Loss of innocence, loss of stability, loss of love, the solitude of trauma... but ultimately the strength to fight and rise above it all.
Zanias is the solo project from Alison Lewis and fully demonstrates her multifaceted music that is in turn ethereal, dark, cathartic and hopeful, sometimes all in the same piece of music. The latest Zanias album, Chrysalis, came out earlier this year and Alison has been playing live shows around the globe ever since in support of it. Gavin Brown caught up with Alison to talk about both Chrysalis and the live shows as well as discussing her record label and how her Berlin home is an inspiration to her and her music.
E&D: Your latest album Chrysalis came out a few months ago. Have you been pleased with how the album been received so far?
Alison: Yeah, I think my audience feel very similarly to how I feel about it. It’s clearly my best work yet, and the response has aligned with that reality.
E&D: What are the main themes that you expire on the tracks from Chrysalis?
Alison: Loss of innocence, loss of stability, loss of love, the solitude of trauma… but ultimately the strength to fight and rise above it all. It was the result of a very tumultuous year.
E&D: Have you had any thoughts about any new music at all?
Alison: It’s almost all I think about! It’s certainly what makes me feel most motivated. I’ll release a more experimental follow-up to Chrysalis titled Ecdysis in the coming months, featuring tracks from the same time period that were a little too weird for an album of pop songs. I’m always working on new songs, and I’ve also started a new collaborative project with another artist… and have a few remixes of other artists up my sleeve as well. Producing music has become somewhat of an addiction. Chrysalis has also been remixed by an amazing array of friends and peers, so they’ll be trickling outwards over the coming months.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences and inspirations as an artist?
Alison: Grimes will always have her place in my musical history as the first person who made me feel like what I was doing was even possible as a solo female artist. I’m currently really enjoying Ethel Cain, Caroline Polachek and Sevdaliza. Women with beautiful voices who do a lot of the work themselves and are mostly independent are the lifeblood of this project.
E&D: How have your recent live shows gone?
Alison: They’ve all been very heartwarming and energising, particularly our gig in Berlin which involved so many friends. It’s been nice to play on bigger stages with higher quality sound systems. As a singer I can feel my skills levelling up with the venues. It’s so much easier to lose yourself in the music when you don’t need to worry about technical issues!
E&D: How has the material from Chrysalis been going down live?
Alison: Better than anything I’ve written previously. It’s a combination of loving these tracks more than anything else I’ve played, having Laura on stage with me playing the bass – which seriously beefs up the sound – and I reckon the songs are just catchier so the audience is vibing with them too. I was starting to lose my passion for playing live after the pandemic eased up, but it’s been reignited stronger than ever now.
E&D: How did your South American tour in June go and what were some of the highlights?
Alison: It was definitely an adventure. I was blown away by Medellín, Colombia, just since I had no idea what to expect and was met with a tropical paradise dripping with greenery and an audience that made us feel so utterly welcome and appreciated that I felt overwhelmed with emotion from the moment I stepped on stage. Madame Club in São Paolo was also quite the revelation. The idea that a multi-floored goth club exists that feels like something out of an 80s vampire movie and is packed every weekend… and the audience there were amazing too. Easily two of my favourite gigs ever took place there.
E&D: What are your live plans for the rest of the year?
Alison: We’ll tour Europe through most of October and November, including a few exciting destinations like Greece and Georgia. Our next Berlin date is Glass Danse at Astra which is a dream come true since we’re sharing a stage with Austra, which is one of the bands I listened to heavily when I first started making music. We’ll finish up with a gig in Stockholm, then I’ll head back to Australia via Asia in December to escape winter!
E&D: Do you find that performing live to be a ethereal and cathartic experience?
Alison: Very much so, at least when everything goes well. It’s a combination of focus and flow that helps one escape mundane concerns and the restrictions of the body. I particularly love it when I have things to climb – tables, subs, whatever is available. Planning physical challenges adds to the need for focus, and that focus feels so good.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable live performances that you have ever done?
Alison: Performing at Khidi in Tbilisi back in March was particularly transcendent. It was almost a technical disaster since I didn’t have any of my own gear. We’d switched the plan from a DJ set to a hybrid set with live vocals after I was already at the airport on the way to other gigs. Laura couldn’t join because she was ill so it was only me traveling there, and I was quite nervous about the whole thing. I’d only released a few singles off Chrysalis at this point so all the tracks were new, but just a few tracks in I saw dancers moved to tears in the front row and I knew I was onto something special. The lights were perfect and the sound was enormous, and the audience gave so much. The Georgian scene is one of the best! I also had an amazing time at Grauzone Festival this year. A few seconds before I got on stage I got in an altercation with aggressive bouncers who were chasing after a friend so I was fired up with rage. I ended up giving an impassioned speech about toxic masculinity and instructed all the men in the crowd to hug and kiss each other, and my instructions were followed… it was beautiful. I love turning gigs into opportunities for political activism.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to performing on stage?
Alison: Well it could be said that I took a leaf out of Andrew Eldritch’s book by scoring myself a remarkably talented bass player with incredible hair to join me on stage. In terms of my own movement and presence, I try to channel facets of a grasshopper, sugar glider, praying mantis and deep-sea angler fish. Light on my feet, at ease in the air, controlled and dangerous but still a lure for attention in the darkness.
E&D: Who are some do your favourite ever live performances?
Alison: HTRK at Atonal Festival, 2019. Dead Can Dance at the Roundhouse, London, 2012. Alcest at so many shows I’ve lost count. Forces at a Sydney warehouse party in 2017 (incidentally the gig through which I met Neu-Romancer). Soho Rezanejad at Kalabalik Festival in 2015. Morning Hands at Kalabalik Festival in 2022. Void Vision every time I’ve seen her. The 10 minutes of Sturle Dagsland I caught at Fekete Zaj Festival a few weeks ago.
E&D: You are now based in Berlin. How does the city inspire you to create the music you do?
Alison: It’s all about the community. My beloved friends here are an endless source of inspiration: Neu-Romancer, Reka, Phase Fatale, Pablo Bozzi, Kris Baha, Skelesys, Unhuman, just to name a few. Perpetually sharing music with each other is constant fuel for the fire. And then of course, the weather of Berlin ensures I have very few distractions from making music for 9 months of the year since going outside is so painful.
E&D: What music related places, clubs, record shops, venues etc in Berlin would you recommend?
Alison: I’d recommend to always check what’s happening at Urban Spree for live shows and DJ sets in the garden, Dream Baby Dream is the bar with the best tunes, and I don’t actually shop for records but Bis Aufs Messer in Friedrichshain are really nice and bought Linea Aspera records from me once.
E&D: What are some of your favourite other spots in Berlin?
Alison: The Plänterwald has a gorgeous clearing surrounded by vines just off the main path that’s perfect for taking mushrooms on a summer evening. Liepnitzsee isn’t in Berlin but it’s the closest body of crystal clear water with a visible thriving ecosystem. I also really love my rooftop at sunset, where I’m currently growing tomatoes and rosemary.
E&D: What has your Fleisch Records label got planned for the rest of this year?
Alison: Aside from releasing the remixes and alternate versions from Chrysalis, I’m super excited to be putting out Kris Baha’s new Ghosts in the Machine project. The album is dropping on the 18th of October and a vinyl release will follow. For early 2024 we have an EP from a super exciting (and extremely goth) collaboration between two legends lined up.
E&D: What have been some of the high points of running the label to date?
Alison: Releasing Forces, Kontravoid, Infravision and Neu-Romancer and watching each of those artists play live or DJ those tracks afterwards felt really amazing every time. Seeing Kontravoid play on the big stage at the LA Theatre at Substance Festival brought a tear to my eye.
E&D: What have been some of the best nights that the Fleisch collective have put on so far?
Alison: Our collaborative festival with Club Simulator during the covid lockdown was probably one of our most touching events, though it was also exhausting and stressful. I can’t actually remember the last proper Fleisch party! It was so long ago… they’ve all blurred into one happy, messy memory. There’s a reason I don’t have the energy to run events anymore! They were wild.
E&D: Do you look back on your time with Linea Aspera and Keluar with fondness and what we’re some of the highlights?
Alison: Playing Substance Festival with Linea Aspera was definitely a highlight.
E&D: Will either of those projects ever do anything in the future?
Alison: Linea Aspera might play live again.
E&D: What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
Alison: The most emotionally salient moments in this weird musician life are such fleeting treasures. Like stepping off stage to a flood of hugs from close friends in Berlin, jumping into a frenzied crowd in Brazil with everyone singing along with me, looking out to see my parents in the audience while performing in Australia, and words of high praise spilling forth from an artist who regularly made me cry with their performances. Singing on stage with the Jesus and Mary Chain was also pretty sick. But the continual feeling of knowing I can keep doing this because juuuust enough people love what I do is the greatest highlight of all.