux, Franz Ferdinand) We met, and he was just really enthused. He’s a lovely guy to work with, and the whole process was so collaborative. I sat with the record that we’d made for a while.

With maybe four or five of the songs, I felt I hadn’t quite achieved what I’d wanted to. I wanted to get some additional production done, so I went to a guy called Lewis Gardiner. I must’ve been the most annoying person he’s ever worked with! Because I have such a specific vision. But it’s such an intuitive thing when I know something’s right.

You describe yourself as a ‘femme witch’. Can you explain that a little more?

I had to check with my friend Emmy if I could use it. I’m not a lesbian, though I am queer, I’m bisexual. Femme is more of a descriptor of gender identity. And I feel there’s still so much weight around that word. In fact, my same friend said to me the other day: “Femme women are always the receptacle for everyone else’s shit…”

I think it’s a good way of describing how in society there’s still so many judgements made if people see you as feminine. It’s seen as a weakness, as if you’re doing it ‘for men’. I struggle with that a lot in my life. I wanted to use that. It felt like the right word. The esoteric stuff has always been around. I think it’s a family thing, really. When I was really young, my dad brought home a catalogue of books. Said you can have whatever book you want. And such a little weirdo of a child I was, I said “I want the book about pendulums, please! At eight or nine years old.

Were you dowsing?

Yeah. My granny, my dad’s mum, who died when I was one, always used to use a pendulum. Which I found out when I was older. He must’ve been a bit weirded out.

Yeah, it seems like there’s always been this very strong thread of spiritual women.

My granny and I would sit in her bed and she’d tell me how she’d seen fairies. She was also practical, also Capricorn – but she also had this extra ability. This ‘sight’. I’ve never seen anything with my eyes. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I believe in ghosts. My son’s seen them, friends have seen them. We went to see the band Sunn, at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles. And my friend said, it’s really haunted, you know. There was this really weird woman, and we actually convinced ourselves that she was a ghost!

That said, I’m quite a practical person. The reason all this stuff interests me is because I’ve had so many experiences that I could believe this stuff and its power. But the more I learn and practice it, the less I feel like I know about the world. It’s a mystery. An amazing one.

Magic is so connected with the idea of the female – female sexuality, female persecution, women being burned as witches. It’s an important strand of modern feminism. Is it part of your feminism?

Yeah, I think it is. I never used to tell anybody about it, because people would laugh at me at art college. Someone literally spat their tea out laughing because I was talking about this stuff. And in a way, that felt like a rite of passage. Magical women have always had to stay quiet. That’s why with this, I’m going to talk about it. Because this is meaningful to me.

I think it’s a tool that’s really important right now for many reasons. Against oppression. Against apathy. Even if magic isn’t real, the act of ritual – for someone who is oppressed, as a woman, a person of colour, a disabled person – the act of ritual, of reclaiming power and reclaiming these things as important and as ours: that’s a big statement.

Magic’s relationship to capitalism is interesting, and something I think about a lot. I’m still working it out in my mind. Capitalism relies on subservience, on us selling our labour. And if we can somehow bypass that by using our own power… If you look at how lots of African American spirituality has come out of the way that slaves have practiced their spirituality under slave owners – you can look at it as a means to regain power in a world that really doesn’t want you to be powerful. And that’s true for any marginalised group.

Is it a way of bringing people together?

It creates community, yeah. Even with organised religion – it gives that sense of belonging, of singing and being together. If you look at studies, people who go to church actually live longer. Isn’t that interesting?

What’s coming out from you next?

The next single, after 'Crystalline', will be kind of like a witch disco. With a lot of my songs, I dream them, or they come when I’m lying in bed, and I have to get up and write them. It took me a really long time to realise that it was a song about the rise of magical women.

I used to be a stripper. I think that that sex work was really hidden, and a lot of the women doing that were really smart, spiritual, magical women. I wrote that song years ago, but in the time that I wrote it, things have changed. And there’s so much more of a presence of all of these things.

Magic, sex work, all of these things. It’s exciting, because it feels like this is the right time for it. Things took time, and that was hard for me. Because I’m not a patient person. It’s 2020. It’s a powerful song, and this is the right time.

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Words: Marianne Gallagher

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