From Claire Rousay, Field Recordings for a Modern World

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One spring evening, the San Antonio-based experimental musician Claire Rousay was in the driver’s seat of her parked car, smoking cigarettes and sipping a well-concealed beverage, when she picked up the Zoom H5 field recorder that is never far from her reach. “I track my whole day every day,” Rousay says. “If I’m home, I’ll have a pair of stereo microphones in my living room, and a field recorder in my bedroom. I’ll probably have 18 hours of field recordings … I basically record my whole life.”

She turns these found sounds into musique concrète that locates grains of emotion in the mundane — a car door slamming, a lighter igniting, the plink of an Apple keyboard mid-text. What a songwriter might convey in poetry, Rousay evokes with raw audio. You could call it sound art, but it’s viscerally vulnerable. More appropriately to Rousay — who declines to confirm her exact age but identifies as “a millennial sun, zoomer rising” — her work has been tagged as “emo ambient.”

Last fall, Rousay released the 20-minute composition “It Was Always Worth It,” for which she spun the contents of real love letters she’d received over a six-year relationship through a robotic text-to-voice program. In a year widely lacking in new, intimate conversations of the unguarded 3 a.m. caliber, it was a heartbreaking revelation. In a world of endless distraction, Rousay’s is an art of paying attention. Her immersive new album, “A Softer Focus,” is her first to draw in melody and harmony (“the pleasure of making music,” as it’s been called), and though she’s posted 22 releases to Bandcamp since 2019, it feels like an arrival.

In her art as in her life, Rousay seems intent on breaking through the perceived super-seriousness that her work might portend. She calls karaoke “an intimate soul endeavor” (her go-tos are Taking Back Sunday and Lil Peep) and lights up when discussing, with equal reverence, the composer Pauline Oliveros’s bookDeep Listening” (2005) or her longtime favorite band, Bright Eyes. “Being a real person is what I care about most,” Rousay says. “Being present and open.” Evidence of this abiding commitment to honesty can be found in last spring’s “Im Not a Bad Person But …,” another text-to-voice piece that ends on a bold admission: “I think Avril Lavigne’s album ‘Let Go’ is better than Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps.’”

Building on her unconventional style, Rousay produced “A Softer Focus” as an equal collaboration with the San Antonio artist Dani Toral. The pair met in middle school there — after Toral had relocated from Mexico City, and Rousay from Canada — but were soon in constant motion, with various tours and residencies, until the pandemic forced them to stay put. In addition to the floral cover art, Toral made a video, took photos, designed a T-shirt, named the record and several songs and created 30 ceramic whistles to accompany the release. The common thread, Toral said, is a “glowy” sense of comfort. The whistles, inspired by Mexican folk art and a 2006 book about the history of ceramic instruments called “From Mud to Music,” were an especially fitting addition. “I love clay because it holds a lot of memory,” Toral says. “It holds every touch that you put into it.”

Rousay’s pieces function similarly, and for “A Softer Focus” she even recorded Toral in her backyard ceramics studio sculpting one of the whistles, playing it and reflecting on the process — putting their conversation into the music. On the album, that snatch of dialogue also finds Rousay and Toral contemplating the stresses of Instagram for visual artists — the anxiety of being expected to post not just your work but your life. “It was us smoking joints and talking,” Rousay says, “and I think the recording is like six joints deep.” It’s a detail that speaks to the whole project’s ethos of presence and growth: Toral had never made digital art before and, as Rousay puts it, “I had never really made a listenable record. The only thing that was familiar was the feeling of being in the zone. We were learning together.”

ROUSAY GREW UP in a strict evangelical Christian household in Winnipeg, Manitoba — secular music was forbidden — and was 10 when her family moved to San Antonio. She drummed during church services before untethering herself from Christianity and searching for meaning around her instead. After dropping out of high school at 15, she toured with an indie rock band and, after discovering jazz, turned to free improvisation. She traveled as a solo percussionist, doing 200 gigs in 2017 alone.

The awe-inspiring swarm of “A Softer Focus” can feel like an amalgam of this all. On the highlight track “Peak Chroma” — named by Toral to evoke “the highest saturation of a color” — Rousay adds a pitch-shifted vocal line about listening to “the newest Blackbear song,” a reference to the Florida emo rapper and Justin Bieber co-writer Matthew Tyler Musto. It’s a conscious nod to a realm of contemporary pop that Rousay finds “infinitely more experimental” than many artists would allow. “I don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” she says. “Experimental music is so limited as it is. There are so many fake rules that the whole thing is not really that experimental anymore. What can I do to change that?”

It was around the time that she embraced emo ambient as a descriptor that she decided to stop avoiding her unique confluence of interests. “I couldn’t do it anymore, just being like, ‘Oh, yeah, I really love Stockhausen’ — are you kidding me?” she jokes. “I don’t know how you can go through life being so selective about parts of your personality.” Ultimately, though — and in another nod to Oliveros — Rousay says her greatest influences are likely in the sounds of her own environment.

“Sitting on the back porch, listening to the sounds of my backyard — that’s what should matter,” Rousay says. “But if I listen to Fall Out Boy every Friday night after 11 p.m. when I’m blackout drunk, that’s the way it is. Some people have the cicadas in their backyard. And some people have Fall Out Boy.”

Rousay has both. And this duality of an almost meditative stillness and earnest emotion runs through “A Softer Focus,” as well as “It Was Always Worth It.” “I know things have been rough lately,” a dispassionate automated voice announces on the latter, “but I want to remind you that I love you, and I’m working hard to be with you. You’ve got a great heart. You are so loved. Even if you weren’t, all you’d have to remember is to love yourself above everything else. That’s the most important love you can experience.”

I ask Rousay when she began to feel that self-love was the most important kind. She says it was two years ago, when she came out as trans. “I have a really strenuous relationship with my immediate family,” she says. But she speaks with conviction about where she does find contentment: “Enjoying simple pleasures is a huge part of my work,” she continues. “I love lying in my backyard and having a picnic with me, myself and I. It’s so fun to make a cute meal for yourself and get the sun on your face. I don’t understand why that’s always left out of things.” Capturing the delicate rustle of these small moments is Rousay’s way of magnifying the inherent joy in them.

Recently, Rousay took a walk along the San Antonio River with her dog, Banana. She had brought her recording gear — headphones, a couple of mics — and at some point, she and Banana sat down for a drink of water. In the audio, there’s the sound of the river, the jingle of Banana’s collar, birdsong and the hum of traffic in the distance. There are also traces of Rousay texting, sniffling, taking deep breaths. “I’m crying because I’m so invested in that moment,” she says. “To have a dog that loves me, to be able-bodied and walking in a park when the weather’s perfect, to own a field-recording device that I was too poor to own for a while … ”

“There were so many points in my life where I would not have been satisfied by simple pleasures,” Rousay says. “But sitting with headphones on, listening to what the microphone’s picking up — that’s the closest to any kind of internal peace I’ve ever experienced. Even if I’m recording essentially nothing. Because I’m in the moment. When you slow down and actually think about what’s happening — it’s beautiful.”

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