Velvit Welcomes Lykanthea
Lakshmi Ramgopal, the scholar behind the dark, ambient sounds of Lykanthea, talks to us about her influences for her EP Migration, her own dark fashion influences, and her academic pursuits
Velvit spoke with Lykanthea's Lakshmi Ramgopal about the journey of writing her new album, her view on music in the realm of fashion, and how her current studies have brought her to Rome.
Velvit: You are from Chicago, but currently studying in Rome; what brought you overseas?
Lakshmi Ramgopal: I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago and was awarded a Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome to spend a year at the academy doing research and finishing up my dissertation.
V: What sort of influences are you picking up from Rome?
LR: I’m drawn to Roman temples, early Christian catacombs and the other empty, cavernous spaces here. The reverberations you create while talking or even breathing in these spaces make the silences that punctuate the echoes exciting and meaningful. I’m interested in exploring those kinds of contrasts more during my year here. I’m also surrounded in Rome by painters and novelists and musicians who are teaching me about the worlds they inhabit and are creating.
V: Tell me a little bit about your exploration into music. When did you first become interested in writing music?
LR: As a kid I played flute and violin and also trained as a Carnatic vocalist, a tradition that comes from South India. But I didn’t start writing my own music and pursuing it seriously until college, when I decided I had things to say and that singing while playing guitar was the right way to say them.
V: Have you touched on other artistic mediums?
LR: I love photography, but I haven’t had time to develop my skills seriously. Some day!
V: Before Migration, what were some other themes in music you were focusing on?
LR: The themes varied with the genre. In college I was part of a riot grrrl band and we played loud, bratty, guitar-heavy feminist music. After that I was part of an electropop duo for a while. Our first and only record didn't have a consistent theme, but lyrically it was influenced by the occult. Both projects were important forerunners to what I do now as a solo musician, even though my focus is on dark, ambient tones and lyrical narration.
V: Migration’s story is very distinct. What inspired you about Inanna’s story?
LR: Migration is inspired by a series of 4,000-year-old Sumerian hymns that describe the goddess Inanna’s descent to the underworld and ascent back to the living. I’m intrigued by how the texts circle back to how Inanna gains self-knowledge over the course of her journey. The theme resonates with me increasingly, even as I gain distance from the record. Acquiring self-knowledge is a non-linear, often painful process, and that process is worth investigating.
V: How do you personally connect with Inanna? Are there any parallels between her journey and one of your own?
LR: Confessional songwriting doesn’t interest me and I make a conscious effort not to write music based on my personal life. However, at some point while writing Migration, I realized that some of the lyrics were reflecting on difficult and transformative events occurring in my personal and professional life. So the narrative of the EP took on a personal significance I had not intended or wanted. I also wrote it during a year of constant solo travel throughout Europe and the United States. As exciting as the experience was, it left me feeling fractured and in need of a stable identity. Some of that also seeped into the music. Now I wonder if it will be possible to remove the specter from future records that draw on Inanna’s story. It’s always strange to see one’s art become an uncontrollable force.
V: How do the lyrics of Migration reflect the research you did before writing each song? What challenges did you face when transforming written historical documents into music?
LR: My Ph.D. will be in Roman history and I have strong research skills and a sense for the past, but I found - and still find - Sumerian culture and society difficult to parse. This is because I can’t read cuneiform and because the Kingdom of Sumer existed 2,000 years before the period of history I study. I dealt with this challenge not just by reading scholarly analyses of the hymns to Inanna, but also by permitting my own interpretations to have value. What, for example, should I make of the lines "Water has not touched your hand / Water has not touched your foot," which appear at the beginning of one of the hymns? Sumerologists have offered all kinds of interpretations. In the end, I used a modified version of these lines as the basis for the song "Telos" and the theme of water as a metaphor for change and death that extends across the record like a backbone.
Also, since the Sumerian hymns are so rich, I decided to focus on a limited set of themes and to organize the EP like a book of individual chapters. Each song stands on its own while illuminating something about the other songs on the record. This strategy focused my research and gave me a structure that was both flexible and firm.
V: When it comes to writing music in the future, are there other themes or stories in mind of historical significance you are interested in pursuing?
LR: I know from the experience of doing dissertation research that one arrives at new understandings of familiar subject material over time, so I plan to revisit the Inanna texts in the future. That won’t happen for a while, though. Right now, I’m filling myself with inspiration for new music by reading a lot of poetry and looking at Byzantine and Medieval art, my two latest obsessions.
V: How do you think songwriting and recording fit into the world of fine art? Are they separate entities?
LR: Music and fine art can’t help but be related. They’re ultimately rooted in contemporary intellectual and social movements. But I don’t think musicians and fine artists necessarily intersect, since they operate in different frameworks. Musicians who write and perform their own music at the independent, DIY level often view fine artists as the creators of a culture aimed at consumers of luxury, and I’ve met fine artists who see musicians as entertainers who lack intellectual integrity.
V: How do music and fashion intersect, if at all? How are you personally influenced by fashion?
LR: Music and fashion are natural allies. The music you choose to hear and the clothes you wear are part of the identity you create for yourself and share with the world. My own style inclinations are partly the result of my active student/musician lifestyle: they’re often loose and almost always black. But my clothes also reflect the dark aesthetic of my music. I think that’s because the consistency between what I create and how I appear gives me a strong sense of self.
V: What are three articles of clothing or accessories you could just live in forever?
LR: My current loves are my Noctex Omnia top, black oxfords, and all the Hunter Gatherer pieces I own.
V: Do you have a favorite musician or artist? Who are they?
LR: PJ Harvey is one of my all time favorites. I love all of her work, but I will always worship White Chalk for its stunning restraint and beauty.
V: What is the most difficult thing about what you do, creatively and academically?
LR: Making mistakes. I know they’re necessary for creative growth, but I’m a perfectionist and I’ve never learned to make my peace with them.
V: What advice do you have for someone who is looking to create music professionally?
LR: Give yourself to your music. Give yourself entirely. You have to make the sacrifice and ignore the rewards. Music is nourishment.
For more information on Lakshmi Ramgopal and Lykanthea, visit our Artist profiles and shop our Velvit boutique.