In creating the visual world that accompanies a softer focus, the new album from San Antonio-based experimental artist (or “person who performs and records,” according to her Bandcamp page) claire rousay, the painter and ceramicist Dani Toral set out to explore what a press release calls the “feelings of present familiarity” she felt with rousay, her longtime friend and first-time collaborator. That term – “present familiarity” – can also be used to describe the relationship rousay builds with the listener through the intimate nature of her work, which over time has incorporated field recordings, voicemails, percussive sounds, and other tools to magnify the hidden resonance in the mundane spaces of daily life, dissecting corners of human emotion that otherwise remain elusive and ambiguous.
A softer focus follows a prolific series of releases last year, including the more eaze collaboration if i don’t let myself be happy now then when? and the 20-minute piece it was always worth it, which documented the dissolution of a six-year romantic relationship by feeding love letters through a text-to-voice program. Though that recording was later described as a “devastating culmination” of the methods she’s been using so far, a softer focus once again recontextualizes her work as it finds her stepping into new territory while building on the melodic elements that had started to seep into her music, with contributions from OHMME’s Lia Kohl and Macie Stewart, multi-instrumentalist Ben Baker Billington, and violinist Alex Cunningham. Even if the lush ambient textures and scattered pop influences render it her most accessible effort to date, it’s still marked by the kind of attention to detail and personal candor that make those quiet moments vibrate with significance.
We caught up with claire rousay for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how her environment affects the creative process, the shift that came with it was always worth it, collaborating with Dani Toral on a softer focus, and more.
Part of what makes your music stand out to me is this kind of radical honesty and openness, which isn’t necessarily always associated with experimental or ambient music or whatever you want to call it. How much of a process has it been for you, becoming comfortable with that intimacy and vulnerability and making it such an integral part of your work?
It’s definitely been something that’s been going on for a couple years and I think I’m getting more and more comfortable with it, but it’s also a conscious choice. Just because I feel like as I’ve worked my way into different communities and different social circles within experimental music as a whole, I’ve kind of found the things that I dislike and the things that I’m not necessarily opposed to, but don’t feel really comfortable interacting with, like being really elusive or adding this weird mystery and things like that that kind of establish a hierarchy between the listener and the performer or artist. So being vulnerable and just really transparent is my attempt to undo that to a degree. Not that I’m by any means a popular artist or anything, but I do get a lot of people that message me on social media saying that whatever I’m doing kind of helped them out in a certain emotional situation, and I think that’s a good sign. I think that’s the only reason I started doing it in the first place, and the reason that I have progressively gotten more – I like to think of it as open and transparent, but some people might call it unhinged [laughs].
So was it kind of more a reaction to how others approached experimental music, or was it more just a natural means of self-expression?
I mean, I try to be like that in my everyday life. And I really don’t like being viewed as an artist and then a person, I kind of want it to all mesh together. Because I think there’s a danger in operating in two different worlds, like presenting yourself differently to the public and then living your life privately and maybe being a different person or interacting with ideas differently. So I kind of try to be open about everything. I don’t want to say it’s primarily reactionary, but it’s definitely due to some of the things I see and I dislike in music or art with people being kind of standoff-ish and propping up this idea of genius or whatever, even on a really micro scale. So it’s been a progression, but I’ve always kind of been an open person, just in my personal life, and I feel like that’s the most accurate representation of me, so letting that seep into the work has been a natural process.
As you were talking about this, I was thinking about your bio, and something that struck me immediately was that it starts off with “claire rousay is a person…”
Yeah, I don’t know, I really don’t like it when people are viewed as artists and not people, especially on the internet. Because it’s so easy to create a false narrative or a sense of micro-celebrity, even with people who don’t make art or just have a shit ton of Instagram followers or something like that. I think it’s kind of dangerous, so I’m trying to undo that. But yeah, I’m a person. And I also make stuff.
And it does also call attention to just the humanity of the work itself. Then there’s this whole other side to it, because to me, when I listen to your music, it’s not always necessarily just autobiographical. It’s personal, but it’s not necessarily about that kind of self-narrative; it’s also about your relationship to the outside world and the people close to you. So I’m curious in what kind of directions that works – is it usually your environment informing your artistic process, or can the music also in a way alter your relationship with your surroundings?
I actually had a conversation about this with my friend Andrew Weathers recently, and we were kind of examining both of our work, just the trajectory of it, and we’re like, “Yeah, we both make very different work depending on our geographic location.” Because anytime I move or I’m making a record and I’m not in my home town of San Antonio – like working on stuff or collaborating with somebody, traveling to do that – I think the work comes out different depending on where I’m at. I think the environment and the people that I’m interacting with while I’m making a particular project is the primary influence that is being reflected off of my experience and back into the work.
You mentioned geographic location – how much of it do you think comes from the wider environment and climate around you, and how much of it is more the intimate spaces that you find yourself, like a house?
It’s actually really funny, I’ve been doing a lot of recording at my house, and I’m living in a house right now that’s in a different part of town and it’s a very noisy part of town. And even just setting up a kind of handheld recorder in the house, I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to cook something.” And I’m like, “Well, fuck it, I’ll record it too.” So I’m cooking and then I hear the train go by, and then I hear an ambulance, and it’s like, I can tell how many miles away these things are happening, in terms of like actual distance and almost the radius around my living spaces. Because I do primarily all of my recording at home now, because I can’t go anywhere. And I feel like I’ve been interacting with things that are further and further from what I would normally have physical distance between, like I usually interact with things that are really close to me, especially indoors. I don’t really do a lot of outdoor recording or anything that really uses those kinds of environmental sounds, but now it’s inevitable and it’s making me think about things differently and kind of explore things that are geographically further away than they would be.
That actually leads me to my next question, which is, I wonder how much significance you place on those small, mundane details that are kind of amplified in your music. Do you find yourself kind of fixating on those day-to-day experiences in the moment, or is it something that gains a new resonance during the creative process?
Definitely, I think it’s a combination. But I’ve been trying harder, especially during the pandemic and, you know, having a central location that I don’t really leave very much, I think I’ve had to re-examine what’s important to me and what… I mean, really, what makes me happy and comfortable. And I think the quiet moments that maybe are amplified within the work, it starts with an initial feeling in that actual moment. So, I do a lot of recording in my house, I’m recording everything all the time, which is really funny because I also listen to music all the time, so it’s like, legally, I can’t put out a lot of that recording because of copyright infringement. [laughter] But because I’ve been at home so much, I’ve had to basically be content with the smaller, more day-to-day experiences and find the joy out of that that I would either performing or touring or making records with people, and kind of having to replace a fulfillment that you would get from something else with new things that I may have not focused on before but it’s participated in my whole life, obviously – like, everybody cooks and sleeps and sits around and I had never really placed an importance on that before, and only started doing that recently kind of as an attempt to just be okay, just to emotionally get through whatever happens to me on a bigger scale.
Which is… crazy. I had a relationship end like a year-ish ago and it was a really long-term thing and I had to move and like, buy all my own shit, like furniture, and do all these things by myself. And I’m like, there’s such a joy and such a fulfillment that you get from just seeing a reflection of yourself that is 100% a reflection of you rather than hinging on other people’s relationships with you or, like, almost asking permission from other people to be okay and then rely on that. I really love my house and I really love how it really is just a reflection of me 100% and that’s not something I’ve ever had before. So all these things compound and it ends up coming out through the work.
And I use field recordings in almost everything, as I’m sure you can tell, but the selection process for that is usually, if something happens or I have I feel something greater than just neutral, I’ll kind of mark the recording and notate down, like, “Oh, I felt this way, at this time, during this recording.” So the next time I need to work on something I could maybe revisit that and kind of pull from that more – not create like a fictional thing out of it, but elaborate on it more than I might in my head, just in the moment.
There’s a lot of things that you said that I wanted to touch on more, but one thing that you alluded to was it was always worth it. Because while I was familiar with your work before that, that seemed like the moment that from my understanding brought you wider attention, but it also just deeply resonated with me on a personal level. Did that feel like a pivotal moment for you as well, both personally but also in terms of your artistic growth, like something shifted?
Yeah, it’s such a weird recording too, because I made it in like a day. Longform Editions asked me to do a piece, and I think by the end of the week, I had everything done. It was just one of those things that I think was had just been growing inside me and I just needed the time to get it out. There wasn’t an intentional move on my part to be like, “Oh, I’m gonna do it at this time with this label and this is really what’s gonna resonate with other people.” It kind of just happened. But I definitely felt a shift – I mean, it sounds so stupid to talk about, like instead of five people listening to my music, there’s like 10. But it’s just one of those things where it’s like, it all started to kind of snowball really quickly from that one piece and everybody’s like, “Oh, this is what you do,” and I’m like, “No, I quit voice-to-text, I don’t do that anymore.” Like, I really have no interest in working with that anymore, but I think just where I was in my personal life, that was kind of a way of processing that really intense situation I was living in. Also, it sucks making music for other people, like curating your process for the listener, which is kind of a gross thing to think about, but I definitely realized that if I wanted to go even deeper into that kind of hyper-personal and almost confessional world, I had the public’s okay on. That release was almost asking, like, “Can I go here with all of my work?” And it was a pretty unanimous yes, which is cool.
You mentioned that you’re not interested in text-to-speech as much or at all anymore. Is that related to needing space from that confessional type of work?
I think it’s just become a trope at this point and I don’t really want to fuck with it, because so many people are doing it. I was just kind of late to the game, but for some reason that’s what people associate with me – which is totally cool, I’m not against it, it just sonically doesn’t interest me anymore. The way it sounds was really interesting and really dry and almost impersonal, and when you feed really personal text through it, it creates this whole different way of interacting with it. But now, I still love using text and I love using voice, and I love writing text to use in pieces; I’ve been doing that a lot more, there’s longer form stuff on the horizon in the next year or two where I write 30 pages of text and I read it back, but with a very hyperemotional reading of it, like the human voice really changes how you interact with the text. And I think I’m more interested in the text playing a bigger role and just being a little bit more curated and edited. So I’m still really interested in that, but the text-to-voice is just not something that I really want to play around with anymore. I think other people, like my friend Lucy Liyou, she does it better than I do, so why would I do it, you know what I mean?
Yeah, that makes sense. Something I’m wondering is, how differently do you see it when you use something like a voice recording that’s not in any way edited or curated compared to a text that you then modulate? Do you treat one more like a field recording where the other is more like a composition?
No, definitely, yeah. That’s why I like using sourced material, either from the internet or from an open call where people are submitting things, because even if I ask for somebody to talk about whatever subjects like a breakup or a date and everybody talks about their date, they could have sat there for hours – I mean, I know they didn’t, because you can tell, but they could have sat there for hours and written everything out with punctuation and everything and exactly how they’re going to phrase everything, but once it gets into my hands, it loses so much of that kind of curation from the original person. It’s so abstracted, just because it’s taken out of that context and placed within the context of my work that it really has a different weight to it; I react to it differently than I would a recording of me reading something that I wrote. My favorite thing to do is to use both of those things in the same piece, which gives the listener a range of things to pull from and I think makes both of those things stand stronger on their own. But I definitely view the voice recordings of really unedited stuff and just passing conversations as just field recordings and not really anything curated or written out, and then kind of use the text to build the narrative or the world that those conversations are operating in.
In terms of the musical side of things, with it was always worth it there was this impression that there was a greater harmonic element to it. Is that something that you feel like is an accurate representation of the progression that you’ve been on artistically?
Yeah, definitely. I kind of like viewing myself as a kind of professional amateur, because I’m constantly implementing things that I’ve only interacted with for six months or so and exploring new ideas where people have spent their whole lives in this really niche world. I really like the intense hyper-focusing on something for a short period of time, trying to get as much as you possibly can from that, really digging into it and exploring what it means to me but not claiming to be an expert or an authority or even educated on it. And that’s kind of how I felt with the voice-to-text thing too. As far as the harmonic and melodic elements and just the more musical approach to making work, it was the same thing – I never used a MIDI keyboard before, because I was like, “Oh, MIDI keyboards are for virgins, how am I gonna get laid if I have a MIDI keyboard in the room?” And partially I was just insecure and didn’t really know how to use recording software and using MIDI and tweaking synthetic sound to make it sound better than it does already.
So basically, the week of that Longform thing, I got the MIDI keyboard, I made the piece that got mastered, it all happened really quick. So that was the first time I ever really experimented with that level of harmony. I know how to write music and I know music theory and how harmony and melody works and all that, but I’ve never really messed with it within the context of solo work. So that was kind of an amateur move. And I think I’m getting better at it, like I can arrange for instruments and ask people to play certain things, which is really nice because it’s so much faster than me trying to figure out how to mimic a sound using MIDI.
I think all of that naturally leads us to a softer focus, even just the idea of zoning in on something is very much at the core of this album, but it also feels like a bold step in terms of melody and harmony. I’m kind of reminded of something that you said in the beginning in terms of finding what makes you happy, so I wonder if you feel like this progression is a reflection of that.
Part of the shift for this LP specifically was because I worked with my friend Dani Toral on it, she was the visual artist and it’s so much reflection of both of us. But neither of us really know how to do what the other person does, so we’re both exploring our own ways of making work and just focusing on the moment of creating, which makes me so happy, because that’s my favorite thing to do; when you’re in that flow zone when you’re making stuff, that’s when I’m happiest. I don’t think anything outside of music or creative stuff makes me happier. And it was definitely a natural progression of like, this is what makes me feel good, making this kind of music that is really easy to listen to and lush. The softer focus LP is definitely the most high-fidelity recording I’ve ever made, recorded in real studios with real instruments and real microphones. I spent a lot of time mixing it – that’s the first time I’ve ever mixed a record, which is funny. Usually when I make records, I mix it while I’m kind of recording it, but I never go back through and mix it, which is what you’re supposed to do [laughs]. But yeah, I’m just really into the lush-sounding stuff and I’ve been listening to a lot of music like that, and all of my friends are making music like that right now, and I think that’s a reflection of that.
You touched on the collaborative aspect of this project, and I know you’ve done plenty of collaborations in the past – the one with more eaze especially is one of my favorites – but apart from the fact that you’re obviously different kinds of artists, what was different about this collaboration in terms of the process?
I think it’s the first time I ever thought about process, because collaborating with mari, who does the more eaze project, we just send files back and forth and kind of tack stuff onto recordings and end up with something, or we’ll meet up because she lives like an hour away and we’ll just make food and drink wine and record and just have fun and it just ends up being a reflection of that. Whereas with Dani, we were friends 10-ish years ago, we’ve known each other for a really long time, and our lives just kind of took different paths. We only now ended up living in the same city again and kind of reconnected because we’re like, “Fuck, I can’t find anybody who makes stuff in town that I really vibe with on just an interpersonal level.” That’s something that I really value.
We started talking about doing some sort of collaborative thing when I started buying a lot of her artwork; she does these amazing, really layered paintings. I just felt a connection to the end product of her work and I had no idea that we would be able to create something that’s about the process. Because our interactions have always been like, I release music and she listens to it, or she makes all this work and has a show and then I see that – I’ve never seen like anything before that. So we thought it would be fun to work in the opposite way, where we start from scratch together and then build things out. And that was really different just because I don’t know anything about visual art. Every single time I would learn something, it was just like, my mind was blown. It’s like a new exploration, which I also think is why the music on that record is so different than anything else I have ever been a part of. It was such a new experience; one, working with a visual artist and not a musician; two, working with somebody that I’ve never worked before in a way that I’ve never worked before. It was definitely really different in a way where we had to earn each other’s trust at the beginning, because we haven’t spoken in so long or interacted in an intimate way. So the beginning of the project was really both of us being kind of anxious to share our ideas and work, and then the end half was just us hanging out like normal, and that’s kind of when things started to fall into place.
I wanted to talk about what I feel is the centerpiece of the album, ‘Peak Chroma’. Could you talk me through what went into making of that track specifically, from autotuned vocals to the cello arrangements and the voice recordings at the end?
I’ll start from the back and go to the front. The things at the end – it was so funny, I feel like that was the first time Dani and I were hanging out working on the record, when I started recording us hanging out, because I was like, I do this all the time, as long as she’s cool with it I’m gonna do it. And I think that was the first time that I captured, like, not an honest conversation, but neither of us had really put any walls up between each other, because I think before we were both kind of guarded. I really think that was the very first time we had a conversation while working on the project and discussing things that were possibly related to it, or just related to art and being a public person. Dani and I are both really anxious about social media and representation of our work and ourselves on the internet, just because it’s so weird and so new, compared to how art has been represented for hundreds of years. That was kind of just an intimate moment that I felt like was really a breaking point for us because after that, everything started moving really quickly. We took more chances and we started doing things, like we would just hang out or smoke or drink wine or make food – just shit that normal people do together and we hadn’t done that, we’d always been very work-oriented. And I think that’s when the shift happened.
The autotuned vocals – I mean, I only use AutoTune because more eaze uses it and my friend Andrew Weathers uses it, and that’s pretty much how I got into it. I really love emo rap shit and some hyperpop stuff, although I feel the same way about hyperpop as I do text-to-voice now [laughs]. I just really love pop music and I think that was a good way to incorporate it in a kind of sneaky – I still use my little mumbling vocals and EQ shit like crazy and make it just sound weird. It’s so funny because I think that’s the most experimental part of the record, but I think that’s the part everybody’s going to be like, “Ah, fuck, she tried to do pop.” And I think that’s cool, that’s being truly experimental, because what’s really experimental about doing the same shit for 50 years? So that was my attempt to step out of that and also challenge myself because I’ve never really done AutoTune vocals by myself, it’s always been with more eaze.
Why did that feel like the right time or the right track to try that?
I really trust my friends, so when I make work, I kind of bounce ideas off of them all the time. So for that record Andrew and mari were two people that I would always bounce demos and stuff off of, and I think I sent both of them probably like eight drafts of that song before I even got to the autos and vocals and then I had to make like 20 more drafts, which is the longest I’ve ever worked on anything. And the AutoTune vocals – mari was telling me, “Man, this album is pretty good but it needs like a what-the-fuck moment.” Basically she’s just telling me I’m not taking any risks, and what’s the point of the record if you’re not challenging yourself at all? And that’s kind of how the cello got involved too later on. But I really wanted the same thing as we were talking about earlier where you have the voice recordings and kind of field recording snippets of conversations, and then something that is way more direct from inside my weird brain going into the tune.
It’s really funny too, because it almost feels like part of the Longform Editions recording. The lyrical content from the AutoTune is very much referring to the entire situation from that piece, so it’s funny how different parts of my life were sprinkled in over a softer focus, recalling previous things I may have addressed within my work. Dani and I had kind of been vulnerable and made that recording at the end, I decided I should take a risk and be vulnerable in a creative way. And then the next thought was like, “Oh, surely I should address this weird thing that came out months ago and I’m still dealing with, like I’m still really having a hard time with.”
How about the cello arrangements?
I didn’t write any of those. Lia Kohl did it all. She’s one of my favorite musicians in the whole world – she should be on everybody’s album. Basically, I was nervous to ask Lia because I’m like, “Oh shit, this really talented girl that works with all these people that I love is probably going to tell me no.” And we kind of became friends through this too, like, talking more regularly and collaborating. Basically I just sent her the song and was like, “Do you want to play on this? I feel like it needs cello.” I was expecting her to play once the AutoTune came in, or maybe a little fading into it, and she just played through the whole thing. And I was like, “Oh, this is a totally different piece of music now.” I had to go through and edit all my parts and take a lot of things out to make space for her instead of just sprinkling her on top as a layer. And the playing on it so amazing. It’s so beautiful.
It really is. So, I wanted to take a moment to talk about – because the album as a whole is a more cohesive and lush-sounding project, and coming off it was always worth as well – what are your thoughts on it potentially getting more attention from different circles? Do you feel like there might be more expectations going forward that might affect your process, or are you comfortable just doing what feels right in the moment?
I would like to say that I’m comfortable doing what feels good in the moment, but the external validation from people from making something that’s objectively more listenable, that kind of appreciation from a wider audience of listeners – like, people who listen to pop music might dig it, people who listen to more tame contemporary composition stuff might listen to it, ambient people will love it – God, fucking ambient people, that’s so crazy. That’s a world I never thought I would be involved in, and now I’m like, in it. And it’s cool, there’s a lot of good people. But there’s two sides to it: external validation is nice and obviously I would love to chase opportunities that come with making music that is a little bit more composed and even conceptual, because that’s something that I’m interested in now as well. But also, now I’m interacting with all these people, either other musicians or people that write about music or people that I just respect their taste, and they’re reaching out to collaborate or talk or be friends. I’m having such a good time doing that that it feels like I should just keep doing what I’m doing, because I’m happy. And that’s kind of the reason to do anything. So I’m very content now and super happy – like, obviously I’m depressed and anxious about everything, I can’t do more than one thing at once – but I definitely feel at home with the community that I’ve built up around myself in the last year, and that feels really good, and I think I’m chasing that feeling more than anything else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
claire rousay’s a softer focus is out now via American Dreams.