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Dwelling with Duende

lora-faye-1When I first saw singer // multi-instrumentalist Lora Faye perform, I was blown away by her beautifully raw vocals + nostalgic sound. But, as a biologist, what surprised + intrigued me was her stage banter. Throughout her set, Lora Faye teased out her latest fascination with the freakish yellowness of body fat. Engrossed by the gross realities of our innards + their interwoven presence amidst such raw sonic beauty, I was thrilled to chat with the Brooklyn native as she shared her thoughts on intuition, the creative process, and finding space for guts + gore in art.

When we first met you were describing how you had been working a lot with this idea–duende. Can you talk more about duende and how you came to it?

I started listening to a lot of female flamenco singers and researching what was going on there. I first saw a video of a group of women singing and clapping. And it was just so incredibly powerful and disturbing and frightening and beautiful at the same time—which is ultimately my connection with music and the reason why I make it. Watching this video was just a very heightened experience of that and I just thought, “What is this called?”

So duende is a phrase that Lorca invented, but it’s supposed to be associated with this old mythological gobliny creature that’s all about guts and gore and darkness and the sort of blackness of the human condition—and how that’s ultimately what unites us all. Not rainbows and sunshine. I think duende is like exorcising a demon. That’s why they say it’s a mythical goblin creature. Seeing someone really embody that as a performer is the experience of seeing them literally expel something. That’s the only way I can describe it.

You just recorded + released a 5-track EP [“Waltzes“]. How has duende influenced you and you’re approach to making music?

Lora Faye

“My mom says that when I was a kid I would hum all the time and that it was really weird—just playing around in the dirt and humming. People would say ‘What’s wrong with your child?'”

I started feeling like it was really dangerous territory for me to think about duende because by nature having that power as an artist is something that isn’t rational and it isn’t something that you can put down on paper as, “Oh I have this skill.” But the duende comes and goes. And I have this fear now that it’s gone forever because I’ve been thinking about it so much. I’ve been feeling like—and this is pertaining to the body—I can’t reconcile my mental state with my bodily state. Either in my head I’m totally relaxed and totally meditative, but I can’t get my body to reflect that. Or vice-versa.

Speaking of skill, I remember you saying that you aren’t actually a technically trained musician, but rather that you’re totally self-taught. How does that affect the way you create // compose your music?

When I’ve figured out what I’m playing on the guitar—and just played it over and over and over again until I’m not even thinking about it or realize I’m doing it—that’s when I write the melody and start singing. I can be totally in my head and listening and hearing what sounds good. Like okay, I’m just going to play these notes and then I’m going to sing a bunch of syllables over the notes until there’s a melody. And then I’m going to figure out what those syllables sound like in terms of words. And then I’m going to write the lyrics… Sometimes you end up saying some really weird things too and feeling, “Oh I don’t want anyone to psychoanalyze that!”

It’s like this process of creating a pad and then feeling out vocally what melody sounds right over it for my voice and my body and then letting that melody insinuate it’s own syllables which then become the lyrics. That was my process when I was very young and I started to realize that it was weird. So then I tried to write how other people write—start with lyrics and then add the melody. But I’ve really been trying to get back into just letting the melody dictate the meaning and letting the melody be dictated by me and whatever physically // biologically resonates.

Lora Faye with Band

“I have certain relationships with people that I collaborate with and there are those sort of orgasm moments where it’s just like we’re having exactly the same experience right now.”

So I write by myself and then I bring it to my band. I’ll say–it’s this and I play the chord. And they consult with each other and they’re like, “It’s a this chord.” And I’m like, “Yes! It’s a that chord!” And I’ll play another and they’ll be all upset and then they’ll be like oh you’re playing in 5. It definitely takes a little longer, but ultimately I think it’s good because they end up letting go a bit and learning the song before they learn the technical theory behind the song: this song is in 5 and it has this weird chord it’s in this weird key. First you have to have the emotional experience of hearing it, and then figure it out. Whereas I think a lot of musicians who play in bands look at a chart first and then play the song without ever having that initial listening experience.

The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ ∇Δ Federico García Lorca

The gruesome image Lora Faye painted of purging some goblin-like beast from deep within to give rise to this awesome duende power deeply resonated with me. The idea of this heightened state of emotion residing within the bowels of the body–outside the limits of the intelligence of the mind–was so disturbingly poetic to me that I couldn’t help but dwell on it. Following my gut, I began investigating whether the visceral power of the viscera may have biological roots.

The duende of Spanish mythology.

Lining our intestinal tract lies a mass of approximately 100,000 neurons that has come to be called the second brain based on its size [larger than a cat’s!] + complexity. Technically known as the enteric nervous system [ENS], the second brain can actually control gut behavior independently, performing all of its digestive duties even after connection with the brain is severed. But more interesting than its autonomy is the fact that the brain in the head was likely derived from a primitive version of the brain in the gut, as versions of the ENS are found throughout the animal kingdom–from the most simple worm all the way up to us. What’s more, the ENS makes all of the same neurotransmitters–or message-relaying chemicals–as the brain. In fact, the gut produces the same amount of dopamine as the brain plus 95% of the body’s serotonin!

Though an ancient relative of the second brain provided the evolutionary seed to the seat of our consciousness, as of yet, there is no evidence that the ENS possesses any cognitive capabilities. “Religion, poetry, philosophy, politics – that’s all the business of the brain in the head,” says ENS expert Michael Gershon. Nevertheless, with over 90% of gut-brain messages coming from the bottom up, the ENS is in constant communication with the brain, particularly with the limbic system responsible for controlling our emotions + behavior. Our innards have undeniably evolved an intuitive grasp on the digestible world around us, operating under the radar of our conscious cognition to covertly sense potential threats + modulate our mood in response to food. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the elation we feel after a delicious meal or the anguish that comes with gastrointestinal distress. But our emotional connection to the gut may go even deeper with scientists finding links between ailments of the gut and the mind, including anxiety + depression.

From gut feelings to those butterflies fluttering in our stomachs, so much of our emotional selves are derived from the bowels of our being, so there’s no real telling the powers of artistic expression that may result from tapping into the second brain–from leaving the conscious realm of the head to explore the raw intuition that resides within the primitive gut.

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!