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They Just Had An Idea

Elska

Satruday, December 8, 11am-noon

Burchfield Penney Art Center

$10 general admission, $8 members and children

And it’s totally yours. Meet Elska, everything you ever hoped for in music and art for children.

“I just had an idea,” sings Elska on her debut record, Middle of Nowhere, “so bright and so clear. And it’s totally mine.”

Which is true: It’s totally hers, as all ideas—miraculously, when embraced and examined in a quiet moment—belong to those who embrace and examine them. But what artists do, fundamentally, is they realize their ideas for other to embrace and make use of as they will.

And so we have Elska, a young pioneer who has discovered an island brand new to the world, freshly risen from the ocean, off the coast of Iceland, inhabited by strange and wonderful creatures—a colony of Lost Socks, the wizened Winter Bear, the kind and sensitive Goobler, the Arctic Fox, and more—with whom Elska becomes friends as she explores and, in her explorations, realizes the island. Middle of Nowhere (and its attendant videos), which was released this fall, presents Elska and her island in a collection of synth-pop songs that are simply unlike any children’s music you’re ever heard: catchy, contemplative, ethereal, transporting. Genuine in a way that makes simple sense to children and invigorates adults.

Elska came to collaborators Shelley Wollert and Allen Farmelo on a vacation to Iceland, a break from work on an album that Farmelo, a Buffalo native (you might remember him from bands such as Red Dog 7, Power Drill, the Neighbors, and the 12/8 Path Band) who moved to Brooklyn some years ago to become a record producer, was contemplating with Wollert, a singer/songwriter, actress, and artist. Wollert had in mind a record of songs for adults—something folkish, something alt country.

That notion was evaporated by the strange charms of Iceland, a country of lava fields and moss, otherworldly ice formations and hot springs.

“When we went there and explored, everything changed,” Wollert says. “It’s kind of cliché, but we were totally inspired. When we came home and returned to this adult record, this record for grownups, I think it was just a game-changer.”

Wollert says she wanted not just to play folk or alt country her whole career—she wanted to act and to illustrate, to combine all her creative pursuits in one project.

And so Elska was born. Farmelo and Wollert began to extemporize, and then polish, playful little songs inspired by their trip, driven by the curiosity of a child—or an adult, for that matter—introduced to a landscape where all feels new and malleable to the workings of an alert imagination. There’s the song about the hole they’d discovered on the side of a road: “It’s a manmade hole, a manmade hole, a mandmade hole. It didn’t get their on its own, it’s a manmade hole.” There’s the song about the Artic Fox, who sleeps on Elska’s head at night, to her cautious delight: “It’s rare,” she sings, “to have an Arctic Fox on you…I lost some sleep but I don’t regret it.” The song was inspired, Wollert says, by a childhood experience of sleeping at the house of a friend whose family kept cats, which were not welcome in the Wollert family home, and finding a cat sleeping on her head.

“It was so easy for us to do together as a team,” Wollert says of the songwriting. “And our love of Iceland just seeped through it.”

Elska’s island is small, just 30 miles long. There’s a train that circumnavigates it, powered by geothermal energy (as in Iceland itself, there’s a strain of progressive environmentalism that inhabits the Elska concept) and designed by the Nunni, the one-eyed floating genius responsible for the island’s brilliant undergirding technology. There is the land of Lost Socks, in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Flash, where the squeaking socks, refugees from laundromats and bottom drawers around the world, arrange themselves into giant pictures.

The notion of a newborn island is derived from a true story: In the mid-1960s, an island called Surtsey, after a fire giant of Norse mythology, bubbled up off the coast of Iceland.“It’s our age, this island,” Farmelo says. “I thought that would be cool: What if this new island bubbled up and this character Elska discovered it and lived there. It gave us the freedom to imagine this idealized world.”

As a Buffalonian, Farmelo says, the arctic climate felt right, too, for a children’s story, reminiscent of childhood magic. “Magical stuff happens when it snows,” he says. “You don’t have to go to school. You go sledding and skiing, and throw snowballs and build a fort. For me, snow is associated with play.”

The music is playful, too, and what one might call lightly subversive: This is not traditional folk-based children’s music, nor is it the repurposed musical theater of the Disney brand, nor is it the guitar-driven, kid- and parent-friendly alternative rock of the kindie scene that has taken hold of hip families everywhere. It’s not, as Wollert put it, “Foo Fighters for kids.”

“There’s a new wave happening now with children’s music,” she says of kindie rock. “But What Allen and I have done is a totally different thing even from that. What we’re doing is really breaking the mold. We’re lyrically-based and character-based, so that’s familiar. But we’re using synthesizers and microbeats and bringing a new flavor to the market. It’s very modern. It’s kind of kindie electronica, and that is something that hasn’t been done before.”

“When I was a kid, I was totally into Alvin and the Chipmunks,” says Farmelo, who studied musicology at SUNY Buffalo. “They were amazing—the weirdest-sounding character-based stuff ever. Also, Switched on Bach I loved as a kid, because it had synthesizers. I had haunted house records. There were things for kids in the 1970s that were really musically experimental and kind of out there and really creative. And I think what happened is the folk movement swept in there and said, ‘We have children’s music.’ All these conventions swept in, and this moment of whacky creativity that was happening took a snooze for a while. And the kindie scene quickly developed its own conventions.”

Indeed, rock and folk conventions so familar to children’s music are absent from the production of Middle of Nowhere, in favor of simple, irresistible melody lines adorned with crystalline synths behind Wollert’s quiet, dreamy vocals. In an interview for the online publication sonicscoop.com, Farmelo says he took some inspiration from (speaking of subversives) the German electronic pop pioneers Devo:

I would do to Shelly’s music what Devo did to “Satisfaction”—square it off, take away swing, syncopation, feel—all of the elements that locate it in a bluesy or funky way, we took all that away from the music. And what’s left is playful and minimal. You get this really bouncy fun, poppy thing. So it’s not that we robbed it of rhythm, or feel, but we robbed it of those particular rhythms and feels, and particular inflections.

On “Don’t Make Fun of the Goobler,” in which Elska chastises the birds of the island for ridiculing her diminutive green friend (“It’s a song about not bullying people, and sticking up for your friends,” she says), Farmelo says the bass line is played on a regular electric bass rather than synthesized. “I played it like Guided by Voices trying to sound like the Who doing ‘Happy Jack.’ Check the arpeggios laid against entire songs like ‘I Just Had an Idea’ and ‘Click Click,’ and it’s just ‘Baba O’Reilly.’”

In live performance, Elska’s music is further simplified: The backup band comprises a vibraphonist and keyboardist on a little analog synthesizer called a Pocket Piano. “Kids are totally spellbound and sit still and are in awe,” Farmelo says of the live show. “We’ve seen a lot of acts where they literally ask the kids to jump up and down. But when Elska plays, the live show is so dreamy and atmospheric, and Shelley’s voice is so soothing. She never belts anything out. We use a special microphone that allows her to sing quietly, and the vibraphone and these twinkly synthesizers create this atmospheric landscape, and it’s almost more like story time.”

“Little kids actually befriend the character,” Wollert says. “I think that’s one of the advantages of forming a character rather than just me being Shelley with a guitar. They see me in this colorful costume and they want to know me. I’m their friend.”

Wollert says it was important to her that Elska be a balanced character, one who experiences both joy and loneliness, who exhibits both playfulness and thoughtfulness. “It was important to me that she was strong female character.” she says. “I didn’t want someone who was sexy or overtly feminine. I didn’t want anything parental. I wanted an active character, someone who was all about discovery, all about imagination, all about the arts.”

Having created a character, with a native setting and a narrative, and produced this project, Wollert and Farmelo find themsleves in a position typical of (though perhaps not typical enough of) artists whose creation is beginning to take hold of the public imagination. (A song from the album, “Click Click,” is in full rotation on Sirius XM Radio’s children’s station; they are collaborating with top-flight artists on music videos shot on location in Iceland; people are approaching the team about TV and film; among Elska’s fans is Mike Jorgensen of Wilco, with whom Farmelo has worked as a producer.) How to market an idea and protect it at the same time? How to merchandize a work of art, so that kids can hold on to a piece of their new friend Elska, in a responsible way.

The trick, Farmelo says, may be in trying to make something that is healthy for children to consume. “Elska is not pedagogical, but it really engages the imagination in a kind of open way,” he says. “I always think of Elska like handing a kid a bunch of Legos. There’s a big suggestion about what it is and what to do, but we’re not telling you exactly everything, and it invites people, especially kids, in to play with the working parts and imagine along with us. It’s not all spelled out.”

“Figuratively, ‘Elska’ means ‘to love’ in Icelandic,” Wollert says. “I wanted to create a really safe place kids could jump into, a moment in their day, a friend they could pal around with. For me, it’s my own private island where I can share music and stories with kids.”

Is Elska inseparable from her island, as Winnie the Pooh is inseparable from the Hundred Acre Woods or Peter Pan from Never Never Land? Can she ever leave?

“Only when she’s on tour,” Farmelo says.

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