Derek Piotr and Olivier Alary Talk the Creation of Divine Supplication

Plus, the collaborators share a co-written track from it, “I Bowed.”

Olivier Alary is a Montreal-based musician and composer, who’s worked with the likes of Björk and Chan Marshall; Derek Piotr is a North Carolina-based artist, researcher, and performer. Derek’s latest record, Divine Supplication, will be out May 10. One of the songs on it, “I Bowed, was co-written by Derek and Olivier — they’re sharing it with us today, along with a conversation they recently conducted with each other via Google Doc.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Olivier Alary: Hello Derek, According to your press release, Divine Supplication is described as a profoundly intimate creation born out of a sequence of personal tragedies. Could you provide more details on the concept and the process involved in crafting the album?

Derek Piotr: Hi Olivier. Basically, the tragedies I experienced were threefold: I broke my marriage engagement, tended to both my parents who had cancer simultaneously, and flipped my car three times on the highway while moving to the Tennessee-North Carolina border, all within the space of a year. The near-death experience (NDE) happened with all my possessions in the car and was extremely drastic and absolutely made me reevaluate a lot of what I was doing. Fortunately, my parents are now basically back in full health, but all these events combined really contrasted with the fairly charmed life I felt I’d experienced up until that point. Of course everyone’s life has hindrances, but I think I overall felt very much the captain of my own ship until 2022, and really had to reevaluate my fortune up until that point. Most importantly, I felt the urge to celebrate that I was still actually alive. Making the record was very much a testament to my gratitude to simply surviving and being able to enjoy full physical health. I’m still here!

Olivier: During the album’s creation, you reached out to me about my past production work with Björk from 20 years ago. This prompted me to revisit the production techniques and processes I had developed during that period. It was an unusual experience for me, as it reconnected me with my musical identity when I first began releasing records. What made this significant for you?

Derek: Hmmm… I’m not sure how to feel about this question. I’m not so sure it was about Björk specifically, though I have to say when I was first buying my own CDs ages 11 through 13, a lot of really amazing albums were coming out by pop stars, albums that were pretty electroclash and glitchy and really outrageous for major label releases. What really rocked my teen world for instance: Madonna’s American Life, Bright Eyes’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Incubus’s A Crow Left of the Murder…, M.I.A’s Kala, and yes, Medúlla. All records I still think are brilliant, and have things I return to. 

I think writing Divine Supplication was at least partially a stab at making some sort of “glitch” music that was still musically cohesive and tonal, in a digestible format, but still totally referencing all these mid-’00s records, electroclash, blog- and fidget-house, etc… I think of that time period between 2002 to 2009 as reflective of the Iraq war, Paris Hilton in night vision, really dodgy MP3 rips off of MySpace, and the general shitty nature of YouTube at that time. It was all feral and fractured in an exciting way, a way I feel we rarely see anymore with filters, AI, and algorithms addressing all of our content before our uploads are greenlit for public viewing. I have to ask though: how do you feel about those early albums and patches of yours? Have you used them recently, other than for my request? 

Olivier: I haven’t employed these methods in quite a while. The Max MSP patch featured in “I Bowed” was previously utilized in my remix of Björk’s “Sun in my Mouth” and also found its place in the second ensemble album. The synthesizer responsible for the sounds in “Falling Away” is my trusty old Korg MS-20, a staple in my work from 1997 to 2002. Since that period, my musical journey has shifted away from these tools. My early focus was solely on creating noise using analog and digital modular systems. However, over time, I transitioned towards exploring acoustic and instrumental techniques. I’ve discovered that stacking various acoustic instruments adds a richness and depth that electronic sounds might lack.

Revisiting these older methods feels like reconnecting with my younger self. While I understand why I was drawn to them back then, I no longer hold them in the same awe. Although I still value the concept of producing fragile, gritty sounds, my sonic palette has expanded in the opposite direction.

Derek: I’d really like to talk about that record — if you’re referring to the self-titled, because that’s actually what I think I first heard by you, or maybe I have the timeline wrong — but I remember buying that record (and Hot Chip and Beck and so on) around 2005-ish. I think in a way, I try not to consider Björk an influence; I find her artistic voice as overwhelming and stigmatizing as the Beatles once you mention her as an influence —  although maybe now it has changed because I find her career to mainly be about legacy work nowadays… Anyway, Ensemble is one of the records I had in mind when I was making the sort of jazz-inflected post-rock pop songs for this album (as opposed to the interludes or abstract-er pieces), and “All We Leave Behind” is one of my fav things ever! Such a sublime, perfect pop song!
Olivier: Thanks! Ensemble proved to be a very strange album for me, especially in the aftermath of parting ways with Chanelle Kimber. At the time, I was aiming to redefine the concept of ensemble as a studio collective, blending influences such as ‘70s lush pop, glitch, shoegaze, noise, and spiritual jazz within a contemporary framework. The string arrangements were recorded in Berlin, Adam Pierce contributed drums from his upstate NY studio, and I collaborated with Chan Marshall in Atlanta and Lou Barlow in Toulouse. This project marked a significant departure from my initial home studio release on Rephlex, and with no label at the time, undertaking the entire production independently felt daring. The confidence gained from my earlier collaborations with Björk played a pivotal role in bringing these talented artists on board for the album for next to nothing. (Un)fortunately, the album sold really poorly but helped to redefine my career as a film composer.

Your new album showcases a broad and multifaceted range, incorporating influences from various sources. Considering this eclectic blend, what considerations influenced your decision to include “Nobilis Humilis” and “S’on Me Regarde” in the album, and what inspired you to preserve their musical integrity? Additionally, how do these tracks connect to the overall theme of the album?

Derek: It’s funny you say this, because I actually think the two 13th-century pieces you mentioned are quite insane in their arrangements. In my opinion, I only kept the melodies integral but used extremely unusual scoring, groupings of instruments you never hear together (recorder trio and brass; chromatic bells, Spanish guitar and lyre). Both also have a lot of editing and layering going on — for instance, we had to edit the brass and basslines quite severely to get them to sit in the arrangements and mixes in a way that made sense.

From the outset, I had wanted to make a jazz/early music album, but got further and further from this idea as I went on. I also really crave pure acoustic situations more and more as I keep making albums. I went so far as to make a bare folk album last time (The Devil Knows How), but I always feel I fail in this “pure acoustic” endeavor, and all my records end up smacking of laptop editing. I also tried something with this album that I haven’t done before, where basically each track was a totally different style: Indonesian Hip-Hop, Norwegian post-classical, blog-house freakout, post-rock adjacent to Robert Lippok/Dntel, ambient-jazz torch song… I think my NDE catalyzed the idea that this music should be my utmost cravings, rather then some ascetic concept. A lot of joie de vivre, just celebrating making whatever music I wanted to make because I still could.

I also have to say, the song “Chaotic Nothing” by Lately Kind of Yeah really hyper influenced me; it’s a sort of post-rock ambient chamber jazz and just so hypnotic. I had this song on repeat for weeks and weeks and I couldn’t stop showing it to friends. I ended up working with LKoY on my record — “A Not-Quite Locked Door,” we wrote together. Maybe when I was thinking about glitched soft jazzy instruments, this was the mood I was really chasing. I still want to make a 100% acoustic album some day: Catch me in front of a ribbon mic surrounded by four bassoons in Chicago in 2026, singing my guts out covering Chet Baker… But to answer your question straight on, the early music part of this record was sort of a humorous attempt at spiritual purity, which is why my avatar for the cover is a CGI bard á la Faarquad.

Olivier: Certainly! I understand! It seems to me that the majority of the record is somewhat “psychedelically” mangled in terms of melodic layering and production. However, I did notice that you showed a lot of respect for the melodies and structure of the two early music pieces.

Derek: I think this must be what I meant by my failing at any sort of pure acoustic expression. Even songs like “Perfect Matromony” which are so boringly simple melodically, get really acid when you hunker down on the laptop and add all the layers. For instance, that particular song was the first one I ever wrote, in 2007, I remember singing over a one-bar repeating organ loop in GarageBand and doing all sort of terrible backing harmonies with myself. Then Fennesz helped me resurrect the song for this new record, and Reuben Walton sang some of the lyrics with me. The lyrics and melody didn’t change at all from my first simple teenage version, just the editing went way more mature, which I suspect obscures the musical content to a huge degree.

I never thought what I was doing was acid or psychedelic music to any degree when I first started my career, but now I realize I have something in common with these soft acid people like Harmony Korine, Jeff Mangum, Brian Chippendale… not about drugs at all, more about the surreality of the everyday, and all the layers present always. Kind of like heaps of scruffy neon yarn? That kind of becomes a psychedelic trip on its own if you just account for the arrangement of objects in a room, or tracks on a computer screen. To me however, it sounds very straightforward. Anyway, I thought to ask if you’ve performed or arranged early or traditional pieces ever before (released or not)?

Olivier: My album, Pieces for Sine Wave Oscillators, drew inspiration from Renaissance music, notably the works of John Dowland and Thomas Tallis. However, I deliberately obscured the composition to create a subtle, distant echo of their music, avoiding direct references as I wanted to dissolve their writing techniques into my musical vocabulary. Speaking of explorations into early music, I’m curious about the impact of your ventures into archival folk music on your electronic experiments, especially within the context of Divine Supplication.

Derek: I love Dowland! This weaving of the archive is actually something I had hoped to touch on! In 2022, I launched the Derek Piotr Fieldwork Archive, a collection of now 800+ traditional songs I have made field recordings of since March 2020. I have sort of become a 21st Century Alan Lomax (more ethically), and have been recording traditional singers but more importantly everyday laypersons remembering songs they learned by ear from their families or home communities. Two of my informants make spoken word cameos on my new album, either as an intro or an outro, but the lead single “East Tennessee” has its own interesting story woven into the Archive. I had gotten to know Gabber Modus Operandi pretty well in the last few years — I think they are total geniuses, hysterical, and one of the few braiding a folk or roots tradition in with the 21st Century with no gimmickry or airbrushing (another amazing artist doing this right now is Kobwe). Anyway, I had asked Gabber Modus Operandi MC Ican Harem for his childhood Moslem memory of his parents singing “Sholawat Badar” to him as a lullaby, and I had also invited him to rap on the new album. He combined the requests into one and what ended up happening is a very Hip-Hop Sholawat situation! So the Fieldwork Archive has sort of been its own endeavor of working with other voices, but of course, a few peas got mixed into the potatoes, and one discipline informed the other. I actually have to shout out Ican for introducing me to Jessie/Lil Lonely — he was responsible for the album artwork in the end, and had previously done portraits for the Gabber boys when they toured Montréal.

Olivier: Sounds incredible! I’ll dive into the archive. Derek, thanks for sharing the intricate layers of your artistic process, personal experiences, and how you perceive the transformative power of music. Good luck with the release of Divine Supplication! A bientôt!

Derek Piotr is a folklorist, researcher and performer whose work focuses primarily on the human voice. His work covers practices including fieldwork, vocal performance, preservation and autoethnography; and is primarily concerned with tenderness, fragility, beauty and brutality. He has collaborated with artists including Scott Solter, Nathan Salsburg and Thomas Brinkmann across various disciplines. His work has been supported by The Traditional Song Forum and The Danbury Cultural Commission, and has featured on Death is Not the End and the BBC. His latest record, Divine Supplication, is out May 10, 2024.