EM GUIDE: Keeley Forsyth – “I’m not even interested in my own life and my own thoughts“

Keeley Forsyth’s performance at this year’s Rewire edition was one of the highlights of the festival. Set up in the stunningly beautiful Grote Kerk church, together with the video artist Netia Jones, her longtime musical collaborator Matthew Bourne and a bunch of other musicians ( Ross Downes, Robert Bentall, Michael Bardon) an enigmatic atmosphere was created. Of course, Forsyth was the centre of this performance as each and every step seemed burdened with life and death and the bizarre in-between, both cause of her engaging movements and the hypnotic voice (or let's better say voices).
Written by Thomas Venker, All photos courtesy of the artist

Originally the idea was to talk in person in The Hague, but soundcheck and other preparations interfered. So we met up a few days later in Zoom land. Rarely the best way to conduct an interview, but this particular conversation worked out extremely well. For Keeley Forsyth is an extremely open-hearted person, and up for a more in-depth exchange.

Before we start she forewarns that her boyfriend might appear in the background, and/or the cat. No issue of course, as this is what gives the digital world some warmth and personality.

Keeley Forsyth: So yes, we have to share our lives.

I’m happy we can make it like this.
I have to say your performance in The Hague was stunningly beautiful.

Oh, thank you, Thomas.
That means a lot. It was the first time that we’d all played together. So that was a kind of live rehearsal – but I like having an unknown element, I like things to be a little bit free.
It’s a work in progress. There’s a lot of feedback and tweaks that will happen from that performance.

Interesting that you emphasise the free aspect, because in a way, the performance also had a very clear narrative. And the way you move on stage, I found to be quite unique, especially these dramatic gestures telling the musicians to stop.

And again, that’s something that I never really think about until I’m having this physical conversation – I’m treating my physical body as another form of language – on stage.
A few months ago I went to Düsseldorf to see the Pina Bausch play „Nelken“, it was my first experience of her work as a live production. I mean, I know all her work pretty well. But it is different to see it live, like the way they use the bodies as a form of communication. The heartbeat became the foundation of the scene – and then someone would run faster, the heartbeat would get heavier and deeper; so then the microphone goes in here (shows on her heart) – I really love all that.
I mean, although in my performance, I did use visuals, which I’d never done before. I’ve always loved things to be very reduced. Take everything away really. That is how I like to perform the shift. The transformation is an internal one.
I always wear the same clothes on and off stage. So there’s no getting ready for a performance in that way.
I don’t know how this is for a writer, but as a performer you never know what you are really going to perform until you’re doing it.

I have seen a few Pina Bausch pieces in Wuppertal in her theatre over the years. Even though the theatre is beautiful it doesn’t have a huge effect in the staging.
Your setting in The Hague in the church that was quite something else, so melodramatic – but still you managed to create your own little world within it.

I do prefer spaces like this, I come from a theatre background, as an actress. That space was incredible and very impressive.
But I do also like spaces that are flat, you know, even like in Pina’s work, the lighting feels so real that you just forget that it’s been designed, but there obviously every element has been chosen.
And I do this in my work, I always try and ask why it’s never good enough just to do something. And the reason why I’m always asking – because you just want to make sure you’re presenting something that is truthful.
So why am I doing this? Why is this element necessary to have?
If you can understand where it comes from, then you can kind of let go of it and carry on.
But like I said, this was the first time that I’d used the visuals.

I’d met Tanisha Jones, who’s the lighting designer, who’s a really gorgeous person, very talented. I am trying to collect the people – that you kind of understand each other is more important than deciding to have visuals and trying to find that person. You meet them, and then they bring what they do.

How do you feel about the constellation of the people in your stage setting? You are of course the centre of everything.

When I’m on stage, I’m definitely aware of that kind of coming in and out of a sweet spot feeling. And I need to hold that moment. I think I am kind of obsessed with how I am feeling on stage. Sometimes – which I didn’t do on that performance – I bring a chair so I can sit.

But I would like it to be seen as a teamwork. I work a lot with the guy on the piano, he’s called Matthew Bourne. When it’s just two people on stage, he becomes part of the performance. There’ll be times when I’ll drape my body over his. I do really enjoy when there are more people on stage, but it becomes kind of difficult to navigate that.

While performing I can be obsessed with trying to understand what’s happening. Sometimes I drift – ad I’ll think I’m bored. Afterward I think: okay, why was I bored? I mean, it’s okay to be bored.

It’s interesting that you say that, because I did a talk recently, a public talk with the German composer Heiner Goebbels.
I had to be very concentrated as he was playing piano in between our conversational parts and had had in general a lot of references and stuff. I really enjoyed it a lot – but at one point I was thinking: „When is it over?“ Afterwards I wondered, why did you think that?

Yeah, I really know what you mean.
When I’m on stage, I am very aware of that kind of mundane feeling as well. Like, I’m bored of my own voice. I want it to stop. So then I think, maybe next time I can just stop. I don’t have to be singing.
I hate the feeling that I’m there for other people, that I have to kind of present something or entertain. It’s the theatre of the absurd, like going against being on stage, trying to make people feel comfortable by trying to entertain them. So it’s actually enjoying more that feeling of being uncomfortable.

In that performance I enjoyed the fact that I could change position. During the first half I was sitting on the right side, watching very closely, and then I decided to walk around for the rest of the piece and see it from all different angles – trying to find out what that does for me and the performance. One of the most intense moments I had was all the way in the back when I saw the whole landscape, and that was really interesting to me, because I thought it’s always the closer you get, the more intense it gets. In a regular theatre I could never have done that.

I am aware that there is an intensity to the music that I make. I only really started the music in these projects, like in 2020, and then only started performing a year later. So, it’s at the beginning.
My goal is to get to a point where … I don’t really want things to be intense, I want them to be absurd, but in a kind of slightly off-kilter way. I’m talking about how it hits me on stage, the intensity isn’t hitting me, it’s actually more kind of changing my thought patterns – just becoming more impulsive, I think.
My goal is to take it to the extreme, and then you pull it back. And there’s this place in the middle, which can possibly be both things, really beautiful, or really uncomfortable and intense.

I read that the French actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud („Theatre of Cruelty“) is a favourite of yours.
I was very much into his work when I was younger, because it was connected to me getting into splatter and horror movies, like Herschel Gordon-Lewis and stuff like that. This world of fake blood, fake cruelty. These movies played with the border between staging and getting dangerous for real. You never really cross, like keeping these moments in Italian Giallo movies before things happen going and going.

Yeah, I do really love Antonin Artaud’s process.

I recently came across the letters that he wrote to the radio commission for a radio play, a play they wouldn’t put on in the end. There’s something in these letters that made me understand the physical aspect of being human. And I understand the mental aspect of it. I am not necessarily following his path, but I feel that I that I understand him.
Aspects of his work push it into that horror, which I do really love. I did a series of photographs for the last record (in reference to his very famous series of four expressive pictures) that didn’t get released, the label did not go for them.
I enjoy the absurdity in his work, it is not real – just like nothing I do on stage is real. I’m not so into the kind of fake blood horror suggestion aspect of that. I think that’s for me where then it just kind of goes into more of a Pina Bausch or Samuel Beckett world.
I mean, I learnt about these people kind of late, really, in my 20s. I am still finding out stuff.

You mention the age at which you started with music a couple of times. What effect does that timing have on you and your music?
Do you wonder sometimes what the music would have sounded like if you had started as a late teenager?
Being in your 40s, your view of the world is already so much more defined, which makes it kind of good in a sense, because you know exactly what you want. But then on the other side, you sometimes think like, well, maybe I should skip all that and like, try to find that other element. Is that something you reflect about?

When I started to make music – even though I did it for a long time at home on my own with the harmonium – it did feel like it was fully formed. And I think that’s because of the age that I was at. I was following a different path of being an actor. And being an actor is interesting, but it didn’t expose me to the stuff that I really love. It didn’t expose me to the writers, philosophers, theatre makers, dancers, it didn’t really expose me to all that.

In contrast to your work on television series and films (where others create a world and ask you to play a part in it) you are the creator of your musical universe.
As someone who in her daily work is used to have like detailed scripts, what kind of habitat do you cultivate when working on music? Do you also feel like playing roles in your music?

I think the role that I play as a musician is the one that is perfect for me, because I’ve devised it myself. Me being on stage is always ‘them’ or ‘her’. And I really love to play them. They make absolute sense to me.

So then it is quite difficult to revert to being an actor, being told… – I find that the creative freedom is so, so limited. Now when I work as an actor, I really feel that contrast. I don’t enjoy the process of even putting on the characters clothes, if I haven’t been involved from the beginning.
But the character that I’ve always played in the music, that’s always kind of been the same, an element of the same. And sometimes I’ll talk about a different project, but it might not necessarily be the same character, but it would be the like the nervous system of that thing that it is. It’s a kind of throbbing essence, it’s like you rip everything off.

Sometimes in a performance, I’ll choose an organ to play – maybe it is the Artaud thing, I kind of see things stripped away, like I am playing the heart or playing the liver. That’s where it’s coming from. But it’s all of the same character and the same thing. But yeah, actually being an actress and saying other people’s words and having to delve into their backstory, it’s less interesting for me. It’s harder, I think really. But yeah, I think it is necessary to play a persona to have some degree for me.

To me, being an actor is also a thing very much connected to having a lot of discipline. Would you say that – as much as you try obviously to work very exactly on stage – you enjoy certain moments of freedom with your music?

Yeah, I do. I think I can do the non-discipline thing. But only when I’m working with the musician who was on stage Matthew Bourne. He is beyond one of the most talented people that I’ve ever been around. So you’re completely safe. And it’s the same with the producer that I work with on this called Ross Downs. I’m totally safe.
So when I do work with new musicians that I haven’t really worked with before, I don’t enjoy that unknown element. I think the discipline, the freeness only works when you have that core structure.
It’s really interesting what happens to you on stage. I mean, I would be happy just going on stage on my own and banging the floor and trying to make something because there’s no other place like it.
I also did a performance where for like six minutes – which is a long time – you just stand there in silence and look at the audience. And it’s really strange what happens. And then, only when you feel impulsed or inspired to do something, then you do it. But it takes a certain amount of insight and courage. I’m at a point in my life where I can now deal with what you need to be able to do that and to still be present.
So yeah, I do really love that feeling and that there is a discipline in that but there is also an improvisational aspect I suppose.

How was it to work with Colin Stetson in that in that sense?
I had a great opportunity to get to know him a bit better as he performed during the pandemic twice for the Monheim Triennale and stayed both times longer with us as a result. I learned a lot about his artistic set up. Like for example he literally needs to practice every day keep his music body connected.
How is this for you, does your film body and your music body constantly need to be in a dialogue with you – or can you take a break?

That is really interesting to hear. And I’m not surprised with the talks that you had with Colin Stetson. He is just incredible.

I’d never really thought about it like that. If I if I’m not performing, I start to feel like … one would call it kind of unwell. I start to feel like I’m slower to talk, I’m slower to make decisions. And, and I’m just learning that, ah, you know, the kind of practice and the discipline of doing the work.
I am trained as a dancer. And I think that foundation of those early years really stabilised something, so I can have periods of time off. Even though I’m in the studio in my house most days, I work and I dance and I practice – it is a practice that I do have to do every day in order to provide for myself. But I kind of go in and out of it easy.
But I teach at a music school as well. I teach acting – the way that I work. So even when I’m not in the studio, I’m kind of around students teaching them about how you find the nervous system of the thing that you want to make, how you connect to it.
But I’m not as disciplined as Colin. Yeah, I also like to go out and have glasses of wine, stay in bed, lay down, think. (laughs)

But that is also important, right? When your brain and body are getting free, then you think about things further from the straight and normal path. And that’s where the interesting parts lie. If I just do my machine style writing work, nothing is really happening, then my writing also gets kind of boring. You need those collisions, you need other things to stimulate different thoughts.


You mentioned earlier that gestures are like words for you. Acting is like speaking, also when you do not speak for real.
To me as a listener the lyrics are the first indicator of what this is all about, ‘what’s the topic here?’ Do you feel like that the audience is as able to interpret these other words – your body movements, your gestures – like they are able with the words? Or do they need to stay with you much longer as this second or let’s better say deeper other narrative needs more time?

I think so. In the performance I kind of reenacted the scene in my head.
I hate talking about personal stuff, but it is about the work. There is a song which is about letting go of someone who’s been central to your life. So during the performance, there was the element of, I’m whispering into their ear, telling them that it’s time for the body to let go. And I’m also embracing family members, and I’m having that feeling of how that is. And I’m embracing someone else. And then I’m going back to the year to sing to this person just to help them transition. And of course the audience don’t know all this – I mean, I quite like that they don’t know it, because they shouldn’t want to know. I’m not even interested in my own life and my own thoughts.

Very coquettish to say.

(laughs) So, yeah, I would never impose that on anyone, but I enjoyed kind of reenacting that scene on stage.

And there was a point when I thought maybe I would like the audience to know that I am embracing someone, that I’m walking over here and I’m doing this. But yeah, I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve tried to make the lyrics a lot clearer, because on the album – although the words that are written are making sense to me – the way I sing them … I am sometimes opening my throat in a way that becomes a bit like that (puts her hand on her throat and imitates a kind of chokehold). Less of just using your mouth to speak, it becomes like you’re connected to this tube that’s connected. So it becomes this thing that that is interesting for me to do, but it means that you lose the words. But I’m trying to now think, yeah, next time I’m going to try and articulate things a bit better. Just yeah, to do that. Anyway, I’m waffling.

But that’s what I kind of meant – even when you lose the words, the meanings are still there. It is like a musician using field recordings and burying them in the mix. You can’t really hear them – but if you’re sensitive enough, and you follow an artist long enough it’s the same as if you read a book over and over again, suddenly the sentences have different meanings to you.

To return to the question you slightly dodged, what is it that you are searching for in music?

The first thing: I really love to sing. I love the resonance that it gives.
I think it’s a really beautiful thing to be able to do. It engages the breath. It engages the physical. And it kind of disengages the mind really. I really love to sing.
So the music part of it is just kind of fleshing that love out for me really. If I’d have had more of a straight path of life, I’d have gone into music many, many years ago. But for some reason I didn’t. But I think that’s why I’m making the stuff that I make now, because there’s a lot of unanswered questions in the music.
I love singers. That is my thing.

Who are your vocal role models? Are there like people you would say like, „oh, I love how their voice has developed over the years“?

I like to watch masterclasses with opera singers. I like to watch people (like with the Colin Stetson thing) with the skill set at the top of their game. And so I enjoy watching the mechanics of a voice, like when they have these masterclass things online.

The voices I love are: Édith Piaf and Scott Walker.
Growing up, I would listen to Édith. I found Scott Walker later, which was like the first kind of realisation that I thought, yeah, maybe, I can do this. Because up until that point, I hadn’t really heard anyone with the voice that I had. Even with any expression, like sometimes you’ve got to get through the shame of it. When I was at school, it was always being teased, because my voice was low. So I tried to manipulate that and become higher when I was trying to sing. And then I heard Scott Walker, and I just thought, well, yeah, sod it. I want to sound like him. It was just the kind of a little bit of permission to get through the shame of what my voice naturally is.
I love his later work.

Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s obviously this very dark universe, not music you can listen to the whole day. It’s an universe in which everything is there in a place that it’s meant to be, one of these greater landscapes of music.

Yeah, I know.

Do you feel comfortable in the landscape you create with your music?
I ask as it is also quite a dark one, not like in a negative way, but this is definitely not a bubblegum soundtrack for distraction. One rather thinks a lot about one’s own life when listening to your music.

Yeah, I feel very, very comfortable in that world. It doesn’t feel dark or forced or pushed.
I don’t really listen to other people’s music. And you’re right with Scott Walker, I can’t listen to it a lot. You know, I have to kind of turn it off. It’s too much. But at the same time, I absolutely love it.
It’s that thing, the duality of nothing is never one thing, you know. My kind of life experience is that what one might say is the darkest, that is actually the opposite. They weirdly always exist together.

My goal is to always make work that makes me feel good, that where I become a better person, where I’m trying to go towards that good feeling. I don’t want to make work that feels that there’s any suffering in the work.

What comes from darkness, or rather, what people often see as an environment, which is a) either negative or b) makes them angst-driven – you know, like as a child, it’s getting dark and they’re afraid of that.
What does that mean? Once you are going into it, you realise the dark place is not the dark place, the dark place is actually a place of freedom if you interpret it right, because it opens you the whole field of reflections, which often are negated in the light and bright world. Like ‘let’s not think about that bad stuff!’ But thinking about that bad stuff makes the world potentially the better place, because if you don’t confront it nothing happens. And also: the longer you are in the dark, the better you see, and the better you orientate, the nuances you are getting are more concrete – and by that you understand it is a world like the other world, it just needs more of my other skills, which I’m often forget that I have.

Totally agree. It’s so right.

You mentioned before, and then I let you go, because I don’t want to steal your whole day.
You mentioned before that you are writing most of your music on the harmonium. So you are writing your music to a certain degree alone – and then you invite other people to join?

Yeah, my process is: I write the backbone of the song or whatever it is on a harmonium – I don’t have any skill on the harmonium, I don’t play it, it’s only chords that I’ll bring out. So everything in the song is made vocally. Even the different lines.
With „The Hollow“ it changed. I didn’t get the harmonium out, I think only just for one song. With this record, I worked closely with the producer, who sometimes just instigated things?? like sending me a very simple, stripped back drone, but that’s all I need, really.
I mean, probably the same with you as a writer, you just need one element and you get everything from that.
So just an element of a chord, and then I will sing over the top, the project will be made. It’ll just be layered like that.
I’ve got a piano at home, I have lots of instruments to hand. But yeah, I always just revert to the voice, like the thing that I made with Colin Stetson, I just sent him a clean vocal track. And then he did the rest.
I do enjoy working with others, I have to work with other musicians, because I’m not a musician, really. I’m just a kind of writer–vocalist.

Well, we start with everything at one point in life. So being a non-musician is not true, because most people are musicians, like if you go out in the street, people love to sing on their bikes, or when walking. They might be shy, but secretly they do it.
Music is obviously the easiest thing to come to a lot of people, but then they put it away because shame gets the better of them.

Now for real my last question: does Keeley Forsyth feel shy sometimes?

Yeah, I suppose so.
I’m good like one to one, you know, I can talk, but if there are more people in a room…

… you mean like in a big church in front of many many people.


My question actually came from what you said earlier, reflecting about what you do on stage and if it makes sense w.

It’s great when you find the thing that you do really connects with people – and you are quite confident with it.
I’m not confident in many aspects of my life – but making music and being on stage is like, yeah, I found a real friend in that. And it’s really nice.

This article is brought to you by kaput mag as part of the EM GUIDE project – an initiative dedicated to empowering independent music magazines and strengthen the underground music scene in Europe. Read more about the project at emgui.de

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.