Moving on from duo project Porcelain Toy to the solo persona of Ills Winter, it’s no surprise to learn that Elizabeth de la Rey naturally draws musical inspiration from the artistic realms of poetry and theatre. When Eliza Beca caught up with her for NZM the last of the guitar tracking for Ills Winter’s debut album, ‘Duchess Of Whispers’, due out late November, was still in progress.
While Ills Winter might be a relatively new moniker for artful musician Elizabeth de la Rey, she certainly isn’t a stranger to the process.
Speaking from her Wellington home, she gives the impression of years spent experimenting with different performance mediums, instruments and genres, including a lifelong dream to write a musical, “…something sort of camp and awesome,” she laughs.
It’s apparent she’ll never tire of the challenge, but with Ills Winter Elizabeth seems to have settled on something more permanent.
“I know that I’ll be playing music until I’m an old grandma, and I’m trying to shape this latest project with Ills Winter so it’s something that can really carry on.”
That’s not to say her upcoming album stemmed from some pre-conceived, clear cut idea with respect to her sound. The album is a collection of songs written over the past two years, produced and mixed by her husband, composer Emile de la Rey.
“I’m glad that I’ve got a bit more of a journey going on,” Elizabeth says of ‘Duchess Of Whispers’. “Ills Winter was meant to be mainly grunge stuff, I was gonna keep it raw and now it’s completely changed… but I’m glad cause it’s still got that element in there.”
It’s music that has been built on and added to over time, developing throughout the recording process into numerous instrumental layers, yet still maintaining a sparsity around the vocals. The textural density and wide range of timbres are striking – an element perhaps augmented by the influence of her husband, whose background is predominantly electronic. Emile was recently a finalist for the ‘Best Original Music in a Series’ award at the 2015 APRA Silver Scrolls for his work on the TV miniseries ‘Hope and Wire’.
Ills Winter diverged from the de la Reys’ earlier project Porcelain Toy, a prolific duo which was largely recording oriented, putting on theatrical shows to accompany their work once or twice a year. With Emile increasingly busy with film projects, Ills Winter provides Elizabeth an outlet to create music by herself, allowing more of a live focus.
“With Porcelain Toy I was always running everything by him… but with Ills Winter I can just do my own thing, and if he wants to join in he can. I’m focusing more on really crafting the lyrics with this project, and I want to tour more and be out of the studio.”
It’s not primarily though musical experimentation that Elizabeth has come to refine her style. She battled thyroid cancer in 2011, leaving her unable to sing for a few months. She says she’s more or less past thinking about it now, but is still dealing with the ongoing aftermath.
“It’s always going to be kind of lingering. I didn’t feel inspired by being ill, I just felt angry. I had to grow up a bit.”
With singing out of the picture she became more involved in writing, as is apparent in the crafted nature of the lyrics in her more recent songs.
“I wrote a lot of poetry around then and that’s trickled into Ills Winter stuff. I love how you can compact a whole lot of different experiences into one paragraph.”
She describes her poetry as a new love, which she has recently been incorporating into her music to create a more definitive sound.
“Before it was either poem or song and they were very separate, but they’re starting to come together now and I’m really excited to show what’s new. The poetry was very private, personal stuff, but ironically it’s kind of more relevant to other people because I’m not trying to be safe. People are gonna think what they do anyway.”
Previously her songs were dominated by themes of romanticism, complimented by choirs, dance and multimedia in one-off theatrical performances at BATS theatre.
“I was very focused on Emile and I being a couple, but there’s more than that, we’d be doing music if we were together or not. It always became an interview about our romantic relationship.”
She seems to have found freedom in letting go of this idea with Ills Winter, delving more into the essence of being someone who dedicates their life solely to creating art, something of a lyrical theme to the upcoming album. Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir ‘Just Kids’ is one of the influences.
“I hope one day I’ll be an old woman, scruffy and wrinkled, and known as an artist and musician… that’s what was inspiring me.
“I’ve got so much more to give, I really wanna go nuts on stage and just let go a bit more. Porcelain Toy was a bit more organised and pretty, and I wanna embrace a bit more of the ugly… we’ll see how that goes.”
With the Ills Winter album still being tracked and an art exhibition coming up (she’s a painter as well), Elizabeth’s not getting much sleep, but isn’t fazed.
“I just want to be doing this full time, that’s why I haven’t had a family or anything. I’ve given up a lot of things for it and I’m happy to have. It feels like it’s starting to grow now, all the work feels like it’s starting to pay off.”