“It’s been a normal morning in my house, which is noisy and chaotic,” laughs Elizabeth Bernholz aka Gazelle Twin when I ask how her day is going. “This room is my sanctuary. My husband’s just put our one year old down to sleep, so if you hear any crying, that’s who it is.” She’s speaking to me via Zoom from her home studio. Beneath the chaotic costumes and characters she’s created under her elusive moniker, Bernholz is simply immersed in the comforting chaos of everyday family life too.
Not usually an artist who reflects intensely on her previous works, it feels extra special to be talking to her about the 10th anniversary re-release of her debut album, The Entire City. Named after a painting by German surrealist artist Max Ernst, Bernholz independently recorded, produced and released the record back in 2011, her ambiguous lyrics and altruistic sounds inviting listeners into a world that offers both shimmering intrigue and heavy shadow in equal measure. The re-release is due at the end of April, alongside a mini album of accompanying material called The Wastelands. But before we dive into this, I take the opportunity to ask Bernholz what her earliest memories of music are.
“Music was just kind of there from the word go, really,” she explains. “It was always part of my family’s day-to-day life. My parents played a lot of records and cassettes, mostly classical music, but a lot of jazz as well. I had an incredibly privileged childhood where I just had access to music all the time. It became part of my language and communication. Then at school, I used to sing and I learned the recorder and the flute, so it all just came quite naturally.
I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by – I don’t remember exactly what piece of music it was – but probably ‘Swan Lake’ by Tchaikovsky. I remember feeling really physically charged by hearing that music and compelled to dance to it. I think that feeling becomes addictive. I still feel that now when I hear it. I watch my kids’ reactions to music now, my five year old especially responds to classical music. You can see that he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. I think I probably had a similar reaction to my five year old where I was quite overwhelmed emotionally too.
When I was able to create music, it was like this incredible sense of control and release being able to fulfill that cycle of receiving amazing music, and then being able to put my own out and express myself through music as well. I don’t really remember a clear starting point. I just had it there.”
This instinctive reaction will be unsurprising to fans of Gazelle Twin, who will know from experience that listening to Bernholz’s music provokes a strong physiological response. Whether this is a racing heartbeat whilst traversing the landscapes of The Entire City, peaks in adrenaline and anxiety whilst listening to the nerve-shredding Unflesh, or shuddering at the satirical and sublime nature of Pastoral and Deep England – with all of her obscure creations, what Gazelle Twin excels at creating a “mood” or a “feeling” within her work.
Now that her first creation has reached a milestone anniversary, I ask how she’s feeling and what her expectations for The Entire City re-release are.
“I’m quite nervous about it, actually,” she laughs. “It was the first thing that I produced and I hadn’t released anything properly before that. I was nearly 30 at the time, so I’d had quite a long period of making music in my life, but then suddenly within a few months I recorded and produced this thing that just sort of gushed out of me. I did the best that I could at the time, with the skills that I had built up over a number of years. It’s not perfect at all.
I don’t usually listen back to albums very often, I move on quickly. I tire of hearing myself too much. Or, like some people, I go back to old artworks and recordings sometimes and I cringe, because you change so much over time and you’re always striving to better yourself or do something different. I moved on from the vibe of The Entire City fairly quickly and deliberately. But I think going back to it now, I can still get that sense of achievement and pride from releasing it. It’s very different to the music I’m currently making, it’s definitely the prettier end of what I do, which I’ve abandoned for now.”
As someone who encountered Bernholz’s second album Unflesh first, I agree that The Entire City sounds like a fairy-tale in comparison. It’s this contrast in sound that makes her work so fascinating. I ask if this is something she consciously considers when creating music, or if it occurs naturally.
“I think as someone who enjoys listening to music, I like to hear a lot of variety and contrast. Not necessarily in one artist, but just across music. I get quite bored, I’m a bit ADHD – well, I have ADHD – so I get bored really quickly of doing the same thing over and over again. I get why people do that and why other people enjoy that. When you hit on something that’s original and unique and it has a strong identity, you want to keep exploring that and people want to keep hearing that – I get that completely. But with Gazelle Twin, I always thought from the very beginning, it would never be the same thing. I would never mix up all of my songs and I would only tour the record I’d made until I was done with it, then I’d move on. It just keeps the future a lot more exciting to me, and it gives me scope to do anything.
I’m more interested in using music as a way to – this is kind of cliché – to get through life. My life isn’t always the same. There’s massive changes in it and there are still things that I want to explore that I haven’t explored yet through music. I will always have that approach to it. That’s kind of how I do things really.”
Something she has allowed herself to revisit are the recordings that make up The Entire City’s accompanying mini album, The Wastelands. Bernholz explains that these recordings are “an extension of that landscape.” The opportunity to explore these new atmospheres was too tempting to refuse…
“I recorded the songs that make up The Wastelands roughly between The Entire City and Unflesh,” she continues. “I didn’t really want to release anything like The Wastelands at the time, but I had the opportunity to release the songs through a commercial in-house music library, so the music would go out to be used on TV shows and adverts and stuff. That was what ended up happening with those tracks, but after re-visiting them, it felt like it would be nice to include them as a separate piece, instead of adding the tracks onto the reissue, just to make it a bit more special.”
I ask if there is a particular track on either album that she favours.
“On The Entire City, there’s a couple that I still listen to that I’m fond of. ‘Changelings’ was the first single, and it was very Enya. It was very gentle and pretty, but with a bit of a sting in its tail. I think with that single I managed to get a good introduction to what I was going to do later, so that has a special place in my heart. It’s also one that I know all of my family like unanimously.
From The Wastelands, I think ‘Hole In My Heart’. I enjoyed recording that one, that was a really quick, breezy one to make. I’d say that’s a perfect bridge between The Entire City and Unflesh, just in terms of its darkness and the way that I’m singing and we recorded myself on that.”
As she mentioned it briefly, I ask Bernholz how her family reacts to her characters and works as Gazelle Twin. Both her image and her sound are striking, even polarizing in terms of who will be captivated and who will be terrified by her characters. Is there a particular remark that sticks with her, or something she read online that surprised her about her work, whether from family or strangers?
“Nobody in my family or my partner’s family are really into the sorts of things that I’m into or that my partner’s into,” she laughs. “But they are always supportive and they recognise the more tangible outcomes like reviews in newspapers or plays on the radio. I can’t remember anything specific, but I’ve had a lot of people write messages or comments on stuff over the years that’s been…entertaining.
I think I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve definitely had a few reviews in the early days that really stung me. When I released The Entire City, I had really positive reviews in the big papers like The Guardian, and then I had a couple of more local ones that were unashamedly mean and directed to me on Twitter. I remember at the time just thinking, “God Almighty, this is really hard to take.” I retaliated, which you should never do, really, but they did actually apologise. I think since then, I just try to focus on positive support.
Like anyone though, I am a moth to a flame – intrigued by the negative feedback. I think it’s important to be able to take a little dose of that from time to time. I think if I showed my face and I was getting attacked about that as well, that would be mortifying, I would hate that. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so lucky I wear crazy costumes, because I just bypass that whole side of things completely. But nevertheless, when someone attacks your artistry, or your ideas, it’s kind of bizarre. I haven’t been too tortured by it. Over the years, you definitely build up a bit of a harder skin. I mean, I’m 40 now. I’m a little bit more like “yeah, whatever. Fuck you.”
Bernholz laughs at her last sentence, proving her resilient outlook is one that means she can continue to create her altruistic sounds without the weight of others words on her shoulders. Someone who has rightfully sung her praises however, is Sian O’Gorman. The director of NYX Drone Choir, O’Gorman collaborated with Bernholz on the sublime project Deep England, she was overwhelmed by how “technically insane” Bernholz’s voice was and spoke highly of their time spent together with the choir.
“It’s nice to hear that about Sian,” she smiles. “I bat it all back to her, because she really is an amazing person as well. Her ideas and her commitment to what she does with establishing NYX with Philippa, Fiona and Josh – they’re just a beautiful, lovely group of friends who are so united in their vision.
They got in touch back in 2018 asking if I wanted to collaborate with them. I’d always wanted to do something with a choir, so it was a dream come true to be asked. They didn’t really have anything in mind, it was a very open invitation to create something new with them, or work on existing material. I was about to release Pastoral, and knew I wouldn’t be able to really write anything else for a while, so I said this could be fun to work with and they were just really, really up for it. Sian took the demos that we discussed working on and rearranged them with her own production rearrangement and they were amazing. It was really kind of head spinning at the time.
We had our first show together in November at Oval Space of the same year. I assumed it would be a one off and that would be it, because it was really special. The choir have their own way of building themselves up to do a show and it’s very ritualistic and I got so sucked into that, I loved it so much. I spend so much time on my own making music and performing with just one other person – which I love – but when you meet the right group of people, you feel really at home and at ease. With the music that I’d made on Pastoral, it spoke to them and that’s kind of the power of music really – which is another cliché. But when you can unite in a mood and emotion that you think initially is very personal, then it becomes something collective; the power of that together was pretty hard to walk away from.
NYX reached out and got us another opportunity to perform together on a bigger scale in 2019. We performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the London Jazz Festival of all places, with a really brilliant promoter and producer Rob Farhat, who was just with it from the beginning. It’s one of the biggest productions that I’ve been involved with. I’ve never had a budget to produce a big stage show, I’ve always had to keep it really lo-fi and simple on stage, so it was just a dream. Then we had some budget to record the performance and release it as Deep England.”
As someone who was lucky enough to witness both Deep England performances, these gigs are still some of the most powerful, memorable live shows I’ve had the privilege of attending. When I tell Bernholz about the “goose-bump inducing” nature of the Deep England live experience, she is grateful to hear such “amazing feedback.”
“I think it’s an exchange. I think [as an artist] you’re doing something right when you can provoke a reaction like that, especially when you know that feeling has gone into that performance as well. It’s really rewarding to know that’s how it comes across. I know a few people walked out of our Jazz Festival performance though. I remember reading a review that said some people had fingers in their ears. To be fair, maybe those people just had tinnitus? Or maybe they hate recorders and had a traumatic experience learning a recorder as a child?”
I laugh at the idea of a recorder being so offensive, but I guess many will associate the instrument with tedious school music lessons. With her work on Pastoral and Deep England, I tell Bernholz that she’s given the recorder a bit of a “comeback,” to which she laughs. “I’ve always adored recorders. I mean, there’s obviously a difference between the school class playing ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ and recorders in Baroque music. But I already knew I wanted to take something on stage that was different, I didn’t want it to just be my voice all the time, and that was it.”
It’s not just the NYX choir who have recognised the power of a collaboration with Gazelle Twin. Back in 2021, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross reached out to Bernholz and asked her to remix a Halsey track for them. The Nine Inch Nails duo produced the American songwriter’s latest album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, and they wanted Bernholz to remix the album’s single ‘I Am Not A Woman I’m a God’. As someone who enjoys being able to get out of their own musical headspace, Bernholz jumped at the opportunity.
“I have a few mutual connections to Trent and Atticus, but I never dreamed they would approach me, so it was quite a shock when it happened,” she admits. “I had an email from my manager saying that Trent Reznor would like to call me, but they didn’t say what about. I was on maternity leave at the time and it was during another lockdown, so I was still in a weird headspace of not having much sleep and looking after a seven month old during a pandemic – so I was a bit like “Oh my God, I don’t think I’m ready for this level of intensity right now.” But we arranged this phone call on my landline one evening, and I just sat here in my studio in my dressing gown waiting for the phone to ring.
I could barely hear Trent when he called because my fucking landline is so bad – it’s like a comedy crackle, like someone rustling a packet of crisps – but I could just make out his words “I don’t know how I didn’t know about you before,” and something complimentary about my music. Then he mentioned that he and Atticus had been making an album with Halsey. They asked if I’d be up for re-mixing one of her tracks and I was like… ‘if you’ve produced it, then fuck yeah, of course!’ I didn’t actually realise Atticus was on the line too. He was completely silent the whole time, then all of a sudden this really well-spoken English voice came out of nowhere, talking about stems and the practicalities of how they’d send the files to me. At the time in my head I was like, ‘has Trent just changed his accent? Is this what he does?’ I think I was just so off my head with the whole thing – sitting in my little house in the East Midlands, talking to Trent Reznor – it was just so weird. It was a really, really brilliant moment.
When they sent Halsey’s track through, I knew what I was going to do with it straight away. It was great to work with Halsey’s vocal and their production. I’m really proud of that remix. I think the title of the song is amazing and it has a brilliant message, coming from a mainstream pop artist especially. The other remixes that Trent & Atticus commissioned for some of Halsey’s other album tracks were all by men. I think it was really cool that they picked a woman to remix this track.”
Bernholz’s skills as a composer are in high demand too. She’s received worthy praise and acclaim for her work on the soundtracks for two horror films, Nocturne (2020) and The Power (2021) which she worked on with Max De Wardener.
“Right from the word go when I wanted to study music I wanted to become a composer and I wanted to do film composition as part of that,” she explains. “Now I’m able to shift my career a little bit into that world, which is currently a lot more stable than being an independent artist. With a growing family, I made a conscious effort to start shifting into soundtracks so that I can work from home. There’s definitely a practical element to it, but I’ve always been influenced and inspired by soundtracks for film, TV and video games. It comes out in what I do anyway, so it feels like a natural development for me.
At the moment, I’m working on my first TV series. It’s really, really intense, but so much fun. I can’t say too much, but the reason I was approached for it was because of the music I’ve made as an independent artist. I feel pretty privileged to be able to draw on the music I’ve made myself. Only a few people get to do this as a job full time, so I don’t ever take it for granted. I’m really lucky that I get to just sit here, wail into a microphone and play around with synths and stuff. It’s a dream really.”
It’s humbling to hear Bernholz refer to her operatic, multifaceted vocals as “wailing.”
Steeped in shadow and mystery, The Entire City is a fascinating introduction to a truly progressive artist who has evolved into a new species of performer since 2011. Whilst Bernholz’s sights remain fixed on Gazelle Twin’s future projects, her retrospective view of her debut album and journey into The Wastelands around it provide more insight into her dark and elusive world.
Pre-order the re-release of The Entire City & The Wastelands here
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Photo Credit: Joe Tunmer