Ela Orleans introduces Movies for Ears

We catch up with Ela Orleans about finding inspiration in escaping reality and discuss her upcoming collection of work, Movies for Ears: An Introduction to Ela Orleans

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 29 Mar 2019
  • Ela Orleans

Beauty can be found in the most incongruous places. For Ela Orleans, it was in a poor-quality record player. Her memories of music during her childhood in Poland revolve around malfunctioning equipment causing records to skip and create a new interpretation of the song: something that became a foundation for much of her musical output. "I thought that was how the records were supposed to sound," she says. "They just get stuck and there’s one little motif repeating itself over and over and over again."

Everything happens in circles, she says, and reading, walking and thinking are all rhythmic processes. These processes get caught up in her head and emerge, blossoming, into songs. "My routine and the tiny things I do during the day contribute to the whole sample idea," Orleans says. "It comes naturally: I hear something and it gets stuck in my head, so I return to it and try to sing along." Her songs begin with a concept, no matter how rough, to which she either becomes attached or distant, before finding one particular aspect of it to focus on.

"I would say the story of the song sometimes begins with the written word, because, weirdly, that’s somehow a visual aspect as well: when I see things I try to find words for them. After that, I search my mind for poetry and memories."

On her album, Movies for Ears: An Introduction to Ela Orleans, the use of samples is recurrent, and slots into the album’s overall theme. The record came about after fans wanted something to buy at gigs, but Orleans didn’t have any up-to-date albums that weren’t already sold out. Since her shows mainly consist of the poppier aspects of her work – they’re her favourite to play live – the plan was to create a cohesive album made up of tracks from Orleans’ vast back catalogue, from 2001-2012.

"Everything is so compartmentalised, and pop is the most available to everyone, and the easiest to promote as well," says Orleans. "But it also shows the way I developed as a musician from around 2000 when I started to experiment with 4-track and Casio, then, as my craft developed, my songs become more and more fun, intricate and – hopefully – interesting."

Two of the album’s highlights – Walkingman and In Spring – demonstrate, in different ways, how Orleans’ mastery of looping and layering can elevate songs in order to evoke very specific emotions. The former is naturally repetitive, but its happy-go-lucky melody is juxtaposed against tired, pissed-off lyrics: 'There is no way / There is no time'. The weight of depression hangs in the air. Alternatively, on In Spring Orleans acknowledges her happiness ('For two weeks together'), and there's the notion that the black cloud is finally lifting. Orleans’ moods and mental state relate heavily to the kind of work she creates.

"I’ve been living with depression since I was 17," she says. "But I’ve always addressed it, and music has helped me profoundly with that. I feel that this is, other than medication, probably the most effective way of dealing with it." Making music a way of life, it turns out, helped Orleans feel protected, as did fine art and film. "I’ve always run away to art, ever since I was a child, probably as a subconscious way of healing myself. I’ve had a happy life as well, and the thing is, I can only make music when I am functional. I don’t make music when I am depressed; I do it during the times I am recovering from things and feeling some light."

As well as music, movies are high on the list of things Orleans turns to as a creative outlet. After being chosen by the BMI to take part in their film scoring mentorship programme, she worked under composers David Shire (All the President’s Men, Return to Oz, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and Lukas Ligeti (who’s been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, Kronos Quartet and the London Composers’ Ensemble) to hone her film scoring craft. Since then, Orleans has been commissioned to weave her soundscape magic on a number of projects: Juliacks’ Architecture of an Atom; feature-length documentary MARCH, for the Glasgow Women’s Library; and 1929’s Lucky Star for the Glasgow Film Festival among many others. It’s clear the art of film is close to her heart.

The movies that inspire Orleans’ work are centred on the ethereal, the other, and the sense of looking for a place to belong, but not always finding it. Light at Dawn, for example, is a dreamy Lynchian romance that could at any moment turn into a nightmare, reminiscent of barrooms and billiards. Overall, filmic aspects dip in and out of Movies for Ears: background chatter, train horns and a crackling record player turn up, unexpectedly, to remind the listener that there’s more than one medium at play here.

"Movies are the best way of escaping reality," she says. "When I was a kid, my dad discovered this and he would take me to the cinema and drop me off. I spent hours in the cinema. I watched loads of Polish and Eastern European stuff, not many Western films." This escapism burrowed deep into her psyche, and from then on Orleans subscribed to every cinema class she could at school, and always had a camera to hand. "I was always drawn to different, alternative realities. I’m still obsessed with watching films, I just wish there was more time for it!"

The difference between scoring for someone else and writing for yourself, however, is a subtle one. Asides from the obvious time sensitivity, there’s also a duty of care to ensure everyone’s vision lines up. "I try to be very sensitive to what the artist or director wants to achieve, feelings-wise," says Orleans. "So I usually spend quite a lot of time talking about emotions. I try to do my best. I’ve been quite lucky to work with people who chose me because they like my style, not because they chose me but want something else. So far I’ve had a very good relationship with artists."

This is unlikely to end any time soon. Aside from Movies for Ears, Orleans’ next projects include scoring a production in Poland based on the comparisons between hate speech and Polish public radio, something she describes as "quite uncanny" and "very disturbing". After that, there’s some work scoring a film based on the NASA archive called Night-Thoughts. Other than that, Orleans is just looking forward to returning to perform in Glasgow.

"I hope the next show will be something new and fresh and a little different – even though I will be playing old songs."

Whether old or new, it’s a given that Orleans will bring something unique, innovative and a little bit remarkable to any gig or project she embarks on. Whether it’s Kafka-esque melodrama or 60s pop with a dark edge, we should all be giving thanks to that malfunctioning Polish record player for the beauty it unwittingly brought into the world.

Movies for Ears: An Introduction to Ela Orleans is released via Night School Records on 29 Mar
Ela Orleans plays CCA, Glasgow, 11 Apr; Kings Place, London, 8 May