Research and improvisation, melody and pure sound, sweetness and momentum, notes and silences. The music of the U.S. singer-songwriter with Russian origins Ilya E. Monosov is a set of contradictions bowing to the romance of lyrics. The emotional involvement in the culture and history of his native land, the passionate curiosity towards all art forms, his way of conceiving and living feelings, especially love, in a complete and instinctive way: all of this reflects on the atmospheres of Monosov’s last album, “Seven Lucky Plays, Or How To Fix Songs For A Broken Heart”. We talked about all this with Ilya, a sometimes introverted, but at the same time extremely kind and friendly person.
Looking through your biography, one can notice a complete artistic involvement: music, poetry, graphic art, that inevitably tend to affect each other, often melting into one another. In particular, “Seven Lucky Plays…” is based on poems and stories you wrote from 1996 to 2007. Could you tell us something about the beginning of your literary path?
The first ten years of my life were spent in Soviet Russia. When I was a kid, I wanted to write. My family encouraged education and, to some degree, dissent. Most families try to extinguish childrens’ rebellious nature. My family, for better or for worse, did the opposite. Also, they loved listening to Russian Bards – especially Alexander Galich and Vysotsky. I think these were all factors leading in my dabbling with writing as a child. I became more serious about it as a teenager.
Among the rare news concerning your life available on the web, there is a reference to an “early exposure to Russian dissident culture in the late Soviet period”. On your MySpace you cite Aleksandr Galich, considered as one of the fathers of the “bard poetry”, the Russian songwriting poetic that originated in the 60s and focused on minimal arrangements and often also on politically engaged lyrics. How do you relate to the “bard poetry”?
Well, politics is always a mess. Galich dealt with large scale politics – politics of society. He did so in a very unique and seemingly direct way. I’ve always thought of some of his songs as great love songs, even if they were also meant to be political. He really loved his homeland. My songs are also political, but I am more interested in small scale politics. Small scale politics (love and relationships between people) is often even more of a mess than social politics. I am interested in dealing with this mess in my songs.
Talking about Russia, what relationship is there between you and your native land? Do you often go back there?
My relationship is to my ancestors, to my grandfather, who died in Moscow while I was leaving Russia in 1988, and to memories. My relationship is also to the spirit of the dissident culture. My grandfather spent nearly a decade in a political prison and I have an attachment to the reasons why he did (it). I really like the people of Russia, but…I have much contempt for their current government which conducts itself in a shameful manner. I hope that the country grows to understand that the type of “order” they are used to is not the “order” that people really benefit from. They gave up too easily during the transition period to “democracy” and Putin came to power. Actually, I am actively looking for help with the publication of my grandfather’s autobiography. That is one of my major goals for the next few years. I think it is historically important, especially now, to understand why and how Russia has become what it is.
Listening to your music, sometimes one almost has the sensation of the guitar having its own feelings, especially when it tenses up to pang during the most painful moments in solos. Does your way of playing guitar represent a kind of projection of your soul?
I don’t know. I have to force myself to compose and that I really enjoy free playing. When I work on songs I try to let the meaning of the lyrics interact with the music. Currently, I am working on a second record that will have more free moments. It’s difficult to find a middle ground.
In your songs you give great importance to “suspensions”, that prelude more or less suffered instrumental phrasings. What do silences mean in your songwriting?
Silence is important. It’s important for drama, it’s important for really listening to something, and it’s important for thinking. Pop music does not typically have much “silence”. I think the repetition and minimalism of early blues certainly contain silence and slow progressions, but much of rock music does not... and it’s too bad.
Referring to your debut album “Vinyl Document #1”, mainly focusing on sounds that result from broken or mistreated machines, you say: “I think music can be found in just about anything, just like everything can be said to have a musical quality.” Your sound research led and still leads you to a rather sophisticated kind of experimentation, clearly detectable both in arrangements and in the atmosphere of your songs. What is, if any, the preferential path that leads you to discover new territories (in terms of instruments, styles, genres ...) to explore?
Improvisation and day dreaming...this actually relates to the latter question. If you are constantly listening to music, I think it’s hard to really think about it. I think a combination of thinking and simply exploring something without a concrete plan is a good way to work with sound. For “Seven Lucky Plays…” I wrote the lyrics first. Then, I simply experimented until I was pleased with the guitar.
Starting from the most experimental works of your past production, you now came to conceive and carry out a more “songwriting” album. Was it a precise stylistic choice, the intent to bring as many people as possible close to your music, or an extemporaneous and instinctive inspiration?
I think it’s a natural progression for me. I began with experimenting with pure sound, and will continue to do so. Also, I want to have a way of sharing my writing and poetry with people. I think that song writing is a very natural way to do this.
“Seven Lucky Plays…” is an album that sounds classic and original at the same time. Is it a desired result, obtained during the album recording, or is it simply the result of your previous music experimentations?
I thank and blame my friend Greg Weeks, who recorded the record. His analog studio helped to make the album warm and “classic.” He also did the string arrangements which also bring out the quality you refer to as “classic”.
This album has been described as a private celebration of the human experience. To what degree and how is it possible to make the personal and the universal coexist in one song?
Love songs have magic powers. Love is a type of madness. It is something that transcends logic. One of the songs on “Seven Lucky Plays…” is about my grandfather but most people think it’s about a woman. I won’t say which song, but trust me it’s true.
Voice arrangements for this album were recorded at Hexham Head in Philadelphia, where many artists such as Marissa Nadler, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Espers, Meg Baird, Picastro have also recorded their music. Moreover, these voice recordings for your album were made by Greg Weeks (Espers). How did your collaboration begin? Did you have any other collaboration with a producer before? How about it?
Well, actually I sang and arranged all the vocals on my record. Greg Weeks recorded the record and arranged the strings. He is a wonderful person and a great musician. I will definitely record another record with him soon, hopefully also for Language of Stone. Besides Greg, I work with Preston Swirnoff in The Shining Path. He is a producer who does many interesting experimental works and produces lots of different music. I have been collaborating with him since 2001 in Monosov/Swirnoff – which is our improvisational duo.
You look like an “outsider”, yet in your last album, apart from Greg Weeks, you team up with other well-known musicians of the independent folk scene. Do you feel somehow part of that scene? And are there any bands or musicians you particularly appreciate?
I don’t feel that I am part of any scene. There are lots of musicians who are influenced by “folk” music who are just great: Fern Knight, Josephine Foster, Greg Weeks. My friends from Mountain Home are doing some interesting improvisational recordings. I am very interested in Japanese folk music of Kazuki Tomokawa and Kan Mikami. I also like some hip hop, which I consider to be American folk music. Lately, I’ve been listening to Black Milk and Guilty Simpson. Lastly, the current experimental culture in America is really folk music – people from every little town coming together to make sound their own. “Folk music is high class music with a lot of low class people playing it” (Abner Jay).
In “I’ll Live My Life Without Pain” you say: “Darling, stop, do not cry/ I’m telling you these stories just to explain why/ I’ve got to do my doing in the rain/ I can not stay, I’ll live my life with out pain/ I’ve chosen to live my life with out pain.” Do you think that in order to live without suffering one should give up everything, and above all love? Is it worth making so hard sacrifices to avoid suffering?
No it’s not worth it. For me, that is what that song is about. It describes and reminds me of several dark moments in my life and in the lives of others that I have been close too, which I think could have been avoided if decisions were made that take into account the feelings of others rather than hedonistic and self-destructive pursuits… Suffering is actually good for you.
In the lyrics of “Happy Song” you say you never wrote a happy song before that moment. But even in that specific song the strongly melancholic atmospheres present throughout the album prevail, thus counteracting the “positive” lyrics: it even seems to be a sort of wonderful realization of the theory of opposites, which will inevitably attract. How much importance do you give to contrasts in your music?
Actually, many of the songs have that type of contrast. I think “Happy Song” is more obvious. I think to write a love song one has to first and foremost be honest – this creates contrast and inconsistency.
Is there any artist you have particularly been affected by, both in lyrics and music writing?
Hard to give one. Some writers and musicians that come to mind are Galich, Oe, Mishima, Mann, Vysotsky, Cohen, some Nick Cave, Dostoyevsky, many others. Fluxus artists like Joe Jones and Takehisa Kosugi. Of course composers like La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Webern…just too many to list.
On the cover of your last album you are depicted in a painful pose, almost like a Christ on the cross. Is it a suggestion you wanted to obtain? What did you mean to communicate?
Actually, I did not think it was painful. My friend Courtney took that picture. I think I used that picture because it gives one a feeling of being very close to me – maybe in an uncomfortable way. Ha! It fits the style of the songs and writing.
In the wonderful booklet included in your last album the year of composition of each song appears next to its lyrics. Is it a pure coincidence that only the last two songs, that seem to be the less desperate ones, were both written in 2007? Does it reflect a less pessimistic view of life?
It’s true that the past two years have been happier ones. First, I have met a wonderful lady with whom I’ve spent the past two years. Secondly, several of my personal goals have come to fruition. I don’t think I was ever a total pessimist.
Did you make or do you plan to make a promotional tour for this album? In general, when performing live, how do you solve the problem of playing your songs? What is your relationship with live performances?
I am planning on touring this summer. I play my songs however I want at that moment. Sometimes a high level of improvisation can cause flaws, but when it’s good, I think, it’s better than playing the same thing every night. I actually refuse to tour like a real musician and play everything in the same way every time, I think that’s pretty awful.
In the future, do you wish to get back to more experimental atmospheres, or are you going to make other albums “of songs”?
I am working on a second record of songs. It will be “looser” and more improvised during certain passages, but I hope to stick to “song” most of the time. Also, I finished a book and one of my top priorities is to get it published. It contains poems, short stories, and a children’s graphic story.
For the last question we chose a quote by the famous Russian theatrical theorist Kostantin Sergeevič Stanislavskij: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” Do you agree with it?
Yes, I do agree with it.
(photo by Marietta Davis)