Interview: Painter + Musician, Elle-louise Burguez

Words OLIVER MOL Images ADRIEL ROSS and KIRSTIE EDWARDS

Elle-Louise Burguez, also known as Elle Músa, is a self-taught painter and musician whose prodigious and instantly recognisable work—whether sonically or visually—induces an almost dream-like state and recalls those crucial, warm and daring emotions usually discarded, and at great loss, around adolescence: curiosity and wonder. Burguez is a true artist, constantly creating, and has spent the past ten years experimenting, developing and fearlessly devoting herself to craft, and the results are breathtaking. This interview discusses art as a remedy for anxiety, the need for authenticity and vulnerability, and the desire to create beauty in an impermanent world. Through her work and words, Burguez reminds us to make only the art we can, and to be fearlessly and boldly ourselves.

The art you create is at times unapologetically optimistic and has a depth, honesty and beauty that speaks to childhood. When did you realise you had an interest in painting and music?

That’s very kind. I was born in Brisbane, and my childhood was very, how do I say it—I was an only child, and I really lived in my imagination. Everything I saw or looked at felt magical. I don’t know where that came from, but I would find the simplest things so exciting. The colour of my lollies. Playing with flowers and a doll. At school, I remember creating games where we had to go find the purple flower. That was my childhood. There was also a lot of music; my dad was constantly listening to music, and so I was surrounded by everything from classical to folk to jazz. But if I really think back now, I was probably a little bit anxious as a child. My imagination was so wild, and sometimes at night time I thought there was a witch in my house.

 

Do you think art helped you make sense of the world?

Definitely. In my early 20s, I became quite anxious and suddenly very introverted. All I did was sit at my parent’s house and draw. I remember thinking how amazing it was that drawing made me feel so lovely. I guess I felt like a child again. Before that I was always into music, dancing and playing the piano, although I didn’t think any of that was very cool, but in my 20s I understood that I needed this, that I had all this energy, that I was not the kind of person who could just work a job and drink on the weekends and feel okay. I guess I am quite existential, which is part of my childhood too. I remember, when I was younger, suddenly realising that my parents and the people I loved would die. I think about this memory often because I also realised that I wanted to create beauty. I wanted to tap into these feelings rather than suppress them and be afraid.

Have you had any mentors or guidance from people who encouraged you to live creatively?

To be honest, not many. Not in a bad way, I just understood that it was going to be tough to try and live this kind of life. But I think my other creative friends have made me feel as though this life is possible. My partner Adi and all of his friends are creative. They’re all musicians. It’s been a tough slog, but they just do it. So that’s helped. I’ve been so inspired by people, but it’s not like I’ve been inspired by people and thought, I could do that. Musically, though, I am very inspired by Blonde Redhead. Musicians who are a little different, who are not following the mold. But when I was beginning with art, there was never really anyone I looked to. I had no idea of artists or anything like that. I just made art because it felt necessary, and I listened to myself because I wanted to.

 

The Spanish painter Joan Miró was famous for waking every morning at 6 a.m, bathing and eating a light breakfast of coffee and bread, painting until noon, then exercising. The French painter Balthus would check the light from his Swiss studio, then meditate for two hours, smoking constantly. Do you have any routines that help your ideas to flourish?

The past few months—because I am pregnant, and because of my nausea—I haven’t been able to do anything, and it’s been one of the hardest times of my life. I’ve just been so sick, but when I tap into the flow, it’s strange—when I paint I get into this almost manic state where I just paint until my arm hurts. In terms of routines, it helps if I jump in the ocean everyday, even in winter, and I always need to do some exercise in the morning. As I am getting older, I am trying not to allow myself to get so in my head, to think that I have to make this amazing thing, and I try not to compare myself to others. So, I swim and exercise. I meditate. I have baths. Sometimes I meditate in the bath. I do these guided meditations that walk you through your subconscious and help you move through insecurities and the things that are blocking you. But when it comes to music, although I could sit at a piano and write all the music I could ever write, when it comes to actually finishing a song, I am extremely perfectionistic. Recently, however, something has shifted in me, and I no longer want to compromise with my music. I have arrived at this amazing place where I only want to make songs that feel completely and authentically me. Even if they’re not commercial. I am coming back to myself.

Let’s talk about your music. How did your song “Mango Pops” come about, and more largely what is your process for writing a song?

That song, oh my goodness. Adi and I had just returned from overseas, and my friends and I had spent the day at the beach in Noosa. We had all had these mango and coconut cream icy poles, and it was really beautiful. Anyway, a couple days later I was sitting at the piano just playing around. I don’t know all the crazy chords so I just keep it simple. I make my heart feel something. I started playing over and over these chords that sounded like Lana Del Ray’s “Video Games”, and then I started singing, “Mango pops on a summer’s day”, and I just kept repeating that. When I play piano I fall into this big improvisation, but I was at this point in my life where all my friends were having babies and getting older, the existential crisis again, but I was grateful for the beach and the ocean, and I didn’t want that feeling to ever go away. I was trying to capture that moment when life felt like this simple and lovely and playful thing. I sang for an hour in this very emotional and melancholic way, and then Adi came in and said, “Elle! That was crazy! Really special! I recorded that!” which was lucky because when I make music I forget it straight away, and for some reason I had not been recording the session because I had convinced myself that I was just playing around, or that it wasn’t very good. So I was very thankful, but I hadn’t created the chorus yet, and I just kept playing around, then left it for a while.

A few days later, my parents were watching a gospel music documentary on TV, and the people were throwing their hands up, and it was so beautiful and amazing, and I felt so inspired that I ran back to the piano and convinced myself that I needed to write a happy chorus. I needed to lift the song up, so I used A and D, these simple, happy chords, and then I began singing, “I throw my hands up.” And that was it, the song was written.

But it really came alive when we worked with our friend Jeff, who turned it into this crazy pop, fun song, because otherwise it would have been a different, more emotional song. I like that song because something clicked and the melody simply arrived. Most of the time that doesn’t happen, but that’s okay; I just tell myself it’s just not one of those days.

Do you find your practices speak to or inform one another? Do you work on several projects at the same time, or do you practice a more focused creative relationship?

I tend to focus on one at a time. When I am painting I go hard and don’t have any energy left for music. At the same time, I am sort of refueling for other, future projects. Let’s say I paint for three months straight, in the back of my head I usually have this feeling that all the elements in my art will find their way into my songs. There’s a sort of romance that happens, and I get this feeling that reminds me of childhood where I fall in love with, or am inspired by, certain shapes or colours. To be specific, I might walk past a house at sunset, where people are cooking food, and try to recreate that magical feeling using spirals or the colour red, which manifests visually in the art but also sonically in my music. It’s the same energy, and they go hand in hand. With both forms I am trying to find the simplest beauty in life, and to move away from my existential self and towards my true self, which is just someone who sees the magic in everything. The simplest things can bring me happiness and I think colours help to bring that out of me. If my songs were paintings, they would be the same colours.

 

How did you find your style, or what you might call your voice, and how do you see that changing in the future?

My style began when I sat down with a big box of Textas. I started with abstract colour by mixing Textas with water. At the time I had this longing for a beautiful house. I had no money and was a university student and fairly naive, but I could imagine the beautiful table and chair and plant that I wanted, and so I decided to draw that little world. Other times I would draw dalmatian dogs or a rug or spaghetti or windows or a dress. I was drawing the kind of world I wanted to be in. Over time it became a little more elegant, you know, not using every colour in the Texta pack. Then I decided I was going to draw people, and they would pay me to draw their studio, or they would get a birthday present for a friend and ask me to draw something. I think, every year, I was trying to become a bit more graceful and stylish. Then when I started using paints I learned how to simplify, and at the same time my taste changed. I started to love beautiful architecture and design. I never really looked at artists when I was young, and even though I became curious, I never looked at or compared myself to other modern artists. I just tapped into this very vulnerable and authentic voice and the art came out.

Several years ago, on a trip to outback Queensland, you performed Eva Cassidy’s “Tall Trees In Georgia” to a room full of our close friends. The performance was spectacular, haunting and intimate. What does that song mean to you, and how do you prepare for a performance?

My parent’s love Eva Cassidy, and I remember the first time they played “Tall Trees In Georgia.” I balled my eyes out because it was so unbelievably beautiful. She is not alive anymore, but she had the most haunting voice you have ever heard. There are these videos on Youtube where she is singing in a New York bar, and you can see the emotion in her face, and I don’t know whether at the time she knew she was going to die, because she had skin cancer, but there is this look on her face that is so real and emotional. She’s probably subconsciously a big inspiration. Anyway, the song was originally written by Buffy Sainte-Marie who was this incredible folk singer, but that song speaks to me because it says you can be existential and have regret and guilt and fear, but there is so much beauty to be found as well. At some point, I started to sing it in front of my family. Like I said, we have a very musical family on both sides, although especially on my dad’s side, and we would sing that song at parties, and often I would be moved to tears. I am moved to tears easily, but I was proud of that song, that I could sing that song for my family. And then when I started to party, I would invite friends around and sing that song to them. When I am about to perform I get very nervous, to the point of shaking. Even so, I enjoy the rush of being authentically and vulnerably myself. When I sing, although especially when I sing that song, it feels very special and spiritual to me because then we might all connect and feel the same thing, and then it’s like: who needs to feel existential, because we are all in this together, which means everything is going to be okay.

 

Do you have any advice for creatives starting out? Or, perhaps, what would you say to your unborn child about how to approach art?

What I would say is to be playful and to do whatever you want. Really do whatever you want to do. Feel it more than using your head, especially when you are starting out, so you can tap into your own style and your own voice. And try not to look at too many other people and compare yourself to them. And when you find the way you want to express yourself, then be confident, even if it doesn’t seem to be cool or the right thing—because that’s actually what most people want: your distinctiveness, your uniqueness, and we’re all pretty afraid of that. However, be prepared, especially if you are attempting art commercially, to go through big ups and downs. So—as long as you remember that you are making art for the love of it, and you can remind yourself to not to be so affected by external things, then your life can be really wonderful.