Sunday, 1 February 2015

Interview with Ellah A. Thaun

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Ellah A. Thaun, a transgender woman, an artist from France, singer & guitarist, co-founder of the electronic duo Valeskja Valcav and playing solo as a folk songwriter. Hello Ellah!
Ellah: Hi Monika!
Monika: When did you decide that music will be your profession?
Ellah: I was 5 or 6, after watching the documentary "Imagine" (about John Lennon) with my mother, I think. I remember being deeply moved without knowing why exactly. I started my first band at 13 after listening to 'Nevermind', like a lot of teenagers born in the eighties and I haven't stopped playing since.
Monika: Where do you get your musical inspirations from?
Ellah: I think I love music so much it's like I'm studying every record I'm listening to. Some are made just like any piece of art. There's architecture, a texture, thoughts hidden behind the soundscapes. But I've always said to myself that you can't really make music until you have really lived things, felt things, experienced life. That's why I was so frustrated as a teenager, I felt like I had nothing to say except writing about teenage anger, you know.
And at the same time, I wanted to say everything about everything. That's why I've never forgotten that working on 2 sleepless nights in a row on a record is totally stupid and useless if you're not capable of allowing yourself to go outside and follow what life has to tell you. So, that's the true inspiration for me.

Monika: What was the origin of Valeskja Valcav? Could you elaborate more on the band’s music and Lps?
Ellah: It started as a collective in 2007 in my hometown, then in Paris where I lived because I wanted to settle down here. But that didn't work, the collective was pretty much not playing but I released two EP's and a single for a Parisian label. That was shoegaze, arty music sung in French at the time and I was bored with it and was ready to stop everything when I met Jill, my astral-siamese-soul. She insisted on making a new band, as Valeskja Valcav, and as a duo. It was late 2009, early 2010. We made pure instrumental noise music for a year, then added drum machines, and voices. Starting from nothing, we made our first concerts in Paris, then recorded two EPs, had very good reviews, made a residency in Rouen where I was beginning the study at art school.
People seemed to be very enthusiastic about our music and we toured as much as we could, in France, and then in London, Berlin... We recorded what was going to be our first LP in 2013 but we never finished it. We didn't really like what we did, we experienced a lot of technical difficulties too. We got a little freaked out about what was going to be the next VV, so we took a year off, to focus on our respective solo projects, and to rethink VV for the third time.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now? Where can we see your live performance?
Ellah: Well, in 2014 I worked intensively on my solo project as Ellah a. Thaun. I've released 13 LPs since 2010, pure lo-fi folk music. Collage of demos, rehearsals, sessions alone in the bed with my guitar, always in relation to my artworks in drawing, photography.
Like in VV, artworks are as much important as the music. That's when I've decided to finally start touring solo and release my music on physical supports too. I'm touring in France throughout the year but not as much as I want because I need to prepare my degree for art school after five years of study. I'm playing in Berlin in April.
For VV we have a date next month in Paris, and another one coming in Brussels, but more importantly, we feel ready to release our first LP, I hope before June. When we'll have it in hands, we'll look for a label and start intensive touring next year I hope!

Pastel-Goth Transgrrrl.

Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Ellah: It changes everything, to be honest. It's like some parts of my brain I didn't know about are working now. It's like awakening when you think you're already awake.
Everything's new and just like it was at the same time. And it has bad sides too. I'm more intuitive, but more impulsive too and sometimes that's better to mature things. I'm working on it. Since I've decided to transition, even if I was already in an "androgynous, agender" phase for some time, it opened up a gateway to creativity that I never thought I would have.
I really can't define myself as a transgender artist. I consider myself as "a girl with a transgender path who is an artist". I mean I can't let the fact that I'm trans, leading my artistic life for the rest of my days. I prefer the idea that it will always appear like a filter, disturbing or lovely, depending on what side you are, on all my works. That's where it will touch people. People get bored so easily. And there's a real problem in France about the theatricality of trans issues. So you need to be very clever in how you approach transition publicly.
Monika: Contemporary music has produced a new wave of transgender female artists, just to name a few of them: Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Marissa Martinez of Cretin, Amber Taylor of The Sexual Side Effects, Namoli Brennet, Sissy Début, and Jennifer Leitham, and many others. Are we facing the creation of a new music trend in this respect?
Ellah: Totally. I mean, the seventies and the eighties saw a lot of musicians and artists coming out as gay, right? The same thing is happening here. Some of them, like Laura Jane Grace, are very open about this, explaining to people what it's REALLY like to be trans. And she's doing it very, very well. With documentaries. People start to understand, that's it's not a shame, not a disease or something to laugh at. Maybe they will start to really like it, ahah.
Monika: Are there any other transgender bands in France?
Ellah: Not any I've heard of. There's a real productive queer scene in Paris of course, but that's more like a really cool rocky-horror-picture-show-esque scene for me than a real trans artist community. I mean they're all trans-friendly, but not trans.


Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in French society?
Ellah: It's a NIGHTMARE. For trans people, the access to hormones is easier, I mean, a little easier. Doctors are more aware of trans situations. That's all. The hard part is to change your IDs. It can take years. My IDs are going to court in March.
It's been like two years and a half working with my lawyer just to have my document done. And it can take another year or two just to have an answer.
There's no law about trans people in France. They have something that tells you that you need to have done a Gender Reassignment Surgery, but the European Court tells that hormone replacement therapy is enough to have your ID change and that other surgeries belong to your private life. So the court can't say "yes" and can't say "no". And so the judge is here to tell you "yes" if he's trans-friendly, "yes but you need to make a surgery" if you haven't done any, which is not legal according to the European rights, and then there are months of medical and psychiatric humiliating expertise. And the judge can say "no" by losing your case in more years of administrative Kafkaesque nightmare.
Even if you have undergone GRS, the whole process can last 5 or 6 years. Sometimes without it, it could take a year and a half... it only depends on the court, the judge, and your lawyer. It's a shame.
Monika: It must be very depressing.
Ellah: A lot of trans people are facing suicidal thoughts doing that path and I totally understand that; you're here telling people that didn't know you that you are "you" and they say "no, you are not you, you are someone else". That is so stressful, so strange.
The fact is, that looking for a job with the wrong ID is almost impossible. All administrative tasks are always met with transphobic reactions. I've had years of panic attacks about this. I can't even go to the post office to receive a package, they won't give it to me saying that I'm not the one on my ID card. "Ahah, yes that's not me so why can't we just change that f****** card ?", you know.
The French politicians are saying that keeping this ID issue difficult is to prevent the country from overflows of lunatics or terrorists. They are the terrorists, they're killing trans people that are ready to work for them, leaving us to very a difficult life; and alone.
For the non-trans people, it's better. I've had some really beautiful reactions and feel protected by my close friends, by the people I work with every day. But I've had so many deceptions, even violence, and so many really, really WEIRD reactions that I'm totally suspicious every time I face someone I don't know. And that is really exhausting. People in France are absolutely not educated about this.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Ellah: Yep. Two. A beautiful French girl, Amanda, she had a blog on YouTube and I cried watching her videos about her transitioning. I felt so close to her about everything. When she started hormones and when I saw the changes on her videos I knew that was my path.
And there's Isley, a girl who lives in LA, who had a videoblog too. She's beautiful and made her transition public with her own eye as a photographer and that is truly interesting. That was the first time I was following a transgirl on the Internet and saying to myself "wow I love her clothes", "wow she's a guitarist in a girl band", you know, everything was so intelligent and so cool about her.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ellah: Everything. For as long as I remember I always knew I was a girl. But it takes different steps to put words on things. As a child, I didn't remember being anything, a boy or a girl I mean. I was just reading books most of the time, really shy, some friends but not that much.
In the early '90s, kids were not that gendered you know. I remember boys and girls dressed pretty much the same way. I was falling asleep at night sometimes wondering if I could wake up the next morning with a girl's body. And I was deeply sure that I'll grow up as a girl, just like that. But nothing happened, ahah.
The hard part came with high school. With boys, I was forced to play in the way that I could not be "discovered" as I truly was, and I was playing that quite well I think. And with girls, I was like "I am so much like you, everything like you but I can't tell you". That was so frustrating. I hid mostly with drugs (legal ones and not legal ones), I was smoking hashish from early in the morning to late at night, and I ended high school with make-up, long black hair, and wearing my at-the-time-girlfriend's clothes every day, so I think that a lot of people thought this was only provocative, I was fucked-up, end of the story.


All the photos: courtesy of Ellah A. Thaun.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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