Every year, the musician Félicia Atkinson and her collaborator and partner Bartolomé Sanson use the occasion of their appearance at Los Angeles Art Book Fair as an occasion to see new things. Sometimes that just means a taking a trip to a new US city, or playing a few shows, anything to shake up the rhythms of their more secluded life in Rennes, France, where they have the space to live and work in quiet—Atkinson on her art and Sanson on the impeccably curated record label and publisher they run together Shelter Press. These trips often involve a lot of driving, long treks through unfamiliar territory. “It’s weird because you’re passing through places you don’t know,” she says. “You have very quick glimpse at them. I’m in the passenger seat, Bartolomé is driving. It’s a moment where I feel I’m recording without a device. I need to do that for a while and then I play music. It’s a mental field recording."
These annual trips are a chance to take in the world outside, but sometimes that can be a strange thing, like last year’s stateside sojourn, which found them in the New Mexico desert in February. Around the corner from New York's Issue Project Room, where she's set to perform in a few hours, we’re sitting upstairs in a spot someone at the venue suggested, one of the many locations of the South Korean-owned, but French-themed cafe Paris Baguette—”a little bit cheesy,” Atkinson rightly observes. Atkinson explains that taking a trip through the American southwest a month after Trump’s inauguration suffused the experience with a weird energy. “You don’t understand the country you are in all of a sudden,” she says, while tearing small pieces from a croissant. “Also because I am a foreigner, I don’t have the keys to get what’s happening. So I was confused.”
That confusion was a feeling that seems fitting, given her reasons for going. She says she felt called, in part, to the high desert to see what it was that drew other great artists there before her, like Georgia O’Keefe and Anges Martin, whose art was changed by the time they spent in small desert towns like Abiquiu and Taos. “I feel their paintings are sometimes misunderstood,” Atkinson explains. “People see only the decorative part of Georgia O’Keefe with the flowers or the very calm and zen-like paintings of Anges Martin. But they were also very strong characters, sometimes at the edge of madness for Agnes Martin. I was wondering...what happened to them?”
(Felicia Atkinson's new tape Coyotes is streaming above)
What she found has been distilled, as realizations often are for Atkinson, into new music. Today, she’s releasing a new tape called Coyotes on Geographic North which channels the energy of that time in the desert into two long tracks. When she got there, she realized she saw the landscapes as a sort of score for music. “It’s this vast emptiness,” she says. “But it’s an emptiness that’s made of things.”
In itself that’s a pretty evocative summation of the music Atkinson has made over the last decade. On albums like 2015’s A Readymade Ceremony and last year’s Hand in Hand, she used careful spatial arrangements of abstract sounds, the scuffs of rocks, whispered prosody, and dizzied synth lines in ways that often felt bleak and barren. She opened up hollow voids by adding sounds devoid of context, then taking them away, and replacing them with something similarly strange. It’s challenging and complex, but there’s a heart at the center of it too.
Coyotes is different, both because it’s a bit shorter and because Atkinson imagines it as an intermezzo between proper albums. She gave herself the freedom, when transmuting the earth tones of the desert into music, to use more melody and to use gentler sounds that she might otherwise eschew for fear of their chintziness. “I’m obsessed with melody,” she says. “ Hand in Hand was about how to remove things. [For] this tape, I wonder what would it be like if there was a small oasis somewhere—something that is a bit off or a bit surprising.”
So in addition to the lo-fi whispers and breezy poems that mark her work, the squelches and squeals are replaced. She favors chittering pianos, the glissando sounds of Fender Rhodes, MIDI instruments that approximate harps, marimbas, and upright basses, none of which made prominent appearances, or at least not so straightforwardly, in her previous works. In part, she says, that’s a nod to her recent fascination with Japanese ambient music from the 80s, like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Music for Nine Postcards, but it’s also a desire to bring back a little more structure to her work. “We always look for meaning,” she says. “If you deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct, after a while you forgot why you were deconstructing things. You need to at one point rebuild a little narrative, and then you can deconstruct again.”
It’s undoubtedly the most straightforwardly beautiful thing she’s made, after a career of delving into hallucinatory abstraction—an oasis not only in the context of her work, but the sort of slippery ambience that you can retreat into in hard times, a space of momentary rest if you need it. “When the world is really dark, it’s a moment where you want things to be very gentle,” she says succinctly.
But no matter how much “sugar”—as Atkinson describes some of these more pleasant moments—she suffuses her work with, she could never make something so uncomplicated. You can easily interact with Coyotes on the level of that pleasantness, lying supine the spaces between its abstract melodies, but Atkinson says she chose the title, in part, for its status as a symbol of doubt. Their calls, Atkinson says, have this hallucinatory effect of feeling like they’re coming from all directions. Coyotes, finds a lot of inspiration in this disorientation, letting audio mirages move in and out of focus. Melodies shimmer in a fog coming just to the verge of of crystallization before evaporating entirely. “I’m going to invoke images, but the moment the focus becomes clear...unclear it,” she says. “[To] always be on this verge.”
The coyote in question, the one which she whispers about on this tape—“find the coyote, find the coyote”—was one she found on a postcard a long time ago, a small shape in the desert, camouflaged against the muted browns. “It’s an image,” she says. “But it’s a riddle.” The tape she’s made works in sorta same way, a landscape painted in miniature, pretty enough for those who just want to look, but hidden figures and unseen depths for those who choose to keep staring.
Felicia Atkinson tour dates:
April 5 - Chicago - The Owl
April 15 - Portland - Reed College
April 18 - Seattle - Timbre Room
Félicia Atkinson’s Coyotes is out April 3 on Geographic North, but it’s streaming in full up above here today. Head over to their Bandcamp page to snag a cassette copy.