Interview & Images by Joe McKee
“I listen to a lot of really experimental things,
but pop music has the power to heal,
so it’s important for me to explore the balance of those two worlds
—DIVAand how they can complement each other rather than conflict.” — DIVA
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Diva is a solo ambient-pop musician & vocalist, a member of improv music group Angels of Aumsphere, and previously a member of LA-based bands Pocahaunted and BlackBlack. Diva comes from a musical family – she formed BlackBlack with sister Lola, her father Kevin Haskins was the drummer of British rock group Bauhaus, and her husband is producer Matthew McQueen, known as Matthewdavid. Her deep interest in the occult has led to work as a meditation leader, in addition to being a new mother and releasing an upcoming third record Divinity in Thee on Stones Throw.
Joe McKee is a London-born singer-songwriter and composer. He was raised in Western Australia, where he began writing music and teaching himself guitar. In 2003, McKee formed the band Snowman which released three albums through Dot Dash Recordings. At 23, McKee relocated to London where he began writing songs for his debut solo album, Burning Boy. Today, Joe lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Adarsha Benjamin, and their daughter, Juniper Lucy Lee. Listen to Burning Boy here.
DIVA is the quintessential avant-pop composer. Her songs and ambient soundscapes could only exist at this precise juncture in history. A time where the tipping point of limitless information has well and truly spilled over and saturated pop-culture. Her home recorded, hauntological-pop music playfully pilfers from the forgotten (yet newly discovered) musical archives and reframes them through some pixelated laptop lens. Her music inhabits a truly postmodern housing: It’s a subtle commentary on pop music itself, whilst also being something entirely of (and unto) itself.
Her music, along with her guided meditation experiences, are heavily informed by her studies in occult knowledge, as well as her internal travels to an “other” place, a personal spiritual realm, which she has visited (in some form or another) since she was a child. All of this made for a fascinating conversation about her creative process and her creative community in LA
I met up with DIVA in her living room (which also serves as her creative headquarters). I had brought my 14 month old daughter along for a playdate with Diva’s 9 month old. They provided a healthy dose of ambient chaos throughout our conversation.
Joe McKee: You’ve been working on a new album. How’s it coming along?
Diva Dompe: I have a record that I’ve been in the process of making for a few years. It was pretty much already done when I became pregnant. Then it really slowed down. But now, finally, I’m going to hand it in to my record label. We’ve set a timeline for the release, It’ll probably come out in the summer of 2015.
JM: Great, does it have a name?
DD: It’s called Divinity In Thee. It’s coming out on Stones Throw. Having it sit there for so long means that it’s gone some places that perhaps it wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t had that additional time to sit on it. So I’m kind of glad.
JM: Who produced the record?
DD: I produced it myself. Most of the songs were recorded as demos on my 8-track cassette recorder, then I’d bounce those tracks onto the computer and work on them from there.
JM: So are those demos still the framework of the recordings? Are they still audible in the mix?
DD: I think all the songs have some of the original recordings in tact. But I chose to re-record instruments in a lot of instances, or layer on top of them. Except for the title track, which was written entirely in the computer. It was a similar process on my last record, but I wasn’t happy with the balance between the original lo-fi demos and the final more digital pieces. I’m much happier with that balance on this record. I’ve also gotten a lot more comfortable producing on the computer and using Ableton.
JM: Did you use Ableton on the previous record or was this your first time?
DD: Um… I don’t think so. I think I used Pro Tools for that one.
JM: Was that a full length album?
DD: Yeah, that was my second solo record, Moon Moods.
JM: Right, that had the song “Inverted Image” on it right?
“There is an open-mindedness
to the present underground musical culture
that gives the freedom for diversity.”
Philosophical idea proposed by Jacques Derrida in 1993 that suggests the present only exists with respect to the past. Furthermore, at the “end of history,” when there is no more proactive creation, society will turn back to its old ideas or aesthetics. By intellectually realigning itself toward the “ghost” or “spectre” of the past – neither being nor non-being – society will merely exist in an endless loop.
British musician Desmond Pierce, who has been prolifically recording lo-fi tracks on his PC for the past decade as Crow 44. Now, recently discovered via internet by James Pants, a proper Crow 44 EP is being released by Stone’s Throw Records containing 25 “favorite” tracks.
JM: I like that song, It reminds me of Broadcast or of some ‘lost’ outsider pop music from a bygone era… What about that as a thought? There seems to be a lot going on at the moment that is reminiscent or in communication with the past, while putting a playful spin on it. Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’ has been applied to pop music that excavates the archives via YouTube, Soundcloud and other online resources. The idea is that, as artists, we’re ‘haunted’ by this newly discovered musical past which inevitably seeps into our own work. Particularly now that we are able to access the endless vaults of previously ‘lost’ music. Stones Throw releasing that Crow 44 record is a good example. How do you think this surge in reissue culture has contributed to a new movement, which I see your work kind of fits into?
DD: Well, I guess you’re just saying music that’s influenced by the past…
JM: Yes, but particularly by music that was inaccessible or just plain unavailable before… and often the more ‘flawed’ recordings or ‘human’ performances which are now being embraced and celebrated – whereas before, upon original release, these records were possibly ignored, or even derided – due to these attributes. This is a new phenomenon.
DD: Well I guess its easier to relate to those artists now because home recording is so easy for an artist to do. It’s such a part of our creative culture now and that’s kind of what these guys were doing back then. So, in that sense, we’re doing the same thing as these newly discovered artists, that were essentially doing DIY music back then… so that’s relatable.
JM: Yeah, there’s a parallel there.
DD: And even though they’re old recordings we’re only discovering them now, so really they’re new discoveries, so there’s this novelty to it. But there is a mystery surrounding their work too. It’s easier to build a fantasy around reissued music.
JM: There’s an instant nostalgia there which, in reality, takes years to achieve.
DD: Yeah, but you also have the plus of it being a brand new discovery.
JM: Are there some contemporaries, particularly in Los Angeles, that you share a community with or who you relate to musically?
DD: I feel so grateful for my community in Los Angeles. Musically as well as philosophically and spiritually. Musically, I have many friends I respect and am inspired by. My music doesn’t necessarily sound like theirs, but it doesn’t need to. There is an open-mindedness to the present underground musical culture that gives the freedom for that diversity.
Specifically, I’d first mention my creative relationship with my husband Matthew (he goes by Matthewdavid musically). We inspire each other a great deal. He has helped me learn a lot technically, as far as the tricks of Ableton goes, and we also explore so much music together, lately especially obscure new age records and spiritual jazz. I have gotten into recording guided meditations the past few years, and the first ones I recorded were as a birthday present to him.
Mira Billotte and Nora Keyes are both beautiful singers and talented musicians. I play in an improvisational group with them called Angels of Aumsphere. We do stuff like building astral portals with our voices. They both have incredible solo projects, White Magic and Roco Jet respectively.
M Geddes Gengras and Cameron Stallones are like my family, we have played music together and toured together. They both make such inspiring music on their own and I also really admire one of their recent projects, Duppy Gun which brings together experimental producers mostly from Los Angeles and contemporary singers in Jamaica.
Having a relationship with Aaron and Indra from Peaking Lights has been important to me, as they are parents of young kids and still out there living their dreams. That’s been an important relationship for me.
I love Cat500 which is a project of my friend Carrie, amazing alien dance music.
I honestly feel really grateful for the creative community here. It took me a long time to find and build up. LA can be a strange city to grow up in, and this community wasn’t always so accessible to me.
JM: Well yeah, LA is quite disconnected. It’s like a hundred different villages connected by freeways, all living kind of independently from each other.
Non-profit web radio collective (est. 1999) dedicated to all types of musical expression and gives its djs total freedom of selection.
DD: Yeah, it took me a while to find my village. As a teenager, when I started playing shows with my band out in the world, I got a little disillusioned by some experiences. I was like, “Is this what it is to be an adult? Drinking and going to bars?” But now I’m surrounded by some really inspiring, super creative, warm, welcoming and passionate people. People don’t often associate LA with that all the time, but it’s definitely here and vibrant. Dublab is a really important part of that too. Their community brings a lot of people together. They’re a lot more than just an internet radio station, they’re a non profit arts organisation, they put on events. I do a monthly meditation show on there.
JM: Yes, tell me about the guided meditation.
DD: The guided meditations are really an exploration of this specific place I have had access to, even since I was a little kid. I really started actively exploring it as a teenager, going into a state of daydream while I would write music and lyrics. It was a creative sanctuary, but at times it also made me feel quite alienated, and I even feared I might be mentally ill. Now I have learned to embrace this place more fully because of certain supportive friends and also my own changing philosophies on reality and consciousness. In my early twenties, I re-discovered this place and the meditations are a big part of that.
“I can’t say if its another planet
or dimension or whatever,
and I’m not necessarily sure
JM: Were you neglecting or shutting off that part of you for a period?
LA-based experimental psych band of Amanda Brown, co-founder of Not Not Fun Records, and Best Coast’s Bethany Costello. Active from 2006-2010, the band’s lineup was reworked after Costello left in 2009, expanded to include Diva Dompe, Leyna Tilbor, Britt Brown and Greg Gengras.
DD: I think so. When I was in Pocahaunted my creative energy was all about the band. This place I am talking about is very intimate, so I didn’t have free access to it within the group dynamic.
JM: So when you’re talking about this location, can you explain it a little more? Is it a physical place?
DD: Yes, it’s called Yialmel. The more I explored this place, the more it revealed itself to me as its own world. I can’t say if its another planet or dimension or whatever, and I’m not necessarily sure that’s relevant. The idea of space slips away when I visit this place.
JM: Well I suppose it depends how literally you take it. I guess you’ve colored that world with metaphor and a little poetry in order to communicate the idea?
DD: Or maybe that’s really how it is! You know it’s kind of become irrelevant to me – that question of “What is the reality of it?” – whether you want to say it’s real or my imagination doesn’t really matter. To me, I’m having this experience that is meaningful and real, and it’s even a physical experience, because when I go there on these meditations I feel physically different – more relaxed and refreshed. This place also has its own beings, its own life forms, landscapes, rules of physics, culture, etc. And all these things are very defined. One thing I really like is the flexibility in Yialmel. The distinction between matter, energy and consciousness is not so defined there. All these things exist on a gradient and it’s so easy to shift between them. Also, the presence of things is so much closer. On earth everything has a presence, like rocks for example, but it takes focus to sense it. On Yialmel the connection to everything is so much more tangible. This place is so magical to me, so positive, and has so much to offer. I have really let go of the reservations I used to have as a teenager and have been able to accept it much more openly.
JM: How long do you spend in this other location?
DD: It depends. For the guided meditations that I lead, it can be anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, but now I change that depending on the situation.
(A long distraction occurs here – my baby manages to bump her head on the table. Screaming and many tears soon follow. Once the madness blows over, Diva begins to tell me a little more about her interest in the occult community in Los Angeles)
DD: I was exploring another community too, which is the magical community. Which is another really rich community that I’m now a part of in LA, like the musical community. People who are interested in magical experience and esoteric and occult knowledge. I got a lot deeper into exploring that realm.
JM: Do you feel a resurgence of that subculture in LA, or maybe even in pop culture in general, of late?
DD: I do feel that. I think people feel as though they are lacking in spiritual experience.
JM: It seems particularly poignant now.
Followers of the esoteric philosophy Theosophy, who seek to understand the mysteries of the universe and the connections between the divine and mundane world in order to find the purpose / origin of the universe.
Manly P Hall
The non-profit Philosophical Research Society (PRS), dedicated to the study of religion, mythology, metaphysics, and the occult, was founded in LA in 1934 by Manly P. Hall.
American rocket engineer and occultist, born and raised in LA, who converted to Thelema, a mystic religion developed in the early 1900s by a British writer and magician.
DD: Yeah, but I think in LA it’s always been a part of our culture. A lot of occult communities have come here and made it their home base: Like the Theosophists, Manly P Hall and the PRS, Jack Parsons. There is definitely an occult history here. This city is a city that has been built on fantasy and dreams, rather than physical exports like other cities. So maybe that makes the currents of consciousness stronger here? Like the connection between manifesting thought into the physical world. The origins of film really lie in magic… both in a magical performance aspect but also in magical occult practice.
JM: Tell me more about that.
DD: I learned about the occult origins of film in a lecture by Maja D’Aoust. She lectures on magical occult subjects and she’s kind of a centre-point for this community. At the turn of the century, there was a huge spiritualist movement who were into doing seances and stuff, and one of the main techniques for entering these trance states, which are major themes in occult practice, is a flickering candle in a mirror.
Created by artist Brion Gysin and computer programmer Ian Sommerville (William S. Burroughs’ lover), and inspired by William Grey Walter’s “The Living Brain,” the dreamachine emits pulsating light that stimulates the optical nerve and alters the brain’s electrical oscillations. Patterns appear behind the “viewers’” closed eyelids, allowing a person to enter a hypnagogic state.
JM: Similar to the Dreamachine created by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. The flickering at a certain speed creates a certain trance-like sensation, and can even induce a hallucinatory sensation, a bit like a lucid dream.
DD: It’s the same concept – you can do that with sound or with rhythm or light. Films are flickering light so you are undergoing hypnosis when watching a screen.
Anyway, so as I grew within this magical community, I naturally wanted to combine that with my existing creative process and expression. I started doing a short guided meditation at the beginning of my pop performances. I didn’t have enough to take it all the way to Yialmel, but it was more just to bring the audience into the present moment, to have a meaningful art experience. People take for granted going out and seeing live music… so I thought mindfulness could help take them outside of that jaded mindset.
JM: It must be a nice way of centering everyone in the room…
DD: I like to explore where that balance is. Y’know, I make pop music but I make all of the music for my guided meditation, which is all very ambient long-form music too. And I listen to a lot of really experimental things, but pop music has the power to heal, so it’s important for me to explore the balance of those two worlds and how they can complement each other rather than conflict.
“This is a city that has
been built on fantasy
rather than physical
exports like other cities.”
JM: What have you been surrounding yourself with to fuel that creative process? Is it purely these “otherworldly experiences,” for lack of a better term?
DD: I mean, my creative process right now is a little bit transitional since becoming a mother. I’m still trying to figure it out. In the past, to be creative was a very personal and intimate place to go. It’s about daydreaming and getting into that mental space and with her [Love, Diva and Matthew’s 9 month old daughter] – here my mind isn’t really mine 100 percent, so it’s hard to let it wander like it used to. I’m exhausted all of the time too, so there are some definite things to contend with. But instead of letting that get me down, I try and embrace the act of being a mother as my mode of creative expression right now.
I haven’t written any pop music since becoming a mom, for some reason that’s not really coming to me. It’s been easier to be doing the meditations. But even for that, I need to give myself the space to do that, so it’s been a little limited.
JM: Compared to the album writing process prior to being a mother?
DD: I don’t know, I mean the meditations have just been coming easier. So when I do finally get half an hour to space out, I guess I can walk into that meditative trance state for 30 minutes or so. Whereas with a song, it takes longer to get to that place, unless you’re having this really raw emotional experience, so I’m just going with what’s naturally coming to me. Also I’m just surrendering to what creative expression is for me right now, which can be spending time with my daughter. Surrender has been a huge part of this journey as a mother, and I think that’s very positive. Instead of being stuck on this one identity of how I express myself, like as a pop musician for example, I can get past that to the root behind this identity component and see how to channel it in other ways. That can be liberating.
Inhabiting that magical consciousness is important to me, but because I don’t have as much time or space to, say, meditate for a certain amount of time everyday. Instead, I try and incorporate meditative thought and presence into my everyday actions. I try and still keep control over my mind and thoughts, so like, while I’m doing the dishes, instead of going into monkey mind I am thinking of things I’m grateful for, staying in a gratitude consciousness.
JM: I suppose finding those in between moments to tune into that meditative state must be quite an exercise to achieve?
DD: I feel like that’s an important path of our time. I think there has been that time of “the monk on the hill checking out of society and having an internal spiritual connection,” but as our global culture increases and gets faster, I think its our job to have a spiritual connection in a city because there is no going back. I struggle to interact with our culture and society the way that it is, especially as a parent, it’s even harder – I have to buy diapers and all sorts of things, but before her I just wouldn’t really buy anything. Now there are times where I have to be a little easy on my self. There are times that I wish for some kind of communal living where we go back to a more simple farm commune life, but something clicked in me a couple of months ago – you can have pockets of society like that, but I think it’s more constructive to think of how we can work with what is happening in the tides of culture and society, and incorporate what is positive into that. I don’t even know if that’s possible…
JM: That seems to be the challenge of our generation – to somehow build community and generate positive spirituality amongst this otherwise very chaotic and noisy place (and when I say noisy I’m referring to consumerism, it’s a very noisy place to be. We are bombarded with advertising, images and sound constantly). To tune into your own personal frequency, and to have faith in that frequency amongst all the noise, definitely seems to be a key challenge. I think, more so than ever, people are surrounded by so many distractions and maybe that’s where the resurgence in occultism and new found spirituality, particularly alternative means of seeking that, comes in. People are really trying to find a way to escape and seek solace within themselves and their community.
DD: The culture that we live in now has been built on materialism and there isn’t much connection there, so we have to try and find that balance and carve out a place for that. I feel like these experiences still exist that aren’t explained by materialism.
JM: Yes, but we’ve been conditioned to block them out by consumer culture.
DD: I’m really into gratitude lately. It’s been a really important thing for me this year, healing practice. Gratitude can free you from consumerist brainwashing by making you content with what you already have, even if that’s only your breath.
“I try and embrace the act
of being a mother as my mode of
creative expression right now.”
JM: So tell me about that, coming back to your guided meditation – it’s really a form of healing, not just getting people focused on the now. Tell me about the healing qualities in music in general and in your music specifically.
DD: “Healing” can be a problematic term because when you say the word “healing” there are these presumptions that something is wrong and that needs to be fixed. I think, sure we all have healing to do and that’s what I aim to work on with my music, but on the other side of it, I like to think that it builds upon a platform that doesn’t start from a place of hurt. Just personally though, I did this gratitude program this year that my friend passed along to me. I definitely felt the most happy and balanced while doing these exercises. It brought my well-being to a higher level and it made my default setting more grateful. I found that was a really powerful tool.
JM: what did these exercises entail?
DD: Everyday i would write down ten things that I’m grateful for and why, and everyday before bed I would think about what moment I was most grateful for, then I’d focus on everything awesome that happened in my day. Then one day you’re really aware of what you’re eating and you’re thinking about everything that happened for that meal to come to your table, so you get to a place where you’re eventually grateful for every breath of air that you draw in, and for running water, and for having a bed to sleep on and all these things that we take for granted. Then you feel, all of a sudden, this feeling of not wanting anything more.
JM: Well consumerism is all about making us feel inadequate…
DD: Right, so you feel like this hole in you is constant no matter what you do, or what you buy, or what attention you receive, or what success you attain. Even for me, a person who fancies herself somewhat outside of consumerist culture, it can sink into such a deep level. Like, as an artist not feeling adequate. But with these gratitude exercises, I felt like I already had everything I ever needed. And to build upon a place of contentment lets you blast off to the next level. Instead of worrying about filling holes inside of myself, I can focus more on my limitlessness.