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Herb Sundays 50: Félicia Atkinson
The celebrated French artist with a dynamo mix ranging from Nina Simone to Elliott Smith, Smog to Low.
“For Félicia Atkinson, human voices inhabit an ecology alongside and within many other things that don’t speak, in the conventional sense: landscapes, images, books, memories, ideas. The French electro-acoustic composer and visual artist makes music that animates these other possible voices in conversation with her own, collaging field recording, MIDI instrumentation, and snippets of essayistic language in both French and English.”
Atkinson lives on the coast of Normandy and has performed since the early 2000s, often collaborating with musicians such as Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Chris Watson, Christina Vantzou, and Stephen O’Malley and performing at venues/festivals like Issue Project Room (NYC), the Barbican Center (London), Atonal (Berlin), and Unsound (Krakow).
The label she runs with her partner, Shelter Press, has been one of the more memorable new imprints of the last decade publishing artists such as Herb Sundays 09 star Claire Rousay, (whose new album on SP, everything perfect is already here, is very lovely), Eli Keszler, Ghostly fave Gábor Lázár, and Keith Fullterton Whitman. Similar to her music, the label also feels between scenes, acting as a conversation with her creative community which includes contemporary art, dance, and poetry.
I was so happy when Félicia agreed to share a playlist but I really didn’t know what to expect given the diversity of her interests. When it came through I was psyched that it was familar, but very new and powerful. It’s a list that slightly sits out of time, with sparks of jazz, and a trove of classic voices (Nina Simone, Terry Callier).
I glanced the tracklist but didn’t dive in immediately. When I couldn’t sleep the other night and was feeling overwhelmed, I moved to the couch and put this mix on properly for the first time. The songs offered a comforting pause and my mood sort of melted to the rear.
She sets up a nice Atkinsonian framing for where this mix came from (soft title: “L'echinacée” or echinacea):
"the dawn in my garden in summer is at 10 pm. I see a bat.”
The mix veers between indie rock Herb legends Yo La Tengo and Low, into monster cuts from Tricky’s Nearly God alias and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk LP. Like her own music, the playlist trades in textures and soft tones with a subtle melancholy. It’s a reminder that it’s often a good idea to be small, maybe even fragile.
I finally got the memo on Atkinson’s music with her stunning 2017’s album Hand In Hand and with a new record out this year, I figured it was a good time to ask her for a mix. I learned a good deal from a podcast interview she did with the great journalist Chal Ravens for Resident Advisor’s RA Exchange. She comes off as refreshingly earnest but also matter of fact about creative process. It’s more clear now that her creative world comes not from growing up in a scene but from observing and relating to different ones.
Another aspect of her work I enjoy is that her art also functions as a map to other art, using references (Susan Sontag, Baudelaire, etc.) to create new context. Artists using other art in their work as a means of sharing clues or paths always interests me, maybe since sample culture was the dominant conceptual bent I grew up on.
I just visited Matisse’s 1911 painting ‘The Red Studio’ which depicts the artist’s space alongside other works, and was reunited with the objects represented IN the painting at MoMA in a new show. This referential map leads the viewer to a place that is less about personality and more about the language of ideas and appreciation.
I tend to think of musicians like Atkinson in the continuum of fine artists like Giorgio Morandi, who give us plenty of feeling but little in the way of biography. As Friend of Herb Andy Battaglia writes in ARTnews: “The revered Italian artist Giorgio Morandi made paintings that are mind-expandingly simple and complex at once. His still lifes of bottles arranged against neutral backgrounds—his favored mode of expression—strike some as boring but others as boundless in their charms. They’re the kind of paintings you can look at for ages while regaling in their quietude.”
With a focus on nuance and mood, Atkinson’s work, and this mix, have a similar meditative quality. In an era of push communications and a fixation on the character analysis of artists, sometimes the artists themselves can achieve more by not being a propulsive force of biography. In able hands, art can be a conduit to a deeper and quieter feeling, which is more than personal enough.
“PAIRS WELL WITH”
If you liked this mix, here’s another Herb Sundays entry you might enjoy from Matthew Schnipper of the Deep Voices substack:
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