Learning from Nature: In conversation with Odd Beholder
As Odd Beholder, Daniela Weinmann produces a dark and lucid brand of electronic pop that serves as a medium for her to ponder uncomfortable truths, but also as a way to find respite from the world.
These dreamy musings have formed her EPs ‘Lighting’ and ‘Atlas’, which was followed by her debut album in 2018 that entered around themes of digitalisation and ‘the strange temptations of our time’.
But it’s her most recent album that really caught our attention. Created during lockdown, in collaboration with Berlin-based musician Douglas Greed, ‘Sunny Bay‘ explores our complicated relationship with nature. Channeled through Daniela’s dulcet tones, the lyrics ruminate on themes and motifs, including escapism, alienation and the romantic ideas attached to nature as a process.
As much as her focus predominantly concerns music, the visual extension of her releases—particularly on ‘Sunny Bay’—have been central to her message and in the past have yielded a jury prize and wide acclaim.
Alongside her musical pursuits, the Swiss-based artist is also an active voice for sustainability, within the industry and the planet at large. Alongside her partner Donat Kaufmann, she spearheads the Swiss offshoot of Music Declares Emergency, a campaign to mobile artists within Switzerland and help give them the means, information and resources to make changes to reduce their carbon footprint.
Following the release of her sophomore LP, Daniela speaks to us about her experiences of lockdown, separating her art from her activism work and what a sustainable future in the music industry looks like to her.
What lessons did you take away from lockdown, personally and professionally?
The lockdown was a claustrophobic experience for me. This feeling caught me by surprise because I consider myself an introvert and I usually like spending time at home. The lockdown taught me that experiencing culture (concerts, art exhibits, club culture, cinema) with other people in the same space is key to my wellbeing. I felt the absence of touring bands almost physically – I loathed my town just like I did when I was a teenager – before the internet happened. During Covid, it amazed me how hollow digital interactions felt, how little they helped. There is a thrill in being within a body, of exploring an actual space with an actual smell – of wearing someone else’s jacket when you share a cigarette outside of a club.
The desire, the necessity to embody my art within real spaces – that’s what I’ve taken away from this experience, professionally. I’ve never enjoyed performing on the stage as much as I did last summer.
How was this period in terms of creativity and productivity, were you able to motivate yourself to work on music and other projects or did you hit a creative block?
Frankly, I think “creative block” is just a realistic description of an artist’s everyday life. As an artist, you get used to staring at the wall and working yourself through your bleak brain until you get somewhere interesting. Boredom isn’t the opposite to creation, it is its pretence. Having said that – I didn’t struggle with sanity during this crisis. And while it’s true that my troubles inspire me – I’ve been writing and painting – they don’t exactly help me focus and get things done. So have I been working? Have I been meditating? The future will tell if my rambling was lucid enough to stand the test of proper production and make it onto a new release.
It was actually really fun to shoot videos in between the lockdowns. It was also hard, especially with all the measures we had to take because of the virus – but it was intense in a good way. We rented a whimsical old steam boat on a lake in Bavaria, vacuumed a dancer in plastic sheets and had her dance on the tables lit by red light. It was magical and cathartic – you can see the result in the ‘Disaster Movies’ clip.
Congratulations on your recent album ‘Sunny Bay’, can you talk us through the concept behind it and the themes it explores?
Sunny Bay isn’t a concept album, but there are recurring motifs and themes on it. I noticed in retrospect that I’m singing a lot about ships, planes and cars. I have a theory what that could be about. The vehicles are a metaphor for society. Hear me out:
The passengers of each vehicle share the same fate, it’s an image of a community that is headed somewhere. While the passengers of the plane in ‘Transatlantic Flight’ share a certain hubris and come to the realisation that they are about to crash, the passengers of the ship examine what is still salvageable after a catastrophe, they are looking for hope. The passengers of ‘Rental Car’ think about the notion of freedom – they realise that for some of the passengers in the car, freedom is just an illusion because they don’t have a valid passport and won’t be able cross the border.
Another recurring motif is a cheap rum called Sunny Bay – it introduces escapism, vacation, illusion, inebriation, dreams and longings into all these political meditations. The protagonists on my album cope with the injustices and dangers of world by acknowledging and exploring their fantasies. Sometimes, these fantasies make them very human, approachable and vulnerable. Sometimes, these fantasies cloud their judgement and keep them from facing the challenges of their shitty situation. Sunny Bay is a drug – used right, it will open your mind and your heart. Abused, it will lead to addiction and stagnation.
‘Nature’ (insects, mushrooms, birds…) and ‘Angels’ also populate the album. They are everything that is beautiful and exists outside of mankind. They are messengers from another world, a world without language and politics. They are the things we cannot really comprehend, the things that are bigger than us, that have been on this planet before us and will be here after us. On my album, nature puts things into perspective. I think ‘Angel’ is in fact a word play: The angels shift your angle. ‘Death if you’re an angel, what have you got to say?’ means: What angle should we take when we contemplate death? What do our decisions look like if we look at them from the perspective of (our) death?
Can you tell us more about your own personal relationship with nature?
I grew up surrounded by a sublime landscape – the Alps are really quite something. So, I was always aware of the might and the beauty of nature. But, for almost my entire life, I looked at nature as if it was a canvas. Something distant, something that doesn’t really affect me. I don’t even have a green thumb, taking care of plants doesn’t come naturally to me. I wasn’t taught how to read them, how to care for them. Which is weird when you think of the fact that we only survive because plants make food out of sunlight. Plants are the very foundation of our lives. I haven’t been raised to be patient and caring (with myself and with others) – I was raised to fit into a very abstract, human-run world. I’ve been contemplating this fact for quite a while now. So, in the last years, I’ve tried to get closer to the cycle of sowing, growing and reaping. I started eating vegetables from the local town market and got to know the farmers who grow my food.
Plants teach you very important things: they need very specific conditions to grow – we all do. It requires time for them to grow – and you, too, need to be patient with yourself and your surrounding. Growth is cyclical, growth without decay doesn’t exist. Plants multiply. They may look dead until suddenly, they shoot forth a new bud. They can slumber and wait the winter out. I recently read Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble and since then, I’ve grown more aware of the animal inhabitants of our cities. I also have grown more aware of the seemingly chaotic, self organising structure of natural processes. Nature can teach us that life thrives in niches where humans just let things be, where we let things rot and ferment. Eventually, these islands of «let it be» become fertile grounds.
We live in a very cultured world – we think we need to be “productive”, we think that productivity is the result of our rigid control of the world and of our constant work. But productivity alone isn’t life. Productivity alone doesn’t lend meaning to our actions. Fixing my relationship with nature has become an objective to me because I think it fixes my relationship with myself and with my fellow humans, too.
You’ve said elsewhere that you try to separate your activism work from your musical output. How easy is that to do and why did you make the decision that they should operate in silo?
It’s not easy because it’s very tempting to try to make yourself useful as an artist. It’s a cheap trick to sing about political issues – you trick yourself into feeling relevant. But I believe that true art isn’t about lecturing or educating people. In art, we emancipate ourselves from our opinions and transcend the discourse. We create material facts and sensual worlds that need to be explored, felt, perceived rather than understood. No answer that I can give you will make you feel the way you do when you listen to my album. An art work that is completely understood is obsolete, it is dead to me. It’s the “je ne sais quoi” that makes it come alive.
Art is a world in its own right, it doesn’t have to be about something. It reminds me that we can escape the terror of our narratives every now and then. I enjoy making art, I don’t necessarily enjoy being an activist. But I enjoy feeling useful – I don’t have to be brilliant to help venues minimise their carbon footprint. As an activist, I am useful in a very literal, narrow sense. I just have to do the work. As an artist, you never know what all your work is for. Your work just is.
In your home of Switzerland, you head up Music Declares Emergency. Tell us about your work with them…
My partner Donat Kaufmann and I started working with MDE for the simple reason that we knew nobody else, in the Swiss music scene, who was decidedly acting on the situation. This really worried us. We never felt qualified to do something about the problem, we just knew that it was urgent and someone had to act. So, I met these random people that were willing to start a Swiss offshoot of the UK movement. For more than a year, we held online meetings and discussed ideas, it was a slow and tiring process. But we eventually came up with a great campaign.
In Switzerland, we have direct democracy – the people get to vote four times a year on certain bills. The problem is that our strongest party, the SVP, is a far right party and in climate denial. In the wake of a national vote on a CO2 bill, we got more than 300 musicians in Switzerland to speak up for climate justice on their Insta – generating a big reach for the topic just by activating our network. Unfortunately, we lost the vote by a small margin. But at least we got an idea which part of the music scene would support our cause – and demonstrated that we can mobilise people.
We know now that there are many venues and festivals that want to reduce their carbon footprint. But they need tools and means to do so. Now we are working on providing them just that. Our sister organisation »Vert Le Future« is building a database for best practise examples and instructions.
I believe that true art isn’t about lecturing or educating people. In art, we emancipate ourselves from our opinions and transcend the discourse.
If you were in charge of the country for a day, what legislation would you enact?
I wouldn’t want to enact ANY legislation – because I’m a democrat and I am not in favour of anyone being in charge of the country.
I would be tempted to change the least democratic things in our current system: I would make sure that party donations have to be transparent – because that’s highly undemocratic in my opinion. We don’t know which companies fund the far right because the donations remain anonymous. I think a lot of companies exploit populism just to circumvent regulation – and they don’t shy away from putting the stability of democracy at risk. Another undemocratic thing in our country is that even if your parents were already born in Switzerland, you don’t automatically get the Swiss passport. That’s why in some cities, fifty percent of the population actually cannot vote at all.
I guess you expected that I would enact legislation that protects the environment. But, I am convinced that we have to build a sustainable future together, as democracies. A lot of people are getting jumpy and scared and they’re tempted to blame the system, they want things to change at a faster speed – this is happening on the left and the right side (and corporations have exploited the democratic system for far too long, too). Undermining democracy is a very dangerous idea, it will make everything go to hell. Without a functioning state, there is no tackling climate change. So, no, I wouldn’t enact any legislation. I would step down and I would use that moment to make a speech about the danger of tyranny and how fragile and valuable democracies are!
What changes would you like to see within the music industry to make it more sustainable?
First of all, I would like to see the players of the industry really TRY to become sustainable. There is a lot that each of us can do: as organisations, we can switch our supplier of electric energy to one that provides solar, wind or hyrdo-power, we can put our money in a bank that refrains from fossil fuel investments, we can make sure that our buildings are properly insulated and heated in a sustainable way. If we work at a venue or at a festival, we can reduce fly-in shows (especially if we make exclusive deals with our artists), we can encourage our audience to travel by train and we can offer vegan cuisine. Waste reduction by cyclical solutions and reusable stuff is also very important.
Each venue (depending on their line-up, audience, size) has a very unique disposition and needs a tailored strategy. I would love it if we could conduct a big study on the carbon footprint of the Swiss music industry – so that we could identify the leverage points. I would love it if there was like a certificate on the concert tickets – like a label for “organic” shows.
If you are an artist, you may have reach – and that’s why it is your responsibility to spread awareness. You don’t have to do that with your art. Social Media wants you to daily post stuff – make it worthwhile. Once a month, talk about climate change or environmental solutions. You don’t have to be obvious about it. You can take a selfie in a train. You can post your favourite vegan recipe. You can express your worries about the loss of biodiversity. You can make stories in a thrift shop – you will come up with your own ideas, your own perspective on the problem. If you mean what you do, it will have a tiny impact for the better.
Most people (in whatever industry they are employed) are worried much more about their daily business than about climate change, which is especially understandable in the times of Covid. But we have to really let the fact sink into our awareness that climate change has the potential to be much more destructive and disruptive than Covid. We need to make this a priority, wether we work in the music industry or in any other industry. Ask your boss what the company is doing to reduce emissions. Talk with your coworkers. Most of us have a tiny bit of power: we at least have the power to spread an idea.
Are there any other projects you have on the horizon you’d like to shout about?
A friend and I are recording a podcast on contemporary songwriting in Switzerland because we think it hasn’t been documented enough. It is going to be released next year. I am also writing and producing new songs and I am playing shows as long as the Covid situation allows me to do so. But, most of all, I need to build fertile niches of “letting it be” in my life: I just released an album, so I am healing and pondering and walking around and meditating to find new fertility and new ideas within myself, again.