Embracing difficulty, insecurity and darkness when making a song a day
Through the customary wind and rain, devotees make their way to Glasgow’s hallowed ground. But this isn’t the Celtic stadium in Parkhead, and it isn’t the Barrowland Ballroom all up in lights; SWG3, the city’s premier alternative music venue, is hosting a celebration of Optimo – the city’s legendary DJ duo – on their twentieth birthday. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime line up; Nurse With Wound are on the bill, as are ADULT. and King Ayisoba. On the poster, sandwiched between house high priestess The Black Madonna and dancehall oddballs Equiknoxx, is the name of Carla dal Forno.
This was the first time I saw Carla dal Forno live, even if ‘saw’ isn’t quite the right verb. A silhouette alongside her bandmate Mark Smith against Lynchian hues of blue and red, all was still but for her gentle bobbing, pinning down ambient hisses and unwieldy flourishes with a stern, subatomic bassline. Her vocal sauntered over the hum – quietly, but confidently – yet nobody in the room could be sure exactly what she was saying.
Amid the abrasive noise and thumping 4/4s at SWG3 that day, the performance was a thing of mystery. I wasn’t sure what I’d just experienced: a singer-songwriter too shy to cast light over her own performance, or a stark show of ambient music, distributed in short intervals, like the most opaque pop music.
“Any labels are reductive, right?” dal Forno tells me almost three months later over Skype. The mysterious figure is before me – situated in a blank, domestic space – and I’m surprised to find her jovial, if not any less curious, rarely stating anything definitively. “I think I want to create a space in my music. If the environment isn’t right, what you’re trying to convey in the song isn’t going to be captured.” She scoffs at her own abstruse comment, but it must be irresistible not to appeal to some kind of vague mysticism, especially when your work seems caught between multiple places, with a slippery point of origin.
Having started playing guitar “as something to do in my spare time” while studying at the University of Melbourne, dal Forno quickly fell into the city’s vibrant lo-fi “not quite pop” scene. “There’s always a lot of bands in Melbourne – it’s a massive music scene for the size of the city and the population,” she says, recalling a start in music that seems as amorphous as it was humble. “Friends in bands would show me their songs, which I found really inspiring – someone writing out their lyrics and saying ‘here are the three guitar chords.’ I knew two of them, so I would give it a go.” More by osmosis than bloody-mindedness, she played her first show shortly after joining her first band.
She’s more surprised than anyone that she got a taste for it. “When I started making music in Melbourne, I was making it for 50 people, and I was happy with that.” But, like many other Melburnian musicians (Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, Dirty Three, King Gizzard), dal Forno was ready to find a bigger audience, and the move to Europe seemed like the logical next step. “It took a long time for me to think I should take this to a different place,” she says. “[The scene] was very nurturing, but also very insular – you don’t see many new faces.”