SAM HARDING | 2023
DAMSEL ELYSIUM. TWO WORDS IN SILVERY SEQUENCE, EACH TRACING MILLENNIA OF GREEK AND PAGAN LORE, INTERTWINING LIKE NOTES IN A DYAD, IMPLYING ANCIENT CHORDS.
Against the stark floodlights of the climate crisis, these veiled, metaphysical outlines seem to have met their antithesis in reality, as our shifting visions for the future are brought down to earth by the bluntness of annihilation, as escapism becomes literalised by billionaire spacemen. But there are still greater frames than the urgency of our present— one in which our plight is only a single strand in an even larger narrative of rebirth that humanity must adapt to become part of.
These are the mercurial truths that Damsel Elysium explores, in a deconstruction of archetypes and apocalypses that animates their art. TWIST spoke to them about their visual and sonic stylings, their inspired connection with FKA Twigs, and the materials that form their experience of an era going through tectonic change.
But first things first. Who is Damsel Elysium?
They were born Djenaba Okeiyi Davis-Eyo, to a Nigerian father and a Cuban-English-Finnish mother, a name that they still hold close, past the many veils of their artistry. “I always say that Damsel is not my alter ego, it's just a name that I’ve given to describe the world, to describe my perspective. I don’t see Damsel as a person— it’s kind of a vessel to hold Djenaba’s ideas. Dressing as Damsel is kind of cosplaying.”
Their fashion sense is perhaps their most striking performance of embodied space and nature; a classical, layered site of experimentation that also happens to make them one of the best-dressed figures in London. From boxy, ruffled fabrics to breathtaking floral coronets and elaborate curlicues of wire and ribbon, Elysium inhabits a finely-tuned array of eras, daydreams and runway fashion labels to bewitching, tactile effect. These elements also form part of what they describe as a rejection of a certain kind of silhouette, where their clothing allows them a freedom and presence entailed by “taking up space that I don’t necessarily inhabit within my body. I’m quite a timid person and I don’t really socialise like that, but it gives me that extra room.”
And with their violin or double bass in hand, the acoustics of their various spatial compositions overlap in eerie, arboreal tones transferred across wood and air, floorboards and forests, in a swaying balance between the physical and spiritual forces of nature; the flow of vibrations and the body that channels them. Because Damsel Elysium isn’t an abstraction or symbolisation of space in general, but an expression of the many, even conflicting, elements that form their identity. “It’s my materials,” they describe, “it’s my paint, it’s physical aspects of who I am.”
As a queer, neurodivergent and mixed-race person, the various textures and frequencies that come across in their work are illustrative of their experience of gender and the inanimate world, as well as of the constructs that can obscure and confine what are ultimately universal fluidities of human and earthly nature. These coalesce in a recognition that truth is not only multiple, something that exists in its various contradictions, but that it is also resolutely tangible, even if it has all the solidity of stardust.
Elysium’s childhood involved a constantly evolving relationship towards faith and verity, exemplified by an early embrace of Christianity that thawed when they caught a documentary about witchcraft on a religious TV channel. “Their biggest mistake was interviewing a real witch,” they recall, of the moment when all of their preconceptions about morality and witchcraft were debunked onscreen, opening them up to new latitudes for belief systems that embraced femininity and queerness, as well as practices aimed at placing individuals on an equal footing with nature.
They describe growing up with an intense curiosity for both pagan spiritualities and scientific investigation, fuelled, in part, by a struggle to place themselves within traditional norms. “I was always asking the question when I looked at the piano, what are the notes in between the two notes that are next to each other? Nobody explained that to me, until later I found out that there are actually notes, microtonal intervals in between.”
These lines of inquiry map onto a pattern of light and darkness that defines our era— one in which the more knowledge we acquire about our universe, at both the cosmic and infinitesimal scale, the less we can know about our position within it all. In the resulting states of tension or acceptance, it is ultimately up to art and narrative to mediate the disparate frames through which we consider our existences, highlighting the importance of artists that reconfigure what it means to be a body in both our society and our solar system.
“It’s black and mixed-race artists like Twigs, Celeste and Kelsey Lu who have paved the way for people like me,” Elysium wrote recently, of their influences in the wider musical community.” I’ve been watching them grow from the very beginning; they are dynamic and fluid and I resonated so strongly with them, and I just felt so seen. It’s not necessarily that I want to be like them. In fact I find it rather frustrating when I am regularly compared to them, especially when all of our styles, ideas and creations are in completely different worlds. But it would be ignorant to stay blind to the fact that there is some common thread, and I think it’s a perspective thing. I admire them because they have shown the world that we do exist, and have given me the confidence to do so in full unapologetic power. I was able to recognise myself through them; they remind me why I do what I do. That’s why representation is so vital, it helps marginalised people stay out of the dark and welcomes new and exciting ideas. So to actually work alongside or for all of them has been the greatest honour and acknowledgment of my life and grants me the reassurance that I’m on the right road, that being me is powerful.”
They have performed onstage with both FKA Twigs and Celeste, including a supporting feature on what is easily one of the best NPR Tiny Desk Concerts— the devastating, candlelit set by Twigs from earlier this year. Now they are set to release an EP of their own, something they see as a true realisation of who they are and how they see the world, while a full-length album looms somewhere on the horizon, set in the gloaming present tense of the climate crisis.
They describe their musical landscapes in folkloric terms, evoking a kind of unwoven tapestry, one that traces the decline of the man-made world and its capitalistic deities. “Even before that, they invented this God and they made it themselves, they made God the white man, and I feel that all of that is coming to an end,” they continue, unravelling epochs in a lilting invocation of the raw, feminine forces whose rebirth they perceive in the turmoil currently wracking the natural world.
Harmonising with states of chaos is something that they explored on their first single, Echoes of Lalia, responding to the frantic sounds of the city from their neurodivergent perspective, finding the beauty in their winged reverberations. When extended to the entire planet, this point of view becomes a recognition of nature as the ultimate site of ambiguity, something harsh and innocent, ugly and beauteous, that will continue to exist with or without humanity and its rootless myths.
“We’re so obsessed with nature being beautiful and fairy-like, but nature can be quite rough and rocky and traumatising,” they observe, on the ways in which our relationship with the environment rarely goes beyond the superficial or metaphorical. When Elysium talks about the consciousness of trees and the meanings they contain, it is always a physical, dialogical connection that is being emphasised, a sensitivity to the power of our words and actions on the world around us. “That taught me a lot about consent,” they explain, of the practice in witchcraft whereby a wand can only be procured by asking a tree if you can have its branch, a gesture that touches on the different kinds of violence that go unspoken all around us.
With wands come spells, and Elysium is no stranger to the power of incantation. They grew up praying with their grandma, speaking in tongues and creating vivid, hummed soundscapes. They talk about the moment when a single word is repeated until its vibrations unspool, offering a glimpse of the resonance that connects all things, the uncanny slippage between language, music, individuals and objects. In many ways this effect is at the heart of what they do. “Because I’m neurodivergent, I’m a very tactile person. I don’t understand an object until I’m touching it. And my love is touch. With my partner, I’m always caressing his face, just to understand him. My instruments are all hands-based, everything is about touching the wood, feeling the texture of the instrument. My love for touch is so vital in my work, I think that’s how I communicate.”
When Elysium was young, they would collect rocks and bring home bundles of twigs from the park. Their mother realised they needed an instrument. She gave them a violin and encouraged them to see it as something deserving of care, something that was once alive. At a moment when our attitude to fossils and forests is inseparable from our own survival as a species, it is also a reminder that matters of life and death are relative. Or as Damsel puts it, “we’ve got dinosaur blood and bones in us, all sorts, mud, rocks, everything.”
ELYSIUM features in Issue 2 of TWIST