Surreal and Beautiful: An Interview with Ela Minus18 January, 2018
Ela Minus is an alias of Colombia-born Bogotá-raised musician Gabriela Jimeno who is currently based in New York. Musically speaking she has come a long way. She started young as a drummer in the hardcore band Ratón Pérez in her home country, then left Colombia to study at the renowned Berklee College of Music and it was in the United States where she fully immersed herself in the world of synthesizers and electronic music. Now as Ela Minus Gabriela creates mellow beats that are accompanied by her velvety voice, resulting in delightful synth pop with lyrics both in English and Spanish. Her sound has already taken her all over the world – including solo shows, supporting major artists and playing big festivals – but there is one thing that is still missing: a full-length album. And that is what 2018 will hopefully bring as she is starting to work on the release just this month.
The conversation below was recorded on the 26th of October 2017 in Kraków, Poland before and after Gabriela opened for and performed with the Austra band.
Your musical career started of course with Ratón Pérez – which may seem quite crazy considering what you are doing now. In the final years of the band’s activity you even ended up playing at SXSW but you had founded this group when you all were still kids so how long did it take you to become popular, play bigger gigs and release music?
It was a long career actually with that band. We played together for almost ten years and SXSW happened in the seventh year so it took a long time. Then for the last three years we started playing bigger shows. But we never had a plan and I still feel the same way. When I make music I don’t try to achieve something specific. Back then we were also just making music and that band taught me that you should make music for the sake of making music and then things may start to happen.
What was the scene like for this kind of music in Bogotá? You call it now emo, but it could also be called hardcore punk.
This music was very popular among teenagers, it was the biggest thing for young people in Colombia back then. But I think that it still means that it was a small scene. It seemed huge because it was everything we knew but the shows were never more than 500 people. Definitely the scene was bigger than it is now, I don’t think teenagers listen to hardcore anymore. I don’t really know what the thing is for them now.
When you started Ratón Pérez you were around 11 years old. Was the music so heavy from the beginning?
In my head yes, it was very hard. But I’m curious to listen to the first songs now because I don’t believe they could have been really heavy. However, at that time everyone seemed very impressed by how hardcore our music was so I have this memory of people telling us that we are so young yet our sound is so hardcore. I’m pretty sure that if we’d listen to it now it’d resemble stuff like Blink 182 at the beginning and then it started escalating towards heavier sounds.
After Ratón Pérez you moved to the United States. Was it a hard decision for you to leave Colombia?
Not really. I love my country very much and really want to go back, I miss it every day. But there is no work. Actually since Ratón Pérez the plan was always to leave, for all of us. There are two reasons.
Firstly, in Colombia the music and art industry is very small so artists hit a ceiling really fast. For example I felt really spoiled when I was sixteen because I was already making money out of music. People treat you like gods, you’ve got managers and so on and you’re not really doing anything special. We were basically making music that everyone else in the world was doing. But because the environment spoils you that much, it’s really hard to get out of this bubble and push yourself artistically. I didn’t want to fall into this trap. I was really aware of this, even though I was a teenager. I wanted to leave to have bigger challenges. SXSW was a perfect experience in this sense. It showed us that we were nothing, we were just small dots in the perspective of the whole world.
Second reason is that United States was always a first option because I really wanted to study but I didn’t want to go to a conservatory and Berklee at that time was the only music school that was about contemporary music and not a conservatory.
So it wasn’t hard to make this decision. It was hard to get in but once I was in school I just thought I’m fulfilling the plan. I want to go back to South America but the industry is very small and I want to keep innovating and work hard and not just be in the environment that treats me so well.
In United States you started Balancer with Felipe and Francisco. It was way more delicate music. Was it because after almost 10 years spent with Ratón Pérez you got tired of such an intensive music and wanted to do something more subtle?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I think it was just growing up. Ratón Pérez was literally from 11 to 18 so it was simply like a teenage band and at the same time this meant a teenage genre. Then I moved to the USA to study music and Balancer didn’t start until two years after I had been already studying jazz so I was already naturally more mellow. Before Ratón Pérez I had never studied drums or music so I think at one point my horizons just expanded and that subconsciously guided me towards making more mellow music. I was also 22 instead of 15, this also had an influence. But like I said, it was never a conscious decision, it was never about getting tired of anything. When music is every single [thing] you do then naturally as you grow up and you change, the music changes with you.
Was the decision to go solo growing inside of you for a long time or was there one particular thing that pushed you towards this career path?
Again, I don’t think it was a decision. I definitely wasn’t planning on making a solo project. Actually I got a little bit frustrated with Balancer because I wanted to make more electronic music and my idea was to incorporate it in the band but the guys didn’t like it. We just wanted to go in different artistic directions I guess. I didn’t want to leave the band but I was just bored and decided to make an EP on my own. I’d never sang before so it was a very personal thing and I decided that I would just go by myself to a cabin for one week, make music and record it and then put it on YouTube just as a personal project. At that stage I wasn’t even thinking about having a name. However, people liked my stuff and they invited me to play live. I started doing this and I really enjoyed it. Slowly it was becoming my main thing so after some time the Balancer project was finished partly because of that. I just ran out of time and interest to still be a part of bands.
Before you actually stared your musical project as Ela Minus, you were using this moniker for the graphic design and illustration. How did you get involved in this?
I always loved to draw. When I was attending the music school, I used to just draw all the time. That was my rest from music, designing and doing illustrations. At one point I started putting it up on the website and I thought that I needed a name for this activity. It felt like a good hobby thing but since I was in a music school everybody needed artworks for their releases. I was doing this for them free of charge but after some time I needed money so I started charging them so it became kind of work. Then I stole the name for my solo music project and it took over my life. Around that time I was ending a relationship I had, I was also changing an apartment and I completely focused on Ela Minus as it is now. Since that time I haven’t been designing anything really, except for my own artwork.
How hard was it for you, after so many years spent in the bands, to suddenly be a single person on stage?
The concept of it was harder than the reality. It made me nervous but as soon as the music is playing I’m not anxious anymore. It’s a lot more pressure obviously, especially when you’re coming from a band background. Maybe it was even harder for me because actually I also have several years of experience of playing in a jazz band and basically nothing can go wrong there as everybody is reacting in real time to whatever is happening. You’re improvising all the time so literally there’s nothing that can make the show go wrong, and actually there is no right or wrong in this case.
I was anxious because with Ela Minus it’s only me and the machines. If something breaks, I can’t fix it or I can’t improvise as easily as I would with a drum set. The fear has gone away with the amount of shows that I played when nothing went wrong. Or actually when everything went wrong and I survived. I’ve had shows when I stepped on the electricity and turned everything off. After that, whatever happens, I’m at peace with it!
Your background is of course guitar music. How did you end up in the environment of electronic music then?
I think it started with Radiohead because I’ve always been a very big fan of them. When I was a teenager I think this was the only band that I listened to that had synthesizers. They had sounds that I simply didn’t understand so I started researching this topic. I went to the United States because I got a scholarship to study drums and I thought that I should take advantage of the fact that they were paying for my college so I took additional major in electronic production and sound design. I didn’t know anything about this and that’s why I wanted to study it. I loved synthesizers so much so I started listening to electronic music only. I also learned how to program and code and that got me into hardware and that’s how it happened.
The second half of Ela Minus is obviously your vocals. When was the moment when you realized that you can actually use your voice in your music?
I don’t really know where it came from. I think it was just because I wanted to challenge myself. Doing instrumental electronic music felt too safe. A big part of the Ela Minus sound was that I was honestly very bored with all the new music that was appearing at that time. I was a little bit frustrated with how many effects everything had and how far away the music sounded. At that time everything was full of reverb. I realized that one of the biggest influences for me was Little Dragon and I still want to keep that song form. The voice is 80% of everything in that band and I like that. It was a big challenge to do something new and I was really comfortable with playing drums so I needed a thing that was the furthest away from comfort. And that was singing. I always hated my voice. Singing was a thing I had never done before so I think it was just a very personal challenge. I still don’t like the sound though. I don’t know what people like about my voice. But I do think that’s a very powerful thing because you can’t hide anything. When you’re singing it’s the most honest way of making music. That’s why I’m still doing it.
On the first EP I put absolutely no effects on my vocals. In this way I forced myself to sing better. The way I mixed that release is that literally the voice is 50% of the sound so it’s super loud. I couldn’t hide my voice behind anything so it helped me to improve. That and also the fact that I started to play live nonstop for the past two years. That’s the only way to get better at doing something, you just have to do it every day and that’s what I’ve done.
Do you think it would be impossible for you to be so successful with the Ela Minus project had you still lived in Bogotá?
It’s hard to say. Recently there’s this thing with a political state of the world. Being from basically a third world country causes a lot of attention but actually what I make is not so literally folkloric. To be honest, my Ela Minus career started to grow because I went to play in Colombia for the first time. The fans from Ratón Pérez were the ones to listen to “Jamaica” (Ela’s first single) and they were writing me messages telling me to come to Colombia and play it there. Actually the manager from Ratón Pérez, who is still my friend and manages me in South America, was the one to convince me to play live.
So it definitely helped me that I already had a career in Colombia before. I went there for the first four months of Ela Minus and people went to see my shows and were very forgiving about how bad I was because they remembered me from Ratón Pérez times. All this gave me a lot of confidence to keep going in the initial stages of my solo project. So I think I still owe this success completely to Colombia and to the fact that people are so loving there to me. It means everything.
You mentioned good reactions to your music in Colombia but at the same time you said that you’re not making folkloric music. Are there people telling you that you should incorporate more traditional Colombian elements?
Yes, definitely. It’s very ironic because they are not crazy about the fact that I also sing in English. And some people in other countries don’t like me singing in Spanish. I feel that pressure. I think I’m a little bit in-between the scenes. Most of my friends are the ones that make this folkloric electronic music and are bringing the South American sound back to the mainstream but I’m not a part of that scene. Even though they are my group of people I’m not making such music. But I’m also not American. I don’t really know where I fit but I’ve come to peace with it. I like the fact that in a way it’s a matter of educating the world. I don’t look South American but I am as Colombian as anybody else that looks more stereotypically like someone who’s from there. I think this teaches people about culture.
As you said you sing in both languages, Spanish and English. Is this because you feel more comfortable singing about some ideas in a foreign language?
It has never been a decision and it still isn’t. There’s never been an agenda, I never planned before making a song that it would be sung in Spanish or English. The nature of my life is bilingual, I talk to my friends in Spanish but I live in the United States so naturally some ideas resonate better in one of the two languages. I don’t want to edit anything and I work really fast so I’m committed to my first instincts.
When you’re playing live as Ela Minus you’re being quite confrontational on stage. Is this intentional or you just end up doing this subconsciously?
Whenever I play drums I tend to close my eyes. I’ve been playing concerts all my life but I remember exactly the moment when I was playing as Ela Minus for the first time and I was doing all those things with the machines and then I was supposed to start singing: I looked at the audience and for the first time in my entire life I realized that there were people with me. For some reason I caught someone’s eyes and it was a very strong feeling. From then on this became a thing. I think it’s very immersive. It’s like finding anchors in the people’s eyes.
You’ve been touring extensively for quite a long time. You made a video for “Juan Sant” that shows the the darker side of living as a touring musician. How hard is it for you to stay enthusiastic each day of the tour?
There’s a story connected with this. The other day, I was on an airplane and the woman from the cabin crew asked me why I am so tired. I told her that I had just played a show, I hadn’t slept long and so on. She got really enthusiastic and said that I’m living a dream. And I asked: whose dream? She was very mad at me, she actually got really offended. But I was serious. There is this allure surrounding touring musicians that it’s all about travelling, partying, meeting new people and basically having fun. Although all of those things are true, [but] at the same time touring makes you feel very lonely. You’re alone all the time and life happens without you. Your friends get married, your family birthdays are happening and you’re always somewhere else on your own. And, like you said, sometimes you just don’t feel like playing. The way the music industry is designed is actually so inhumane. For example, I’m sick but I still have to go out there and smile.
Of course I feel extremely thankful but it’s important to talk about both sides of touring. I love it but it can be hard sometimes and I really don’t want to operate on autopilot. I don’t want to be one of those musicians that play exact same set every night without even thinking about it and this attitude makes it even harder for me. I have to be so present all the time. I think being aware of that helps me to keep enthusiasm.
Also, it is important to take breaks. Right now I have to finally take one. I want to write an album so I decided to stop touring from January. I just want to go home and record a debut album.
When can we expect it then?
I’m hoping for fall next year. For the first time in my life I have monitors in my house. Actually I didn’t even have a house for the past three years and now I have an apartment with monitors which makes a big difference. I want to dedicate myself to writing starting from January. I want to have it done by summer and hopefully released in fall.
There are so many musicians that you shared the stage with. At one point you even played the show with Erlend Øye! How did this happen?
This is another reason why I need a break: there have been so many wonderful things happening to me in such a small period of time that I think I haven’t even processed them yet. For me, The Whitest Boy Alive is one of the biggest influences. I went to Chile to record Grow, the second EP. I wanted Andrés Nusser to engineer my stuff once again so I went there for a month. Coincidentally Kings of Convenience were supposed to play a show there as well. I think the promoters of that event were friends with Andrés. One day we were working in the studio and the bell rang. I went to open the door and it was Kings of Convenience. I almost puked. They came to visit Andrés, they were supposed to have dinner but we were working and Erlend told us to keep on doing that. He then started dancing to my music and I was just trying to hold myself together. I thought I was dreaming! It was surreal! They loved what I was working on so they invited me to have dinner. Erlend had so many questions about how I was working. They also invited me to their show, then to a dinner again and they kept on showing interest towards my music! Then I went back to Colombia and two weeks later Erlend e-mailed me asking whether I’m free on a given date. I confirmed. Two minutes later I got an e-mail from the promoters of his show in Ecuador and it said that Erlend asked for me to open. They flew me to Ecuador and when I landed Erlend himself picked me up from the airport and said that actually we would go straight to a rehearsal because he wanted me to play with him as well. We rehearsed for two hours, the next day I opened the show for him and then played with him during his show. It was incredible. I learned so much! Ever since we’ve been exchanging e-mails. He shared so much wisdom with me, about both music and life. That definitely has been one of the most special experiences in my life.
Do you have a feeling that everything is happening too fast for you? Are you surprised by how successful the Ela Minus project is?
Of course I am! Everything is so surreal. But at the same time it’s beautiful because it’s been such a life lesson. I let everything go. When I was playing with Balancer I already had been playing and making music for so long and I didn’t want to tour, didn’t have any dreams as a musician, I just wanted to make music. I had a lot of fights because my band mates were talking all the time and getting excited about some festivals that I didn’t care about because I only cared about was music. Ironically, the moment you let go of holding on to dreams or expectations, everything finally comes together. I made Ela Minus with absolutely no intentions of anything. I just wanted to make music. Instantly everything aligned into place. It is incredibly surprising to me and yes, everything has been happening too fast but that’s just the way life is when you listen to your instincts. The fact that everything has happened so fast means I didn’t even have time to prepare or be afraid of anything. It’s like constantly jumping into the water and taking risks. I think this also reflects in the music and a lot of people relate to that. I don’t have anything to lose because everything is unexpected. Everything is a success already because there is no plan. The entire Ela Minus experience has been [like] that actually.
I learn so much everyday about life and freedom. I just need to remain free because that’s the thing that makes it successful and makes people believe that they are free too.
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