Reconstellated, the opening track on Karima Walker’s stunning new album, Waking The Dreaming Body, recently shared as a joint release between Keeled Scales and Orindal, opens with a gentle blurring of worlds; a lightly strummed acoustic guitar is punctuated by a burble of electronics, before her vocal enters, welcoming, with a hint of uneasiness.
In many ways it is the perfect introduction to a record, a microcosm of an album that at times seems to be torn between a series of uncertainties, “it lives in this kind of in-between place, and that’s what I made it to be, because that was the world I was inhabiting, of not really knowing what I was doing while I was doing it”. It might have felt uncertain to its creator, yet this is a record that feels like a collective piece, an adventurous, flowing record, where tracks meld into one another, and disparate ideas amalgamate into a living, thriving whole.
I’m speaking to Karima from her home in Tucson, Arizona: like most artists right now, Karima’s promotional duties are being largely carried out online, with no tour dates booked as of yet, “I had been saying for a long time I want to release something by 2020, but that’s kind of an arbitrary goal, that seems even more arbitrary as time goes by, but I’m happy with its timeline now”. While it might not quite arrive into a world that anyone could have imagined, it’s perhaps quite fitting for Waking A Dreaming Body, a record that never quite went as it was initially intended.
Originally, it was planned that Karima would record the album in New York with Melissa Dyne, best known as one half of The Blow, “she’s a modular synthesist, with this really incredible background in sound design and installation and I was really pumped to work with someone who was going to pull me out of what is typically a more insular process”. As the pair were working out plans for the record, everything changed, “we basically took the pieces of two or three songs, put them in ProTools and then I got sick”. With a combination of other commitments, a desire to release something new and Covid-19, everything changed; Karima returned to Tucson and began working on the record alone, “I think that’s around the time I started working on Reconstellated. That was a real confidence booster, when I finished that song, that was the first one where it was like, I think this is completely done. Then I felt a little bit better about proceeding on my own”.
While this about turn changed Karima’s plans entirely, it did put control of the record into her own hands, “I love the process of being completely enveloped in a project and the days just disappear…you can really just swim around in these mixes…as much as I think I would learn and grow a lot from bringing other people into that process. I think that it’s helping me cultivate my voice as a, I want to say the word composer, but that has such a high mindedness to it”.
While Karima may be unsure of the word composer, songwriter doesn’t quite fit either, throughout Waking The Dreaming Body there seem to be two contrasting sides of an artist battling for supremacy, a middle ground of sound design and songwriting, with more traditional song-structures placed alongside found-sound and sonic tapestries, like the experimental end to Window I, which seems to end with a car repeatedly rushing past an open window. I wonder if this was a conscious decision, to allow the two sides of her music to fall alongside one another, “it was something I thought about a lot, I considered doing, an A-side/B-side, or having all of the songwriter songs together and all of the more instrumental and textural pieces in one place…it wasn’t really a matter of arranging the tracks differently, I think that the songs themselves would have been quite different if that was the model I chose to do”.
This sense of searching for her own identity as a musician is something of a repeated theme throughout our conversation, something that clearly occupies Karima’s thoughts, particularly following the success of her debut album, 2017’s Hands In Our Names, “after that record I toured a lot, I was thinking about when I’m playing, what are people expecting? And how much of that expectation do I want to try and manage for them…it’s kind of how a performer is, they are inviting people into a world, they can leave it or stay there with you. What grounds people in that world? What pushes them away? You really don’t always know”. It is perhaps a difficult prospect for an artist, who’s music isn’t perhaps an obvious fit for a loud bar, yet equally is potentially too experimental for a more traditional acoustic setting, and one Karima is learning to be happy with, “I don’t have to worry so much about the ambiguity of where does this one place of comfort and vocal song structure break-down to something more dissonant, I love that transition space. I think I felt more comfortable as presenting these songs as worlds that could stand on their own more. I’m kind of curious how that will affect performing, if and when that happens, and if I will keep a similar structure of letting things bleed together, or let there be silence. There’s something about trusting that the songs could do the lifting of their own world”.
Speaking with Karima, it’s clear that place, and in particular her home on the cusp of the desert in Arizona is a major influence on her work, evident in the sheer scope of her music; there’s something of the vast desert skies about them, even if they are not traditionally Americana songs. I wonder how she thinks this sense of place shapes her music, “every place carries its identity in its own way. Coming back here was for family, but it was also because I missed being in the desert…I think it’s a certain porousness that makes it part of what I’m doing”. There’s a passion to the way Karima talks about the South-West of America, lumping in an area the size of Western Europe, that is bonded by a certain shared history, “the scale, it’s hard to wrap your mind around… it’s funny how used to that we get. Driving to LA is an eight hour drive, and we think of that as, that’s pretty close”. Her sense of pride leads to a certain distrust of the complicated touring routes of the West Coast, compared to the open roads of Texas, “driving to Austin, it’s like 15 hours, you get on the 10 and you’re on the same road for 13 of those hours, you just feel like you’re on this weird record. You’re watching the towns go by, and some of them kind of look the same…I do love those drives, I think they’re kind of hypnotic, not in a way that puts you to sleep because you’re driving and you have to be there for it, it’s just really beautiful watching these places transition into other places on a geological scale”.
That sense of wonder at the natural world isn’t just confined to a love of long car journeys though, Karima’s record is dotted with references to the world around her, and in particular the vital role that water plays in it. Take the stunning thirteen minute soundscape, Horizon, Harbor Resonance, named for a phenomenon that affects Tsunamis where the force of the wave is magnified when it’s contained, “I think a lot of people dream about waves. It started just as seeing the synchronicity of these images and becoming curious about them and then I started to be a little more intentional about how these things are working and how they’re affecting the world. Not with the kind of rigour of a researcher it’s very much through pop culture or easy social references. My partner makes fun of me because if there’s any kind of disaster movies where there’s some some “Hollywood Wave”, I’m just like, “oh I think I should watch this movie”, I wish I understood why I was so drawn to them”.
Karima’s interest in water perhaps comes from its contrast to her desert home, water and desert are presented here in the way that other songwriters present light and dark, or night and day. Perhaps inevitably for a desert city, water is a crucial topic in Tucson, as we’ve seen it is across the Southern States during recent events, “I think about it a lot now because I live in a desert and the way water is managed is pretty questionable sometimes, on a larger governmental scale and so there are political aspects to it. I love living here, but will this place still be habitable in 50 years? In thinking about moving back to Tucson and putting roots down here, I was researching things like what is the water plan for Tucson. We had a really rough year or two of drought and there are some very primordial drives, because it is home, and water is a symbol of life”. This interest in water is currently a talking point in the city, where dry rivers have been artificially re-enlivened using reclaimed water, “I think about in a very day-to-day way, are we being smart with what we do with this precious resource? Watching a dry river run again, they call them dead rivers because they don’t run anymore, so seeing water in the Santa Cruz, I’m just really fascinated by it, and I’m really drawn to it. We all want to ride our bikes around it, we all want to come look at it, all the birds are coming. It’s this really healing thing”. While it might be healing, Karima is wise enough to question the political motives behind the changes, “it comes down to money right. I mean that’s very cynical, but very real, it’s about capitalism. Having a water-front in a desert town, that feels like a great development opportunity. As long as it’s profitable for the city long term then I think they’ll keep doing it”.
Returning to Waking The Dreaming Body, I wonder how it compared to writing her debut album, and whether there was greater pressure that came with knowing that an audience was waiting for a follow up? After a long pause, Karima explains, “I did feel a little bit paralysed after my last record, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to make next and I kept expecting myself to come into a place of certainty or a place of feeling really clear about what I wanted to do, and it never came”. Consciously or otherwise, this is not a record that exists in place of certainty, “with this record it doesn’t feel good to admit it, but I wasn’t really sure…I made the record in the midst of a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of heaviness, and sadness. In a way it still feels like a celebration that I’ve released it, that it’s going to be in the world”. I wonder whether that made it a difficult record to know when it was finished, “the process of making it was difficult and scary and uncertain, but as I was finishing making it there was a sense of the arc is complete, the pieces fell into the right place”.
With all the talk of uncertainty about the record, and making sense of its place in the world, I wonder if the record has begun to make more sense since Karima finished making it, “I think trying to document a very uncertain place of feeling really lost and not really sure of where you’re going to end up, it kind of makes it alive in a way that I didn’t really realise while I was making it. I don’t feel like I had that kind of insight at the time. I think that it gives it room to grow in a way, I chose to remain in this place between genres for a reason and I think that’s my hope, that there’s something in there that’s alive and that’s growing and its meaning for me will change as I go back and listen to it”.
At a time when the world has been full of heaviness and uncertainty, it becomes almost a cliché to talk of a record as a soundtrack for our times; perhaps more than that, Waking The Dreaming Body is a record for all times, a living breathing piece of art that, with each repeated visit seems to offer a new place to explore, a new vista to absorb and a new sound to be discovered. It might only just be starting to make sense to Karima, yet for me it already feels like a record for the ages, and one I can’t wait to hear evolve and grow, already it feels like it will be with me for many years to come.