Natalia Beylis: Library Of Sticks

Navel-Gazers #45 is an interview with Natalia Beylis who is going to talk to us about Library Of Sticks. Natalia’s an artist I’ve been following for a few years now, and right from the furtive thumps which usher in Voices From Graceland, Sligo - the first track on ‘Library Of Sticks’ - I recognise this sound-world. It’s a version of her world, one presumes, which is apparently somewhere over in Ireland, except Natalia’s Ireland is a more elusive, slippery place, where everything’s in a perpetual state of fragmentation, nothing ever too rigid or precise, where malleable materials are seemingly everywhere for the taking. There’s also some level of collaboration afoot with another artist from Ireland who’s offered up materials “for further use”, Natalia’s used those but then an entire track here is flagged for further use of its own… have we opened up some sort of chain letter? I love a good sub-plot and there are plenty to go around on ‘Library Of Sticks’ but when I pop over to her website there’s a tagline which jumps out at me as though this is perhaps the main plot: “I coax what I can from the quiet”. That’s left me with lots of questions but guess what, we’re in luck! Natalia Beylis is here to talk to us, right here on Navel-Gazers, let’s hear what she has to say.

AC: Thanks for joining me! Before we talk about ‘Library Of Sticks’, lazy researcher that I am, I’ve said you live “somewhere in Ireland”. Whereabouts? And you’ve lived in loads of different places haven’t you… could you talk about your practice in the context of that journey?

Natalia Beylis: Hi Andrew. Thanks for having me. I live in rural Ireland, up towards the northwest in the county of Leitrim. People think it must be quiet here because the humans are few. But this time of year (early May) it gets fairly cacophonous with the birds. Especially the past two years since we seem to have a cuckoo that's got its own ideas of what's going on and has been cuckooing non stop: 2 am, 3 am, lunchtime, dawn.....time means nothing to this cuckoo.

Before moving here I lived in many places: Dublin, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Portland, Oregon, Kiev. I also spent some time in Arizona.

Everyone I met in Arizona would emphasize that what they have there is a 'dry heat.' Sound exists differently there to the swampy sweaty heat of New Orleans. Sounds get absorbed more by that 'dry heat' of the desert.

I can think back through the soundscapes of everywhere I've lived and how they've varied through effects of humidity, temperature, wind distortion, tv-loving neighbours, regional ways and volumes of speaking, train lines rumbling the air, articulated lorries rattling the bedroom windows, the loud and constant clomp of the heavy-footed upstairs neighbour, the relentless hurricane rains, crickets, cicadas, ice-cream trucks, my roommate embarking on the sonically painful journey of learning the fiddle, the two hippies next door who only ever listened to the Grateful Dead and Cypress Hill with all the windows and doors swung open, conversations from the laundromat across the road, the holleries and yelps of parties from the frat house three doors down, the sizzlin cracking heat of the mid-day desert and now, the singular cuckoo that is seeping into the dreams of everyone in our townland.

AC: Of all the places you mentioned, rural Ireland seems like it must be an extremely different soundscape. I wonder how living in this place has affected your work more generally, beyond the cuckoo?

Natalia Beylis: Yeah, it's definitely extremely different here. This is the first time I've lived rurally. Before this, I'd only lived or spent extended time in cities and suburbs with soundscapes that were primarily composed of the proceedings of people and the vibrations of their lives. But aside from the noise of two humans (both of whom can get very noisey), the main sounds where I live now are birds, wind, rain, cows, neighbour's dogs, donkeys and foxes. A couple of cars pass by every hour. Depending on the time of year there might be an overarching orchestra of agricultural ongoings. Depending on the weather and air pressure and time of day, you can sometimes hear the main road. Three times now in 18 years I've heard a train whistle. And once, clear and loud, I could hear church bells though I still can't figure where they could have come from. Before moving here, I was mostly attune to the sounds of humans. Still, one of my favorite things is visiting cities and towns and sitting at a window or balcony to eavesdrop on voices and snippets of stories, to get lost in the individual patterns of people's footsteps, and to hear how it all comes together with construction and car horns and the concentrated energy pulsing.

It's May here and the dawn chorus has been loud enough to wake me up around 5 am every morning. I used to always say that it's so quiet living in the countryside. But the other week I went to stay with a friend who lives in an apartment complex in Dublin city centre. All the flats have balconies that face into a large concrete courtyard. I sat by her window for about two hours one Sunday and the only sounds were the occasional neighbour walking to the front gate and the distant roar of holidaymakers being driven around on the Viking Splash land and water vehicle tour. Aside from that the soundscape was empty. This made me realise that living where I live hasn't exactly affected my work in the ways I'd thought it had before. I always thought it had to do with spending more time in a 'quiet' place. But, at the moment, I'm not exactly sure how living here has influenced my interactions with the soundworld. I'll have to get back to you about that question when I've got it figured out!

AC: Sometimes the answers are subtle. The rural quality of your current stuff is certainly apparent from my point of view but that’s not the same as saying it’s “quiet”!

It’s a nice segue into ‘Library Of Sticks’. So who are the ‘Voices From Graceland’?

Natalia Beylis: The voices from Graceland are three friends of mine: Taf, Catherine & Adam. When I was collecting up sounds for 'Library of Sticks', I came across a cassette tape from a few years ago with their voices recorded onto it. The tape was recorded before a gig I was playing in Taf's house (affectionately nicknamed 'Graceland'). I used to go around before a gig and ask people in the audience questions and then play the answers back during my set. I used to have a stack of audience answer tapes but then I ended up recording over most of them or misplacing them along the way. I was very excited to find this one buried deep beneath inside a box of badly labelled tapes. I love listening to voices and nuances of speech patterns and accents.

AC: What kinds of questions would you ask them?

Natalia Beylis: Questions that evoke memories would have been the main ones. My release Invaded By Fireflies was built on recordings from some of these tapes. For that one, I asked people to think back to a beautiful place they had once been and then to envision themselves back there and then I asked them to describe what they were seeing around them. After that I asked what they could hear in the place. That one worked really well.

For 'Voices From Graceland, Sligo', we delved into childhood memories but for some reason that evening no one was staying on topic so there was a lot of random tangents that got recorded. I think everyone was too giddy that night to stay on topic.

AC: What exactly is going on with Creaking For Further Use and its nominal antecedent, Drum Tracks For Further Use by Willie Stewart?

Natalia Beylis: My drummer, Willie Stewart, put out a release a few years ago called 'Drum Tracks for Further Use'. His idea was to record very stripped down drums that people were then welcome to use in their own work and compositions. Willie recorded some of the drum tracks onto a cassette tape and once he no longer needed the recordings he gave me the tape. Three of the pieces on my release started with manipulations of the cassette tape as the base layer onto which I built the rest of the track. The only track that doesn't use any of Willie's recordings is 'Creaking For Further Use'. The best way to describe what's going on in that track is 'a fleeting love affair with a sonically pleasing door'.

AC: It seems fitting how your “further use” piece is the only one which went off the ranch and didn’t use the drum tracks. I suppose our readers are welcome to use it then!

Examining the other two tracks - may as well, we’ve come this far - I personally don’t like new potatoes but I really like New Potatoes! The sounds on this one are spectacularly weird, what are we hearing?

Natalia Beylis: You know sometimes when you're minding your own business and going about your day and suddenly you realise you aren't going about anything anymore and you're just standing still and you're directing your ear in a certain direction cause you have found yourself completely bewitched by some sound in the distance. And then sometimes if you stand there long enough you start to hear all of these other sonic layers building up around that sound. And it's like the noises that your brain is manifesting are jamming along with the sound in the distance. I think that precise moment is what we're hearing in 'New Potatoes'. The sounds that nature provided for the recording are coming from little waves splashing into and out of little rocks along the shore of the River Shannon. The sounds that humans provided are from the tape (you guessed it!) 'Drum Tracks For Further Use'. The sounds from the water appear as they did in nature. The sounds from the tape are heavily manipulated through live effects pedal mixing. These sounds are then placed gently against each other to create 'New Potatoes'.

AC: I do know the feeling, and I did guess it!

Let’s dig into that final track, which I confess is my favourite here. I hear what one assumes are sticks… what’s the story with this piece and with that title, “Library Of Sticks”?

Natalia Beylis: My life seems to be surrounded by sticks. I live with a drummer so there's the collection of sticks used to make sounds. I live with a dog so there's an appreciation (if not full understanding) for his deep relationship with sticks. I was writing this album in late winter, which is the time of year when I trim back the various willow structures around my house and gather up all the sticks for kindling. The kindling storage zone ends up looking nearly like a library of sticks with crates filled with them and then stacked on top of each other. But the title doesn't come from that. It actually refers to a small stretch of road that we pass on our evening walk. For some reason, this is the place where the dog always wants a good ole' stick; either to play with or just to carry home. There used to be a lot of sticks along this stretch but eventually the entire supply got moved further along or brought back to the house. So we started gathering up sticks on other parts of our walk and stashing them in the hedgerows along this particular patch of road.

That's what we call the 'Library of Sticks' and that's where the album's name comes from.

The inspiration for our 'Library of Sticks' came from a picture Willie found on the internet of a dog looking very chuffed and sitting beside a box with a hand drawn sign that said 'Stick Library'. A father and son made the library to entertain the local dogs in their area. It's so sweet!

AC: An internet search confirms this!

The cover for ‘Library Of Sticks’ is by a veteran Navel-Gazer - one of my favourite artists - Karen Constance, how do you know Karen? And tell us about this Finnish label Artsy, they seem to put out a lot of good stuff.

Natalia Beylis: I've been friends with Karen since her duo Blood Stereo came over to play at a local festival I was putting on. I loved Karen's artwork well before we met though. She's one of my favourite artists as well! Both visually and sonically. When I was thinking of covers for the album I went over to her website to see what wonders were there and as soon as I saw that painting I knew it would be perfect. Thanks so much for letting me use it Karen!

Artsy is great. I've been buying releases off them for a few years so I was really excited when Arttu got in touch with me to do something for the label. Their stuff is always worth checking out!

AC: Final question.. or penultimate one really. Why exactly do you do all this? Where do you think ideas come from, how do they develop into projects like ‘Library Of Sticks’, and what motivates you to continue?

Natalia Beylis: All the big questions! I've been mulling it over for the past few days and the only answer I can come up with is that I'm not exactly sure. I feel that these are things that I'm still learning and discovering. I guess that's probably one thing that motivates me: a curiosity to keep exploring these exact questions. Will you come back to me in ten years time and ask me again? We can sit around a bonfire and chat under the stars and see if either of us has come up with any more insights for an answer by then!

Sound Studio 80s
AC: Well it sounds like you’re saying that maybe your own curiosity about why you do these things is, in a way, why you do them! I know it’s a tough question but that’s very relatable actually.

What’s next for you Natalia? Any current or upcoming projects to promote, or final thoughts for our readers?

Natalia Beylis: I have a new album called 'Mermaids' coming out soon on Touch Sensitive Records, Belfast. It's an album of solo pieces written on an old electric piano that I found at the recycling centre. I'll be doing a release tour for it around Ireland and the UK. If any of your readers are around for the gigs, come up and say hi!

Thanks so much for the interview Andrew. It's been a joy to delve deeper into the 'Library of Sticks' album. Generally, after I put out an album, I never think about it again. It's been refreshing to take a little pause and revisit a release. Also, I just want to say how grateful I am that anyone listens to my releases. I'm always humbled when someone takes the time to join me in my soundworld. So thanks listeners xx

Natalia can be found at

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