On her debut solo LP, Because I’m Worth It, Alina Astrova, formerly one half of enigmatic duo Hype Williams, embraces her independence in a blissful and carefully constructed dark haze. Despite hints of her current musical trajectory in previous 12-inches, her LP as Copeland reaches new heights in a standalone sound, closer to the work of the album’s lone collaborator Actress (on only a single track) than former Hype Williams bandmate Dean Blunt. But in her first Q&A, Copeland remains wary of seeing her work as progress. This interview was originally published feature of the Summer issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Alina, I was surprised when you ordered your beer just now in perfect British English. I expected you to have an accent.
You mean a Russian accent?
Well, I’ve known English since I was about five from watching TV. My parent’s idea of parenting was to let us watch as much TV as we wanted. This was after the Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe TV was more exciting then because it wasn’t banned, because all these foreign programs were being shown in English for the first time.
I’m surprised the cartoons weren’t dubbed, because the way characters move their mouths usually seem pretty non-language specific.
Nothing is dubbed in Estonia. It’s too small I guess. There were subtitles.
In some countries the people who do voice overs of famous foreign actors are famous in their own right.
In Russia, too. I remember only one guy doing all the American movies. He did all of the characters in one monotonous voice. There was no trying to pretend to do a female voice or anything.
Do you have a special knack for languages?
I’ve never tried to learn a foreign language as an adult so I wouldn’t know.
You were born in Russia, but your family moved to Estonia when you were a kid. You studied art criticism at St. Martins in London. How did you end up there?
I moved there when I was seventeen without much of a plan. I applied to several schools without really knowing what they were. It was just an extension of high school, another three years of something I had to do. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew what they wanted to do straight away or followed an interest from when I was young. I just wanted to leave Estonia.
So you weren’t always making music?
No, I started when the band started.
Yeah. Before that, I was interested in music, like teenagers are, because of going out. I didn’t know that much about music apart from what I’d hear around.
What did you listen to when you were growing up?
Whatever was on TV. MTV came into that part of the world in the nineties, so we just watched that on repeat, looping, the same chart ten times a day.
This was I guess the tail end of MTV playing videos before it became more reality shows?
Last time I had a TV, they were still playing some videos.
I attempted to read a piece of art criticism of yours I found online for an Estonian art magazine. I had a hard time with it because the English translation was a bit wonky. But I did understand that it was a critique of the relationship between culture and economics, particularly with the influx of Western culture into Estonia since the end of the Soviet Union. I extrapolated a bit from the essay when thinking about the track “Diligence” off of your new album. At some point you quote Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” with, “Cash rules everything around me,” and then Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” with, “With my mind on my money and the other way around But you couple that with a more cynical take on earning money: “Everything is measured in numbers, so what’s the significance?” Do you see your music as a vehicle for a critique of capitalism or the music industry?
I don’t see the lyrics as so literal. This isn’t a real narrative or hardly even any original content there. You can immediately tell the references because they are such a cliché, culturally but also in terms of what they express. It’s more interesting for me to pull together these widely known things and see if they can be an expression of a shared thought process, rather than constantly trying to come up with an original statement to show how insightful I am. In that sense, I guess, you could say that it’s against a kind of vision of artist as authority.
Listening back to Hype Williams and your previous solo 12-inches and EP, I was kind of surprised by the sound of your new album. Production-wise everything is much more well defined, the song structures seem more focused, the vocals are more treated, which make it more engaging than previous releases. Do you at all see the album as a step forward or any kind of progress?
I’m not such a technical musician in terms of production, so I am not particularly interested in developing a sound or a direction in that way. Everything I do happens as a bit of an experiment and I see the album just as much a part of this ongoing process as the 12-inches or anything I put online. The reason I’m not saying that it’s a step in one or another direction is that I have no idea what the direction is, there is no plan.
Can you live off of your music?
Now I’ve been doing this for long enough to get through the phases of initial interests, then hype, and then whatever comes after. But initially I didn’t get into music thinking of it as a potential profession so it took me a while to accept that it is my job. I still make music in the same way I’ve done before, but no longer being in the band, I had to rearrange what I do on a practical level. Releasing the record by myself, not on any label, has been a big part of that. It’s an enormous amount of work on one hand, but it felt necessary to go through the process independently. It had to do with avoiding being in a situation where you know less about it than the people who approach you with deals, which can be a very patronizing experience.
I suppose it’s better to be confronted with someone who’s patronizing than someone who’s trying to rip you off.
Patronizing is ripping off, in an emotional sense. But also, sometimes people don’t mean to be patronizing or to rip you off—they might think they understand what you want without it being the case. It’s no surprise that the music industry is full of these stories. Getting into it quite young, as most people do, you don’t always know how to negotiate these things and avoid misunderstandings. You don’t know or care about anything besides your art and you make all these decisions that you think are just incidental. Then they come back to you five years later and you’re like, “What the fuck is that?”
What got you excited about music when you moved to London in the mid-2000s? Grime? Dubstep?
I can’t say I knew much about grime back then. I found out about it later through friends who were really into it.
What about now?
There are plenty of things I listen to, but not so directly for inspiration. My experience with music—particularly dance music—is still more going to clubs and dancing, where I don’t necessarily think about what synth is playing on what particular track.
So what is inspirational for you in making music?
I can’t really describe there being a method. I’m not easily seduced by the technical side of things. It’s more about the environments in which music is experienced and addressing those situations.
Is Hype Williams only on hiatus or is it over for good?
As far as I know, Hype Williams is still going, but I am no longer part of it.
And you guys were a couple . . .
Does this relate to other questions you have?
I find the idea of a couple making music together interesting, because I have a hard time imagining it being easy working creatively with your partner. Although there are plenty of counter examples.
When people get involved in a project, relationships inevitably end up being quite intimate, regardless of whether it’s a couple or a group. It’s always a power play and that’s what makes it complicated. It’s hard to detach the work from this other thing that’s going on and all the insecurities involved in being around other people. But that’s also why working with other people is really important to me still. Representing this idea of a single musician with great ideas and great talent is something I don’t find that interesting. Beyond a certain point thinking about how special you are at something or how bad you are at other things is just limiting. Working with people possibly forces you to lose the idea that creating something meaningful is a personal achievement.
Musicians who work exclusively by themselves come across sometimes as narcissistic. But maybe you have to be obsessed with the world you’ve created for yourself to maintain a certain level of success on your own.
I don’t believe in that. It’s a very dominant narrative in music and elsewhere: the idea of a tortured genius providing revelatory advice through personal suffering. In a way, the lyrics on “Advice to Young Girls” are a joke about this concept of a role-model and giving patronizing advice. Engaging in this self-importance thing is obviously very seductive, but it has become infinitely boring to me because it’s a limited understanding of the situation. You live in a world with other people and they also think about things. I don’t feel like I have to prescribe what music should be. Of course, the system would support the idea of individuality, because it is easy to sell. The alternative is not so easily brandable. ~
Published June 19, 2014. Words by A.J. Samuels.