Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Clarissa Connelly LOBF garryjonesphotography 0050

On the Rise
Clarissa Connelly

13 May 2024, 09:00
Words by Skye Butchard
Original Photography by Garry Jones

For all its knotted depth and rich use of folklore, Clarissa Connelly’s music is direct with feeling. Skye Butchard meets the Warp-signed Scottish-born composer fresh from releasing one of the year’s most affecting records.

Clarissa Connelly often hears spectacular melodies while walking in rural Denmark, but loses some magic in the scramble to capture them. “It's never possible, but the work getting there is somehow worth it,” she tells me.

Where does that magic come from? It’s the question that inspired her new album World of Work – released last month on Warp – which plays with divinity in its weighty presentation. You hear that most in her heightened vocal performances, which feel as though they come from a transcendental place. That theatricality allows her “to be free of the boundaries of my personality, because that’s very narrow, being Clarissa,” says Connelly. “It creates spaces that are more open. It’s important to be awake in the present.”

Connelly is in London after recording a Maida Vale session for Mary Anne Hobbs’ 6 Music show and she’s still buzzing from the experience. World of Work is a carefully orchestrated record that uses flute, guitar and piano to tell its epic narrative. Rather than layering takes as she had on previous records, she performed live with close collaborators but for the Maida Vale session, she strips back and opens acapella, partly out of a need to respond in the moment. Somehow, the ideas translate.

ADVERT

“It is a compromise, but it’s also a new exploration of the pieces. How can they be performed?” she explains, excited at the thought of discovery. “I’m not interested in playing with a backing track. I think it’s incredibly boring. It wasn’t even an option. I want to talk through the music.” In session and on record, those melodies are still spectacular – you wonder how they sounded in her head.

Connelly’s career is already impressive. She’s been a member of Laurie Anderson’s choir, won the Nordic Music Prize for The Voyager, and supported fellow-winner Jenny Hval on tour. As part of the now-thriving Copenhagen art scene, she has experience to pull from, but the purity of her early musical memories is what inspires her now.

Clarissa Connelly LOBF garryjonesphotography 0075

Her primary school in Fife was standard – a boring paved schoolyard with a statue of the Virgin Mary and some boys playing football. She and her friend Emma created singing games, pulling from canons such as “London’s Burning” before they knew the context. This was where she first found the joy in harmonising with someone else - but that was lost when she left Scotland for Denmark at the age of nine.

“In Denmark it’s not a part of kid’s games,” she tells me. “I missed that a lot. There’s not a tradition to sing together when dinner is over, or when you’re out in the park. It was more present in Scotland in many ways; during Christmas time, carollers knocking at our door, singing on your doorstep.” Those playground games led to her Canons project – compositions written to give the joy of singing together to anyone seeking it. She premiered at last year’s Roskilde Festival with collaborators from Copenhagen including Astrid Sonne, Erika de Casier and Henriette Motzfelt of Smerz. The most important voice would be the audience, who Connelly encouraged to keep the canon going.

ADVERT

“The need I feel was responded to straight away,” she explains. “People were hungry for singing together and creating togetherness…. Doing that in a moment together can bleed into the rest of the week or month. In our society today, as it’s been for a long time, there’s focus on individual development and I feel alone in that. That’s not how I want to live. I want to exchange experiences with others. That’s what music can give me.”

Connelly stresses that she doesn’t own these canons. They are for everyone. She’s a gracious interviewee, but her collaborators see her as a leader. Danish songwriter and producer Fine Glindvad Jensen, aka Fine, was in the chorus at Roskilde: “She's eager and passionate in almost every aspect of life,” she tells me. “Whether it's setting a lunch table or making music, it's the same. Her decisions always underpin a larger vision of life, like community, fun, nature, connecting the past to the future.”

Jensen and Connelly attended the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC) together in Copenhagen. Connelly was one of five chosen to do composition; she thanks her teacher on the back of World of Work. “That school has been an inspiration explosion in Copenhagen, and I think it's because of him. He's chosen such great people to have the opportunity to sit and write,” she says. “That's a privilege, to hand in forty minutes of music for your Bachelor’s.”

Jensen agrees that this, along with Denmark’s free education system affording access, has had a lasting impact. “The school really creates independent thinking, because nothing is written in stone there.” she tells me. “It’s eclectic, and when you finish there you’re already in that flow with releasing music…I feel that freedom in Copenhagen at the moment. That’s because of a lot of things, and RMC is one of them.” Since studying, that ongoing culture of exchange continues, such as on trips to the Danish island Fanø, where Connelly taught her musician friends those canons for fun. The exchange keeps her searching for big ideas with each record.

And World of Work tackles huge ideas – the push and pull between work and desire, faith and doubt, life and death. Inspired by Bataille's L'érotisme, the record describes desire as that place where we feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. The process of making music was a good symbol, given the mundanity and flashes of divinity that are a part of creation. “There’s a lot of work to it, getting where you want to go. The moment of surprise in that chord that gives you the feeling of the roof falling off that I’m always trying to find in music, it’s not always that it succeeds but that exploration is the whole point for me.”

Clarissa Connelly LOBF garryjonesphotography 0030

Despite its complexity, World of Work is a tactile and emotional record. Connelly connects the threads with the sound of church bells, a clever catch-all symbol for time, our history, faith and beauty. She recorded them around Denmark. “Learning about the past - the older the better - it gives me a sense of relief, understanding that there's something old around us and that we're part of a bigger cycle,” she says. “It's easy to get in to see the bell. You just talk with the priest or whoever is around. They always know a lot about the bell. They're over-excited to explain to you about the bell.”

The counterpoint to divinity is loneliness, isolation and the world’s many shortcomings. A protest song, “Life of the Forbidden” speaks for those who don’t experience great beauty. If there’s a point, why does suffering happen? The song has stunning prescience with our current moment despite its timeless writing. “I was surprised about how relevant it was,” she says. “That breaks my heart, the situation going on and the genocide in Palestine. There is a great sorrow. That was necessary, to be very explicit and direct in that communication.” The resulting song is the most immediately affecting she’s made.

The apocalypse became the natural conclusion for World of Work. “There’s always been a focus on a great doom, ‘when the world ends God will divide the good and the bad’”, she says. The image of the sky turning is her version. It connects the past to the present through the climate crisis, something Connelly thinks about daily. “My sisters have lots of children. I think about their lives. It’s completely devastating. It’s inevitable to talk about because it is the ‘Big Death’.”

Clarissa Connelly LOBF garryjonesphotography 0062

Raised by devout Catholics, these musings have personal significance. “I believed in Christianity when I was young. I started questioning what God is, and why we’ve created that box where we put these feelings. Both my parents were religious still, so I kind of lost belief in them as I lost belief in God.” Spending time in church spaces while excavating her tangled feelings on religion was difficult. She winced hearing an ‘amen’ on one bell recording and turned it down in the mix.

“That's a conflict because I often go into churches when I'm in new cities. I don't pray to God. I sit and think about what I'm thankful for,” she says. “I don't agree with many things about the Catholic Church, but there's still something in the room. It's nearly the only room we have left in cities that are created where there’s peace”.

That peace exists in parks too, on those walks where Clarissa does her thinking and writing. “How old are big trees? I'm always guessing,” she says. “Because then you can visualise how many people and animals have been around the tree. That's an amazing feeling.” At the end of World of Work, Connelly is left with all questions and no answers. What will I believe when the sky turns?” she sings in its final moments. No matter the answer, her art urges you to take note of your surroundings. You’re here now. Feel it.

World of Work is out now via Warp. Clarissa Connelly performs at Kings Place in London on 15 May 2024.

Share article
Email

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next