Like those IDM experimentalists who twiddled knobs and soft synths before him, millennial electronic prodigy Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) has succeeded in widening a sonic landscape and pushing it to its very digital limits. His skittering collages of pitched vocals, short piano phrases, and symphonic interludes reliably mesmerize fans and critics alike. On the occasion of Arca’s third album, the Venezuelan composer-producer and current Björk collaborator discusses the roots of his alias, childhood memories of life in Venezuela, and general ideas behind his music. XL Recordings released Arca on April 7, 2017.
MY FIRST PRIORITY in coming up with what to call myself was that I wanted a word that didn’t have a popular meaning, a definition, or an association that would make it easy to understand my music. It still makes me smile that people are scratching their heads about this word. I like that in Spanish it means a chest or strongbox in which you could store things—an empty space that could be filled with something that could be protected. That resonated with me. It was a word I could define through my music, through years of putting stuff out. Another important thing is the way it sounds. That’s probably the deepest level of meaning for me—and it’s something I can’t really define. We can try to know what makes it sound nice: maybe because it begins and ends with the same vowel or because it’s short. I like that it has an r in it as well, because in Spanish it would be pronounced “Arrrrrrca.”
The central inspiration for me, and the one that is hardest to unpack, is the Latin American woman. My mother and my grandmother. There is a fire to the women in my family. There is a fire to Latin American women: the strength of their convictions and the fact that the women run the family. No matter how patriarchal the society becomes, it is really the woman behind the curtain who pulls the strings and has a deeper understanding of how circumstances will play out psychologically—an intuition of what someone is thinking or about what is going to happen. In that sense, I very playfully and lovingly like to think of the Latin American woman as a kind of witch, especially some Latin American women keeping older values. To me that is a beautiful archetype. And it has affected me very much, because I sometimes feel like I admire or relate more to the women in my family than to the men.
I knew from such an early age that I was gay, and I was just hoping it was a phase. I learned what things to do and what things not to do. One of my most formative memories is forcing my family to watch me dance and sing. I would assemble my whole family during big gatherings, like thirteen people sitting in chairs, and I would come out and dance for them. I can remember forcing my family to watch me dance to Madonna’s album Erotica. After the first two dances people were in tears and laughing. By the third time I performed, my uncles and grandfather would start huffing and puffing and saying that it wasn’t right. I didn’t understand why. I think I was precocious enough that I understood I wasn’t supposed to do that. But I performed it anyway. After some years passed, I had an uncle who would always tease me and say, “I have the videos of you dancing. You want me to play them for everyone?” I would get so upset, because it was almost as if those tapes were threatening my survival. That was a time in my life when I was reshuffling a lot of the tectonic plates of my identity and my relationship to others. I had so much that I wanted to express. I loved Aphex Twin and online role-playing games. I taught myself how to use recording software and how to sing on a Radio Shack microphone. A lot of the emotional violence playing out in my family during my childhood and teenager years made me want to escape. I was so lucky that I loved music enough that it is what I escaped in to. I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences. I loved the fact that I went through all of that.
The first album, Xen, was a necessary excursion inward, into myself. Mutant, the second album, is a response to it and is more extroverted. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way for me to grow is in a very self-forgiving way—to take a risk, and in response to how that record pans out, take a risk in the opposite way. I don’t think a positive charge is the truth, and I don’t think the negative charge is the truth. It’s the flipping between the two charges that can give you a brief glimpse into truth. I know it sounds very philosophical, but there’s a humility in thinking about it like that. So if Xen is a negative charge, then Mutant must be a positive charge. And what comes after it is the result of me recalibrating. On this record, I found that there was a part of me, specifically a kind of sadness I carry with me, which required me to use my voice to commune with. But I only made sense of this in hindsight. It was more of an ongoing cue from my instincts that I decided to embrace and steep in.
I can’t think of a better way to explain this than a Björk lyric, actually. She says, “Nuance makes heat.” I think that encapsulates life on a personal, day-to-day level for me: the capacity to observe deeper, to zoom in and see the contradictions in a person as something beautiful and conducive to survival in the world.