Lyra Pramuk talks about production processes, spiritual messages and the portrayal of queer identities in today’s pop culture.
Born in the United States and based in Berlin performance artist Lyra Pramuk has become increasingly popular in concert and club evenings, festivals and even talking panels. In her work she evolves her own voice as an instrument with which she can experiment and create atmospheric experiences for the audience.
Lyra Pramuk’s pervasive stage presence, backed by subtle mystical elements, creates a distinctive but ever-changing vibe as some of you may have seen on her Viennese solo debut, which was part of Deep Fridays at the Wiener Festwochen. There is such tension in the room, and places of comfort and inner peace are created while the artist is on stage.
We talked to Lyra Pramuk about her origins, how producing art can make yourself vulnerable and discussed the current position of queer identities in the creative industry. Before you start reading, we would like to draw attention to Lyra Pramuk’s GoFundMe campaign for her gender affirmation surgery. An Interview by Julius Pristauz.
You grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Is there anything that you have artistically taken over from there?
Where I grew up in Pennsylvania is a small town in a suburb surrounded by forests, farms, and national parks, and strung together with highway systems. Obviously, the small-town America has its drawbacks, but with enough money to grow up to live there, I was lucky enough to have a lot of freedom. I’ll always be that small-town person in some way. I grew up in nature, got scrapes and cuts in the woods, made mistakes and figured things out on my own. I saved up money and bought a car when I was 16, and I would drive around listening to music for hours. I believe that country people can be quite lovely people, I appreciate their groundedness. I try to stay as connected to nature as I felt as a kid - even though I am not so often in the woods.
How was your life before landing in Berlin? What has changed through the relocation?
Life in the US has always been this fierce dichotomy. On the one hand, I was this extremely outgoing person who played theater and performed always and everywhere in life and on stage. On the other hand, I had extreme social anxiety and spent most of my time in the teens indoors reading, making music, playing video games, writing, drawing pictures. That was always something about gender for me - what was expected of me, in contrast to what energy I was able to take for myself in private. In 2013, I graduated from the Music Conservatory with classical singing and I moved to Berlin in the fall. I had spent a couple summers learning German in Berlin. Honestly, when I moved here full time, it was a bit of a playground for me. I’ve never been so free to make my own decisions. My life became a lot about dancing, playfulness, and experimentation in a way it never was before. Berlin really welcomed me openly.
Your voice plays a dominant role in the development of your music and your performances. Do you manipulate your voice technologically during production?
I guess my voice is central to my performance and production because I spent 6-7 years where I mainly trained my voice. In a way, it became my most accessible instrument, so I feel more comfortable when I start an idea from a sketch or improvisation that I make out of my voice. When I start a set or performance, it’s important for me that I warm my voice and body into the atmosphere of the space.
In my production about 90% of the time I start with a recorded vocal of mine, looped vocals or a vocal sample and then often manipulate the vocals in various ways. That could pitch up or down the voice, lengthen it, process it with reverbs and delays, or some more experimental effects. I sample the voice in the granular synthesis and resample also in instruments. And I’ve started to create more complex routing and signal processes for live performance and production that really make it sound like the computer and my body are somehow one. It’s crazy, but sometimes, when I’m recording through an effect chain, I imagine I’m the affected alien computer voice.
Can you tell us something about your writing process and your connection to language and poetry?
When I started writing, I basically wrote experimental pop songs. Then, for almost three years, I stopped writing anything that sounded like a song with language in it. This was a really important step for me because it gave me the confidence and authority to write songs in which the music could speak entirely on its own. It was liberating for me not to have to think about words in these contexts, because the English language is full of paradox and loaded with political tension that I always feelas an American living in Europe. Writing in German would create a different kind of alienation. For me, there is a great poetry in musical language itself that can be augmented or supplemented by words and language. I feel like I’m in a more moderate place now. On my upcoming EP, I play slower and more nuanced with the language, keeping the feeling that there are always different little voices singing and cooing at you to tell a story that words can’t necessarily tell.
Your music is very atmospheric and somehow feels very private. How do you translate that to a place full of strangers?
Since I’ve written music, I’ve mostly found success writing at home, at my desk which shares space with my bed. It’s an intimate setting to write music anyway. I’ve always been interested in the more intimate side of music and storytelling. This intimacy is something I long for. I truly believe that there’s lack of intimacy in many of the music we share and do, and this largely has to do with how the economy has evolved around music sales. Today, when I look at the state of Instagram, self-promotion, and so on, I feel pressured to do something loud, impressive, and iconic. But I am just as often emotionally overtaken by music and art that is soft, generous, music that wants to draw you in and hug you.
Part of it, I think, is to get to a place where I feel comfortable in my body and feel comfortable in the room. It’s not always easy, but I have to find this pocket of peace within myself. Essentially, when I go on stage, I want to perform the most gracious, loving and empowered version of myself. And if a few people in the audience resonate with that, that’s super cool.
What role does the audience, the people on the other side play in your performances? What interests you to be on stage?
I guess I am increasingly interested in the performance space as a sort of laboratory. The more I get into studio practice and live processing, the more I see the need for the environment to be somehow relaxed, so I have room to play and the audience has room to realize I’m playing, realize that this is not is a 50-minute super-rehearsed pop show with backing tracks. There’s also something there for me on a philosophical level. I think we always make, do, play. I like that my show dissolves and evolves over time, and will be different every time I play. This might sound extremely corny, but I have a spiritual message that I want to share through my music. So, when I’m on stage, I am preoccupied with being the conduit that could pass on that feeling and those vibes. The audience can and sometimes interact at various intervals, but I hope that the music relaxes people and, at best, makes them feel more connected to themselves, helping people to process problems and feelings they’ve had in the day.
Your work carries a sense of purity and sensitivity - I even dare to say vulnerability. Do you feel like you make yourself vulnerable through your art?
Yeah, I hope so. It’s a lot of work to be vulnerable but I find it usually makes things better and makes me feel better. When I write or sing there is something I have to be honest about. I don’t like myself or my work when I’m not being honest. And honestly, I feel very vulnerable and transparent a lot of the time. I think more and more, there is also a sense of danger, hypnosis, or seduction that I am also feeling compelled toward. I’m a big romantic.
How intertwined and influenced are your work and creativity by the process of transitioning and living as a woman?
Well, to a lot of people, I say, I’m a woman because I’m much more a woman than anything else. And in many ways, I am a woman. But I also identify myself as a non-binary transfeminine person. And as far as my growth and exploration of gender goes, it is intimately linked to art work. In terms of working with people who respect me, making work in which I feel I respect my own growth and continue to allow myself to feel that I am being redefined and always growing. I think, like to many other transgender people, art and life are somehow tied together for me.
I think you once said that you don’t want to make a difference between you as a real-life person and you as an on-stage performer. Is that just a feeling you have or was that a conscious and necessary decision you made?
It has become a conscious decision at this point. I make and perform my own music since 2013 and when I started I always had an issue of how to present myself as a person on stage. I used to be this dorky, kinky boy who felt totally trapped and unable to express myself. I struggled a lot with the tropes of maleness that I felt imposed on my body when I identified myself as a queer, gay male. I went on a huge journey with this, performed in fetish drag, tied strip lights around my body and did everything I could imagine to bring my everyday self into a more intoxicating performative state. I used to feel this huge uncomfortable separation between life and what I wanted to communicate in my music - something softer, more feminine, and rich in experience - that felt impossible to attain. There’s a certain level of comfort needed to get up and do the things you do as a performer, and I’m grateful to be finding that slowly. However, it’s a process.
You also changed your stage name from Lyra solely to Lyra Pramuk. Why do you feel that it is important to use your full, real name for your artistic projects?
I realize that I have certain priorities across every area of my life that make me me, and I don’t feel the need to dress myself up as a character so much when I play my music as when I first started. Some of my closest friends do all their work under their full names, they inspired me as well. I feel it gives art work a sort of renewed sense of possibility in the real world, to see real humans making art with their human names.
I think we must collectively support artists of all kinds to achieve sincere fairness and equality in this area - but not to reduce people as they identify. Do you have the feeling that there are artists who are put in a box or are trying to sell because they are just not straight and / or cisgender?
Yeah, absolutely there are. However, the entire economy around art and creative industries is still primarily available only for straight and / or cisgender and especially for white artists. And I still feel that straight, cisgender, white artists not only get more space, their opinions are also treated with greater weight.
There are tons of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming artists, many POC, many good friends of mine, who in my opinion are not adequately respected or seen in the industry, simply because of how they identify, or because of which symbols they choose to use in their work. Trans- and queerphobia in the industry manifests itself through the absence of representation and accountability. At the same time, we see rapid exploitation of queer aesthetics. That’s so reductive. Queer and trans artists have so many unique worldviews, perspectives, and practices that the world should see more of.
Diversity and different gender identities are more and more common in the creative industry. But we still have a long way to go. Where are we on this journey and what else needs to be changed?
I’d like to see big festival line-ups that prioritize queer, non-binary, trans, and POC artists as much as female artists. I’d like to see more press agencies that are willing to give complex and nuanced interviews with queer artists, like the one we are having now. I’d like to see the work of cutting-edge, experimental black artists discussed with as much conceptual weight and rigor as the Beatles have received over the past 50 years. And not just rappers. I’d like to see more organizations, events, festivals, conferences, and club nights bring queer artists into their structures, make those spaces safer for them to flourish - pay them as well as they would any other white dude and give them the mic for as long as they need to tell their story and share their work with a new audience.