Wander into the Sea and Join Ambient Musician Lykanthea's Coven

The Rome-based artist shares her "Partuition" video and talks about being inspired by Carnatic singing, Etruscan burial sites, and Witch Instagram.

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May 19 2015, 3:58pm


Photos courtesy of Lykanthea

If you hang around any social network long enough, you’ll come to find that it is populated by various neighborhoods, built entirely on a shared aesthetic. One of these is a sort of Witch Instagram: a highly curated visual community, comprised mostly of (white) women, that revolves around darkened photos of altars and dead flower bouquets. Going through this particular Instagram rabbit hole is a fascinating journey, in part because it exists almost exclusively on this social network. Where Tumblr has the lockdown on Technicolor hair selfies, Instagram is home to an expansive coven, with faded photos of women wearing antique Edwardian gowns in a forest.

Ambient musician Lykanthea came up through this community when she was experimenting with drone in Chicago. Through the picture-sharing app, she met other artists and designers whose work, she says “mirrored that aesthetic that I’d always been attracted to, but didn’t know was thriving.”

Prior to working with ambient music as a distinct genre, Lykanthea played in punk bands and was heavily influenced by Riot Grrrl. But texturally, her music is built on a solid foundation of Carnatic music, a vocal-based form of South Indian classical music. Her mother insisted she learn to sing in the traditional Indian manner as a child. The influence is most obvious in her mousy voice, which floats through her breezy, atmospheric drones. For ambient music, it feels refreshingly light and feminine: an energy, she says, that is valid and worthy. Lykanthea’s soundscapes are about crafting an overall echo of a memory—specifically a sweet memory. The music is soothingly quiet, but it avoids the basal melodrama of New Age music.

Instagram also allowed her to collaborate with visual artist Krist Mort, who’s worked with fellow witch Chelsea Wolfe. Today on Noisey, we’re premiering that collaboration, the music video for “Partuition”, from Lykanthea’s Migration EP, which was released only on cassette in 2014. It’s a stunning foray into an Estruscan burial ground (an ancient Italian society that pre-dates the Roman Empire), with Mort’s signature woozy monochrome imagery that makes you feel like you’re a part of a primordial invocation. I recently spoke with Lykanthea (whose name is Lakshmi Ramgopal) from her current home in Rome about living in Italy and being Indian in a very Carefree White Girl scene.

Noisey: What’s it to live in Rome? Do you find it inspiring?
Lykanthea:
I’m in Rome because I won this thing called a Rome Prize… to finish my dissertation in classics. It’s awarded by a private institution in Rome that awards 30 artists, scholars, musicians, etc, the chance to live in Rome for year. They give us a stipend and feed us, like, organic food while we just do our thing. Basically, it’s like living in a hotel that pays you to live there. Totally crazy. (Laughs) I feel like I’ve peaked.

I’ve come here often over the past ten years for research, but this is my first time being here for a while. And it’s been fun but also challenging: Unlike Chicago, Rome doesn’t have a strong alternative scene. And I feel like an outsider, in the sense that I’m not Italian and I’m not white, and I’m always aware of that.

Aesthetically, I’ve been increasingly interested in things that pre-date my own studies, actually. My research is about the Roman Empire, but I’m becoming really interested in the Etruscan civilization. I love the texture of Etruscan burial sites. They seem otherworldly, and it’s been exciting to go to these dead cities. They seem very foreign in a way that Roman monuments don’t. I’ve also gotten really interested in Tarot—not so much as a way to gain insight but more about where it emerged. Turns out that Tarot is from Milan! I went to Milan a couple months ago and went to the studio of this Italian artist who’s been designing Tarot decks for decades. It’s this little shop that is just filled with Tarot decks: Some of them are made of vintage pieces of art he found, others are, like, Cubist influenced. It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen.

How did you get hooked with Krist Mort for the video? It’s strange and fascinating, and I like that it crafts a mood rather a narrative.
Well, I met Kristina through Instagram. I found her through the wider Instagram circle that I’ve become a part of in the past two years. We’d been following each other for a while and liking each other posts. I remember finding her work and thinking “I have to work with this girl!”

She said she was interested, and she picked “Partuition.” It has a strong melody, but it is also very slow-moving, and she felt that she could find a way to bring that to life, visually. The video is shot in Orvieto, which is a little bit north of Rome, and there’s a big Etruscan burial site there with limestone tombs.

I didn’t want the video to be too much about me. I wanted to create a feeling. My record has a narrative, and I didn’t want that be construed as a soundtrack because that can get cheesy.

With ambient music, it’s more about creating an expression over the course of two or three songs, rather than putting a narrative in one song. Can you talk about the expressions within your EP?
This is actually my first time doing the ambient thing, and I made this decision on instinct. I grew up listening to Carnatic music, and that’s how I learned to sing and dance. Having to learn Indian vocals—which was one of those things that my mom made me do, and I was not into it—makes it native to me. And when I hear certain drones or harmoniums, I have these vivid emotions of being a little kid and my grandma massaging my hair with oil, or my mother making some deep-fried curry and the whole house would smell like it. And that’s a direction I take with storytelling.

I began thinking about growing in a household of strong Indian women. We all look very similar, and as we age we turn into increasingly wrinkly versions of each other. It’s like being able to see your future as soon as you’re born. That was my starting point.

Can you talk a little bit about the whole like, Witch Instagram world? As like, a real thing, because often times, communities like that tend to be very devalued.
It’s been such a valuable media experience! I got really into Instagram through the jewelry designer Hunter Gatherer. Through her feed, I was able to meet other like-minded people whose work really speaks to me. There’s totally an Insta-coven. It can be cliquey, and very passive-aggressive in terms of who follows whom. It can really become a mindfuck if you let it. But it has led to some great collaborations with designers I like. And the ones I haven’t met, well, I don’t think those relationships are worth less because I haven’t met them because we live far away.

And the witch thing… it be can super focused on like, do all of your photos look dark enough, are they witchy enough? It’s also a very white scene. A lot of it is like, a white girl in the woods. Which is really funny because a lot of those things originated from societies of color. So that’s been interesting is experience as someone who is not white and doesn’t fit the aesthetic. And when I borrow from that aesthetic, it’s with knowing that I’m not like them. I’m aware that what I do is potentially less appealing because I don’t fit that mold. I would like to say it’s changing, but I’m not really sure that it is.

Meagan Fredette is big on Witch Twitter.