She has been going strong in Montreal’s music scene, being named as one of “30 Canadian Artists You Need to Know in 2020” by Paste Magazine and playing shows from NYC to Copenhagen. Her previous releases include solo albums Betting on an Island (February 2018) and All That I Can’t See (March 2019), which emanate her novel encapsulation of folky plucking, delicate vocals, and spacious drones – all of which she equally gives in to and has complete control over as she loops these components into a swell of something that feels uniquely other-worldly. This year, she relocated to rural Western Massachusetts to live and continue working on music with her partner, so we can expect more to come from artist Alexia Avina.
I was lucky enough to connect with the musician (and her cat, Merlin) to delve into the creation of her latest album, Unearth, a longtime project-in-the-making of Avina’s and joint release by Lost Map and Topshelf Records. We talk about the nostalgia of past periods of personal growth, of falling in and out of passions and practices, as well as the importance of a collaborative relationship with a label and those she works with as an artist. She’s effortlessly well-spoken and having met her on a silent meditation retreat in the past, she arrived, inspiringly, with the same quality of serenity and thoughtfulness as she radiated then.
The first words on her upcoming collection of songs due out October 9th seem to spill into the world that Avina invites us to join. Though her work has been called ethereal and as having a delicate or airy essence, the first track and recent release, “Cups” lures us into something that feels more like slow-moving water; a bit closer to earth and grounded by the drums and bass. Moving from the deeper pools of verses to the more playful streams of bridges and shimmering waters found at the end of a build-up of “You can say what you want to, but that won’t make you listen,” as if a view and realization have been “unearthed,” this is the starting point for the rest of the 11-track album, which mimics the experience of evolution rather than finding resolution – or as Avina describes, “more of charting the process of feeling.”
AM: I listened to your new album, [Unearth] that’s being released soon. It was like coming home. How did you dive in this time around? And has it been different than what you’ve done in the past in terms of your process?
AA: Well, this batch of songs was actually us actually from 2016 and around that time. So a lot of what I’ve been performing since has felt very different and come from a different place. Also, I was performing with the band then, and since those songs [on Unearth], I started playing solo. But the album was really fueled by the post-breakup relationship dissolution process of reacquainting myself with myself. Alongside that, [was] the process of re-examining the relationship and what I felt was true, watching how truth changes over time and over experience. But there’s also an oscillation with that of again, becoming too close, and then needing more space to consider everything.
Diving into “Walk A Line,” the sixth track in, Avina explores this re-examining, stepping in and out of a situation unfolding to see truth from different angles. Self-described as a “space to witness the beauty that can emerge from loss,” a lone guitar leads in followed by Avina’s looped vocals and the swirls of hushed symbols and strings. Her guitar and vocal riffs call back to the Southeast Asian influence on Avina (having been born and raised there) and her sound. These tracks move forward and develop rather than revisit in both structure and sound, at times blossoming with a gentle stroke of a symbol, that then gives way to a new part of the journey. At times it almost steps into Beck’s more mellow orchestral works off of “Morning Phase,” but remains distinct and a bit more floaty.
“I Wouldn’t Go” follows, emphasizing the Eastern musical influence even further. She brings in darker sounding strings and more percussive elements only to fade away and leave us at the end – not with something happy nor melancholy – but simply along for the ride of her experiences from a post-break-up phase years back.
AM: Was it strange revisiting all of this then since it was recorded in 2016?
AA: My first LP, too, is a bunch of older songs that I didn’t even like or feel attached to anymore. With this batch of songs, I feel that I do still like them, and returning to them was kind of a re-appreciation of what the songs are and what they meant at the time of writing them and really re-appreciating who I was when I wrote them. So, it didn’t feel necessarily strange, but more like it was outside of me and so I was more objective in being able to hold it. This time around, that was actually kind of useful, and I feel a little less attached to the outcome of this album. At the same time, I have been holding on to it all these years, because I did want things to feel right and in alignment for its release.
AM: I can understand the advantage of taking a step back. Even when going through pictures or listening to songs from a certain time in life, it’s like looking back and remembering what kind of things I was thinking or preoccupied with at that point, almost like looking back at different little evolutional characters along the way.
AA: Yeah, which is a large part of why the album art is what it is, because it’s a photo from that time period. It was taken while I was still playing with this band, in the middle of crafting these songs and thinking about forming them into an album. So it is really indicative of the state and the place that I was in. And I definitely really believe in honoring that and honoring all those shades. I wanted to keep that tangible feeling of the moment within the album to the artwork, rather than trying to come up with a whole new idea, which I did toy with a little bit, but in the end, [this] artwork felt like the right way to go.
AM: Yeah, back to the roots. In terms of choosing a title for the album – Unearth. Where did that come from?
AA: That was actually an interesting experience that I hadn’t had before, where the album title came to me before my first LP was even released. I was at a show watching my friend play this droney, ambient set and I had my journal out and somehow that word came to me and I knew I had to hold on to it. And I did for many years and I really appreciate that it happened like that – of holding something secret to you through time. I feel like it really works in terms of what the songs are about in many different facets of unearthing different parts of yourself.
A facet of Avina’s playful self appears on “Horse’s Mane.” Coos accompany her looped vocals which carry the song towards the sonic equivalent of falling stars. Formed by the guitar effects and astral synths, it feels less serious or raw than other tracks off the album, like “Fit Into,” a single released earlier this year. This track speaks to slipping into the shape of someone else’s desires in order to make a relationship work.
AM: The second half of the album becomes a little bit more cinematic and open – and it’s almost like a soundtrack. There’s not necessarily a resolution there, it’s more experiential, so I really like that. Did you have that in mind when you were crafting?
AA: It’s funny that you say that because the person from the UK label that I’m in touch with a lot when I was kind of having some second doubts about the order of the tracklisting He was also commenting that it did have that suddenly very spacious, dreamy – kind of like you’re drifting through the album without having a sense of time anymore.
I didn’t take that into consideration intentionally, but I appreciate that it happened that way. In terms of [having a] chronological order or emotional order with the songs, it was more, what feels like it flows?
As we flow into “Feeding That Beast” from the last chunk of the album, we enter what it must feel like to be inside a lullaby. With the mantra-like repetition of the guitar line, ultimately met by soft and warm drums reminiscent of a heartbeat, it’s a dreamy escape. Avina’s voice weaves itself through space as background synths fill in the rest. Leaning toward a cinematic quality, it brings to mind Anthony Gonzalez’s soundtrack projects as M83. Even dreamier, “Synth Jam,” is the most peaceful sleep you’ve had or like you’ve actually arrived in heaven. Every yoga teacher should play this in Savasana.
AM: So now you are signed with a label. What was that process like for you? And do you like working independently? Was it a big decision for you to hop on board with the labels that you’re currently on?
AA: Yeah, definitely. I’ve always kind of struggled with the idea of working with labels, even though I’ve also really wanted it to happen, you know? So it’s just been this tenuous line of questioning what I really want from music, and I don’t think I’ll ever really have that answered concisely. I think it’s always going to be changing and being refined. But I had a lot of doubts about working with labels and a lot of fears. And I had some experiences of either not hearing anything back or things were seeming to be going well, and then just kind of cut off. I felt really burnt out from reaching out to labels.
After taking a little break, I was like, okay, I’ll try Europe again, and I reached out to Lost Map after looking at their roster and artists that I liked. And yeah, Johnny from Lost Map, got back to me. It’s been a really nice part of this experience connecting with him because he’s such a joyful person and I really feel confident working with a team. I feel a lot of trust towards them because Johnny is an artist too. It’s pretty much still a DIY label, which is the ethos of that is important for me.
From there we reached out to Topshelf in the US, which somehow I forgot that my friend was on (laughs). It’s been nice to see [both labels] collaborating and just having the multiple strands of connections going cohesively.
So far, it’s been a good experience. It’s nothing too huge, which I think is better, for me anyways. If something huge had happened earlier without the experiences that I have had now, I wouldn’t have been able to manage it. Taking things incrementally and organically has been an important part of my process and dipping my toe into the label world through this avenue feels really good and like an important growing experience without being too scary at all.
AM: Absolutely. It sounds like just another venture and another way to explore and expand. Having met you initially at a meditation retreat, is that something that you still practice?
AA: I kept up with the practice and then fell off it a bit. Pretty much since December, I’ve been meditating at least once a day. I was doing the hour-long sittings, but these days, I am a little bit more lenient and I’ve started moving more towards Shamatha mindfulness training, just so I have the firm foundation because it feels like you can’t really build anything without that. It’s been very transformative for me, which has been really cool. When you can actually see the progress being made it’s a huge source of inspiration for you to continue down that path. There’s definitely lots of peaks and lows and I’m in a little bit of a slope right now. During quarantine, especially, I feel like it was a good excuse or opportunity to delve into that.
AM: As such an interesting performer to watch live, how does it feel that everything is a bit up in the air right now? Do you prefer playing live to an audience versus jamming by yourself?
AA: I go through phases with it. Like, when this first started happening, I felt relieved in a way to have an excuse not to fly to shows. I was just in one of those phases. Then I would enter the phase of wishing I could play shows again, because I had a tour planned right around the time that [the pandemic] happened, so I had the tour-itch still in me, but it didn’t get satisfied.
But I also feel really nervous [when I play]. Even though I’m playing a small outdoor backyard show, I feel really nervous to be performing again. So it’s clear that that is not going to go away – the nerves – which I think is a nice thing. It keeps things interesting.
AM: Is there something that you’re looking forward to other than this upcoming little gathering?
AA: Hmm. I am in the process of recording the next album, so that I can start recording the next album after that (laughs). Most of these songs are recorded already, at least, the vocals, and they’re the songs that I’ve been playing solo live for the past two years or so. Right now my partner is coming up with drums for them and I’m kind of thinking of other parts as well. It’s just an interesting process because having not heard these songs with accompaniments, it’s now this second phase of viewing them come fully into form with new life and that’s making me more excited about diving into this album because previously, it felt really daunting to think about working on these songs alone. So we have some studio sessions coming up in October, slowly taking it one by one.