Colin Self Challenges Antiquated Archetypes with their latest Release, Siblings
After a long history in relative safety, the concept of family is under heavy scrutiny. The conventional understanding is seldom relatable in the nuclear sense: two parents of distinct sexes with 1.5 siblings who identify as cis-gendered and the expectation that you are to remain connected to these people through any strife that might crop up, loving them above all else. A unit that is unshakable at its core. But what about those of us who had an experience that deviates from the picturesque? Those who are queer or have queer relatives, interracial relationships, or those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth? There is an infinite number of experiences an individual can endure, making it dangerous to assume (read: force) all people around the globe to adhere to an antiquated idea of family. Berlin-based Colin Self believes that we don’t need to look to our biological families to find those strong familial relationships that can support us through the elations and depressions of life.
My first brush with Self was in 2016 during their performance with Holly Herndon and Mathew Dryhurst at Primavera. Having not seen Holly Herndon’s live performance yet and not having even heard of Self before, the performance shook me to my absolute core and was vital in my understanding and development within queer culture. Images flashed erratically on the huge screen behind the performers with overlaid text stating “Gender is over!” and commanding the audience to “Get off Facebook!” Self, leaving their station of keys for the first time during the performance, took center stage to vogue and throw shapes in every direction. When the performance had finished, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Did the people around me understand what had just happened? Were they too drunk and high to realize that radical thought and action doesn’t have to sound like Black Flag or look like 90’s Seattle? In that moment, I wanted to shake everyone around me, to start a revolution, to scream at the top of my lungs! After a lifetime of concerts, I was shocked to learn that a performance could leave me in such a state of visceral intoxication, to have such a lasting effect of awe. This had never happened to me before and it hasn’t happened since. Seemingly born to create, engage, and perform, how does someone as divine as Self come to be?
Colin was raised in the progressive capitals of the Pacific Northwest. These early years were often spent in the rapidly disappearing basement venues of the region, seeing shows and performances that were never destined to reach the big stage and being regularly exposed to a community of people that need to create to make themselves heard, opening up, and maintaining spaces of their own – bands like Tracy + the Plastics, Anna Oxygen, Pash(ly), and their Riot Grrrl contemporaries.
Without a doubt, being a teenager in the Pacific Northwest gave me this amazing proximity to so many freaky subcultures […] all these women from the PNW were making this beautiful music and performance.
Being a teenager may not have been rough for everyone, but it is undeniably formative – internalizing what you are seeing, hearing, experiencing, and figuring out what that means to you, how you fit in (or don’t) in the world. With powerful voices and bodies like those that have claimed their space in the Pacific Northwest for years, Self found a solid base of inspiration to learn and grow from.
Since leaving Cascadia, Self has moved around, occupying and making space for multiple minority communities in numerous capacities: the famously fabulous drag and performance collective, Chez Deep, in New York; Xhoir, a non-utilitarian vocal workshop in the queer space Casa Diva; “Colinslist”, an online house finding/sharing resource for the queer community; a touring and contributing member of the Holly Herndon Ensemble. The Ensemble’s show at last year’s CTM Festival was every bit as unforgettable as the first. The performance completely deconstructed the traditional concert experience: rather than being confined to the stage, the performers were scattered throughout Festsaal Kreuzberg, utilizing the catwalks and platforms that hung from the ceiling. Self led a choir intermittently, with focus constantly shifting between those on stage. There was no specific protagonist of the performance, challenging the audience’s expectations of what a contemporary musical performance could be. In hindsight, I understand it as clear foreshadowing to Self’s values of communal involvement and family.
As a composer and choreographer, Self is similarly gifted. Late 2018 saw the release of Siblings at New York’s MoMA, Self’s second solo effort and final installment in an ongoing body of collaborative work entitled, “Elation.” When queried about what messages and themes occur in Siblings, Self expounds on imperative space of all kinds: the need for queer space, space for art and creativity, and the creation of space for those who didn’t have it in previous generations. Siblings is also about the concepts of kin and family, how we need to rethink and redefine these concepts; something Self feels is quintessential to our survival on this planet:
If we want to begin to realistically imagine a future on this planet – not just for ourselves, but also for the many other creatures and biologies facing extinction, we need to diversify what a family is and move away from the nuclear biological reproduction that we have hinged ourselves to.
Readjusting and redefining our concepts of what we consider family and kin might not be the easiest task, but can be seen as an act of creativity and defiance. The rejection of the nuclear family and its surrounding structures in favor of forming strong familial bonds with those you chose (who can still of course be your biological family) is, without a doubt, an act that will upset the powers that be and will reinforce the community you chose, making it stronger and more resistant to unhealthy political shifts. Self cites Donna Haraway’s writing on family structures and kin as a major influence on Siblings, along with the writing of June Jordan, Martine Syms, David Wojnarowicz, and the recently passed Ursula K. LeGuin.
While Self proclaims that, “these songs felt more influenced by language and ideas than it was influenced by sound,” we challenge that there are distinct musical influences shining through the songs of Siblings. With the initial vocalization on the album’s first track ‘Story,’ Self’s choral work and longtime collaboration with Holly Herndon can be felt with its distinct flavor of voice manipulation, shifting from an almost operatic crescendo to a spliced vocal climax reminiscent of an old dial-up internet connection. On ‘Survival,’ Self pronounces, “Here I know we can survive […] pack your bags we leave tonight,” creating a space formed between two people that can be sojourned to as a place of safety and creativity. Not necessarily a physical location but a place we can create and hold between the ones we love and can see ourselves nourishing and growing with. Giving and holding space for yourself and others has become a feminist and queer theory and practice, something Self is a champion of and seems to practice in all facets of life.
The influence of queer contemporaries like Cakes Da Killa and fellow Berlin transplant, Lotic, is woven throughout the album but felt strongly on ‘Quorum,’ a track featuring Aunt Sister. Vocal samples euphorically giggling “Girlfriend just doesn’t get it,” “I thought he was gay is all I heard,” and “He just be like wassup gurl!” are thrown over a vogue-able beat that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s kiki or ballroom scenes. Unabashedly queer and not afraid to let the world know by taking up the space that so many deserve but often aren’t afforded.
Siblings as a whole is a strong statement that has so much to offer so many. It’s a powerful jubilation celebrating queer, feminine, and familial culture that will challenge its listeners on and off the dance floor. But to focus entirely on the album’s message and themes shouldn’t undermine the caliber of the music itself. Fittingly, Self’s style of composition is every bit as progressive and necessary as the message it conveys. Effortlessly blending genres and pushing boundaries, Self dips their toes in uncharted waters while seeming completely comfortable doing so.
Photos by Jonathan Grassi
CTM Festival is back this year and has asked Self to perform a solo show entitled “As If We Were Kin,” in which Self has said there will be a 17-piece vocal ensemble along with a string trio, promising “it will be totally different from what I presented with Holly and Mat last year.” In case it isn’t already abundantly evident, we highly recommend that you do everything in your power to catch this performance on January 30th at HAU1. If it’s not in the cards, you can dry your tears with the knowledge that Self is based in Berlin and will hopefully be performing here again soon. Self has also said that a music release accompanying a series of performances around the Siblings Compendium is imminent, “a kind of document of research and writing relating to the record.” And forget not: Self’s Siblings is out now on RVNG Intl. and should be celebrated at your earliest possible convenience.