Photo: Hart Lëshkina
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arca Is Expanding Latin Music On Her Terms With Electronic Album ‘KiCK i’
Last year saw the demise and birth of many worlds. But despite the upheaval, Alejandra Ghersi, the avant-garde electronic music artist known as Arca, streamlined her approach and delivered her most palatable album yet, KiCK i.
Fans of the singer/songwriter and producer know her for her boundless, experimental approach to music-making. Her textured sound design includes instrumentals, futuristic effects and haunting, ceremonial vocals. KiCK i, released June of 2020, is an out-of-this-world bilingual sonic experience that marries the two sounds that raised her: electronic music and reggaeton.
To the Barcelona-based, Venezuelan-born artist, reggaeton and electronic music are one and the same. Reggaeton relies "on the loop of electronic instrumentation," she explains via Zoom. With this album, Arca is taking Latin music’s biggest sound to new dimensions outside of the traditional Latin music world.
The intent is GRAMMY-worthy. KiCK i is nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards. And it has a place on the dancefloor—hip-shaking tracks like "KLK" with Spanish sensation Rosalía and Venezuela’s Cardopusher are pop songs at their core even as Arca maintains her experimental vision.
The album's 12 songs mix reggaeton’s infectious rhythms with heavy, emotive synth sounds and robotic vocals. And the complex themes of identity in tracks like "Nonbinary" and "Machote" are as relevant and cutting-edge as the sound itself. She’s known for her contradictory nature—when asked about the songs, she responds, "There are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in the binary, and there are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in not having to put everything into one of those two boxes."
Recently, Arca spoke with GRAMMY.com about how her transition influenced the expansion of her sound on KiCK i, working with the late singer/producer Sophie on the album and creating reggaeton with Rosalía.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What about the creative process or the creating process gets you excited?
It tends to be the part of making a song or being on set where I'm not in control of what the outcome will be. My favorite part of making something is not necessarily the part that entails having a vision and figuring out how to execute it, but rather the element of surprise that emerges when there's maybe a beautiful mistake or an accidental discovery.
So you don't mind not being in control?
Oh, I crave that. I think in my day-to-day, I want to be in control of my feelings or my practice.
What drew you to electronic music?
I have a brother seven years older, and I would often borrow his music—sometimes without permission. I think his musical tastes left a big influence on me. He had a lot of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher. He had a few Björk records that were very formative in my musical heritage [and] instruction.
Also, I loved electronic music on the radio. Pretty much all the musical genres that I gravitated to when I was a kid were electronic in some way—even if it was like future-leaning R&B. There was [also always] reggaeton on the radio in Venezuela. I considered reggaeton electronic music.
That’s interesting. Tell me more.
It really does rely on the loop of electronic instrumentation.
Before I come back to that thought, I want to get into your music. Your last album, Arca, was experimental. KiCK i is a bit more pop. How did that shift happen?
I can't answer that without mentioning the beginning of my transition. I think the self-titled record was more of like a swan song, as if I was letting go or mourning. When I wrote that record, I was walking in a cemetery every day by my house. It was pretty goth. Beyond emo. After that, I came to terms with a few things and decided to share them with the world.
The immediate result was something more celebrational. I didn't really want to preach to the choir, so to speak. There was a focused intention to try to reach people that might not share the same views as me—but to entice them or invite them by making something beautiful enough or entertaining enough that would compel people to think about the fact that we're each kind of mutants in our own way.
At the same time, we're all brought together in being unique. I don't know how to explain it. I think it's something that's more a result of living and finding a queer family after I left Venezuela when I was 17 years old. The values and the ways of making a new family or finding yourself to be part of a community that you didn't realize existed, it all ties into the reasons why the record sounds so different.
You mentioned people who have different values than you, and then you cited queerness. Is that what you mean by people who have different views?
Definitely, but only because I think everyone is queer. You can self-identify as queer or not, but I think we're all on a spectrum.I don't think it should be something exclusive. It should be something inclusive. I think also each individual has multiple souls. That's something that I talked about a lot on Kick I—that we all have more than one state.
I want to make space for each of those to be able to coexist in the same space, not just tolerate each other, but in a harmonious way. I think queerness isn't something that should make anyone feel like an outsider. If anything, it should make everyone feel like part of the same thing.
You have a song called "Nonbinary," but you also have a song called "Machote," which means "man" in Spanish. Why did you decide to name the songs that?
I didn't want to force people into thinking that by being non-binary, you're renouncing the heritage and tradition of these charges between masculinity and femininity. If anything, I wanted each woman to recognize the man inside them and each man to recognize the woman inside them. The words "woman" [and] "man" mean different things to each person.
My idea was that you can know who you are without needing to only choose one side of you. It's like the sun and the moon. I want it to have the pleasure and the joy and the sparks that can fly off of the tension between hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity in the case of "Machote."
At the same time, there are instances where thinking in terms of masculinity and femininity as a binary might not be useful. I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. There are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in the binary, and there are times where it feels pleasurable and right to indulge in not having to put everything into one of those two boxes.
It was a very nuanced message and a layered one that I understood was contradictory upon the moment of sharing it. That was kind of the point.
How did reggaeton and trap make it into the album?
Part of the lifeblood that has nurtured me was music that I heard on the radio. Music that reached me, through not just academic and performance, in more of a popular sense. One of the contradictions I like to relish in is to not think of my practice as academic, but also not to think of it as just entertainment.
Did you plan on making the track of the Rosalía reggaeton since the beginning?
No. Actually, that's not the first song that we've made together. It just happened to be the first song we've been able to share. I'm glad that ["KLK" is] the first one because I'm really proud of it. I hope the other ones make it too, but at the same time, I don't think that our sound has to be shared with an audience for it to be real or for it to mean something.
I'm happy that we've made songs. Whether or not they see the light of day and are shared with audiences is secondary, almost, but I love her so much.
What about the song makes you proud of it?
I want to mention Cardopusher. It was between the three of us that the song came to be. So, I want to do more than a shout-out. I think the lifeblood of that song, the melody that is very hypnotic and has given the song so much of its energy was Cardopusher’s musicality. It's not just Rosalía. It's Rosalía, Cardopusher and I.
It's very important because the collaboration feels like a triangle. I've known him since I was, like, 14 years old. He was and is a local hero in the scene of Caracas. So, I'm proud for, I guess, being a bridge too, between Cardopusher and Rosalía. I'm proud to be a part of that song.
I'm proud because those are the rhythms that Luis and I grew up with, and I know Rosalía really appreciates them too. I love the song because I think it's infectious, but not 100 percent digestible in a pleasant way.
I have noticed that about your music. Some things about it are more poppy and accessible than others. Are you ever concerned about it not being palatable enough for broader audiences?
All the time. It's my nightmare to think that I might make something that means much more to me than it could mean to an audience. I always want to make it possible for people to have their own reading of things without making it sound too abstract. That's something I find myself never figuring out.
Your music is at the intersection of so many things. You're creating a new space for Latinx music outside its traditional boundaries. Do you think so too?
That's the goal. I don't know if I can answer that. I think that's for other Latinx musicians to answer, but that is honestly the goal.
And I think that your music is necessary for that—to push those audiences.
Bless you, for saying so. Thank you.
On the album, you worked with Sophie as well. What did working with Sophie mean to you?
It meant a lot. It's an emotional subject because it's very recent that she passed, and I find myself still processing the emotional side of that. What I can say right now, honestly, that I feel nothing short of an honor to have been able to make music with her and have that connection and be a part of my life for many years.
We met each other before either of us transitioned, so there was this very profound parallel and also similarities and also contrasts. I think Sophie is a genius. Period. She will forever remain someone that inspires me. We had so many plans. We were making so many plans to tour together.
The track with Sophie, "La Chiqui," is more experimental than some of the others. What do you enjoy about playing with sounds?
I like the idea of combining things that haven’t been combined: languages, good print, times, different eras, different materials, even fantasy worlds, like science fiction versus fantasy. Maybe even interpreting traditional things with more contemporary leanings, or interpreting more contemporary ideas through traditional classical beauty.
I try to find combinations that surprise me and hopefully can produce a sense of wonder. Or, at least, inspiration.
This album is nominated for a GRAMMY. How do you feel about that?
I’m still pinching myself. I can't say that I've taken it all in. Interviews like this one are what help it feel more real because I didn't even know that was possible.
When the label mentioned that it was nominated, I wasn't even told that it was a possible candidate. It's a great honor because I've studied not just music, but the history of recorded music. The GRAMMYs are very much about albums, which is a format that I'll always believe in. And then to have the recognition and the honor of it being nominated for me is already more than enough. It just gives me a lot of fuel to keep doing what I'm doing as best as I can.
Outside of your music, what do you want to be known for?
That’s a big question. I want to be known for not ever fully being known. I'd like to remain something of a mystery. I'd like to make it so that if you study my tracks, or the gestures, or the decisions that I took throughout the course of my career as a musician or as an artist working in more than one medium, it would be to make it hard for people to reverse-engineer and figure out who I was without hiding from people.
To find this place where people can feel like they don't have to know exactly who I was in order for my work to mean something to them—that would make me happy.