Debby Friday is one of the most dynamic and multi-faceted performers I have been able to engage with. Her performances are electric, aggressive, and arresting but that is only one of a few mediums at her fingertips. A self-described experimentalist, her creative and intellectual palette spans wide, ranging from performance, writing, sound theory, and audio-visuals.
We crossed paths years ago in Ottawa through a mutual friend. Although the encounter was brief, it has been wonderful to witness the evolution of her creative practice since then. From the beginning of her DJ days in Montreal to the leap into recording and producing original work - her dedication to herself is clear.
Our conversation took place on an early mid-September afternoon as back-to-school energy was in full swing for both of us. The multi-disciplinary Vancouver-based artist is heading into the final year of her master’s program, an MFA in Interdisciplinary studies. During my time with her, we spoke about Death Drive, the follow up to last year’s debut Bitchpunk. Released this past August, this lastest five-track project has been making resounding waves in the underground electronic world. Bitchpunk hit like an unstoppable freight train and her sophomore effort is yet another powerful offering. Different themes are explored but shared with the same conviction. In her own words, she has described this new project as “hot noise: full of grief and full of relief. It is the painful and pleasurable next step, the sacrificial offering of my old life to the new.” We talked about some of the references and symbolism behind this new work, her writing practice, the new upcoming direction for her sound theory work, and the deeply transformative power of grief.
"i'm not trying to minimize the way that "identity" shapes our lived experience. I think what I am trying to say is that it often becomes a narrative trap."
What prompted you to go back to school?
It’s one of those decisions you make when you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your time. When I left Montreal, and I knew I wasn’t going back. I found this program online and one of my bucket list items had always been to go to art school. I did my undergrad in political science and women’s studies so I was like –okay – this was the only place I applied to – if I get in, I get in, if I don’t, I don’t. And I got in! So I was like, all right, I guess I’m moving to Vancouver.
How has it been to be in that space?
It’s fine arts and interdisciplinary studies, which means you choose what you want to study and everyone comes from such different disciplines; things I’ve never heard of before. It’s collaboration focused so you end up making a lot of projects with people. But it’s really about you, yourself, developing your own artistic practice and getting help from your cohort. As someone who doesn’t come from a traditional arts background, even being very self-taught in DJ-ing and music production… It’s been interesting. I think it has a lot of resources, it’s still one of the best ways to get access to resources, so if you need equipment, space – I still think school is one of the best ways to get access to that. I don’t want to say ‘cheaper’, because you still pay tuition and everything… but… it’s easy!
How has it been sharing some of the work you’ve been making there? The same time that you're at school to experiment, expand, and collaborate, you’re still working on your own musical projects and sharing them with the world – and those are two different spaces of viewing.
My performance art practice is not totally separate from my music practice. I’m trying more and more to have them overlap but I think the distinction is good. It allows me to have more spaces to play with different things. The experience has been okay, sharing things in the school context. I do, though, feel that – even though I do feel that school is a good resource I still have this feeling of feeling misunderstood in an academic context. I think people who make experimental work share that experience. School is school at the end of the day. You’re there; you get a grade, even though art is very subjective. You get your piece of paper, graduate, and go back to the ‘real world,’ right? So this whole feeling of being misunderstood....I’m trying to not put too much stock in that, because I know that this is just school, like a rehearsal. You get to try and fail without it being too big of a deal.
I’m grateful to be talking to you now, with a recent project of yours having been released – Death Drive, a follow up to Bitch Punk, which I was also a really huge fan of. How has this iteration of self been for you so far with
Lots of emotions, feelings, and processes. I’m happy with the responses I’ve gotten thus far. Honestly, I’m very grateful that people are even listening to it and paying attention to it. There were a lot of things that happened in terms of coverage and press and stuff. Some of it I was really surprised by and wasn’t expecting and at the same time, I think I feel a level of removed from all of that, because, 1 – I have a bunch of other things going on at the same time. And I finished Death Drive November of last year, so I wanted to release it much earlier but it just ended up being this way. So I feel kind of removed from it. My brain is somewhere else, you know? But at the same time, watching peoples’ reactions, hearing what they’ve had to say…I’m just observing – I’m taking it all in.
"...there’s something powerful about being your own muse and standing alone in your own work and having people witness you."
One thing I wanted to ask you about – I thought it would come up later, but – just in the reception. You had shared some text about how some publications have been interpreting it. Just to quote some of it:
using the context of oppression and trauma to talk about me and my music is in the current climate understandably easy, but it is a misrepresentation. Using facets of my identity to try and fit me into a popular context of victimization and misery instead of engaging with the content of my work is understandably easy, but it is a misrepresentation. I get that people think they are being sensitive to those that have been historically and culturally ‘othered’, but identity is not a one-size-fits-all affair, and this is not the path to understanding each other. I say this as someone who once actively participated in identity, oppression politics and dialogue. In a larger context, I can see that humans are both trying to reconcile with the past, and imagine new futures. In the confusion and anxiety about the present moment, our humanity can be obscured from each other. That being said, I think people deserve to be more than identity and I think art deserves a wider lens than what politics currently offers. This is a bigger conversation that I can’t articulate in this short piece, and that’s all I have to say for the moment.
I was wondering if you’d be open to talking about that statement?
Yeah. I can talk about it a little bit, but I don’t want to dwell on it.
I just wrote that in response to this narrative that I was seeing around me. It’s not just me, I think it happens a lot to people – I see it happen a lot in conversations around Black artists, or Black women artists, or Queer artists, whatever it is. People’s identity becomes the most important facet of the press narrative around their work. And I feel that it does a disservice to their work. Not everyone is making work about their identity and their life and then contextualizing these so-called ‘othered’ identities as like ‘oh, they are oppressed or traumatized’ because of the popular narrative that’s happening now, I feel like that’s also a disservice to the artist. I just don’t really feel like it’s very fair, because not everyone who is Black and Queer, or woman, is saying the same things. So why not engage with what it is they’re actually saying instead of making their identity at the focal point? I feel like identity as the focal point removes humanity in a lot of ways – you don’t just get to be a human being who makes art about like, love and loss and this and that. Instead, it becomes your identity, which, at the end of the day, these are just prescribed projections, right? They are categorizations that we humans use to categorize each other, and they are useful up to a point, but I don’t think that they necessarily need to be I don’t want that to be the focal point of my work as an artist or my narrative in the public. And so, I think I was feeling frustrated when I wrote that. Because I just felt like… I felt like my actual work wasn’t being engaged with. And it’s not all press, it’s just very specific ones … yeah, I was feeling frustrated, and I just wanted to say something, instead of just like not saying anything and kind of just taking it as if I was just okay with that. The response I got to that post was really good. It was a lot of people saying ‘thank you for saying that.’ A lot of people resonated with the message, and then I also had fans of my work tell me ‘thank you’, because they also felt like I was being misrepresented It was good for them to know that I felt like I was being misrepresented – like, we’re not crazy right now. I'm not trying to minimize the way that "identity" shapes our lived experience. I think what I am trying to say is, it often becomes a narrative trap.
I love how you can get engagement in that way, and really [have] people say ‘I see you.’ I can totally understand how you are being misrepresented. Honestly, anytime I’ve come across writing that [tries] to fit you in that frame, I always think… it is so much more than that…
Exactly. Thank you. That’s literally – at the end of the day, that’s the main thing. If you’re listening you
know that it’s more than that. So that tells me that not everyone that’s writing about my work is listening.
But also because I think it was shared via stories – because of the ephemeral nature of the Internet, I wanted to ask you directly so it could be there. Thanks for sharing that. Both albums to me represent something more than a box to put you in just based on… like, yes you’re Nigerian, yes, you’re Black, but like – they are about these different ways of being.
I also came across another text on your Instagram that indicated: ‘Death Drive is about the shape of grief,’ that was completely in your words right?
Yeah, I wrote that.
That whole piece was really beautiful to read, first and foremost...
Oh, thank you.
And… I don’t know. It gave me a lot of chills. I saw myself. I love that – this is just a nerdy note
–but I love that you capitalized “Change.” Can you talk a bit about that?
I capitalized “Change,” that to me is a little homage to Octavia Butler and her books the Parable of the Talents, I remember reading that year ago, and I really resonated with her – with the philosophy of ‘change is god.’ And I think there is an ‘Earth Seed’ website where fans of hers have put together, and you can read all of the philosophies from the books. Capitalizing ‘Change’ – I do that sometimes in my writing, I’ll capitalize certain words just as an homage to Octavia Butler.
"...another thing I do like about academia is that even though it can be bullshit, you get to create your own bullshit – you really do!"
What other reading materials were consuming you and guiding you while making the album?
Well, I started reading a lot of psychoanalytic theory, which is a new thing for me, and I came across this concept of the death drive. I already made a couple of songs at that point. I found the works of Sabina Spielrein... and I know Freud has his own elaboration on her original theory but I read the things that they each had to say. I also got into philosophical texts and saw parallels between them…I never just read one thing. I usually like to read multiple books at once, and it always happens that all the books I’m reading overlap someway, somehow. I was also reading books by Ursula Le Guin and I love science fiction. It’s my favorite genre. So I was doing a lot of thinking around that, and I was thinking of myself too. I was grieving at the time. And it wasn’t a hollow grief. It was a deep-seated grief, I was grieving not just for all the change that was happening in my life but also it was a lifetime of grief coming up, all of these old ‘me’s that I was saying goodbye to and laying to rest. It was a lot of emotional processing and emotional intensity that was happening at the time, and I had to put it into something, so I put it into this album.
I truly appreciate it. I resonate with that feeling of being in between… grieving and being in such a huge state of flux and discomfort. From the album to the writing that has come since - it has all been really awesome to engage with. I was wondering if… in the – as part of this project, Death Drive, do you plan on releasing other writing?
Oh! Yes I do. So, one thing I’ll say about school is doing my masters has actually shown me how much of a nerd I actually am. I like writing, and experimenting with writing. I was a poet before anything. That’s what I used to do when I was little, I just wrote – I have boxes of notebooks from my life that I’ve filled up with my writing. So I love writing. And I like playing with academic writing – experimenting with the essay format. I’m starting a blog.
I’m going to put the experimental writing projects I’ve been working on over the summer. So, I started working on this essay, and it’s called Togetherness and Its Contradictions. I think writing is a really good outlet for me. It helps me with my songwriting, and it just helps me in general because I love writing.
There’s a certain kind of playfulness you have. One piece of writing of yours that I came across during the year when you posted a link to it – was There, a Sound. I loved the way you played with the format of academic writing there. You gave it so much space; there was room to read. What are you working on right now in terms of sound theory?
Right now, in sound theory, I’m working on linking that with theories around eroticism and the body. So, I went to Manchester, UK in May [this year] to present that essay at the Sonic Waves Symposium. I met a lot of people there and got to see the types of work that other sound theorists were doing. It was very eye-opening and it allowed me to think in a different way, to see the way that people were putting work together. And another thing I do like about academia is that even though it can be bullshit, you get to create your own bullshit – you really do! You choose whatever you want to write about so I like that aspect of it.
I’m thinking – I’m in the beginning stages of it right now, but I’m thinking of ways of linking sound theory with experiences of catharsis, and what happens in the body – what does sound do in the body? Through the lens of … erotics in the body. It’s not completely formed yet, but it’ll get there.
I am so excited to hear about that. Sound is ritual, cathartic… and related to sex. I was wondering… I saw you twice this summer, one time in Halifax at the OBEY Convention, which was before you released the album, then again in Montreal recently, and it was cool to see that first… that first time… you… was the song called Treason? You really got everyone to meditate in the sound with you. I felt that there was this buzz, resounding but powerful and climactic. Is that something that relates to that thing you’re talking about? Sound ritual…
Yes, it is related to it. I’ll only perform Treason if I feel like the space is open to it. So I don’t perform it every time that I play live. And what I like about when I do perform that song is I think through that song I’m able to create this experience for people based on a primal feeling. Getting people to yell or grunt or moan, or whatever it is… the power that’s in the words… like, ‘treason, baby, love me, leave me…’ like, that is such a heart-wrenching thing… and when I was writing it and recording it too, I could feel that and I was like, okay, what is this going to be like live? And the first time I ever performed that one live was at OBEY and just the response that I got was so powerful… I felt changed by the audiences’ participation in the primal energy of the song. I feel like it took it to another level that I wasn’t expecting but that I’m so grateful for. Catharsis is a necessary part of this human experience. And I think that what Treason does, that allows people to have this catharsis and to participate in their own catharsis… we all have those feelings of heart-wrenching betrayal and loss, but also love… that like, not necessarily hurts, but love that you can feel so hard…
When I’m just listening to the whole album- I can feel this catharsis in the context of Death Drive. It just clicked throughout the whole album for me. I think you’re a really powerful performer.
I wanted to ask you about your audio-visual work. You’re oftentimes the sole person in them. I wanted to ask about why you choose to be your own muse in that way?
Well, I am my biggest inspiration, honestly. My music and everything. I take my inspiration from my emotional experiences so it’s natural for me to be by myself. I think that is reflected in the way I’ve made music and those projects. Everything you see online – essentially I make it by myself and if I need to be filmed I’ll ask my partner or a friend to film me. It’s about being your own muse in a way, and I think I’m in a stage where I’m not sure how to incorporate other people into my visual language yet, but I’ll get there. I’m getting there sonically so doing more collaboration with artists- making songs together… I think visually I’d like to collaborate with people or making something with others, that’s a direction I can see myself moving in. But at the same time, there’s something powerful about being your own muse and standing alone in your own work and having people witness you. So that’s why I do that.
"death drive is not necessarily this all bad thing. It’s a self-destructiveness that’s born out of this need to transform, to recreate ourselves."
I was wondering also about the album cover. Why white? Why wings?
I wanted to do something different for that album cover than I did for Bitch Punk, I think I usually in my every day – I used to wear all black all the time for simplicity's sake. It was easy. I was drawn to that color. But I wanted to do something different for Death Drive. I didn’t want you to hear the title and think: ‘oh, it’s gonna be Goth’. I thought for a couple of weeks the imagery to have…then I was compelled by the idea of making these wings, so I made them with a friend of mine. We sat down for 6 hours and glued feathers. She does set and costume design sometimes so she helped me with that, we sat down and glued every single feather onto that contraption. Then I found a dress online and I found a dress online that came in black and white, and I thought ‘alright, I’m going to get the white one.’ And then when it arrived and I put it together I saw a vision of what I wanted, I thought, I’ll be on a plinth, like this… it was really from a vision. Then when I had the final photos, and I had to choose which one to be the cover, that one stood out to me the most, it looks like I’m about to take flight. I just liked it. Death Drive is not necessarily this all bad thing. It’s a self-destructiveness that’s born out of this need to transform, to recreate ourselves. I put it together; it made sense in my mind. That’s it, lets’ go.
cover art for Death Drive, 2019 EP Photographer: Xin Yue Liu Costume Design: Caitlin Almon dCreative Direction & Cover Design: DEBBY FRIDAY
I thought it was so striking, and complimentary. You’re about to take flight in the wake of some kind of transformation. Kudos to you on that, it’s really beautiful.
I have a question around collaboration. That’s something you mentioned opening yourself up to in different ways. In Death Drive you worked with Lana Del Rabies and Chino Amobi – what was that process like for you?
It was quite easy, I thought it would be harder. And it was also eye-opening. Lana did additional production and added some vocals to Treason – so I added the original stems that I had. The songs sound very different. The original sounds very different than what we ended up with but I really enjoyed what she did with it so much, I thought it was just fantastic, so I kept it the way that it was. I thought it was perfect. With Chino I asked him if he wanted to be on my record, and he said yeah! So I asked him to write something and record himself singing it, and he sent it to me, and as soon as I heard it, I had this vision of his voice booming in these speakers, this apocalyptic scene; I could hear this crowd, this crowd underneath, a riot happening… so I took that and I ran with that idea and that’s how we got that song, and both times with those collaborations, it was easy – which I’m really thankful for, and I feel like it also helps me to open up my mind and open up my artistic space to other people. As musicians we can be really possessive of our work – like, no, I don’t want anyone else on this, I want to keep it for myself… but both times I think the collaborations made the track better –what it is. The album wouldn’t be what it is without those additional aspects. So collaboration is like gift-giving, that’s how I’m seeing it now. I like that framework, and that’s how I’m approaching things, like gift-giving.
I particularly love the one with Chino at the end: how the two stories complement each other. I listened to an interview of yours, where you’re using Christ imagery to mourn yourself in a way, which feels I know this might be a strange comparison – but when I listen to the song I Would Die For You by Prince, that to me feels like – it could be Christ imagery to say I would die for you, I’d be willing to put myself there for you
I read a book called the Christ Blueprint, it’s about – one of those new-age kind of spiritual books--all about how Jesus Christ is an archetype that humanity is supposed to model itself on, it has the 13 keys to having Christ’s consciousness, not just as a person or a god, but as something that humans can embody – some human form we can each undertake. I thought that was a compelling idea because of the way it makes humans not just godlike, but it makes god in turn, humanlike. That’s a powerful idea. Me personally, I come from a family that was very religious, very Christian, even my people, I’m Nigerian and there’s nothing Nigerians love more than religion, we are very spiritual people. So I think it’s powerful to own that in my own way. I felt like I was creating my own mythology around myself. If I was a god, what’s the story? What is my song? You know...I think of Kanye West and this whole Yeezus concept- and I get it.
The above conversation was conducted by Shaya Ishaq. Ishaq is an interdisciplinary artist and designer based in Montreal. Transcription support for the conversation by Madeline Rae. Frontis image: still from video for FATAL, directed by Debby Friday & Ryan Ermacora; direction of photography by Jeremy Cox