Boston-based Pacific Northwest native Eleanor Elektra strikes a delicate balance between several genres in her music. Her upcoming album, Exquisite Corpse, promises to be another sonically impressive addition to her discography, and lyrically was inspired by Eleanor's personal love of nature and environmental justice advocacy. The proceeds of her upcoming July 17th livestream event at 8pm go to White Earth Land Recovery Project and the various artists making appearances throughout the evening, including Boston filmmaker Lilly Dickinson.
Before the livestream, Eleanor recorded an exclusive performance as a part of our WERS At-Home Concert Series, and spoke to WERS Staff Writer Simru Sonmez-Erbil about the creation of Exquisite Corpse and her journey as an artist thus far.
By Simru Sonmez-Erbil
Well, to start off, I’d like to ask about your beginnings in music; You’ve got a wonderful discography so far, and I was wondering how you came to be the musician you are today. What was your early start in music like?
Eleanor Elektra: Well, I grew up in a musical family, surrounded by singers, guitar players, and songwriters too, and everybody played an instrument – piano, guitar – on my mother’s side of the family, at least. I started taking piano lessons at the age of four, so I was studying piano and began teaching myself guitar. I had aunts and uncles that kind of helped me along, but I really spent a lot of time in my bedroom experimenting with guitar from the age of ten or so, and was doing that without any kind of formal structure for many, many years. I’m mostly a self-taught guitarist; I did a little bit of formal training at Berklee, but that was fifteen years down the line. Then, I started writing songs as a teenager, and honestly, was writing about the same things that I am still writing about: I was focusing on, with this upcoming album, the environment, my personal and spiritual relationship to it, our collective relationship to it, and the impending climate crisis, which has always been a shadow over my life since I was capable of thinking about structural and existential things.
You can definitely hear from your music that sort of natural inspiration. What’s it like to be inspired by the environment and the state of the world today? What’s your songwriting process like?
EE: Well, my songwriting process for this record in particular was a little bit more, you might say, “academic.” There was more research involved. Typically, my writing process is kind of this interdisciplinary prose writing, image creation, poetry, music, compositions, and then it all fuses together through what, for me, is a spiritual process into songs. Of course, that was how I created these songs, but also with the added element of reading more. I read through the Global Change Climate Assessment two years ago, when I was writing this album, and at that point it was still uncensored. It’s since become very abridged under the Trump administration, so that was a really harrowing document to confront, and it was quite an emotional undertaking actually, to read this scientific report, really, on the state of things and the immediate future, and our current trajectory. That was kind of one thing that went into the writing for this album.
I had kind of a routine of studying, and being present in the green areas around here – I live in Jamaica Plain – and I would go every morning to the Emerald Necklace and just listen, and look, and feel, and get to know who lived there, what birds [lived there], and observe the changes that happen every day in those environments. If you’re there continuously, and you’re always watching, you start to see how active and full of life it is.
It is a really inspiring place, and speaking of Greater Boston, I see you started out in the Pacific Northwest. Did you come over here for college, to go to Berklee?
EE: I did, yeah.
How would you say the move from there to here affected you, both personally and for your art? Would you say that you have more inspiration over here, or that it’s a different kind of environment to write in?
EE: Yeah, I think that I’m grounded in the Pacific Northwest in a way that is unique, but I wouldn’t be able to measure less versus more inspiration. I think no matter what kind of natural environment I was in, it would just be a matter of learning what that place is like. I could be in Illinois, I could be in New Mexico, but it’s having a place that you come back to regularly in a conscious way – and I’m talking about coming back to mentally. So, of course, they’re very different environments, and I feel a certain special way about the Pacific Northwest – I miss it very much – but it’s just been different.
It definitely sounds like your music has been thriving from that influence of nature, and your music also has an incredible mix of styles; You’ve got the folk, but it’s also jazzy, and the instrumentation on a track like “January 1st” is super unique, and almost orchestral. How did you come to find that mix of styles, and figure out that that was what was right for you?
EE: You know, I think I was mostly guided by the instrumentation I wanted, and who I knew in the scene whose musicianship I was really inspired by. Each one of those people was somebody that I had been introduced to and [was introduced to] their music through my involvement in the scene here, and I was just enamored with their musicianship. I like playing with improvisational players, because I like having that dynamism to the music, and it works well with my rehearsal style and arranging style; I’m not really a fully trained musician in that I don’t have a very robust knowledge of theory, and I don’t write music very fluently – and I think I played the guitar for, like, ten years without learning the names of the strings (laughs). I don’t assign names to things. But, when you’re playing with people like that – people who have a background in jazz – or improvisational music, a lot of that stuff can be communicated musically and nonverbally, and created spontaneously, so you don’t have to orchestrate everything. It has a little bit of an orchestral vibe, but that’s not how it came together.
Looping back to your upcoming album, Exquisite Corpse, tell me a bit about the timeline for that album – you mentioned you started writing it a couple years ago – and especially during COVID times, what is it like having your album released at a time like this?
EE: It has been like running through a high-speed obstacle course (laughs) for three months straight. I can’t emphasize enough how many times I’ve had to reimagine and rework every detail of this show and this album release, so it’s been very challenging, but some good things have come of it! I committed to releasing the music at this time. I think that while logistically there’s been a lot of flux, culturally it’s not a bad time to put an album like this out in the world, because it feels like different movements towards liberation, whether they’re focused on environmental justice, racial justice, or economic justice, are all kind of starting to come together in this really powerful way. People are realizing how different movements are connected, and how different injustices are connected, and that’s what’s going to save our lives, I think.
I want to do my part in contributing my perspective and my experience on environmental justice and where I see beauty in the natural world and in the world as a whole. I mean, the whole nature-civilization dichotomy is a mistake, I think, and a misnomer. But that’s a whole different kind of philosophical discussion I won’t get into. (Laughs) But yeah, I see this as a piece of something much bigger which seeks to live, as they say, in right relationship with each other and in right relationship with nature, so I wanted to put it out now.
That’s a really beautiful cause, and tell me also about your album launch livestream show. I see you’re raising funds for the White Earth Land Recovery Project – Tell me a bit about their cause, and what sort of attracted you to them.
EE: Winona LaDuke is the head of this organization, and she is a phenomenal indigenous leader in environmental justice and indigenous rights. I first discovered her work… She put out a book called All Our Relations – I had a stack of, like, twenty books by my bed for several months that covered a wide range of stuff, but her book was one. Then, more recently, when I was searching around for who we could direct funds towards, I found that she had this organization that I actually wasn’t aware of. They’re doing work to recover traditional lands of indigenous peoples, and also restoring language, culture, and traditional practices of land stewardship, as that has evolved through the years. It’s really important work, and it’s work that I’m excited to be able to support in some small way through this fundraiser.
Also, talking about your album, do you have a certain track on the album in particular that sticks out to you, maybe a favorite song, or even a song that taught you something, whether through writing it or recording it?
EE: That’s an interesting question… There’s one song on the album called “Family Trees”... My songs tend to be pretty chordy, but this one has these kinds of – It’s like a sandwich (laughs). It’s got this big first section, then there’s a middle part, and then there’s a last section, and the first and last sections are kind of the same. It’s repetitive harmonically, and I’m almost speaking the lyrics a little bit. Form-wise, it was one of those songs that I really didn’t know what it was going to sound like with the group that I was playing with, and it came together in such an intricate, interesting, and yet totally natural way. It was that feeling when you’re improvising with a group of people and you hit a stride where you’re inventing these musical ideas simultaneously and it all locks in together in a way that seems like, “How could this be happening?” (Laughs) Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next and yet it works together! So while that composition, of course, was already composed, there were definitely sections of that song that just seemed to emerge like this really complex organism. It was so cool, I was really proud of what everybody created together, and surprised to hear how it sounded after we were done.
I’d also love to know – Since you are a huge activist yourself, and you have an incredible way of blending activism with your music, what advice would you give to other musicians who are looking to support certain causes, but maybe don’t know how to go about it? What would be your advice to them on how to blend that activism and music?
EE: Well, I suppose if you want to blend music and activism, you want to be doing both of those things. For me, I’m involved with this environmental justice organization, Extinction Rebellion, and of course I’m a musician, so being involved in an organization has given me the tools that I need… Of course everybody’s got different lives, but just to speak to my own experience, if you’re interested in doing activist work, get involved with an organization around here. There’s a lot of different organizations and they’re all doing their part, and I would really encourage anybody who’s concerned and invested in the big systemic issues that we’re reckoning with right now to search around and see how they can get involved with that. That will give you the education that you need to blend activism into whatever else it is that you do primarily, if, say, that’s not your primary thing.
But also – I started working with this organization after I had written and recorded the album, and yet activism was still kind of part of my mindset. Just to throw that in as sort of a caveat, the seed of activism, I suppose, is both curiosity and care, like caring about things. What drove me to do scientific research and read Winona LaDuke’s book, and other books that informed me of the history of our country and contextualize the state of things now, is that I really care about our future here, and I care about the way that these issues are affecting people presently. I’m curious about it as well. Anybody who cares and is curious should follow their impulses and work with other people and educate themselves.