BOSTON/NE BANDS, Interview, Music

How Guitars Can Stop the Apocalypse, and Other Tips From the Pacific Northwest: A Conversation w/ Eleanor Elektra

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“Portland is formative for me in that it exists in spite of Oregon,” Eleanor Elektra tells me, her voice straining over the noisy din of twenty-somethings catching up over drinks and The Velvet Underground album playing at The Haven in JP. In a variety of ways, however, it seems that Elektra, as a singer-songwriter, exists because of her childhood in Portland, rather than existing in spite of her time in the city. Many of her songs, including her upcoming collaborative album, Exquisite Corpse, tentatively scheduled to be released this coming spring, deal almost solely with the exquisite beauty of nature, and the very real and apocalyptic danger that we will lose nature to climate change in the next couple of decades. There is something intrinsically Pacific Northwest about her soft guitar noises and her folk-jazzy odes to nature that is impossible to completely distinguish from her personhood, even if Elektra has been Boston-based for a while now.

Eleanor Elektra has been based in Jamaica Plain for the past four or five years, ever since she dropped out of Berklee School of Music after two years. While philosophizing about the mythology of bluegrass or explaining the significance of hydrogeology in Oregon, she has a particularly delicate mannerism, carefully clasping and unclasping her thumb and pointer finger together, creating and breaking linked circles. This intricate gesture, so carefully and decidedly done, conveys perfectly Elektra’s aesthete as a songwriter, best characterized by her complicated instrumentations and haunting voice reminiscent of fellow folk-adjacent girl groups The Staves or The Indigo Girls.

Elektra’s sound, however, is a melting pot of folk and jazz influences, which she cites as a result of growing up in a musical family that had countless records including, but not limited to Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Alison Krauss. It was Alison Krauss and Union Station, particularly, that she credits with instilling a life-long love of bluegrass music, claiming that, at the age of eight, she was given a Walkman because she wouldn’t stop listening to her family’s four Alison Krauss and Union Station albums ad nauseum for over a year, and her family had grown so tired of hearing the same songs. She credits her intricate instrumentation and rootsy feel to her young love affair with Krauss and bluegrass music.

Elektra began playing the piano classically at a young age, and began writing her first songs—first composing the instrumentation, then adding her poetry to the songs afterwards— at age nine, co-writing the lyrics with a friend. Her first song, she recalls, was about a river, and was very simple, instrumentally, which she recalled felt like a rebellious act, after training with classical music. She kept writing songs, and recalled that by age ten and eleven, she had developed her writing style that she has today.

And, from the beginning, she has held a deeply spiritual connection with nature.

There can be no denying that a love of nature is in her DNA–before moving to the suburbs of Portland, her family considered living on a blueberry farm, and her father is a hydrogeologist, which she said “cultivated quite a conscious relationship with the environment in which I grew up, because he would kind of narrate the history of that place.” She described geology as perhaps “not the genesis of science, but is the branch of science that deals with genesis, in a certain way. So that the concept of Big Time, which developed into a sensation of Big Time, then became one of my primary experiences in the natural world.” Her family history with nature, it seems, stretched even beyond her father: while trading stories about travels abroad, she mentioned that her grandmother’s father, who grew up in Central Germany, had been exempt from the draft because of his role as a forester–the person tasked with caring for and delegating the resources from the Black Forest to the surrounding villages, a role someone in her family had filled for many years prior.

Thus, with that sort of ancestry, it only made sense that she cultivated a unique relationship with the natural world. In her own words, Elektra assessed this relationship saying that “it has been an important part of my identity for a long time. And also, I went into my adolescence and developed as an independent thinker when global warming was becoming a talked-about issue. In the way that I felt very secure in nature, and very insecure in the thought of global warming and affiliated issues, kind of fused into a concentration that I’ve had ever since. I was a very reclusive kid, and didn’t feel secure in a lot of social settings, so natural environments felt safe. It’s strange, because language pushes forward this dichotomy between civilization and nature, that doesn’t quite exist.”

Elektra’s songs, certainly, seem to exemplify her efforts to destroy this false dichotomy. The titular lyrics off of The Lumberjack, Elektra’s album whose release was at Dorchester Art Project in May of 2018, sing that “It was a beautiful thing/a still lake in the starlight/I said ‘I’d like to write a song for this spot’/She said ‘you might not’/because you’ll feel so sore with this is no more/when this place will not be,” articulating the fears that the beauty of nature is transient and soon to be vanished forever.

And with the Amazon currently burning and Iceland’s first entirely melted iceberg being commemorated this week, these fears are feeling more real than ever. However, Elektra isn’t giving up the earth without a fight: Exquisite Corpse, she says, “of course that is not the beginning of this topic for me, just the first one expressly devoted as about climate change. It is related to the career in science I didn’t pursue. Leaning more towards a more concrete impact, to a more concrete cause and effect.The album is very open-ended poetically, and I don’t know what action, if any, it will inspire, or if it will be taken as more of a very personal thing, but it’s fundamental to our survival.”

And what better way to combat the apocalypse than with bluegrass and jazz?

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