One Saturday night in 2017, I saw the Queens-based musician Eartheater at a noise show at an old Polish banquet hall wearing angel wings and wielding a chainsaw precariously close to some exposed piping at center stage, as two collaborators swing other power tools at her flanks. It was a moment of absurd precariousness, following a set of more mundane moments of danger—digitalist blast beats playing under dizzy vocalizations, the dead-eyed roar of tremolo picked guitar lines clashing up against the rough edges of electronic abstractions. It was all surreal and head-spinning and then one of her bandmates started sucking up the other’s hair with a vacuum cleaner. After that, there was stunned silence as the modest crowd of freaks nodded in confused approbation.
The past few years have turned the Queens-based composer and performer Alex Drewchin into a shapeshifter. Just a few months later, I saw a far more muted performance she and a harpist offered sleepwalking chorales before hundreds waiting to see a pop-techno producer play hours of leaden beats. Even though it featured someone swinging a bright strobing light across a dark stage, it was a more of a moment of peace, a far cry from the literally industrial performance that happened several months prior.
There are countless other permutations and contexts you might have seen Eartheater perform in the past few years: accompanied only by a computer at an abstract rap show in an art gallery, on a banjo—if memory serves—opening for a beloved indie rock songwriter, as the sole live performer on a night nominally geared toward soundtracking New Year’s Eve hedonism for experimentally minded club kids. Almost every show brought along with it a new costume. There is at least one photo shoot wherein she mostly wears elaborate garbage, including several 8 ½ x 11 printouts of ADIDAS track suits, which basically tells you the sort of spirit you’re working with. The overall experience of watching her perform over this long of a span has been wonderfully unusual. Each show made about as much sense as the last, each one an authentic extension of the cyborg balladry she’s spent the last few years crafting. It’s as if she molts between gigs, and starts anew, fresh and raw. Change is the only constant.
On a June afternoon, the 29-year-old Drewchin is clad in a cropped black hoodie torn out at the shoulder and plaid pants with holes carefully cut out across the whole garment. It seems appropriate that each article would be defined by its stylized rips, the clothes given their own dramatic metamorphose. She leans comfortably into a desk chair in a small, dim office space on the ground floor of her Ridgewood apartment building.
The visual artist who owns the building regards me brusquely as she hustles off elsewhere in the space, with better things to worry about than a tenant’s press obligations. Drewchin excitedly recounts the previous afternoon’s improvised photoshoot which took place in part in this very room, in which she had employed a high-powered fan and a chintzy fire screensaver to introduce a small amount of chaos into otherwise formal proceedings. Conversation with her generally moves between excitable anecdotes and slow, thoughtful—and notably, very heady—exegesis on metaphysics, which is how results in disorienting moments the one that follows. One second, she’s recounting a goofy photoshoot, in the next, she’s expounding upon the fickle nature of existence. “I feel surprisingly relaxed about all of this,” she laughs, at one point, before relating the minor catastrophes that have plagued her over the past few years.
In the last year or so alone, she had a hard drive crash, losing a bunch of Eartheater material, and a portion of a commissioned work for the ensemble Alarm Will Sound. She’s had guitars stolen, and other gear fail. And in the midst of it, she ended a relationship of eight years.
“It’s been an emotional year,” she says with a sigh. “It’s been a massively beautiful exercise in embracing the temporary aspect of everything.” Which is a good thing, she clarifies at one point, “Stagnance is my nightmare.”
As we speak, she’s a few days out from the final stage of her latest shift, in the form of the release of IRISIRI, her third proper full-length as Eartheater. While her past efforts have included her voice as a piece of the cybernetic collagework, this record is the first on which she’s chosen to foreground her unique gift for pulling unexpected sounds out of the tangles of her vocal cords. Without the grounding of more traditional instrumentation—her workflow this time started more often with a laptop than with a guitar—the pieces are given room to drift further into the ether away from the established structures of Western pop songs toward something that feels totally new. Drewchin also says that focusing the pieces on her voice, which overlaps in layered trills and ASMR-like assemblages, offered her as simpler way of expressing the feelings that welled up inside her.
“It’s so direct, it’s so to the core,” she says of her newfound appreciation for working mostly with voice. “I was much more interested in really focusing on my voice as the main emotive instrument.”
So it’s a change, but it’s a natural one too, putting her closer in touch with some of the things she’s always sung about—the power in the human body, of universes existing “behind the eyes,” as she sang on “Infinity,” one of her first great songs, released as a loose single in 2014, before ultimately ending up on her debut Metalepsis. One of the few common threads between the many forms of her live performance has been movement, twisting her body into unwieldy shapes—from slow acrobatic back bends, to chaotic contortions of limbs on grimy venue floors, to more formal choreography, which she explored at length during a month-long residency at the Brooklyn movement studio Otion Front. It’s a style that parallels her good friends in the dance duo FlucT: unsettling, agitated, and borderline grotesque—the human body unchecked. Her new songs are bodily in the same way that these movements are—highlighting the otherworldly elements in pure kinetics.
“The energy is coming out and vibrating my vocal chords and stringing syllables together to say words that will trigger peoples associative understanding of the world or I’m using energy to contort my body to trigger a vicarious tension in someone’s understanding of how the body fits together,” she says. “They’re both such important aspects of my expression.”
It makes sense in a way, for someone so obsessed with keeping things “fresh”—as she says multiple times throughout our conversation—to be obsessed with the body too. Try as we might to preserve it, the human body is always in flux. That myth about the entirety of your physical vessel being replaced every seven years, like a living Ship of Theseus, isn’t exactly right—for better or worse there are some brain cells you’re stuck with your whole life. But there is some truth to what it gestures to. Part of the reality of living isn’t just that death is looming, but that death is constant, expired cells peeling off us in dried flakes. The beauty of Drewchin’s music—in its power and also in the jittery anxiety of it—is that it articulates this duality, that the body will always fail (“We’re all going to die or whatever,” she says at one point), but that every day we’re also born anew.
This fascination with embodiment is something she’s been in touch with more or less since she was a child. She grew up the child of a Russian artist father and an English mother on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania. She once told me that in addition to some intense musical lessons in her childhood, she was also a “tangly-haired barefoot little freak,” experiencing the world in a way that was deeply bodily. She from a very young age that the Russian side of her family always drunk and dancing, an early exposure to the movement that she’d become fascinated with. She also was a gymnast as a child, and good at it too (the bars, she says, were an especially good fit for her “long monkey limbs”). Contemporaneously, she was also learning to ride and jump horses.
“It’s so exhilarating and scary being so intimate with an animal that’s 1000+ pounds and going at high speeds,” she says. “But it’s so physical too. Your legs just burn, they’re on fire afterwards—a jelly fire. Sometimes I would ride so hard and so long that I’d get off and just throw up.”
When she turned 18 she moved to New York, initially making a living both in traditional big city hustles and playing in other peoples bands. For a long time she threw herself into a thriving scene of DIY experimentalists, during which she took part in the heady ensemble Guardian Alien—lending cosmic vocalizations and expressionist electronics to these many-limbed pieces of virtuosic psychedelia. Listening to those records, and especially in seeing those live performances, you could hear the germinal versions of the vocal physicality Drewchin would come to explore as Eartheater—something about those performances went beyond just singing, but vocalizing as a way of engaging a whole body’s force, channeling something bigger than the words and syllables she’d choose to expel.
What that something actually is has remained deliberately vague in the years since. Her acclaimed 2015 records RIP Chrysalis and Metalepsis offered an extension of this, weaving her voice around alien technology. She engaged in existential meanderings and head-spinning wordplay—the lyrics from Metalepsis’ ”Infinity” for example were reworked into a more abstract song with an anagrammatic “If it in yin.” She bounced between big ideas and surreal proclamations without delivering too explicitly on any specific one. “I’m conceptually claustrophobic,” she says. “I never want to feel too boxed in.”
In the wake of those records, she’s vaulted from critically beloved experimentalist into a stalwart of the international underground. She went on her first longer rounds of touring as Eartheater including her first solo tours of Europe, which she says helped her figure out a lot of what of what it meant to be a solo artist. That’s when she played all those shows in New York too, trying on different versions of a live act, experimenting with different formations of her sound, determining what had the most impact.
She wrote tons of music, including collaborating with other likeminded acts, including the freethinking punks in Show Me the Body and the harp and violin duo LEYA, whose Marilu Donovan also plays harp on IRISIRI. She also landed on a new label, the open-minded Berlin imprint PAN, which inspired a whole new flurry of writing, totally transforming the record. “Some of the last parts of this record, the defining parts of this record, I wrote right at the end when Bill [Kouligas, PAN’s founder] had already approved the record,” she remembers.
“Stagnance is my nightmare” — Eartheater
Throughout our conversation Drewchin tends to hold intense eye contact, a marker of a lifetime spent getting comfortable in her own skin. “I do feel like an expert at being in my body,” she dryly remarks at one point. She sums up the period of intense growth with an appropriately bodily metaphor, “a longer inhale before the next exhale” that provided the energy for a more fully realized aesthetic on IRISIRI. She zeroed in on biology, from the title—the word “iris” forward and back—on down. Part of it was that it’s natural for her, but the other part was in making it relatable, in not getting too lost in her own head this time.
“When I’m talking about the body, I’m bringing [the record] back down,” she says. “The danger is in being too profound. The higher you fly, the smaller you look to others.”
Throughout the record Drewchin explores this in sound, twisting and unfurling her voice in taut curls singing abstract phrases and ideals that contain multitudes like “the body non-profit.” She says that particular one as a mantra that’s especially useful during times financial scarcity, a keep-pressing-on sentiment that most of what the world tells us we need is capitalist propaganda.
On IRISIRI, even the more abstract moments carry incredible weight due to the place her voice holds in the mix. In moments like the mostly instrumental “MTTM,” her voice is reduced through post-processing to a small desperate cry of humanity ringing out against bleak techno kicks and grayscale digitalist abstractions. In a world where existence is increasingly mediated by technology—where both utopias and dystopias alike see a future in which human consciousness is in some way intertwined with or preserved by machines—Drewchin’s work exists as a subtle reminder of the primacy of the flesh. Even if we can synthesize speech from data and make pop stars out of holograms, IRISIRI is a reminder that there are still things outside the possibility of machines, sounds and shapes a computer could never dream to make.
“We’re bombarded by so many things we’re supposed to be desiring,” she explains. “But that’s all for the gratification of the mind. Even comfort and relaxation is more for the mind than for what the body wants. The body wants to be fit. The body doesn’t need to eat a lot. The body doesn’t need alcohol. All I need is what I need to keep the body alive.”
Eartheater’s IRISIRI is out now on PAN.
Tonje Thilesen is a photographer based in New York. You can find more of her work on Instagram.
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.