Elisa Ambrogio brings high-art clangor to Reanimator Records

by John Adamian


You could mistake Elisa Ambrogio for a maximalist.

Ambrogio, the singer and dynamic frontperson for the art-noise avant-garage trio the Magik Markers, appears comfortable presiding over anarchic eruptions of chaotic sound, with stacked layers of sonic abrasions and free-flowing — sometimes improvised — lyrics. But Ambrogio, who released her first solo record last year and will perform a solo show with Drag City labelmates Peacers in Winston-Salem at Reanimator Records on Nov. 2, is in fact a committed and unsentimental clearer-away of the non-essential.

She’s not exactly a severe minimalist either, but she’s as into creativity by subtraction as she is a fan of piling on excess.

A question she asks herself as she’s writing and polishing new tunes is this: “What ruins this song if I take it away?” Her process involves a flood of gesturing, sketching, ruminating and tinkering, which leaves her with loads of songs, lyrics, melodies and riffs that she has to then whittle away at and discard before ending up with her finished products, which turn out to be solid, sturdy and simple songs.

“I really like going into a state where I’m just playing guitar and writing for a very long period,” she says. “I like to work and get tons of material, that 90 percent of which will be trash and garbage.” She likes to “winnow down” as she says. “Writing it is the point.”

Her record, The Immoralist, a strange, smudgy mix of girl-group pop and blissfully bummed-out dirges, was one of the best of 2014. She recorded the album with the help of producer Jason Quever, of the band the Papercuts. The record begins with the sound of what could be a muezzin’s call to prayer run through a processor or maybe a vacuum cleaner turned into a drone, but as the song “Superstitious” emerges, powwow drum pulses, sparse piano chords and multi-tracked vocals turn the track into something like Brill Building assembly-line songcraft in a spirit trance.

Ambrogio, 35, retains a pleasing mix of high-art focus and primitivist clangor. She’s been at this long enough now to have mastered her own hybrid aesthetic. It’s a sloppy genius vibe.

The Magik Markers took shape in 2001 in Hartford, Connecticut, a city with plenty of surface grit and buried poetry. The band still performs, records and tours, but in a somewhat dialed-back mode since the other two members have young families and other careers. Over the years, the Magik Markers have taken to rambling and relocating to scramble their own internal signals, operating out of Chicago, Brooklyn, Seattle and elsewhere. They’ve returned to their New England roots over the last five years, with Ambrogio living in Holyoke, Massachusetts, another of those once-significant manufacturing towns whose best days were in the 19th century.

The prospect of uprooting, shuffling the deck and moving to another region is something Ambrogio considers, with California looming as a possible next destination.

“There’s talk. There’s rumbling,” she says of a hypothetical future move.

There’s talk and rumbling in her songs, too. Just in general. Some of her lines are half-spoken, half-sung, and tunes can morph from sleepy to shrill, like on “Far From Home,” which evokes the Velvet Underground and Bongwater in its narcotized glare.

Ambrogio is set to begin work recording a new record this winter. If the writings of Raymond Carver and Andre Gide were referenced and cited as literary influences on the last record, Ambrogio has been reading the poetry of Frank Stanford and books about early American utopian sects this time around.

A lot of contemporary artists and songwriters hold off on playing new material live until it’s been recorded and released, in hopes of staving off the YouTubers and file-sharers who might diminish the excitement around a new release. But Ambrogio isn’t exactly concerned, since tapers and multiple small-match editions were always a part of the Magik Markers ethos. Ambrogio suggests she’s not popular enough to warrant such precautions.

“I think that’s more for people that people really give a shit about,” says Ambrogio.

Though the fact that her record is not available on Spotify (the Drag City label is one of those noble resisters to the streaming tidal wave) does play into a reducesupply-and-increase-demand situation.

Ambrogio’s process of non-stop alterations and re-jiggerings means that the material is always evolving and morphing.

“If somebody does videotape a brandnew song, it’s going to change like 4,000 times before it’s done,” she says.

I saw an early solo show in which she used loop pedals for crude drums and backing vocals, but she’s since abandoned that approach. That tour eventually involved collaborating with Holy Sons, her tourmates, the band of multi-instrumentalist and one-time North Carolinian Emil Amos. This time around, expect Ambrogio to adapt and morph her material with the help of Mike Donovan of San Franciscobased Peacers, who are joining her on this tour.

“I like playing the new songs live,” says Ambrogio. “It’s the first time these songs have lived outside of just my brain.”

What happens inside that brain seems like a synthesis of aesthetics, feminism, poetry, cinema, graphic novels and history filtered through a musical vocabulary that ranges across singer-songwriters, proto rock and roll, hip-hop, punk, avant-noise and pop. But Ambrogio’s eclecticism keeps her work from seeming academic. It’s obvious, reading the lyric sheets of her projects, that she takes the words she sings very seriously, but that she also doesn’t want to foreground her vocals at the expense of the song itself. Her creative drive conveys a sense of joy in her work, even if the songs and melodies themselves might be ominous or dark. Two videos off of The Immoralist, for “Superstitious” and the more brooding “Arkansas”””the one playful and the other stark and enigmatic””demonstrate Ambrogio’s willingness to be as experimental, loose and improvisational in front of the camera as she is in the recording studio.

Ambrogio seems like she has a coolwith-whatever, anything-goes attitude, but she’s got a funny/odd list of little musical tricks and devices that she sort of works to avoid, some of which are timehonored classic elements of pop recording.

She’s not a fan of the tambourine, for instance. “It’s one of those instruments that maybe watching someone play it makes you feel a little embarrassed for them,” she says.

She’s also not eager to incorporate horns into her music. No trumpet fanfare for her. Even the guitar, the instrument she writes on, and the one she says she has an emotional connection to, is something she sometimes opts to swap out with piano when recording. I get the feeling that she’s probably not a big fan of the glockenspiel — the supreme twee indie-rock sonic signifier — either, but I didn’t ask.

Ambrogio’s musical enterprise, particularly in a live setting, is about setting up the conditions to achieve a kind of transcendence. It’s about paying attention to all the things that can then allow you to lose attention all together.

“If I’m really doing a good job, then I’m not in my head or my body at all,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean Ambrogio is indifferent to what an audience is experiencing.

“I definitely care if people are listening,” she says. !


Elisa Ambrogio plays Reanimator Records, Monday, Nov. 2, show starts at 7 p.m., with Peacers and Futurenature. Reanimator is located at 344 N Patterson Ave. in Winston-Salem. Visit for more info.