by Jim Haynes
She Spread Sorrow is the work of Italian industrialist Alice Kundalini, who’s released three extraordinary albums for Cold Spring in Rumspringa (2015), Mine (2017), and Midori (2018). With sparse and grimly atmospheric applications of noise, tone, and electronic sequencing, Kundalini’s She Spread Sorrow expresses a volatile emotional core that speaks to abuse and repression with an unblinking candidness. Rumspringa and Mine harken from the death-obsessed corners of Italian power electronics, especially those of Atrax Morgue and Marco Corbelli’s side projects in Kranivm and Mörder Machine. With a vocal delivery that is almost always in a whisper, Kundalini’s work stands apart from many of her contemporaries. The smeared sibilance of those breathy utterances have become the signature to She Spread Sorrow’s work that continues in the blighted dark ambient orchestrations on Midori. The visual aesthetics to She Spread Sorrow are interlaced with the sounds to each of her records, with Kundalini locating her body in highly charged situations and locations.
Heathen Harvest: Can you talk about the name She Spread Sorrow? I notice that the verb is in the past tense. This must be a deliberate choice that seems to offer an implication of a previous history, but there’s also an implication of the future.
Alice Kundalini: Yes, right. The name is rich in meaning for me and is linked to my story, to my past. For a long time, I felt as ‘the one who spreads the pain’, who deserved and who could not aspire to anything else, like a condemnation or a brand. Then, a few years ago, I started a different path in which I started to see other things. So she, in the past, spread sorrow, but I in the present can do much more.
HH: Can you explain why you felt you deserved that agency to spread pain and sorrow? What comes now that you can do “much more”?
AK: More than a clear image, it was a sensation. I also had nightmares in which my body was pierced with small wounds. Through these wounds, I infected myself completely and/or infected other people. It was clearly not tied to anything rational, as to a feeling completely different from all other people. I was totally unable to communicate with others from a certain form of very deep pain due to difficult moments in my life. Slowly, I came to believe that this pain would always be something infectious for me and for others. It has become my strength, my form of communication, my creativity. And I have a very different awareness of the past of myself, of what I can bear, of what I can do, and who I can be.
HH: Is this form of psychic infection something that persists? Even as this becomes your strength and creativity, is this a source of negativity that needs to be mitigated and controlled?
AK: In some moments, yes, but it is more a force than a weakness most of the time.
HH: How do you harness this creative energy? Is this a cathartic release?
AK: Yes, exactly. Each album explores a room. Every work is the search for a key to bring the light into a part of me that is still suffering in some way. It is not always something that comes to people who listen to what I do because it is always very much suggestive and unclear. But especially during live performances, I realize that sometimes and somehow I transpose some people on this trip with me, each in their dark rooms. Those are the moments when I love what I do most.
HH: I’ve only seen a few videos of your live performances, so I can not speak to that experience, but I wonder why you think the live performances tend to evoke a greater response. Is it the physical presence of your body which is channeling the pain and sorrow instead of the mediated experience of a recording?
AK: After the live shows, I have the opportunity to talk to some people in the audience who often give me feedback like this. I am sometimes very involved, and I think this emotion passes to my audience. When I perform live (not always and in all contexts, but it often happens) for me, it is a profound inner experience that sometimes pains me a lot. I do not think my physical presence changes them, but I think the difference is given by that. Surely then, the presence of videos by Valentine Wiggin assist in the success of the trip.
HH: Are you now performing with Valentine’s videos? Did she do the video for “Crushed on the Pillow”?
AK: Yes, she has edited the ‘Red Rumspringa’ video, ‘Crushed on the Pillow’, and all the visuals for the live shows. We have just finished the new one that I will use on the promotional tour that I will do in 2018. Her videos are perfect for the kind of sound I use and for the ‘aesthetics’ that I look for my project. Collaborating with her is always an immense personal and professional pleasure. I hope this collaboration will be maintained and developed in the future.
HH: Speaking of collaborators, how did you come to work with Stefano Majno? His photographs stand as a vital component to your work, complementing the sounds with their vivid colors and sharp clarity.
AK: I started working with Majno in 2015 for the Rumspringa artwork. I had known his work for a long time and I was fascinated by his way of interpreting the feminine figure—always so evanescent and hidden in abandoned landscapes or places traditionally considered ‘ugly’, to which a different and non-conforming aesthetic vision is restored. The duality between the purity of the female figure and the degradation or the restlessness of the settings are the mix I seek in the opposites that converge. Since the first time we worked together, we immediately realized that the result was exactly what we were looking for. Working together is always stimulating, and he always manages to arrive with the image where I would like to arrive with the sound and the words.
HH: It’s a rare symbiosis between the image and sound that you achieve with both Stefano and Valentine. It’s equally rare in the realm of extreme electronics to showcase the self in a raw state. The imagery on Rumspringa—with the implications of rape and shame—is troubling, whereas on Mine the images appear to empower the body, specifically your body. Between these two sets of images, you pose a transition from one state of being to another. What lies next in your collaboration with Stefano? Does the abandoned building where you took the images of Mine have any specific references?
AK: Stefano and I love to go around looking for the right places to take pictures. We live close enough and when we find the place that transmits the right emotions to us, we organize the photoshoot. They are not always easy-to-reach places. The location of Mine drove us crazy because we found a small chapel inside a large abandoned villa. It was the perfect place. With Rumspringa, it was relatively simpler, because we live in places rich in woods. The light of that place, the nearby river, and the ‘skeletal’, gray trees were the perfect outline. We have already prepared the work we will use in the next album. The keys of that work are the duplicity, the degradation, and the more domestic setting. An abandoned house with a tapestry with beautiful blue flowers and lenses that multiply my figure are the key that led to the realization of what we were looking for.
HH: Can you talk about the new album? How does this act as a continuation (or detour) from the other two records?
AK: The new album is absolutely the most intimate of my works. It is the story of an escape, of a home, of a lost soul that frees itself with death. The title is Midori, which is also the name of the protagonist. Musically, there are very dilated and welcoming sounds, almost ‘angelic’ and cinematic, which then leave space to very dark parts with low, deep frequencies and distorted parts. The voice tells this story of nightmares and madness and often doubles and multiplies. It’s an album that I care a lot about because it is exactly the catharsis of which we spoke earlier in the most real form that I have never done before.
HH: What was the impetus to develop a protagonist in Midori? Was it to allow distance from your own psyche and history?
AK: Exactly. Midori is actually a part of me (or maybe was) that I have expressed as an alter ego. She is a part to which I refer as if she were a sort of double personality. It is a dark and destructive side, but there is also a salvific one in some situations. In any case, this record is her release and her funeral. Having said this, I wanted the story to be a usable story beyond the knowledge of the origin of this thing. As always, nothing is evident and everything is suggested. The listener can give their own meaning if they would like.
HH: The instrumentation on Midori is a detour from the previous She Spread Sorrow recordings. It’s smoother in the electronic textures while keeping the mood ominous. Are these colorations of your sound specific to Midori the protagonist, or does this indicate a shift in your compositional and aesthetic strategies?
AK: Each record has a separate story regarding the choice of sound. Indeed, the sound is almost never a choice for me. I realize what the aesthetics of a record are while I’m doing it, and it’s never an a priori choice. I cannot therefore say whether the next things will follow a similar or completely different course. I leave space to where the sound brings me without ever inserting myself in a precise context. I have to say that when I then come to listen to the things I do, I understand that even without choosing rationally, the aesthetic always finds its correct course, more so if i let it free.
HH: Can you go into detail as to the particular stories behind both Rumspringa and Mine? Do you go back and listen to those recordings? How do you think about them after you’ve made them?
AK: No, I never listen to what I do again after the official release of the album. Or rather, ‘re-listen’ them by playing some tracks during the live shows. I have a strong emotional bond to Rumspringa because it was my first solo album and because it was an indescribable emotion to see it realized by Cold Spring Records. It is a work that spread my music more than I imagined and that let me come into contact with many wonderful artists and people who have greatly enriched my life. However, I think that Rumspringa has some gaps in the sound that I tried to improve in Mine. I’m attached to Mine because I tried to do a more accurate work in terms of sound, and I find it better from a strictly musical point-of-view. Thinking of it in retrospect, Rumspringa was more instinct and Mine was more studied. Rumspringa is the ‘body’; Mine is the ‘mind’. Rumspringa was born from a communicative need, while Mine was born from an expressive need. This is the fundamental difference between the two records and how I consider them in my path.
HH: Rumspringa is a very specific and somewhat obscure reference. Why did you choose this to title your first record?
AK: Rumspringa is an Amish term that defines the transition from childhood to adulthood and that allows a sort of period of ‘freedom’ for young Amish during adolescence to experience the world. For me, it represents the breaking force typical of youth: instincts, sexuality, the impetuousness of that phase of life that explodes in an even more disruptive way if contrasted by a very closed, religious, and strict environment. The moment I did Rumspringa—even though I was not a young Amish girl [laughs]—somehow I was also going out to see the world. Using a figurative language, I was coming out of a personal cage, and then that title was chosen because it represented exactly that type of feeling of rupture.
HH: I would not have thought you to be Amish! Are there any Amish in Italy? Did you grow up with any religious upbringing?
AK: Absolutely not. Although in Italy, religion is a cultural and sociological element that deeply infects the mind and life of everyone. I do not come from a religious family nor one with a closed mentality. I think there is a small Amish community in Tuscany. In any case, in Italy, they are not a large community.
HH: I am curious about your choice to whisper the lyrics and utterances through your work. You are consistent and intentional in the use of your voice throughout all of your recordings. Could you offer any insight into the decisions for the whisper?
AK: Simply put, I like whispered vocals. I prefer them to the ‘shouted’ approach. They connect to an imaginary of an inner, abstract, distant, oneiric voice. It’s the way you tell a secret or something really intimate and personal. And then I like the sound of breaths and sighs.
HH: Yes, it’s true that your whispered vocals act somewhat like a secret that beckons the listener. It certainly draws me in to want to listen closer, but that is also to the point where I feel like you are inviting the listener to the position of the voyeur, who is listening to something that is hidden. It becomes uncomfortable, and that discomfort connects to the extremes of industrial and power electronics, even as your work is more subtle than that.
AK: I am often placed in industrial or power electronics and I am very happy for this association because it is the environment from which I arrive as a listener and in which I move as a listener. I realize I’m doing things that are sometimes very far from that kind of sound. If a person buys my record thinking of finding aggressive, screamed, or violent sounds, they will not find what they are looking for. But I feel close to those kinds of imaginary, dark, disturbing, perverse, morbid, insane themes which are found in aesthetic forms in these genres. With other kinds of music, I could not compare myself. I happen to play in more ‘noise’ contexts or related experimental genres, and have a small audience that also comes from those genres. But even in this case, they are often out of context. I say this in a positive sense. All of these are cultural and musical environments, if they can be defined, in which I have always found myself welcomed with curiosity and openness.
HH: How do you perceive your work within the context of industrial culture, power electronics, and/or other forms of the vanguard of contemporary music?
AK: I am very happy with what you tell me, because it is precisely what I hope to inspire. Yes, it’s true; I move in some direction opposite to that found in the industrial scene. It was particularly evident during my performance at the United Forces of Industrial festival (a festival in London organized by Unrest Productions, curating power electronics / industrial projects) where the difference with the rest of the program was evident. However, I was also appreciated for this diversity. I struggle to position myself within a genre for this reason too.
HH: In United Forces of Industrial, you performed alongside Ke/Hil, Kevlar, Shift, Military Position, and Armour Group. I didn’t witness that festival, but I can see why Unrest Productions invited you. Your work shares some of the same sonic complexities as Ke/Hil, and then there’s the obvious parallel with Military Position as you and Harriet Morgan, in my opinion, are some of the few women operating at such a high caliber in the field. Was your work well-received there?
AK: Yes, I was so happy that there was another female project because it is really rare in the industrial scene. We were treated very well by everyone, like two real ladies. And we had a lot of support from the audience. It was a great experience for me.
HH: Recent cultural history has brought to the foreground the depths to the ugliness of patriarchy and its sexual violence against women. Your work predates the upsurge in women speaking out against all of this. On one level, there is a parallel rage between your work and the meta-narratives of #metoo. Yet, on another, you do not seek to specify any of the details. In drawing the listener in with the whisper that you often employ, you seem to be making the listener complicit to the crime. There’s considerable obfuscation of the content, but the context points to abjection and violation. This would specifically relate to the Rumspringa artwork and the descriptions of shame on “Crushed on a Pillow.” I wonder how you consider your work in relation to this cultural movement.
AK: I’m very happy with this question, really. Yes, Rumspringa, Mine, and even Midori refer to the concept of abuse. In some instances, this is more evident, and in others it is more hidden; sometimes the subject is clear sexual abuse, and at other times it is of other kinds of abuse. In my records and in my live shows, the theme is central and dealt with in a whispered way but also exasperated and angry. I’m happy with everything that the #metoo movement has triggered, and I feel myself near to every woman and human being abused in every way, not only sexually. My only regret is that it took all this time for women to unite against this kind of abuse. In a more general way and not connected to the issue of abuse, I am very sensitive to the issues related to the discrimination of women. I was very happy to take part in the She Makes Noise festival in Madrid; we were all women and there was a very strong union and support among us. I strongly believe in women and their power, and I am very proud to be a woman in such a strongly masculine (and sexist and misogynist) environment. Sometimes I clash with musicians who place my being a woman to my being a musician and who believe that artistic successes or failures are primarily due to gender issues. It is shocking that in an avant-garde environment such as music, one still clashes with such obtuse mentalities. I would never have believed it, but those attitudes are still there. And this is not only a ‘men’s attitude’, but the worst sexists are often women themselves. I am also glad that the name of my project has such a feminine connotation: SHE. It was not wanted, but with hindsight I’m really proud of it.
HH: I do find it very interesting that there are a considerable amount of women in the realm of noise and extreme electronics who are working at a very high level: Puce Mary, Military Position, and Pharmakon, but there are certainly others. This isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of someone like Eliane Radigue or Delia Derbyshire, but their work didn’t operate in a field with as many complicating signifiers as found in the work you are doing. Beginning with Whitehouse’s deliberately confrontational and sexually explicit iconography, taboos were being questioned but almost exclusively through the male gaze. First, what drew you to this particular realm of music? Secondly, why do you think there are more women engaging in this work, in this day and age?
AK: I began to listen this genre by going through several phases, starting from punk and grunge that I listened to when I was a child. Then I started to listen to sounds related to metal and after that industrial music: first Einstürzende Neubauten and Psychic TV, and then all the rest. The first time I heard the Whitehouse was like eating something with a terrible taste that you cannot go without thereafter. About your second question: I think it’s because we’re all Girl Power’s daughters and sisters!
HH: I had read in a previous interview that your first love was the Italian school of industrial music: Maurizio Bianchi, Mauthausen Orchestra, Sigillum S, and Atrax Morgue. How did you discover these artists? While a number of these pioneers have died, a few are still making music today. Are you in contact with any of them?
AK: It was love at first listen with Atrax Morgue, and immediately I started looking for everything that I could find similar to his work or related. I was certainly helped in finding a lot of information and material by a dear friend who lived not far from me until a few years ago: Claudio Dondo of the Runes Order, an active industrial project from the eighties and nineties. Love, however, resides in the morbidity of all the sound of that period, in the sense of deep illness that exudes from the lyrics and sounds that are so minimal and distressing. I have been and still am in contact with some musicians of these projects, even though my shyness and reclusiveness haven’t led me to express my immense esteem for them personally in the way that they deserve. Many of them are still active with projects that are always a source of constant inspiration for me. My true musical origins and my true passion is for them, always: Teatro Satanico, Mauthausen Orchestra, the Sodality, Progetto Morte, Morder Machine, Lunus, and, of course, Atrax Morgue—a character of extreme importance not only for me, whom I have met, but that I never got to know personally.
HH: I know that you were married to Luca Sigurta last year during a lengthy trip to the United States. First of all, congratulations on your marriage! He is also an active musician, and I’ve heard that you may be collaborating with him on various projects. How are those coming into being, and how do they differ from She Spread Sorrow?
AK: Yes, we were married in November at a desert canyon in Nevada in total solitude. We love these wonderful places because they were the destination of our travels. Luca is the ‘pop’ part of the family and very often we kid ourselves for our different ways of defining ‘noise’. He helped me in many things, especially for the approach to live performances; together we embarked upon several tours in Europe, and we will do more in the coming months. After years of touring together and of mutual support in our projects, we started to collaborate in a project together in the middle of last year. We also involved a close friend, Daniele Delogu, and we really had a great time seeing something so unusual for me and for him. We both let ourselves go to everything we wanted to do, respecting only a sort of compositional instinct that sometimes in our solo projects can be repressed in the face of an already existing aesthetic idea that we don’t want to betray. We have practically finished the first work that will come out in 2018. The sound of this project mixes Luca’s electronic parts, my vocals, and Daniele’s original ritualistic instruments. The result is truly delirious and I am already in love with this first creature of ours.
HH: What did you think of the United States?
AK: There are things that I adore about the U.S.: the infinite landscapes, the skies are much bigger than ours, the sense of being really alone in nothingness, the boundless spaces, the deserts, the extreme temperatures, the different and unique ecosystems, the animals, and the natural parks. California, Nevada, Washington, Montana, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida are some of the most beautiful journeys of my life, made with Luca—a sort of discovery that’s difficult to describe. For the rest, I cannot say much more. There are intolerable contradictions, the extremes of wealth and poverty and the absence of healthcare for a lot of people for me is upsetting and shocking.
We have come to the U.S. several times, but it is a reality that is still really unknown and incomprehensible; warm, loving, but also blind and violent; sincere and playful, but also lonely and disturbing. The most beautiful dream of me and Luca is to organize a long tour together in the United States and stay there for some months.
HH: What is next for She Spread Sorrow?
AK: For 2018 I mainly plan to play a lot of live shows touring in Europe to promote Midori‘s release, which was released on March 12th by Cold Spring. I also want take the opportunity to deeply thank Justin and Jo Mitchell. I mentioned so many people in this interview, and really, I cannot miss them. They are the most important people to my musical journey. I have finished preparing a new set for my next performances, and I plan to finish another release shortly. For the rest, I do not know where time will take me, but I’m absolutely certain that will always be where I want to be. Thank you so much, Jim, for this wonderful interview.