Editor’s note: Two years after this story was published, Arca shifted to using she/her pronouns; she told Paper in April 2020, “I identify as a transwoman, and I see my gender identity as nonbinary.” We have updated the headline and introduction accordingly.
In a way, we’re meeting Alejandra Ghersi, a.k.a. Arca, the prolific Venezuela-born, London-based producer for the first time. Ghersi has existed as a kind of specter embodying the Arca entity for years, making a name for herself producing for heavyweights including FKA Twigs, Björk, and Kanye West, and through formidable solo recordings like 2015’s Mutant and 2014’s Xen. Yet Ghersi’s newest album, Arca, which is out now on XL Recordings, finds her dropping the veil completely. Not only is she singing in her native Spanish and, as Latin culture site Remezcla notes, drawing from the tradition of tonadas sung by agricultural workers in Venezuela’s llanos (plains) regions, she’s also uncompromising in her exploration of violence, queer desire, and exposure.
Over the phone, Ghersi spoke about the virtues of being a contradiction, the nuances of what can be said in Spanish and English, and how the literal bare-bones nature of Arca, from her first-take approach to vocals to her stripped-down instrumentals, was also a way of reaching an equilibrium. “I felt like I was going so vulnerable and fragile on this record that I had to become something … something else needed to be amplified in a way,” Ghersi says. “I was, in some certain ways, taking off my armor.”
Let’s start by talking about the headspace you were in while writing this record. Is it fair to say that there was an urgency surrounding its creation?
I would say so. At the same time, I have a contradictory tendency when talking about this. I don’t think it’s fair or right for me to say that this one was more urgent than the others. They’re kind of like pieces of me. It automatically feels like judging some side of me or a past version of me or pretending that growth is linear and the last album is the biggest and most important to me. Like, I don’t feel that. I feel like every record I’ve ever made, on some level, is urgent.
However, I will concede that something you’re maybe pointing at … which is this record, there was more [of an urgency] because of the presence of a voice, and vocals and lyrics, and maybe because of the sociopolitical climate. Or cultural climate, just to be a bit more chill. I’m specifically relating or referring to matters of identity, embodying and not being ashamed of being who you are in certain ways, I guess. Maybe in a cultural sense there was an urgency because I wanted to make eye contact in every sense of the word.
I’m referring more to the immediacy not just of the music, but the statement you present preceding the album. You write: “Here’s my voice and all my guts: feel free to judge it. It’s like MMA or a bullfight: you’re watching emotional violence for pleasure.” I can’t stop thinking about the confluence of violence and vulnerability you’re exploring here.
Well, the really interesting thing for me to think about is that I might be hypersensitive, hyperaware of how … because I’ve been putting out music under my own name, it’s been mostly instrumental or there’s a little bit of a veil. And there had been a veil where I didn’t have to expose my voice. The ideas that I was working with didn’t require me to use my voice. With this album, I started to realize my intuition was pulling me towards a place where what I needed to communicate required my voice.
If you really start to think about musicianship or performing arts, and to scrutinize the psychological setup that there is between performing or singing and an audience, it’s kind of insane, right? Because you have someone who’s expected to emote and to dig deep and reach into your guts. And you’re doing it very publicly. And people are really silently taking it in, but also totally allowed and sometimes encouraged to scrutinize. It’s a little bit pornographic if you start to think about it. There’s something revealing about a private inner world to many people under the pressure of a gaze.
I read that Björk had a part in this, and that she encouraged you to think about using your own voice in music this time around. Can you tell me a bit about how that happened?
Yeah. I wouldn’t say … I would never use the word “encouraged.”
Oh, I misunderstood.
No, no. I mean, she was a big part of it. I keep saying she planted a seed because if I say encouraged, it doesn’t do justice or represent accurately the ways in which she nurtures her friends. She doesn’t encourage. That’s too domineering. Encouraging someone implies that there’s some kind of ego. She kind of gently planted a seed, and said: “Have you ever considered using your voice?” And that’s even more beautiful in a way to me, because it’s not like … a prescription. I think that’s why I kind of want to make a point to say it’s not that she encouraged me. It was very gentle, and in a way, more powerful. The reason she said it was because I was singing in the car. And I always sing around my friends when I’m comfortable, and it’s something that’s natural for me to do. I never stopped doing that.
You sing entirely in Spanish on Arca. I’m curious what your relationship was like to Spanish growing up, and how that’s shifted over time.
I guess there’s a historical timeline and an emotional reality. The historical timeline is from after second grade to high-school graduation, I was in Venezuela. When I was 17, I left Venezuela, so Spanish just became something I spoke with my family members or friends that spoke Spanish in New York.
But on top of that, from preschool to first grade, I lived in the States. So even when I moved back to Venezuela, I could speak English with an American accent. Most prep schools there teach English, so when I was doing my English classes, I stood out in Venezuela. Because I could read without an accent — or with an American accent. Some of the kids might call me “gringo” because they were like, “Wow, his mouth moves weird and he can do those American ‘r’s.” And when I was in America, I was like one of the two foreign kids in the class because it was a really white town.
I don’t really feel 100 percent Venezuelan and I definitely don’t feel American. So I feel kind of origin-less. I feel like I’m in an in-between.
Being origin-less can be hard.
When you’re faced with the panorama of identity politics that is active today and maybe in our generation, it’s easier to represent and group around a cause when you’re talking about the extremes. Like, if you’re anywhere in-between and that might expand itself to gender identity or origin, then it’s kind of more gray and it’s harder to use words.
I think that that’s something that maybe in the back of my head I try to relate with: I don’t want to be forced to choose because I don’t have to. It’s not the reality of who I am. I think the sparks that fly off being a contradiction are the thing that I chase. That’s what seems more real to me than just saying I’m one or the other. Reserving the right to renegotiate your identity, and renegotiate and externalize how you feel as opposed to labeling yourself or being dogmatic about your identity, maybe might allow you to remain more fluid. And in remaining more fluid, you might be able to relate to different kinds of people, people who are from different origins. And ideally people who don’t have clear-cut origins make you feel comfortable, too.
And these little traces of all the things, all the flecks and specks that are a degree of what you inherit? They’re beautiful. And if they’re contradictory, I think they’re even more beautiful. I think it’s awkward to exist in those in-between spaces, but in the long run probably more liberating because you allow yourself exit routes. You allow yourself exit routes to one day take that history and genetic story inside of you very seriously, but you’re allowed to go against it and follow your intuition or your heart into places of contradiction.
It’s challenging to embrace that fluidity, even though every force in the universe is telling you to assimilate or choose one identity.
I totally agree with that. There’s a side of me that just thought about my answer, and thought maybe could be seen as some kind of cop-out. I just would like to add that — what I can tell you about me that I do know — that I’ve learned through experience and what’s important to me and what I gravitate toward and what I fight for is, I tend to want to seek balance or contradiction as a way of always staying alive and flowing and growing.
If I have to reverse engineer why it feels more honest for me to sing in Spanish, I always say the same thing. I came from a kind of turbulent family and their passion and their dissonances were all lived through Spanish. My earliest memories of conflict, and extreme love and extreme joy? Those were in Spanish. English is the language of my left brain. I went to university at an American university, so I was talking about Freud and gender studies and music production. Like, all technical and all knowledge was English for me. But when it came to expressing themes that were arising inside of me while I was making this record, I just couldn’t even imagine doing it in English.
So what does it feel like now, navigating that tension of being bilingual?
If I had to choose to say in words what to stand for, it’s the in-between. There’s so much in my life that … I’ve not belonged. And that feeling of not belonging is a place that people can meet at. That’s so beautiful, and it was a breakthrough for me to figure that out. And to figure out that I could externalize that and that other people would respond in an appreciative way.
Making music is an inward and outward gesture at once. I make it because I’m communing with a side of myself that might help me look people in the eye. But at the same time I’m reaching out, in a way. I kind of roll my eyes when people say they make music for themselves or they make art just for themselves, because maybe in their head what that means is that they’re making it for someone who they don’t think is real. Their audience isn’t real. But it’s still a communicative act. It’s still an outward manifestation of longing. So when I make peace with that, you know, we are fulfilled as animals in the measure that we are connecting with one another … I realize that maybe who I care about connecting with are freaks, or mutants, or people can meet in those in-betweens, those really awkward spaces, or audiences that feel like they don’t belong. And, in my music, carve out a place where that side of someone can feel like there’s space.
That’s something that I’ve realized in hindsight is really important for me. It’s the reason I might have named a record Mutant. Why was I so drawn to that? It’s maybe because evolution carries within it the narrative of “the fittest survive.” I don’t know if I believe that. I think with every kind of creature and every kind of human, there is no better. We’re all just mutations, and I think that each mutation should be celebrated.
This interview has been edited and condensed.