Let’s get this out of the way right from the start. Carmen Villain used to be a very successful model. Her face has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Nylon, and high profile cosmetic ad campaigns.
But as the shutter clicks and the palm trees sway, what’s a cover girl really thinking? Most models are expected to remain mutely anonymous, mere ciphers of a commercial brand. But it turns out Carmen Hillestad has been a spy in the house of fashion. Behind the scenes, she was channeling her frustrations into a set of songs with a defiantly DIY underground free-rock sound. Now at last, she’s stepping off the glossy page and emerging as a major new songwriting voice and multi-instrumentalist. Behind the angelic face lurks a villain. With acid in her airbrush.
Carmen Villain was born in the USA, lives in London, and is half-Norwegian, half-Mexican – a cocktail of ice and fire that can be heard in Sleeper’s tempestuous, dreamlike music. Lyrics for songs like “Dreamo,” “Lifeissin” and “Kingwoman” were scrawled during plane journeys and torn from notebooks kept over the years. They’re plastered over loose, abrasive instrumental tracks, on which Carmen plays guitars, bass, drum machines, keyboards and percussion. The distinctive production was halved between herself and Emil Nikolaisen (Serena-Maneesh), who also played drums and keyboards. She also collaborated and co-produced one track with Norway`s cosmic disco hero, Prins Thomas, who also sequenced the album.
“Most of my songs are about escaping something – escaping this weird vacuum, an unsatisfying world,” says Carmen. Appropriately enough, some sessions took place in Oslo’s CSX Dungeon studio, a former nuclear bunker. “I used to sleep my life away,” she explains, “but I’m better now. It started when I was really young, just a way of dealing with boredom, maybe. That detachment followed me for a long time, so there’s a lot of references in the songs to just sleeping, or not being present. Feeling trapped, but longing for something more…”
Carmen – who freely admits to an obsession with American avant weirdos Sun City Girls – draws on a lineage of sprawling, taboo-busting lo-fi rock: Sonic Youth, Royal Trux, Broadcast and Bikini Kill, but equally she admires the cut ’n’ paste productions of J Dilla, Wu-Tang Clan and English avant-garde post-punkers This Heat. Her spine-chilling cover of “Demon Lover,” by Dutch 70s rock group Shocking Blue, is slowed to a melancholic crawl worthy of Big Star’s Third.
Some of these songs – “Made A Shell” in particular – came out of “the darkest days I’ve had,” and others deal with displacement, anxiety, guilt trips and breakdowns. By the time she finished recording Sleeper, she’d arrived at a more stable, confident place. But for Carmen the inspiration has to come from outside the comfort zone. “Something bad needs to happen,” she’ll tell you, with an ironic smile. “Somebody needs to break my heart or stab me in the back again…”
Carmen Villain will be touring with her own explosive four-piece band during 2013. Wake up to Sleeper, because this music is best consumed raw.
Sleeper, the debut album by Carmen Villain, will be released March 12th on Smalltown Supersound. Prior to that the label will release two 12”s with remixes by Prins Thomas and Optimo.
(Bio by Rob Young)