The impressive quality of Carmen’s first full-length album, Sleeper, which debuted last spring, had listeners hooked for months. Considering her success in the fashion industry, what mysteries motivated Carmen to reconvert?
The GROUND had a chance to meet Carmen as she was playing her first-ever show in New York City. Not a single bit shy, she arrived at The GROUND’s Chelsea office in rock ’n’ roll-pressed garments. In order to break the ice quickly, Carmen started off with a photo session. Considering her background, The GROUND decided that she would have absolute control over the photo shoot. The photographer gave her the remote to snap pictures of herself with an old Nagaoka 4×5 view camera. It resembled the style of Paolo Roversi, she noted, remembering the photographer with whom she had worked a few years back. In control of her shoot, Carmen played out the transition from a compliant model to a self-guided and autonomous musician, calling the shots.
Born as Carmen Maria Hillestad in the United States to Mexican and Norwegian parents, currently living in London, Carmen has had quite a multi-cultural upbringing. Playing the piano and the clarinet as a child, music has always been with her. Even while working around the globe as a model, she started writing music about six years ago as “a side or part-time thing.” She taught herself how to play the guitar, how to sing, and how to create sounds and beats with the synthesizer, which makes her nothing short of a talented musician. She listed off her varied influences: rock band, “Sun City Girls”, Hip Hop music, and techniques such as beats and looping.
To this day, Carmen remains closely attached to her memories as a model and in no way, regrets the career she had in the fashion industry. “I’ve never had any bad experience working with photographers in the business,” she said, “it is an industry in which women make more money than men. I’ve been very lucky so far.” However, it was time for her to move on to what she wanted for her life, to create her own thing, her own music. “When I was working as a model, none of it was me,” she recalled, “it’s much more personal to perform… connecting with the audience.”
The transition seems to have gone very well for Carmen: “It wasn’t really a transition. I had always written music on the side so it went smoothly and naturally, just a bit tough renouncing to an income. It didn’t feel like a transition. I thought, ‘let’s just focus on making music.’ Luckily, what happened in the first [early] recording sessions had people encourage me to record a full album.”
It is usually surprising for a starting musician to release a full album without releasing a single or EP first, but Carmen thought that people tend to forget EPs. What made the difference was her collaboration with accomplished artists, Prins Thomas and Emil Nikolaisen of rock band, Serena Maneesh. Both Norwegians co-produced the album alongside Carmen.
“I was introduced to Emil. He produced the first part of the process, the first five songs. So, I started recording with him. It was a great experience that taught me a whole lot about the process,” said Carmen. As for Prins Thomas, she explained, “my label brought me to Prins Thomas. We had very similar influences in our music, but remained very different. So, the idea was pretty much to try something new: organic drums and percussions. We created the track, ‘Obedience’, through just jamming and mixing sounds.”
Her debut album, Sleeper, released earlier in 2013 on the music website, Smalltown Supersound, is an invitation to her noisy and melancholic dream world. It is a melodic, neo-psychedelic pop album with words that carry a sense of darkness, pointing at the hardships of life, precisely the lack of thrill and excitement. It is an album about boredom. “I don’t really like to talk about my lyrics,” she said, “I’d rather have the audience make their thing of it. I’m not trying to spread a message, just trying to be honest and say things how they are.”
For Carmen, it has been difficult to establish herself mainly as a musician and not a musician who happened to be a former model. She said, “critics wrote [that] it was about being very unhappy as a model – it’s not!”
When asked what the album, Sleeper is about, Carmen said, “it’s a lot about dreaming but it’s also about not dreaming anymore.” Carmen sings about universal truths, from deception to acceptance. After more than a year of pursuing her music, it is certain that Carmen is moving toward a prosperous future in the arts. In terms of goals and aspiration, she wants to keep writing and start working with more musicians to extend her knowledge of music and creative direction in what she calls, “pushing one’s self boundaries.” Carmen will start touring the world shortly in order to spread her message globally through her dreamy and imaginative sounds.
Photography by Yeon J. Yue