An interview with Eli Carvajal
On one of the hottest days in April, I was sent into central London on an errand for the third year student I was assisting at uni, and managed to make the most of my lunch break by joining the Extinction Rebellion protest at Oxford Circus. It was my first protest, and I was shocked at how lovely everyone was: one person shared their sun cream with me, and several stopped to chat. One of those turned out to be a person called Eli, which was memorable as our names are almost the same. We chatted briefly and parted ways; then a few days or a week or so later stumbled across each other again on instagram, at which point it became clear we had a lot more in common than just our passion to protect the planet. And so here is a sunny shoot and interview, as I hope the first of many collaborations. Please go and check out Eli Carvajal @elisongs - you won’t regret it.
We met by chance as the pink boat Extinction Rebellion had been erected in the middle of Oxford Circus. How did you originally get involved with XR?
The first time I heard of Extinction Rebellion, I was playing a gig with some friends who are deeply involved with the movement. We played at The George Tavern in Whitechapel, and we decided to fundraise for XR instead of charging an entrance fee. When the Easter protests swept in, I was so proud that I’d inadvertently done something to help out. I work with young people as a tutor/mentor/babysitter. During the protest week, I managed to get to Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square with one of my kids, under the (honest) pretense of sightseeing. It was this kid’s first time at a protest, and seeing his open-mindedness towards the protesters and his empathy towards the cause was inspiring in itself. He then made a sand-sculpture of the XR logo on that little Southbank beach! Coolest kid ever.
Does your feeling towards the climate emergency impact your work? Do you feel pressured to create and make music while we still can, or does the uncertainty of the future sometimes block your creativity?
I don’t feel any kind of negative pressure from either the existence or the escalation of the climate emergency that we’re living through. I feel like the urgency of our time is calling for positive action, agency, responsibility - and generations younger than me are really shouldering that burden with positivity and love, and they are changing the world. There’s no time to lose, and that feeling makes me write and sing as much as I can.
Tell me a little more about you and your music. Why do you make music, how did you start, what is your message, or purpose?
Writing is an essential rhythm in my life. I never plan to make music - it’s a reflex that jumps into action at the strangest times. When it happens, I feel incredibly grateful. I’ve been writing songs for a decade - I started when I was 14. I was playing bass in a 60s cover band with my twin, Noa, and my best friend, Louis, and I decided we needed an original song - so after asking Louis to teach me some guitar chords, I went home and wrote my first one. We played it through at the next band practice and thought that we’d made a masterpiece. Turns out I stole the melody from ‘Painting Box’ by the Incredible String Band - one my mum’s faves. At 14, this creativity was new to me, and I’m glad I had the support of Noa and Louis during the first years of my songwriting. As a very shy teenager, their support meant the world.
Sometimes I feel like my purpose in life is to light people up, to set resonations ringing. One way to do this is to write and sing from the heart, truthfully, and hope that audiences will open up in response. I sing connection songs.
Is collaboration a big part of your work? During the shoot for this interview we discussed how music and playing live / in a band is one of the only creative practices that quite heavily relies on multiple people collaborating, compared to more individual exploits such as photography, or painting, where you can choose to work entirely independently. Do you enjoy collaborating, think it’s necessary, or do you prefer to work alone?
I always write alone - words and music. When I perform, audiences shape my songs through their reactions. It’s an ongoing collaboration. I love and fear creative collaboration - it’s difficult for me, but it’s magic. Bands are amazing. Artists collaborate in so many ways in other artforms, but often the collaboration is structured more clearly/hierarchically - making a play, the director, the producer, the designer, all have a rough idea of what they’re meant to be doing - and if they don’t know, they might talk it through with each other. A band is an assembly of bacteria floating in a petri dish, unchecked and potentially lethal.
I’m really captivated by the song Hollywood Phase – and the video just cements it for me as something really special. Could you tell me a little more about the song and video concept? The imagery was so strong, the moments holding the mouse and some of the location choices made it feel like I was watching visual poetry.
Thank you so much, that really means a lot! Hollywood Phase was a genuine labour of love, made by some very talented people working with care and dedication, and I’m glad all that time and care has come across in the video. I love that phrase - Oskar Brockbank, the director, is a real visual poet. He knew exactly what he was looking for, and I could fully trust his eye and mind.
I wrote the song at uni in Manchester, cycling home through the rain. Every couple of months, I would find myself soaked at my front door in Withington with another verse, whole. It’s a night-time song that’s grown with me, and when I added the ‘show me your spirit, show your soul… I’m gonna shake it ‘til the night falls on me, like a rock and roll zombie’ bit last year, the puzzle seemed satisfied.
Do you find a lot of inspiration for your work comes from one or two main sources, or do you find ideas or moments of inspiration from all sorts of things?
Lately I’ve been drawing on my parents’ stories for inspiration, and it’s opened up new worlds in my songwriting. It’s so powerful to frame real, intimate stories in a poetic way. It feels like the people I love are singing with me! I let old stories speak with new voices, and I feel like all the writing is done for me. Though the thing about songwriting is that inspiration never really comes from one or two sources. Even if I’m writing with one person in mind, words and feelings will creep in from totally different places. Creative inspiration is a constellation of feelings, impulses conscious and subconscious. The best songs find their own meanings that bloom in many layers. A good songwriter knows when to let a song speak for itself. I’m still working on that!
People inspire me a lot. My number one inspiration right now is Víctor Jara, a singer/songwriter/teacher from Chile. I’m a quarter Chilean, but I never knew my Chilean grandad, as he ran off when my Dad was very young. I wrote about it recently: ‘I’m a Carvajal from Santiago, born in the New York Bay, and I can’t pronounce the name my grandad gave me - though he called his son the same, this Francisco was no saint - he stepped out for cigarettes and he just kept looking’. They were at the ‘Ideal Home Show’ at Kensington Olympia when it happened (you see what I mean about songs writing themselves). Víctor’s music is unique, and he lived his life in a completely selfless way, with loving activism at the very heart of all he did. He is a true poet. Everyone should listen to him and read about him! His wife, Joan Jara, is another inspiring person who everyone should discover.
What’s next for you! What gigs do you have coming up, or plans for the rest of the year!
I recorded a 12 track album last week! I’ve been recording a lot lately, trying to find a feeling that I’m really happy with - and I think I’m getting somewhere. So I’ll be releasing new songs soon! I’m planning on collaborating with my twin sister, Noa, on a series of music videos. Noa is an amazing artist and a special chemistry kicks in when we work together. I’m a perfectionist, so my plan for this year is to release things more often without worrying so much about every little note. Otherwise, I’m playing September 28th at Thousand Island - and more gigs will be confirmed soon. I can’t wait to play these songs to more people.