Artist To Watch: Ela Minus

Juan Ortiz Arenas

Artist To Watch: Ela Minus

Juan Ortiz Arenas

When Ela Minus released her single “they told us it was hard, but they were wrong.” in April, it sounded like it had been written just weeks before. Arriving in the early thick of quarantine, the song struck a chord in a time that was confusing and frightening but also increasingly infuriating as, once more, we were faced with this country’s reckless lack of leadership. During lockdown, I’d take long walks across the border of Brooklyn into Queens, filling the hours by wandering deep into unknown neighborhoods, aimless except for the fact that I would always avoid the hospital near my apartment so I didn’t have to see the freezer trucks parked outside for excess bodies. There was a lot to be angry and scared about this year, and “they told us it was hard” — with its hissing, discomfiting build — seemed to put into song the feeling of the center not holding.

But if Ela Minus’ music was born from the atmosphere of America in recent years, it was also designed to combat it. Everything around us is bleak, and “they told us it was hard” pushed forward to a sense of catharsis, a refusal to accept defeat as a conclusion. As she put it herself upon the song’s release: “When everything is taken from us, the ability to choose our attitude and create our own path forward is the only certainty we have.”

That, in many ways, isn’t just a description of “they told us it was hard,” but also a mission statement for Ela Minus’ debut album Acts Of Rebellion, which arrives this Friday. At first glimpse, it can often feel like a dark album — all shadows and whispers, greyscale night music. But then you zero in on the lyrics, and hear how she coaxes resolve out of these songs. Now 30, Ela Minus has taken a long, winding road to Acts Of Rebellion, playing music since she was a child and adopting a few different artistic identities already. The album, as a result, feels like it has a sense of hard-won nascent wisdom, a way in which it balances fiery rejections of complacency with enveloping, calming embraces.

Born Gabriela Jimeno in Bogotá, her love affair with music started early: First with strains of metal creeping through her older brother’s door and then with drumming in a punk band alongside her childhood friends. For much of Jimeno’s pre-teen and teen years, that band — Ratón Pérez — was the focal point; she and her bandmates all dreamt of going on to study music at Berklee for college. They went as far as playing at SXSW, but then the band dissolved when only two of them got accepted at Berklee. One of them was Jimeno.

Those years in Boston proved transitional and educational, though not always in the academic sense. Jimeno felt out of place within that kind of environment, unable to relate to the competitiveness and/or career goals of her classmates. Two things seemed to salvage that time for her: Becoming a student of the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and beginning to go out to clubs around town and dancing to techno. At the same time that Jimeno studied jazz drumming, she double majored in music synthesis. After college, she wound up in Brooklyn — picking up session drumming gigs, playing in an indie band, building synths for a synth company. Things were pretty good, but they weren’t quite right.

Ela Minus
CREDIT: Teddy Fitzhugh

“I remember getting to a point where I was like, ‘OK, I guess this is my life, I’m doing fine for myself, I have a cool job,” Jimeno remembers, calling on Zoom one October afternoon. “I realized how lucky I was — but I was bored.” She was soaking up electronic music all along the way, and started to hear ideas in her head. When she began her project as Ela Minus, she didn’t necessarily think it would be a serious thing. But it was something, some creative impulse, that had to come out in a new shape, that had no room in her life as it was.

Ela Minus began experimenting and figuring out her sound across a couple of EPs. “I remember thinking I was just going to make EPs, because I want to work fast and show my process,” she explains. “Because I have no idea what I’m doing so I want to experiment as I go, without thinking, keeping the honesty of it.” While she’s cited Radiohead and Kraftwerk as formative influences, there was a certain set of contemporary electronic artists she looked to as inspirations: Acts like Caribou, Four Tet, Floating Points, material she describes as “electronic music with heart and soul.”

As Jimeno figured out what Ela Minus could be, that was a north star of sorts. “There’s a place — and it’s a beautiful place — for straight techno songs, but there’s another place for songs,” she says. “On the recording side of it, I think I’m interested in that.” That became the other form of synthesis for Ela Minus, a club environment mixed with songwriting. People took notice; she toured a ton in recent years, and if not for the pandemic would’ve joined Caribou themselves on the road this past spring.

All the time spent touring compelled Jimeno to make a full-length. “I think I was very aware when I started taking this project a little more seriously — or the other way around, when it started taking me more seriously,” she recalls. She had a certain set of goals that combined her history and experience. She wanted to make an album born from and for the clubs, something to play live in small and sweaty rooms; but she also remained rooted in her DIY ethos.

Scrawling the word “club punk” as a guiding manifesto, Ela Minus set about creating Acts Of Rebellion, an album she would write and produce and record alone in her apartment, eschewing computers and more contemporary tropes of electronic music in favor of the synths she had at hand. “I know the limitations I like about my sound, and in my mind it sounds punk still,” she explains. “It’s not a big production.”

Beyond “they told us it was wrong,” Acts Of Rebellion has several moments that feel almost prescient, music that was written in 2018 but seems to be a strikingly appropriate (and powerful) soundtrack for 2020. When its successor “megapunk” arrived weeks after protests spread around America in June, it was with lyrics like “We can’t seem to find/ A reason to stay quiet/ We’re afraid we’ll run out of time/ To stand up for our rights” and an insistent refrain of “You won’t make us stop.” Yet while its title and initial singles could make Acts Of Rebellion seem like protest music, Jimeno doesn’t quite consider it political.

“I think growing up in a place like Colombia, it’s not really a choice to be political,” she reflects. “I don’t know, still, if I would consider my album a political album. I think it’s the album of someone who’s living in 2020 and was writing in 2018.” Acts Of Rebellion, instead, speaks to a personal level of action, a choice to keep moving through the mess of the 21st century and make something out of it. Even if Jimeno’s background means the personal and political are more deeply intertwined than, at least at certain points in semi-recent history, we would’ve regarded them to be in America, the album still fires off in various directions beyond its handful of defiant tracks.

One of the album’s instrumentals, “let them have the internet,” speaks to another theme running through Acts Of Rebellion — “the concept of technology and how it’s shaping our lives and how we interact with each other.” Even in what might seem like an interstitial, Ela Minus is grappling with ideas that are both stitched into our daily lives and broadly social: The fact that the theoretical Wild West of the internet has now, like everything else, been “colonized by corporations.” Elsewhere, a song like “el cielo no es nadie” reflects on smaller, specific moments in our lives. When it was released, she said it was about “all the love I see in small, everyday acts.”

Ela Minus
CREDIT: Juan Ortiz Arenas

Yet even in the more personal songs, Acts Of Rebellion still feels like it could not have come out in any other year. “Dominique,” the new single Ela Minus released today, is essentially a quarantine song transmitted from the depths of working on an album; once fearing the song would not be relatable, Jimeno allows a wry laugh that the scenes are all too familiar to all of us now. “Today I woke up at 7PM/ My brain feels like it’s going to break,” she sings. “I haven’t seen anyone in a couple of days/ I’m afraid I forgot how to talk/ To anyone else that’s not myself.” Like the music, the lyrics from the album were improvised — it’s whatever was on Jimeno’s mind in that moment, and “Dominique” is quite literal. “That song is the most diaristic one on the record,” she explains.

If Acts Of Rebellion wound up resonating in such a harrowing year, it leads you back to the notion that it would be a heavier, haunted album. But for Jimeno, there’s something about it that, if not quite hopeful, resists despondency. “I think hope starts by accepting and seeing the problem,” she offers. “I think it’s more of a realist approach. To the fact that we have to keep going. Either we are hopeful, or it’s going to be a pain in the ass to keep living.”

In the year of a pandemic, and isolation, and of our tethers to objective reality being strained more than ever, Acts Of Rebellion might provide some solace. It’s the voice of a young person who has now seen some things, and is there with you trying to make sense of a stretch of years that has felt constantly chaotic. But it is not solace via escapism — quite the opposite. By the end, it seems the biggest act of rebellion on the album is still engaging with the world, not giving into the distraction and noise that certain powers that be would happily let us drown in.

“It’s made me want to be more present, in every moment,” Jimeno says of working on the album these past couple of years. “Not put myself on autopilot. I think that way, every single decision we make has more meaning and hopefully they are better decisions — and that, taken to a larger scale, can create change. I think that’s what I want to say with this album. An invitation to be fucking present.”

Acts Of Rebellion is out 10/23 via Domino. Pre-order it here.

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