DIANA’s Carmen Elle On Art And Anxiety

The Canadian musician chats about her band’s next album and the challenges of being an artist

When the Canadian band DIANA uploaded their instantly popular synthpop song “Born Again” to SoundCloud nearly four years ago, it was clear that the band was on to greatness. Lead singer Carmen Elle — who’s also one-half of the rock duo Army Girls and has performed with bands like Austra — stood out immediately, her icy voice cutting through DIANA’s sultry sounds like a blade. Together with her bandmates Joseph Shabason and Kieran Adams, she released the trio’s debut, Perpetual Surrender, a collection of perfectly restrained electronica that was eventually long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize in 2014.

The band has been working on their second album more or less since then. Before entering a studio, they rented a cottage in Quebec to start writing and recording on the cheap. “We really tried to save money, so we ended up putting a vocal booth in Kieran’s walk-in closet at the time,” Elle tells me over the phone. “I just stood from June to September, five days a week, in his closet, recording.” The band is approaching their latest work with a new intentionality, as opposed to last time, when they woke up and their single was blowing up on the internet. “I remember when ‘Born Again’ started to gain momentum online, we were getting festival invites,” Elle says. “And we were like, fuck, we need to learn how to play these songs live!”

Even with her diverse résumé, making music isn’t something that comes easily to Elle. Sometimes the work of music — touring it, performing it — can do more harm than good. We spoke about the progress DIANA are making on their next record and how Elle’s anxiety affects her life as a performer.

When DIANA was first starting to release music around 2012, it all seemed to happen very suddenly. Was there a lot of pressure in the beginning to live up to the attention your music got on SoundCloud?

Carmen Elle: Kind of, yeah. I don’t think we did the best job of it. We had a certain amount of mystique in the beginning — like, “Who are these faceless Canadians with this infectious summer tune?” or whatever. Then they were like, “They’re just jazz nerds, OK, got it.” It felt like we were constantly playing catch-up and being thrown into an industry where, despite having played gigs for up to 10 years each, we had no idea [what it took] to be in a band at that level. You have to [make] a video, and you have to change the length of your album, all those pressures.

You’ve spoken before about your struggles with anxiety and how that has affected your live performances. What has it been like while you’ve worked on the new album?

Elle: It’s been a pretty big shaper of the structure of the band. I have a traveling phobia — a lot of people hate traveling, but [for me] it’s a life-or-death phobia. I’ve had anxiety my whole life, very acutely. When it came down to it, I did all these courses at the hospital, and took all these drugs, and meditated to get into the first batch of tours. But at the end of the day, it was making me sick. It was making me miserable. It was just too difficult to do it. So we’re augmenting our touring this time around. We’re trying to make a compromise, but we’re not even sure what that’s going to look like, because there is enormous pressure on bands to tour. I also think there are a lot of misconceptions about what touring actually is that sort of perpetuate a lifestyle we don’t vibe with.

What sort of misconceptions do you mean?

Elle: People think touring is glamorous and exciting, like it’s a drinking, party-filled experience. So if you’re a band that doesn’t have a lot of money or you have to stay with people, they think, Oh, the band’s in town, we’re gonna get drunk and party. And people don’t realize that isn’t what happens 30 nights in a row. If that’s happening, you’re probably on a bender. Sometimes it’s like, what if I’m tired or sick? There’s always pressure for being out there and expending energy on a marathon basis. It’s an environment where it’s really hard to say no.

It does feel like the mental health of musicians, and the toll of constantly getting onstage and expending energy, isn’t spoken about as much outside of top-tier pop stars. Why do you think it’s important to be transparent about your own experiences?

Elle: It’s one of those things where it’s so not spoken about. We don’t have a culture of transparency with that. Honestly, if you can tour and make a living, that’s a beautiful thing — everyone is so grateful that that’s possible — but we don’t talk about the ways that it’s also difficult. I read an article in The Guardian last year that was all about how many people we’ve lost — Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, all these huge icons — so let’s talk about what touring does and how it affects mental health. [MTV News’s] Meredith Graves was featured in that article. It was the first time I read someone else’s opinion on it and I thought, Oh, I can talk about this too!

Have you ever had a moment where you had to step back and kind of reconsider, like, Am I built for this? Is this something I want to do all the time?

Elle: Like every day! [Laughs.] I’ll read journals from my teen years, and [it says], “I’m gonna quit music this year!” It’s been a very difficult relationship since day one.

How do you prepare to perform when you do perform?

Elle: It depends. I had a year where I was playing a lot and didn’t yet know about warming up my voice and I ended up losing it for a month. So now I always do singing warmups. In the DIANA band, I try to not do something we call “gut bombing,” which is when you eat too much crazy cheesy food before you go onstage, and when you’re on there you find yourself burping into the microphone. [Laughs.] I have a lot of coping strategies. I don’t get stage fright all the time, but when I do it’s pretty bad. Unfortunately what happens with me [is] I can’t be in the venue before I go onstage. There have been so many moments where my bandmates are texting me like, “OK, we’re onstage, we’re setting up, where the fuck are you?” Eventually over the years they’ve learned to trust I will always show up, but I think it’s very nerve-racking for them.

Do you feel like people underestimate that part of the work? Making art as a job is seen as “fun,” and people erase the labor of making yourself feel comfortable to perform.

Elle: People are always like, “Oh, I would love to do what you do,” but there’s also a dismissive element to it. I don’t often tell people that music is a difficult relationship to have with myself because of how much it perpetuates my anxiety. Anybody I say that to, they’ll say, “Oh shut up, you’re a musician!” No questions, you play music. There’s very little understanding and compassion toward it. It’s very one-dimensional, and you’re seen as making up that it’s difficult. I was talking to a friend of mine who is in a band. He tours a lot more than me, and we were talking about how 95 percent of the time, touring is the most bored you’ll ever be in your life. You’re just in a car, you’re lonely but you’re not alone, you’re following an itinerary. And then 5 percent of the time it’s the best time you’ll have in your life. There’s no in-between.

What, for you, are the highs of making music?

Elle: I love being onstage. I actually do. That’s my favorite part. I think it’s so beautiful and humbling to be responsible for such a huge energy exchange between the songs that we built and the audience.

That’s a good way of putting it, “energy exchange.”

Elle: You can feel it! When the energy is low you have to work harder, and when the energy is high, you’re all just on a beautiful feedback loop together.

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