Thembi Soddell ~ Love Songs ~ Review and Interview

The term “love songs” implies sweetness and light: syrupy stylings written to woo or enamor.  Love songs sit in gilded carriages with Cupid, chocolate, candy hearts and the color red.  So why is this album black?

These are love songs, just not those kind of love songs.  Don’t expect to hear them at a wedding.  These songs expose the inner cogs of dysfunctional relationships: extended grudges, volcanic outbursts, deep feelings of suspicion, paranoia and unworthiness.  Sonic grains abrade the soul like misgivings.  Long silences reflect forgiveness withheld.  Buzzes stick to the mind like burrs of doubt.  Am I good enough?  Does she love me?  Does he suspect?  As Howard Jones asks, “What is love anyway?  Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

Thembi Soddell seems unsure, and because she’s unsure, we’re unsure.  To listen ~ and to read the liner notes ~ is to ask disturbing questions about our own relationships.  How healthy are we really?  Those who have experienced the end of a relationship due to dysfunction, or even worse, stayed in one, will be able to relate.  One of the tracks is titled, “Who Is To Blame?”  This isn’t just about those who have broken our hearts, but those whose hearts we have broken; not their ugliness, but our own.  For some, this will be an unpleasant experience.

Soddell’s first release was 2004’s Intimacy ~ a title which now seems ironic as well.  The power of her music is its dynamic range.  Fond of both silence and dissonance, she pushes each to its limits.  In some tracks, she builds gradually to levels of intense viscosity; in others, she allows discord to interrupt.  Her music seems to seethe even when it is silent, like a dormant volcano.  There are no words in these pieces, but there are voices, mangled beyond recognition like unheard pleas.

As the album is titled Love Songs, one might call the accompanying book The Book of Love.  (Now we finally know who wrote it!)  Like the album, it’s black: a black book with black backgrounds and seemingly redacted pages.  Soddell writes of the wrenching realizations that one has done wrong, or has been wrong, or has made the wrong assumptions.  She mentions an initial rush, a “walking on air,” perhaps intentionally referencing the classic love song, “Believe It Or Not.”  Then emptiness, confusion, being off balance.  The placement of words on the page creates its own poetry.

Certain parts align with the #Me Too movement, especially the suggestion that emotional responses are “not to be trusted.”  Depression is suggested through repetition.  The situation worsens page after page.  To read and listen at the same time is to make a harrowing descent.  By the end, we share her anger, but we cherish her vulnerability ~ which hardens into strength.  (Richard Allen)

Congratulations on your new project ~ easily your most ambitious yet.  As you look back on the musical portion of your career, what aspects of your sonic approach have changed the most over the years?

I still work with similar techniques, ideas and gestures as when I first started out. What has changed most is the intention behind them. With my recent works, I’ve put a lot of thought into compositional choices and what purpose they serve, with many of these decisions connected to research into the lived experience of trauma and psychological distress and the way it can alter experiences of time and perception. In my earlier years, I used to do some of these things intuitively, but with my recent work I’ve spent time developing awareness around these intuitive choices, which has given me better control over them. I believe this awareness has effected the sonic outcome too.

What are your favorite songs about the dissolution or difficulty of love?  (For example, I think of The Cure’s “The Kiss,” possibly because the name of your album is close to the name of one of The Cure’s greatest hits.)

Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ is and will always be the ultimate breakup song. It is equal parts validating of the pain and empowering to move on. Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which includes poetry by Warsan Shire, is also phenomenal for its complex depiction of the way love between two people is influenced by the history and culture they exist within. I cry every time I watch it. Since this work is so tied to the experience of being a black woman in America though, and I’m a white woman in Australia, it’s better to listen to other people explain the power of this work than me. I’ve learnt a lot from this. A good place to start is here: https://www.elle.com/culture/music/a35903/lemonade-call-and-response/.

Classic question:  Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

If you’re talking about “love” tainted with abuse then no, it’s not worth it. Better to read a good book or solve an interesting maths problem than bother yourself with that kind of “love”. But as for the real deal – like the love I have for my dearest friends, or deep conversation, a snow-covered mountain, or for a good taco covered in tequila (seriously, try this!), then yes. But this kind of love is never really lost either, it lasts well beyond its moment of physical being.

The false idea that “manipulation is not abuse” brings to mind the difficulty of educating those who feel they don’t need educating.  Can you see a way forward, and if so, what is it?

I don’t see a point in educating those who don’t feel they need educating. It’s like banging your head against the wall – it’s a huge waste of time, energy and resources. Better to focus that energy on educating yourself and/or others to recognise abusive manipulation tactics and what it feels like to be a victim of them. That’s a more effective use of time because it takes away the power from the people using these tactics and empowers others to protect themselves.

Tell us more about the video for “Epilogue” ~ its genesis, symbolism, and your initial response to the imagery.

I asked Vanessa Godden if she’d be willing to create some videos for this album because I am a big fan of her work and we also come from a shared place of drawing on personal experience of trauma to comment on larger social issues. It seemed like a good fit. I first watched this video while sitting down for breakfast. I can tell you now, I did not eat my breakfast. Instead I clutched my hand over my mouth, pulled a few horrified expressions (and possibly let out a few screeches) and ended up with tears in my eyes. I would have cried harder had I not been in company. I can’t say where Vanessa was coming from in terms of the symbolism behind it – that would be a question for her not me – but I refer to this video as the ‘hair penis’. I think it evokes the feeling of disgust of something being forced into the body that’s not wanted or meant to be there. I think Vanessa is brilliant at evoking the disturbing, visceral nature of trauma without referencing the trauma itself. It’s like a forced confrontation with an uncomfortable truth you can’t quite see or understand, hidden but forcing itself into awareness.

In your studies of mental illness, what therapeutic effects have you found in music ~ especially in non-traditional forms of music such as your own?  Are there particular kinds of patients who respond well to drone, dissonance or noise?

When I mention my PhD topic people often think I am researching the therapeutic effects of music, but I’ve not been doing that at all. My research is not about therapy but about artistic representation of states of distress, mental illness or trauma. That said, the project itself has had a therapeutic effect on me, although that’s more of a bonus than an intention. I have also found that when I’ve played my work to others and spoken about the ideas behind it, it has often formed an empathic connection between us, which I’ve been told they’ve found therapeutic too. My theory is that using such an abstract form of sound to start a dialogue about these experiences is useful because it taps into the unspeakable nature of trauma and depression – there are certain things that can’t be said or represented, so an invisible, abstract medium like sound creates a bridge between these invisible, unsayable experiences and a conversation that couldn’t otherwise be had, whether that be in words or in sounds and feelings.

Who are the ideal listeners/readers for your new project?

I don’t think there’s an ideal audience. Different people will connect to this work in different ways, often in quite different ways than I intended or imagined. I love that. Hearing what people make of the work is often the most exciting part. That said, when creating the work, I did have in mind people who may have experienced insidious forms of abuse in intimate relationships, and therapists and doctors undermining their sense of self, with the hope of connecting with them in some way. But the ideas are more complex than that too, so that’s one aspect but not all of it. Whenever I do come across someone who has had difficult experiences with illness or trauma, though, and they say they got something from this work that was helpful to them, that’s pretty satisfying.

As a male, here are some of the reactions I had to your book:
1) Anger at the person or people who made the protagonist doubt herself;
2) Shame as I realized that I had been guilty of the same sin in prior relationships;
3) A desire to rush in and “save” the individual to whom so many bad things had been done;
4) Guilt as I realized that this was a selfish impulse on my part;
5) Confusion over which reactions had been appropriate.
Your response to these reactions?

It’s interesting for me to see these stages you went through, but it’s hard for me to know how to respond. I don’t think there’s a right, wrong or appropriate reaction. Part of what I like about creating works that have a certain level of ambiguity is that it allows for people to see reflections of themselves within it. I’m not so keen to shape it much further than that. What I will say, though, is that one of the ideas I was thinking about when creating the book was how dominant social structures can play out between people within intimate relationships, often in insidious ways. Your reactions seem to reflect some of this. We think we all have this autonomy over our actions, and we do to some extent, but only if we are willing to take notice of the brainwashing we are all subject to from birth – the internalised misogyny, racism and homophobia that are impossible to escape when part of a social structure that relies on some people having power over others. Patriarchy is not some big thing over there that we are not a part of, it’s the way we all relate to each other every day. The roles we start to play out in relationships often reflect aspects of this system, as do our personal wants and desires. Observing this and reflecting upon it can be a worthwhile experience, shifting the way power manifests in our relationships. That’s what this work was for me. I’m glad it seems to have engaged you in this process as well.

A Closer Listen thanks Thembi Soddell for her time and her thought-provoking responses!

Available here

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