By the grace of the woman guarding the door of Roseti I was taken pity upon and waved inside. The cultural space had reached max capacity and ten minutes earlier I had watched her turn away a party of four. I wedged my way into a standing position near the left, politely bumping into people’s swigs of beer. The stage was set in a semicircle: string instruments on the left near the keyboard and guitarists, wind instruments on the right, drum set in the middle. The floor was full of bodies. The first notes of the wind section sounded as an old school overhead projector began to flash eerie, dream-like stencils through multicolored lights. The misfit orchestra before us awakened an ethereal ambiance. It was enchanting; you didn’t know where to look or what instrument to watch.
Our necks arched from the sax, to the cello, to the harpist who appeared mid-concert, the whole time reverting back to the drummer: the untamed platinum blonde head that bobbed back and forth. Even through her concentration she beamed, the smile of someone having more fun than every single person there.
Months later as I sat in a coffee shop checking the questions I had scribbled, I was greeted warmly by that same smile as the wild blonde hair shook out of its bike helmet. Meeting Carola Zelaschi in person, you can still feel the same magnetic energy felt by everyone cramped into Roseti that night. There’s a buzz and a lightheartedness to her; like how she laughs, but looks completely serious when she confesses she was once such a Britney Spear’s fan that she knew her favorite color. So much of what we talked about kept circling back to this idea of humanness, of taking things slow and trying to connect with the people around you.
You can feel that in Panal, the attention to detail, the connection between all these different sounds and the variety of musicians Carola chose to form it. Yet within all the detail there are these brilliant moments of chaos—the heavy drums that follow the harp. You get the sense that Carola’s a bit like that too. A perfectionist, composer, and session drummer for impeccable bands like Lucy Patané, but also a member of a “trash-punk” band whose name in English translates to White Tit.
We wanted to pick her brain about Panal (which we think may be one of the best albums of the year) and when we can expect the next edition (hint: after summer). She’s off next month to Germany, having been selected to play at Chilly Gonzales’s Gonzervatory with musicians from all over the world, so we caught up with her just in time.
Panal is your first solo album, which here at La La Lista we absolutely loved. Tell me a bit about how it came to be.
Panal came out of a necessity to compose. It was something I wanted to do that was completely free. I wanted an assembly that was from completely different backgrounds, but I was always holding myself back because I thought that logistically it would be too complicated with so many people. But the type of music that comes to me is orchestral; I don’t think of songs for guitar. I thought oh no, how complicated, you know, pre-self-judging. And then I thought: you know what, I’m going to do it. So I did it.
And this was how long ago?
So long ago. The very beginning of the idea, I mean the root of the idea when I was just putting things down in a notebook started four years ago. Things like how to put together the stage, the people I could maybe get to come play, things like that. And then because I’m in a ton of projects I had to come up with the time and the money to record it, which took about two years. We did it really little by little. For me it just came out of this necessity to compose. If I thought about including a harp, I included it. Why would I not? It was really such a personal project, full of so much learning, and sort of growing up, and becoming more adult.
There were moments where I though wow how beautiful and others when I thought ah this is shit. It was crazy the whole process. You have to support yourself and resolve problems alone. That’s it, that you’re alone with all of the beautiful things as well as the difficulties because you’re the one making all the decisions. Today I feel like, yeah, the real impact when you finish sharing the music is what happens after you’ve finished kneading it all together. That’s why I feel like in the next Panal, which I’m already writing, I want to include the musicians in before, so that we aren’t in the studio and it’s all written and they have to just interpret it. I want to include them more throughout the process and see what they think.
More of like a collaboration?
Yeah, or that they’ve at least listened to it before. I mean with this album I put it all together on the computer, by hand, and for example there were musicians that I hadn’t even met in person before they came to record. I had written to them to ask if they’d play, they told me “Yes for sure,” and arrived to the studio to record without having even heard the parts. I had it all written out and we recorded. What I’d do now is say, “Okay, come and play for a while. Do you like this? Does this strike something in you?” and not have it all so planned out.
It’s one thing to record and then a whole other to perform live with an audience. How was that experience for you of presenting the album?
It was beautiful and also madness. There were 13 musicians, plus the producer, plus the people that were filming, plus the visuals…I was so nervous. Something happened that I just couldn’t believe, the place filled with people, which was so weird for me. So I thought, Oh no, now I really have to defend this. Okay. It’s fine. You’re going to go out there and play. Get out on the field and play. I mean I had to direct the wind ensemble, something I had never done before. And there were all these people on the floor with expectations about what was about to happen. So I thought, screw it, I’m going to defend this. And I really enjoyed it in the moment. I mean obviously I heard things here and there that didn’t come out how I’d hoped, because I’m a bit of a control freak, but I really enjoyed it. I just played around, like it was my playground. Which I think it’s really important, because if not you’ll have a bad time and the people will notice.
That’s something that was so notable, how much you were enjoying yourself. I mean your smile was so huge; it was infectious.
Imagine how it was for me and everyone that was around me during this time. It had been such a long process, so much learning, so many things I had to overcome, so many things that have to do with just being human, more than even the artistic part. And then to finally do it, and I mean the logistics of it were total chaos, but I did it, so that was the time to enjoy it.
You wrote Panal while you were traveling through Mexico, but how exactly did you compose the music for each song? One of the things that makes it so intriguing is that each song on the album is so different. Some songs are super psychedelic, some more romantic, a cumbia, then a rock song. How did they all these different styles come to be?
Really, I just let myself be. At one time I thought Oh no, Carola this song doesn’t have anything to do with the concept of the album. For example, “Lilith” always gave me trouble because it was so different from all the others. But then I thought, Why do we have to maintain certain things just because of the concept? So I just let myself be. I think it’s better to listen to an album that’s diverse, but of course coming to that was another process. As for the music, I mean there were certain songs, like “Cenote” that came together in no time at all. Obviously, I retouched things because…control freak, but the song’s structure came out in a second in Mexico. It was simply just my experience diving into a sinkhole and I wanted to make music out of it, so I did.
Okay so the title “Cenote” is literal, but “Lilith” has a very powerful connotation of a figure of feminine power. How did you choose the names for each song?
It was really difficult. With “Lilith,” I wanted to do a song that was more rock, because I am really rockera. It’s a part of me. I thought of all of us, angry, you know really heated about things in general and I wanted to create chaos. It has to do a lot with the history of Lilith. But also in the middle of the song, which is really textured and kind of trippy, I searched for the dialogue between the women’s anger in her sort of boiling point, which happens to all of us, because we are cyclical… Well, the discourse between the clarinets and the other wind instruments in this moment is this attempt to understand each other, like why we are so mad, as if it were a heterosexual couple. Or I don’t know about a couple… but us trying to talk about what happens to us all the time, with a man or someone who doesn’t see themselves as reflected in our gender. And then Lucy (Patané) did a solo, and well (laughs) things happen…
Then “Respiraciones” is a love song. I was in Chiapas and I caught Salmonella. At this point I didn’t know I had salmonella, but I had a fever and felt awful. I was with my boyfriend at the time and we were on an inflatable mattress in someone’s house. And I always thought it was insane the counterpoints of the person lying next to you. So, it came to me like this, because I was in bed the whole day, messing around on the computer. I guess it has to do with the emotions of a relationship.
How did the name for the album (honeycomb in English) come to be?
The process for me was a honeycomb—like a bee making things really architecturally. It didn’t end up so intellectuloid or so structured like I had wanted it to be, which now I’m thankful it didn’t end up like that. The other day someone told me that the bee is one of the hardest working species on earth. And I loved that and it’s true. This project was so much work, but something that I love about it is that it defends the things that are done by hand. I mean I love trap and everything, but with Panal I felt like I was doing everything backwards. I worked so much on things, on little things…it’s like the people today that weave. It was super artisanal, a much slower process. Like if I’m cooking a pizza, I want to make the dough, the vegan cheese, the sauce from tomatoes.. I like returning to this a little, doing everything slower. I don’t mean to say that it’s better this way than the other, but it catches my attention.
Why do you think it catches your attention?
Oh, I don’t know…I don’t know. I think I really like the process of it.
How do you change your process or your composing style depending on the project? For example, in your other band Blanco Teta do you all compose the music together?
Yes, of course everyone in that band (Violeta García, Carlos Quebrada, and Josefina Barreix) are all super composers which of course sometimes is complicated, but also fantastic. We are a group of humans, relating to one another. But my style changes because it’s all different parts that I have within myself, different facets that I just let be. For example in Blanco Teta I really like the cheeky part, it’s insolent. I really struggle putting that into Panal. Panal is more…elegant, but right now I’m trying to break away from that a little, trying to figure out how I can put that sort of cheekiness, my Blanco Teta trash-punk style into Panal. I would love if that happens. But no, it’s more like Okay today, what am I putting on? I don’t do it very consciously. With the bands that I’m a session drummer for there’s a certain responsibility to be a soldier, to work.
Do you feel limited in that kind of space?
No, no. I love it. Above all, with Lucy’s band I’m learning a ton. I’m playing the drums in ways I didn’t before and this is amazing to incorporate. And of course there’s a bit of the ego, you have to leave it behind. You are there as a worker. Of course, Lucy wouldn’t like me to say it that way. I call her the boss jokingly, but it’s sort of like this. I mean maybe not the boss, but it’s like okay, I’ve put myself in this plan when I’m a session drummer. I mean of course she gives us space because the four of us are total characters. We’re not full session musicians; we are all strong personalities, but I don’t mess around with it.
I like the role of session drummer because it’s an exercise for the ego. Also, when you’re playing the drums as a session musician it’s not as nerve-racking. Something that I really struggle with would be Carola the leader all the time. I think that at some point I would have to relieve myself from it. It’s super fun to play around with the different roles. It’s like this concept that I play orchestral music, so I can’t put a distorted guitar in there. Why not? If you say that you’re a poet, why can’t you also do an interview or write a short terror story? Brian Eno talks about that, for an artist to not be so consistent, so coherent. It’s so much more fun. If not you get bored.
Tell me some of the bands that don’t bore you.
Ca7riel I like a lot, I think it’s super fun, this trap that’s super deformed, it’s great. I really like Miau Trío and the new album of Feli Colina I think it was really beautiful and brave on her part. Candie Zamar, which I haven’t seen live yet. In the whole movement of Blanco Teta it’s really interesting because it’s super noise and improvisational. There’s a ton of synths, there’s a girl named Koa that does really hallucinatory things. It’s super femme, but with substance, because sometimes this music isn’t very communicational or lacks substance. But there are some artists that work super by hand, with messages that are really political. Recently though, jazz has been boring me. I was really in the scene, but lately it’s been boring me. There’s so much polarity– this is good, this is bad. I want to break away from this. Saying that something is good or bad art, to me is cualquiera.
I agree, I think it’s incredibly dangerous to declare yourself the person in charge of deciding what is good art or bad art. Where is that line and who are we to draw it?
I don’t know. I believe in the freedom that art gives us, to worry about doing things artisanally, or not. I mean right now I’m working a lot with samples, which is way faster than composing something like Panal…but we need to remember that we are human, to not transform ourselves into robots. We make mistakes, we can’t do everything perfectly. Which is why it’s so good to make art today, because it reminds ourselves that we can get excited, that we can make ourselves happy. To take risks…it’s a space of freedom. Because we’re not free in this system at all. We’re so not free. But we can reach a certain level of freedom creating, because at least there Macri can’t say, “This no, this no.” You know? Like for example having spaces for things like Blanco Teta, it’s so cathartic. And it’s there so that others can identify with it, so that we can communicate a message. But to say what’s good and what’s bad, no.