Maya-Roisin Slater hears about the method behind the Colombian artist's surreal musical constructions.
"I build a lot of conceptual background for my music, but I really don't know to what extent that affects the music making itself," she said. "I'm reading, I'm studying, I'm thinking about all these things and all this information makes me have a certain attitude towards life, an ethical approach to whatever. I'm building this context, this bubble of information, and from there I start working and everything makes sense to me."
Dalt's music has always followed a highly context-driven framework. Each release is its own world of intricately woven electronics, both abstract and possessed of a captivating pop sensibility. She has been remixed by William Basinski, collaborated with artists like Julia Holter and Gudrun Gut, and recently partnered with the New York label RVNG Intl for her latest album, Anticlines.
But all of this could easily not have been. While early life for Dalt was decidedly musical—she grew up under the spell of her mother's record collection and her grandfather's maracas—it ended up being a more earthly calling that drew her to the workforce. After studying geology, Dalt pursued a career as a civil engineer. She worked at a geo-technical company where she'd collect information from soil tests and ground analyzations to contribute to the design of foundations and retaining walls. Still, nights and weekends drew her to sound, as she joined up with collectives pioneering Medellín's burgeoning electronic music scene.
"I wasn't happy working in [geotechnical engineering] for many reasons," she said, "but the main one was I like multitasking. It was a career where you have to do only this one thing, you have to commit and do masters and PhDs before maybe you can think about being in a good position."
Dalt began organizing parties with Series Media Collective, a group carving out a niche for European-influenced techno in Medellín. "I never thought it would be possible to actually do something on my own," she said. "It was with this collective in Medellín that I realized maybe I can actually do something. Then it became a self-thought exploration. I started to work with Ableton Live, made a release with a net label and very naturally I started to get into music making. Then I came to live in Barcelona for other reasons and things made more sense there, because there was a platform to really do stuff. In Colombia it was a very small scene and very difficult to pursue something there unless you do something in the line of Latin American music or fusion."
Dalt's music has evolved greatly over the years, growing less pop-tinged and more experimental, but it's always combined disparate elements, using meticulous research to weave metaphors into each song. Dalt developed this method as she grappled with the isolation of her practice. Without bandmates to bounce ideas off of, she turned to subjects that engaged her to keep the production process moving.
"When you work in solitude, it can be very hard to know where to go when you're lost," she said. "So it's always nice to have something that guides the process. When I don't know what to do I read a text, and I have something else to think about and work on."
This in mind, it's no wonder Dalt compares her method for building songs to strata—layers of soil and rock formed at the earth's surface that, while occupying space as one, maintain their own individual characteristics. From cavernous metallic clamours to pitched up ethereal rings, the elements that form a Lucrecia Dalt track are all given enough space to stand on their own, but pressed together to form a new aggregate terrain.
The strongest example of Dalt using prompts was 2015's Ou. During its production, she would stream German new wave cinema on mute, letting the images influence her sound and occasionally turning up the volume so the clusters of noise pushed her in different directions. Ou begins with "OVER UNITY," which features the album's only vocal line. Heavily processed and indecipherable, it came from a time when Dalt was deciding to remove her voice from her music almost completely.
Given that her work in recent years has been primarily without lyrics, her latest effort, Anticlines, marks a significant departure. "I was feeling like when I was singing, I was singing in a way where I was trying to be more traditional to pop music, more conventional in modulating the voice in a very specific way," she explained. "I've always had this fascination with people speaking. People who have nothing to do with music, like panelists or people in videos, the way they modulate their voices according to the context is really fascinating and gave me a lot of ideas for this record."
Dalt realized these ideas with the help of the Australian artist Henry Anderson, with whom she sat down one weekend in Brussels and, through a process of brainstorming, reading, and watching, wrote the six vocal tracks on Anticlines. "It was the first time I did it like that, a collaboration ahead of working with the music," she said. "I was working for eight months programming patches for the Clavia Nord. So when I went there I was already programming the synthesizer, but I didn't have one piece of music, not one composition, just a very vague folder of possible sounds. I had some intuition of how I wanted the music to be. I wanted to work with pulses, I wanted to work in a way where the music is not occupying a lot of space. I thought the music that has voices will be in this sort of pulsing state so that the lyrics could accommodate easier to the music."
Inspired by writers musicians and artists like Alice Fulton, Ruth White, and Dalt's frequent collaborator, Regina De Miguel, the lyrics of Anticlines remain grounded while dealing with complex scientific and philosophical ideas. The stupefying intricacy of topics like the heliopause and discoveries of Martian traces in fallen meteorites are made approachable as Dalt cooly presents her reactions to them. "Edge," the album's first track, uses the Columbian myth of El Boraro as a metaphor for extreme love. "I wanted to fill you up with my exhalations / And drink out all your flesh / But keep your bones and skin still flawless," her words glide seamlessly over a pulsing industrial beat.
Despite its spotless presentation, Dalt's work is still, at its heart, experimental. Like a geologist surveying the earth's surface, her creations are made with ruthless digging and a structurally sound framework within which to explore. "I was always thinking how can I use this past as a civil engineer, so I don't feel like it was a waste of time," she said. "I guess it's something that I keep bringing to my records. Anticlines, for example, is a geological formation, because of forces it compresses and what is inside can be exposed outside. I do feel with my music this is what I try to do as well. I want to break a little bit what is linear, I want to explore, come back, break it, and do something else."
Lucrecia Dalt in six songs
Released on Nicolas Jaar's Other People label in 2014, "Esotro" shows that even an artist as oblique and conceptual as Dalt can craft catchy, earworm tunes.
Bare-bones guitar experimentation from Dalt's 2012 album, Commotus.
On this song, from 2015's Ou, a ghostly rhythm emerges briefly from the murk before being swallowed up again.
Anticlines opens with this ode to El Boraro, a folkloric monster "who drinks its victims' insides through a hole in their head before re-inflating them like a balloon.
A lush and haunting cut from Syzygy, Dalt’s 2013 album for Human Ear Music.
Only Dalt would find inspiration in scopolamine, a motion sickness drug extracted from nightshade plants.