Interviews

Heart of Darkness: An Interview with Valery Gore

Buried deep in the emotional grain of Valery Gore's music, there is some semblance of order, some sense of undisclosed truths.


Valery Gore

Idols in the Dark Heart

US / UK / Canada Release Date: 2014-09-16
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Valery Gore’s transformation into an electro-demigoddess was not exactly unforeseen; her previous explorations of jazz-pop always had a certain geometric quality that recalled the abstracted nature of electronic music. Then again, ideas of abstraction could also be applied to jazz. It would then seem like an obvious choice for the singer-songwriter to merge these two at once disparate and analogous musical elements.

On her latest effort, Idols in the Dark Heart, Gore has expanded on the rhythmic structures of her previous release, Avalanche to Wandering Bear (2008), raising the complexities of groove to dizzying heights. You might approach her new album in the way you approach a Kandinsky painting: with curiosity and uncertainty. Like the painter, Gore uses many clashing hues in her music, laid out anachronistically. Buried deep in the emotional grain of her work, however, there is some semblance of order, some sense of undisclosed truths.

Idols in the Dark Heart has all the genial charm the singer is noted for, her velveteen voice layering the grooves in swathes of harmonies. But it is also filled with many sonic dangers and cadential traps; the album’s transmutable beats and constant shifts in time signatures make the music a tricky venture for the listener, who is often thrown off rhythm just when he’s settled into a comfortable groove. Succinctly put, the album is a sweet but thorny fruit.

“I didn’t really make a conscious effort to change directions with the new album but my influences are broad and shifting,” Gore says of her stylistic experiments. “I was listening to a lot more electronic based music at the time of writing the new songs and I was also using my computer to help my arrangements along. The computer helped stretch our capabilities as players, composing the music first and then learning the parts had us playing phrases that were at times counter-intuitive, that we wouldn’t have conventionally thought of. Many of the songs I started with a drum loop or a bass line phrase. I valued the use of repetition more with this album, both lyrically and musically.”

Idols in the Dark Heart isn’t a particularly easy album to get into. Much like the complex and intricate rhythm patterns of her songs, Gore’s lyrics are cryptic and layered with subtext. Over the course of three albums, the singer’s stories have become increasingly conceptual and nonfigurative, the words strung together with an assemblage that is highly Dadaist. But her lyrics seem to circle around confusions and passions that are marked with an unmistakably feminist bent, some sense of restoration taking place in the matriarchal structures of her young life; in essence, Gore’s album is the woman repaired to de Beauvoir’s Woman Destroyed.

At the heart of the album’s reflections on life and love there is the undercurrent of sadness running far and deep, a sense of time leaving and a life left behind. “I’ve always stressed out about wasting time and had a strong fear of failure,” she says. “I think a big part of that is the pressure that probably a lot of women share in this youth-focused industry. I think the fear and acceptance of death are themes on the record too, literally or figuratively -- mainly of those I love. [Also, it’s about] overthinking things and the inability to let go. Maybe I fear if I let go, it meant less, when really there’s just a time and a purpose for everything. The trapped woman on the album cover artwork appears comfortable in her helplessness, but that moment of moving away from that is what’s lyrically observed on the album -- the past and escaping the confines of it, actively seeking happiness and new opportunities.”

Despite the misapprehensions of electronic music being a cold and clinical substitute for organic instrumentation, Idols in the Dark Heart brims with a genuine warmth that allows Gore’s vocals to leisurely bask in. Even when she sings in a language of intense abstraction, there is the impartment of some deeply emotional truth. The album’s most corporeal moments transpire on numbers like “With the Future” and “July”. The former track is a structured rhythm of metronomic panic, shot through with the iridescent glow of keyboard licks and synthesizers. “What do you want with the future at your fingertips?” Gore stutters in time to the clatter and crashes of electronic drums. On the latter, the singer works a tension both psychic and carnal, intimating South American rhythms in the shuffling grooves of live drums and drum loops. Even when the rhythms cascade with the violent rushes of urgency, Gore keeps her cool, her voice finding a temperate balance in the storm of her sensual, machine-beat jazz.

Obstinately following a path of resistance and least obvious choices has provided the songstress with a number of difficulties in procuring wide-reaching success. In a time and market where most music artists are making bids for the radio, Gore has opted to yield to the more private needs of her personal art. The singer has discussed in previous interviews the difficulties of raising funds for tours and promoting her album. Idols in the Dark Heart was self-released and at the time of writing, is not licensed to a label.

“I saved up enough money and, with a little bit of help from Ontario Arts Council, recorded this record on a tight budget,” Gore says. “This meant recording all the piano parts in one day at a really nice studio, and using smaller studios and our home studios to track the rest. Being completely independent in preparing the release was a whole other crazy and interesting process and I learned to be patient with things, as I didn’t want to have the album suffer by rushing through it. Working on my own misses out on the community aspect of a label. And I’m sure it will have some limitations in regards to opportunities that a label could provide. But I decided that unless one of a few ideal scenarios took place for the release, I would do it on my own. That way I knew that if I wanted something to get done, it was completely on me to do so. It is the biggest commitment for me in regards to time, finances, and passion. But I think the rewards and the return will be that much greater… I hope! I just really hope to find a management partnership that shares my vision, sometime soon.”

Real life for the singer may be fraught with the anxieties that come with the day and night. But in the peculiar space of her musical world, Gore seems at ease with her perplexities and veiled desires. Idols in the Dark Heart presents a world in which a woman reaches out hopefully, only to be dismissed by an entire lifetime of lovers and friends. And, yet, she continues reaching out. “I don’t really think what I do changes lives, but hope it makes some difference,” she says. “I thought to myself the other day ‘Maybe when I’m like, fifty or so, I’ll become a nurse or something.’ But really, who knows where it’ll all end up…”

Here, then, is an album of questions, but no real answers -- no way to tell the emotional upside from down. Perhaps those answers are to be found in the darkest corners of Gore’s own heart, where all matters of grief and love are reduced to a pinpoint of clear, illuminating light.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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