You don’t listen to UBOA, the solo act of Xandra Metcalfe, a trans gal from Melbourne. It just overwhelms you.
Metcalfe’s latest offering, though, differs in some ways from past outings. For one, The Origin of my Depression, out earlier this year, is more nuanced, less a collection of harsh noise than an intersection of that noise with a kind of dread, a kind of sonic plaintiveness. And much of it is intensely, intensely personal – and not at all in the whiny way most singer-songwriter fare tends to be.
We recently got the chance to chat with Metcalfe via e-mail. We remain as blown away by her intensity and insightfulness as we hope you are.
MUSIC TAP: Tell me a little about the circumstances that led to the creation of The Origin of My Depression. The catalyst, your cover seems to suggest quite directly, was a suicide attempt. How comfortable are you sharing details about that? What do you want to tell listeners who might seek more context? What are you comfortable tackling? And how much can you tell me — and by extension MusicTAP — about your history with depression, mental health/illness, and so on?
XANDRA METCALFE: It wasn’t quite a catalyst. The title track and “Lay Down and Rot” were both based on live recordings which had more layers added to, much like the second half of The Sky May Be. In between making the two was the suicide attempt pictured.
It’s tricky to talk about the suicide attempt mostly because it was an attempted drug overdose, so I recall very little, discovering the photo afterwards. But surrounding it was a false “call out” against me based on mistaken identity, failed relationships and inability to love, joblessness, boredom, structurelessness, psychosis … being thrown in the pit so to speak. Psychosis was likely the biggest one, with the feeling of being invaded by anxiety, overwhelmed with jouissance. After a terrible relationship breakdown, it was unbearable to such a degree I tried to end it there by taking as much drugs as possible. It wasn’t planned out and I was in a delirious state at the time. Luckily for me I didn’t take enough to kill me.
MT: How was this recording different than past ones? I was introduced to you through The Sky May Be and I can hear a difference, like you’re really aiming to hit something a little different here. Did you “write” differently? Did you perform or record differently? What was the intent from the get-go?
XM: There was little conscious intentionality, it was mostly an intuitive process of writing. Nothing was planned out, and a lot of the songs were improvisations refined into compositions, usually after several attempts. “Detransitioning” took countless attempts to get right, whereas “An Angel of Great and Terrible Light” came out of nowhere. Originally I was worried The Origin of My Depression wasn’t “Uboa” enough because of how restrained and sparse it is as a record. Mostly it fell into place because of processes outside of consciousness.
It was recorded in a way very similar to The Sky May Be, despite the varied results – some of the songs (“Lay Down and Rot,” “The Origin of my Depression”) are modified live recordings. “Please Don’t Hurt Me” was made piece-by-piece just like its counterparts on [The Sky May Be], Thigh High Cat Tights and Salivate on Cue. The same process produced a wildly different result, perhaps because of a radically distinct input.
MT: Elaborate a little bit on some of the themes the new record touches. In your promotional email of a couple weeks back, you talked a bit about your own emotions and emotional growth, love and abuse, gender and sexual identity. How did this stew of topics lead to The Origin of My Depression?
XM: These were all what I was going through at the time. I can only really write about things I experience and generally only about myself. My world isn’t very peopled – one of the problems I have with my psychosis is precisely how solipsistic my world can be. Love is tricky as I don’t have much of a self to love with. It’s surprisingly and paradoxically difficult to be selfless if you don’t really have a self to understand others with, just a massive hall of mirrors exist; at least with my particular psychosis and autism. Often I would misread social cues, especially from allistic (non-autistic people) to disastrous results. Meconnaissance is a constant theme here, too. In “I Can’t Love Anymore” from [The Sky May Be], it is about this, but so is the title track of The Origin of My Depression. Disassociation is too: “Love cures disassociation, disassociation cannot cure love, I wish it could.” are the lyrics to “Lay Down and Rot.”
Transphobia, transmisogyny, transmedicalism and the intimate lives of trans people are also a recurring theme as a narcissistic (and masochistic) fascination. “Detransitioning,” “An Angel of Great and Terrible Light,” “Epilation Joy” and “Misspent Youth” are all various examples of this.
MT: While I am on that topic, can we talk about gender and sexuality? First off, please let me know how you identify RE gender and sexual preference, if you want to disclose both or either, and any preferred pronouns, et cetera. And let me know what you want to share. I knew very little about your gender and sexuality identities when I first encountered UBOA — how central is it to your performance experience or your recording experience? And, also, of course, please free to talk at length about what it means to you personally.
XM: Well, I am transgender (she/her), and have been out for over two years at the time of writing. It’s absolutely central to Uboa both prior to transitioning (all the releases prior to Hook Echo) and after, both of the angst of being in the closet, being an “egg,” and the chaos (and liberation) that came after, which Hook Echo really signified. I am also bisexual, although despite all the fun troubles it gets me in it rarely appears as quite an inspiration. I guess I am somewhat on the non-binary spectrum, too – I feel my version of womanhood is too singular and distinct from cisgender womanhood, yet I am a real woman nonetheless.
Performing live, I frequently perform naked – transfeminine bodies are frequently a fetishistic spectacle for the male gaze, and my reasoning is to release the naked trans body from pleasurable enjoyment by bringing in an element of terror, and claiming it as mine. I played a sold-out show with The Body, terrified, mostly naked for the set. Trans vulnerability is also a massive component. It brings up all these issues.
My recorded music as well is also a form of dealing with the terror of transmisogyny – sure I am terrified of, say, what various transphobic discourses have on the wellbeing of my trans siblings and I, so instead of rushing towards wholesomeness and escapism, I take them and write songs about them. It’s a way of regaining power and subjectivity over discourses (say transphobic medical discourses) which aim to rob us of it, reduce us to an object of study – or an abject object to be destroyed. Nietzsche wrote that art about death is life-affirming as the artist takes death asserts power over it, reducing the terror it usually induces. My reasoning is the same with regard to transmisogyny. I always aim to be a subject.
MT: Who are you peers? I must admit I’m a little in the dark on Australian indie music, and I only found Purgist when I saw an online comparison between you and them. Context, context.
XM: I don’t have much context. I take inspiration from (often cut-up) harsh noise and so called “post-noise” artists such as not only my friend Purgist, but the Triangle Records lineup in general, Dave Phillips, Facialmess/Like Weeds, Kazimodo Endo, Endon and Yasuhito Fujinami. On top of that there is my background in metal – doom, sludge, black metal, hardcore, grind core, screamo and so on. Finally is my electronica side and (usually) queer side – Sophie, Arca, Rook/Black Dresses/Girls Rituals, Jenny Hval, AJA as well some underrated artists such as Ashleigh-Rose, Dear Laika. Its an esoteric mix.
Two underrated Australian artists I share similarities with are Micheal (the band) and Micheal Ellingford (the person). There are also Diploid, Deader, World Sick, Whitehorse, Bolt Gun, Divide and Dissolve and tonne of others I love and respect.
MT: What sort of music do you listen to? What were you weened on by your parents or siblings or family as a kid? What did you listen to in high school or, if applicable, in college?
XM: I listen to the above! My dad got me into prog rock and industrial (we even saw NIN together!) and grew up listening to their song “wish.” In high school I got into grindcore, noise, doom, sludge and my music taste since then has not changed, only broadened to include more electronica and pop.
MT: Can you “describe” your music for me? Not so much in terms of genre – though that’s fine, too – but also in terms of what role music plays in your life and how you express yourself through various elements of your music.
XM: My music circa 2019 is like harsh noise but upping the melodic element, complete with singing and spoken words. It’s kinda like for a depressing queer movie that doesn’t exist yet.
In my life, my music is what Lacan might called a “sinthome”, a symptom that holds my world together. Think of it like a foundation for a building; my music is that foundation. I don’t do it because I enjoy it or need to “express myself” (all art is encrypted communication, but mine is not consciously so in intention) but rather it is something that allows me to exist, keep psychosis at bay and allow relations to other people. When Uboa collapses, I collapse. I suspect this is the case with many other mentally-unstable artists too.
MT: I want to delve more into your live performance. You talked about trans elements of it, specifically, and the audience’s gaze. Can you elaborate on how you came to perform like that? Is it shocking to the audience? Is the type of audience in Australia who listens to Uboa or related acts more familiar or comfortable with that type of performance?
XM: Yes, I occasionally play naked, or get naked mid-set. Actually the audience was generally pretty comfortable with me – being very queer – until I got nude at a sold-out show with The Body. That’s where I got a response.
I wasn’t “sexy” naked (I don’t consider myself that attractive), but “vulnerable” naked at that show, undressing at the beginning of the set, shaking and quivering (not as an act) in front of the audience before finally covering myself with a jacket by the end. Consciously, I guess the “shock” of it comes from both the taboo and fetishisation of gender-non-conforming bodies, a paradox that makes sense once you realize our bodies are prohibited, thus both disgusting and more desirable. I like Giorgio Agamben’s use of the term “Homo Sacer” to describe this paradoxical simultaneous ban and fetishisation – when your body is outside of the norm, this is the result. It’s a sacred body – after all, in order to sacrifice somebody, they must both be killable/disposable as well as sacred, holy, not fit for the world. This is precisely how we are seen today. It is likely precisely because our current (colonial, western) concept nature is grounded in a bi-gendered essentialism, so any gender non-conformity is a terrifying Real or anomaly that must be destroyed.
It’s a complicated and seemingly esoteric academic concept, but any trans person will instantly recognize it. It’s why people kill us (especially TWoC, who are further from the colonial canonical Body) and jerk off to us at the same time, and the precise mechanism for objectivation. Getting naked at shows hopes to displace this by showing it to be powerful, vulnerable or – better yet – boring. I show my tits precisely because I want them to be less fascinating.
MT: Talk to me a little bit more about the connection, to whatever degree you’re comfortable, between the attempted suicide incident and the inspiration behind the new record. Is there a mission? Is there a message?
XM: I am not aware of any message consciously. I wanted to expose what a suicide attempt is like, like the phenomenological angle of it. Hence the cover – that could of been the last thing I saw before I died, nothing glorious, but something boring and accidental (the photo was taken because I forgot to flip the camera for a selfie). One thing I discovered is the element of the Real when it comes to trying to die – there seemingly is *nothing* there that pushes you from non-suicidal to suicidal. There is suffering, then an act. Death isn’t distant or special, but constant possibility. The everydayness of death and suicide is present directly in the LP – there is no mystical element behind it, no objet petit a, just drive. It’s terrifying; the only thing scarier than death is its plainness and total lack of representability (either symbolically or through the imagination).
I wrote the album more-or-less in chronological order, and the attempt came actually between writing and finishing songs. Right between “The Origin of My Depression” and “Lay Down and Rot,” in that split second: that’s death right there. The rest is window dressing.
MT: What do you hope listeners learn from the new record? Are expectations different from past records — if so, why?
XM: I hope they learn something from the record that I do not consciously know, point out any slips and parapraxes I might of made which reveal something about either me or the concepts I discuss in the record. These are two different things – I don’t want people just to psychoanalyze me. Coincidences, unpacking lyrics, mishearing lyrics, relations between sounds, pacing, gaps… that’s the stuff that interests me when people talk about records in general. A symptomatic reading suddenly opens a whole world of listening and interpreting and can make art even more interesting, beyond the immediate experience of enjoyment.
I have no idea what expectations were simply as I released it in a hurry. I wanted to get it out quick so I can get to working on the next thing as quickly as possible. I need to keep working so I can keep sane. Hence I’ll be releasing another LP for my label later this year, who are already taking on a huge mass of releases. Luckily, the record was better received than I expected it to be!