Crampton prefers not to have her voice recorded, so we conduct our interview over email. Before we begin I'm wary that our conversation will be one-sided, with me awkwardly piling on questions. I needn't worry. We spread our conversation over about a week. She dots her emails with scholarly terms (I have to look up "potamological," which refers to the study of rivers) but they enrich our dialogue instead of hindering it. She's forthcoming and candid when discussing both her music and her personal life.
Until very recently, Crampton used the alias E+E. Some of her productions under that name can still be found online—mostly edits and remixes she made with a keyboard, acappellas and a sampler. But, as she explains over email, that project is a thing of the past.
Had the E+E works not been shared online, she tells me, they would have remained as love letters to old boyfriends, and it's easy to hear why. RECORTES [2008-2012], a collection that has since been taken offline (though plenty of recordings are still up on her
As Crampton shared these cuts on SoundCloud, she "saw this historical narrative forming where I was involved but not visible." She went on: "Back then, I barely valued myself enough to picture a future where I was alive. I wasn't concerned with art really, busy trying to get my shit together." But something changed when she realised how her work was affecting others, particularly "people persecuted for being queer in their countries or mixed or mestizo folks that felt like they'd had no music to relate to." People wrote her letters about how they'd found an outlet in her music. "This radically changed how passive I was about sharing and creating music—the world was giving me this evidence that, despite my intention, the music had taken on a life of its own."
Crampton started writing original material again in 2011. In 2012, she self-released an album, The Light That You Gave Me To See You, with the Houston vocalist Lashay and her friend DJ Why Be. "If I didn't take the music seriously, it would be at the expense or disavowal of my own lived experience," she says. Crampton has since dropped the E+E title to release solo music under her own name, first on Boomkat Editions, then Blueberry Recordings. It is, she says, "another step at claiming agency over my own story, and more importantly, valuing my own humanity enough to welcome that communication through music and writing."
The decision to drop E+E just as it was gaining an audience seems typical of Crampton. As she explains, she continually scrutinises her own beliefs. "I think we must have that willingness to move the fuck on," she says. "One can always start over, always."
As Crampton began to hone her focus on music, her dialogue with its political import also shifted. Recognising how appropriation and privilege function, both online and in general, was crucial to her development. As she describes it, "Decolonization is a quotidian work. Politics isn't this outside thing that you can lock down and leave in some separate place or background. The political is always already enmeshed in the way we carry ourselves; the way we interact with others; our routines; our posed limitations; our constructed, unconscious, ignored or denied otherings."
With that in mind, it's unsurprising that to Crampton, "It's not a matter of simply tearing things down, but actively building, negotiating futurity." When white patriarchal hegemony is so embedded in the order of things, she adds, "those actions we would take already belong to the system, are part of the system, feed the system as provided by that system." As such, her two latest works, the Moth / Lake 7-inch and American Drift, aim to propose new ontologies from within their musical forms. They are the first two parts of the Shenandoah Series, named for the mountain and river in Virginia and thematically centred on a consideration of "brownness on a geological level," a reference to Jose Munoz's essay "Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, The Performativity Of Race, And The Depressive Position," which posits brownness as a mineral, rather than bodily, state.
"The very pigment granules, generated by the cells that colour our skin, relay a strange union our bodies have with stone that affects how race is constructed, observed, recognised, excluded, or denied," Crampton explains. "To go further and consider ourselves on a geological level ruptures hierarchies and taxonomical divides as we find ourselves already deeply enmeshed in the strangeness and vast timescales of the lithic."
The way this manifests itself in Crampton's music is fascinating. By her own admission, she doesn't listen to much new electronic music. Instead, she draws on a pool of sounds that, at first glance, seems like a ragbag of influences: neo-classical, medieval music, ragtime, early blues, crunk, metal, top-40 country music. She also cites her brother's avant-garde and jazz records, her grandfather's huayno, cumbia and folk CDs and artists such as Soft Machine, Wara, While Heaven Wept and Ruth White. Her tracks are rich almost to the point of over-saturation, but incredibly considered and almost precarious, as if removing or changing one element would cause them to fall apart. It might be something of a cliché to refer to music as painterly, but Crampton's background in oil painting makes the comparison inevitable. "To this day I still approach writing [music] like painting," she says, "The spread of colour, the rendering, the blending, the textures. It turns out there's so much more one can do by painting with sound than with pigment."
The Shenandoah Series arose from the intersection of two ideas: Crampton's plan to write a work with stone as a central player, and Money Allah, the vocalist on "Moth," wanting to create a comedy album "in line with the great African-American minstrels." For all the gravity of her subject matter, Crampton has a wry, deadpan sense of humour, which you can hear in what she calls the "clowniness" of American Drift. Tracks thrive on contrast, with wobbly keyboard textures in "Wing," or cartoonish brass in "Petrichrist," jarring against synthetic blasts and rapid-fire stabs. A sense of narrative momentum gives these tracks structure and a fleshly quality. "Axacan," one of American Drift's more violent tracks, climaxes early with a clamour of distorted voices and galloping rhythms, tapers into a quiet spell of plasticky synth motifs and frog choruses, and re-emerges as a towering, melodic epic. Prog may not be a term you'd immediately associate with Crampton's work, but she uses it to describe both her music and that of M.E.S.H., an artist she admires. There's a common thread between their sounds that she describes as "a sense of narrative and rendered scaling, [and] deep, massive impressions."
Text is also crucial to the narrative of Shenandoah Series. Take the title of the album and its multi-layered meanings. The geological focus of the work bears a relation to continental drift. "What does a place like Virginia become when viewed from the lithic perspective of millions of years ago, when the land was underwater?" Crampton asks. Drift also "relates to bodies—brown bodies particularly—[an] unmooring, where bodies become refuse, unravelled from history, lost property, ghosts moving outside of history in alternate realities. I think here of the Bering Strait migration theory or how America disperses itself, the movement of Americanness."
The word also carries automative associations—appropriate, given the car's status as an icon of American capitalism. Drifting cars hold personal significance to Crampton, as she recalls a rehab centre she stayed at, where on Friday nights she would hear "the winding of the cars buzzing like a violent storm of insects. This voice of the vehicles still haunts me." The geological motif is threaded through titles, too: "Petrichrist" plays on petrichor, the smell of earth after the rain, while "Axacan" is named for land colonised by Spanish settlers. The implication of titling a work American Drift but setting the concept of the series in Virginia suggests that the latter contains some microcosmic key to the American condition.
Electronic music has long engaged with the concept of the future, and Crampton's depiction of it is highly politicised, repudiating both the whitewashed, Eurocentric version of America's history and the sanitised, exclusionary notion of the future that springs forth from it. "We should be careful to consider exactly what future we are defaulting to, and what ways we have been taught to engage this default-future," she says. "As someone who is brown, someone who is queer—struggling to exist as both—my relationship with the future has been precious because it's where my positivity can take flight, where the narratives I embody / live / create, jettison out and into being, full of hope and energy."
If art and music are to truly embrace the future as a concept, they must not default to presentation of a future oblivious to the wrongs of the present. Instead, art ought to actively negotiate futurity, not simply by foregrounding inclusion of marginalised people, but by resisting a vision of the future that "continues to deny their histories and stories as they relate to power's maintenance."
"The trans person's inclusion in America is as a pathologised subject," Crampton says. "If I'm convinced my being-trans is a mistake, if I fall into the pathologising narrative that I'm 'trapped in the wrong body,' I deny the strength of my own evolution and obstruct the full spectrum of queer reality."
Given that queer and trans histories figure so strongly in Crampton's work, it's only a matter of time before the subject of the club comes up. While the icy synths of "Petrichrist" or the thundering rhythms of "Moth" would work in the hands of a DJ, it'd be a stretch to call Moth / Lake or American Drift club music, even in the unconventional sense. Crampton is keen to draw the line between her music and the club, pointing out that when people hear a club influence, "often the music gets corralled into that setting and its relation to other worlds and histories of music get severed." Moreover, despite clubs having a long history woven into queer life, they're hardly the safe spaces they're purported to be.
"I give shade to the club," says Crampton, "because I want to challenge its evolution. Queer spaces are so precious, and I think that fact maintains the relevance of clubs, makes discussing what goes on in them important. As a trans woman, the club hasn't worked for me as a space for growth, shelter, or, on the most basic level, a space where I could simply feel at ease."
Early in our exchange, I point out that the internet provides an alternative to prevailing capitalist, white, cis-heteronormative spaces, and perhaps this goes some way in explaining how the E+E project thrived online. This, Crampton says, is something she found "precious" about sample-based music. "Because the work was mine and then it totally wasn't, you know? Working with recognisable references, as opposed to using obscure cuts or hiding the source material with effects, it belonged to the listener the way it belonged to the referent the way it belonged to me—and the music had no goal other than the desire to embody and connect."
For some time, this was one of the major things that kept Crampton from pursuing physical releases. But change, she adds, came naturally. "I stand by my choices, decisions. There's something about the physicality of putting the work on a record that is empowering to me, that reinforces the agency or thinglyness of the music, as opposed to being this passive manifestation of capital. There's something to that—the fragility of its materiality, the way it can literally be held by those that encounter it. It lives on as the hard material trace of a history, a story still struggling to survive."