Words by David C. Obenour
It’s important to allow yourself space. Space to explore and know yourself. On her part, Swiss musician Delia Meshlir used that space to examine how she makes music. Having performed in groups like Cheyenne and Primitive Trails, Calling the Unknown is her first time releasing music under her name. Which is appropriate, because Delia is front and center – her voice, a prominent instrument.
Off Shelf: Having sang in bands before, the songs for Calling the Unknown put more of a central focus on your voice. Can you talk about how that changed how you approached writing songs?
Delia Meshlir: I always wanted to use my voice as a leading instrument, one that will bind all the others. With this album and the creation of my solo project, it was the right moment for me to experiment. When it comes to writing, I naturally put my voice as a lead, it delivers the emotions. The instrumentations are here to set the scene. I imagine each song as a shot movie telling a story and placing the spectator in a place with its own atmosphere.
OS: With such a focus on your voice as an almost instrument-like component, was there anything markedly different in your process on recording? Either things that felt new or were more exemplified than they had been before.
DM: Well, I’m always a one shot person, because I feel the emotions in the vocals are deeper in the first takes. But for this album I’ve tried different things, different ways of singing – breathy, quietly, louder, far or near from the mic. I really try to see my voice and the backing vocals that I did on the album as an instrument that can deliver different sounds. We also tried some effects on the vocals to explore different emotions and to melt in the atmosphere of each song.
OS: Saxophone is another prominent sound throughout the album, what about its sound speaks to you as a musician?
DM: I love the warmness of the brass instruments. And the saxophone has something deep, spiritual, it comes from the soul. It can be groovy, kitsch – in a good way – and deep at the same time. I wanted to use it as a voice that speaks as much as my voice, but also as something to accentuate the light and the intensity of a track, in the end of Horseland, for example.
OS: You lost your grandmother during the recording and I was wondering if you could share what subtle ways you might attribute her influence on the album?
DM: She has always been a strong support to my creativity and my music. She was an extremely kind and warm person. She was a creative person too, but she never really had the chance to explore this path as much as she wanted. I guess I’m trying to live her dream and to honor the support she has put in me. Her love really pushes me to never give up and continue on this creative path, which can be hard sometimes. And this faith she had in me has impacted a lot the color I gave to the album. Instead of talking about the sadness of grief, I tried to bring light around this hard step in life…
OS: The album was also described as “an invitation to peace after suffering” – could you talk about that more? Is that more of a hopeful sentiment or one more focused on acceptance?
DM: I realized that being positive brings positive things in life. There’s really nothing we can do about death and the loss of someone we just have to endure and live with it. And if we can transform this sadness into something good that makes us better and more careful with ourselves and the others it’s great. I realize that life is a fragile thing, but it is also something we have control on and we should use this awareness to spread love, acceptance and joy, even in the hard times.
OS: I’m unsure of the timeline, but I’m imagining that lockdown and isolation was part of the period leading up to the release. Did either play a large or shaping role in the album? If so, how?
DM: I was in the process of the album and it gave me time, because there were no live shows happening. So that was kind of cool, I also had opportunities for support because some people understood, it was complicated for musicians to live throughout this pandemic. But it was also really frightening, it didn’t impact the album directly but mostly it makes me wonder how music is perceived in the world, what is the place of it in a society? Can we live without it? I really think we should give more credit to the person who chooses a creative career for a living.
OS: The world has changed so dynamically over the past two years, and continues to change in new ways every week. I was wondering if anything about this collection of songs sounds different to you now from when you first wrote and recorded them?
DM: Yes kind of, I really am writing music from where I am in my life and what I feel from the world. For Calling the Unknown, I was in a deep and introverted moment of my life and I wanted to share my joys, doubts and fears. Now I feel the need to bring lightness to the people and to be more in the contemplative side and share that. I want to invite people to contemplate the beauty of the world in order to feel better and understand each other in a better way. I feel like I’m nearer from the world and what I see of it than from my deep emotions.
OS: As a visual artist, you took on additional expressions for the music of Calling the Unknown. I wanted to ask about the image you selected as the cover. Where was it taken and what about it struck you as representative of the album?
DM: It was taken in a beautiful and quiet place in Switzerland near a lake. I love to go there for long walks, and I love being in nature, so naturally I wanted to have a cover taken in a natural place but that evokes something “dreamy” or “hallucinated”. In this album I talk a lot about being in love and the grief process. And I realize how much I needed rituals in my life to celebrate people we love and to accompany and call back people who are no longer here. I feel that through collecting and offering what beautiful gifts nature gives to us, like flowers, I can do my own rituals and bring back some kind of magic in my life and my relationships. In the society I live, I’m craving for spirituality that makes sense and amplifies my existence. This picture shows me in a place between reality and a dream, in another state of mind, practicing a ritual of love sharing: to my lovers, the people who’re no longer with me, to nature and to myself.
OS: You’ve also released a number of videos for the songs, often recorded in natural or isolated feeling settings. What additional elements to you or your music do you feel these are able to convey visually?
DM: In the videos I’ve directed, I tried to personify nature. In Out of Desire, everything is warm, the sun is really present, it is a metaphor of a bright and optimistic person, the person I’ve chosen to love and spend my life with. Someone caring and enveloping me with heat and comforting water. This song and the visuals are suggesting erotism in a deep kind of way, the erotism of two people bounding for life, of the sun on a skin, of a person dancing at dawn in a beautiful and reassuring landscape. For The Better Half, it’s the contrary! It’s stormy, it’s the Sturm und Drang, nature is exploding and raging as myself trying to get out of unequal relationships and to fight patriarchy and impose myself. The visuals and the topics of the songs are linked, they’re saying the same but with a different language and together they’re powerful.
OS: Does this background make you approach your liver performances in any sort of different manner? What considerations do you have for a show beyond just the performing of songs?
DM: I am sensitive to aesthetics so for the live performance, I’m trying to invite the audience in my world with outfits and I put flowers everywhere! Those things are also here to make me “at home” when I’m on stage and to make the scene my own and feel comfortable on it. I also try to have rituals before going on stage because you have to be prepared to give a piece of yourself emotionally to people. Music is made to be shared and to share experiences and feelings; it’s beyond the “technical” performance, especially with the vocal. I really feel like I’m giving something and if I want to touch people, I have to be sincere and to be sincere I have to be focused and connected to myself. You cannot be fake when you’re singing, it’s your voice, if you’re not here people are going to feel it. This is challenging but this also has made me stronger. Every time I sing I am receiving something, it’s a bit spooky and I like it. I don’t want to dig more on that because I love the unknown and the magic around this.