The work of half-Norwegian, half-Mexican artist Carmen Villain – aka Carmen Maria Hillestad – is one of introspection. Having released her debut album, Sleeper, in 2013 – a collection of personal tracks distanced by a disaffected and languorous production – she returns this year with Infinite Avenue.
Mining her love for 60s cinema, Villain took inspiration from Gena Rowlands – who appears on the album artwork – and John Cassavetes tumultuous relationship, on and off screen. On the surface this reference point manifests as hazy and bewitching soundscapes, however dig deeper and you’ll find lyrics exploring the intricate mix of emotions surrounding womanhood in the 21st century. Translating these visual markers into an imposing and emotive sound, Villain encourages the listener to piece together their own narrative.
With the record for release on 8th September, here Villain talks us through the reference points behind her newest work.
Ammar Kalia: Film seems to have been a major influence for this new record.
Carmen Villain: I’ve always loved movies and they’re a big part of the many things that inspire me. While making the album I was particularly into movies where the stories aren’t necessarily linear but where the images, characters and atmospheres emulate a certain headspace, a specific visual translation of a state of mind.
Ammar: How does Red Desert relate to the Antonioni film it takes its title from?
Carmen: I watched the film not long after I started writing the song and thought the title was perfect since the film embodied the visual representation of that feeling of being held down by the grey pollution of the mind.
Ammar: And what was it about the cover photo of Gena Cassavetes that appealed to you?
Camen: I love the facial expression in it; she is smiling but there are shadows around her eyes – there’s always more to the image than just the surface. I also really like its grainy quality.
Ammar: John and Gena were famed for their tumultuous, yet ultimately committed relationship to each other; is collaboration similarly important to your creative process?
Carmen: Collaboration is extremely important, it nurtures the soul and the mind. With John and Gena, they obviously had this amazing dynamic onscreen because of their personal relationship – despite or because of any tumult. The album had very little in the way of collaboration with others during recording and writing, but I would still say that the highlight in the process was working with Jenny Hval and mixing towards the end, as my sanity definitely needed the input.
Ammar: You isolated yourself in the recording process for this album, how did that influence the sound you created?
Carmen: The process was definitely very lonely at times but it was also probably necessary for this particular album in order for it to get to the sound and themes it has. It’s a very personal piece of work. Being alone with the music allows for a lot of time to just mess around and experiment and to make a fool of myself. I need plenty of room to just sit and jam and sort of meditate; I can often sit for hours messing around with one particular drone or loop, and during those hours nothing else exists.
Ammar: Do you always draw on personal experience for your songs?
Carmen: Definitely, I can’t make it work unless it rings true, either through personal experience or through the observations of others close to me.
Ammar: Have your experiences living in the US, London and Oslo affected your songwriting or musical sensibilities?
Carmen: Everything we experience affects our output in some way or another. I’m not sure I can pinpoint what the different cities provided in that respect though; perhaps New York exposed me to new music and people, London gave me the same but also attendant with loneliness and isolation. And with Oslo, maybe clean air and more time?
Ammar: How does Oslo compare as a place to live as an artist to, say, London, or elsewhere?
Carmen: Oslo, despite its flaws, is great in many ways. It’s a small city so it’s more efficient, the average income is better and so I can afford a small studio space. We are incredibly lucky to have great state culture funds here that we can apply for. What’s not so easy as an artist is that you are not really in the middle of what’s happening, you’re always external to the thriving music communities in say London or LA. So, it’s easy to feel like an outsider here. Alternatively, that means we have to make things happen here ourselves, which can be fun and inspiring too.
Infinite Avenue is out 8th September via Smalltown Supersound.