“If you’re a good graphic designer, you realize space carries important information,” says Aïsha Devi, the meditation-driven, metaphysically-preoccupied musician and ECAL graduate. “In graphic design and in music, space is the organizer of information. Space connects energetic frequencies together.”
Devi has an uncanny knack of marrying multiple concepts into a considered holistic statement. Her work is built from layer upon layer of reference points, ideas, and processes, some from the ancient past, and others looking into the future. Like all of the most interesting artists, her musical practice focuses not just on its sonic possibilities, but the ways in which imagery augments it. While her otherworldly, disquieting yet euphoric music has been well-reported on, the visual world she’s built to house it is just as beguiling.
Looking at her live visuals, sleeve design commissions, album artwork, and videos, it’s not a surprise when Devi reveals she studied graphic design at the prestigious ECAL school in Lausanne, Switzerland. “When I was at art school, it was the best year of my life,” she says. “It was the first time I was meeting people who were as freaky as me, and the first time I found I could actually learn something. At school, you’re not just getting answers.”
During her course, Devi was taught by the likes of M/M Paris (which has worked for Björk), as well as photographer Nan Goldin. “She told me something I’ll never forget. She said, ‘You have such an amazing vision, I want to push you,’” says Devi. “I was quite shy, but she said, ‘You have to find your own language, your own matter.’ That really helped me: I realized I had to stop self-judging and reproducing, and find the language for my own genesis.” It seems to have worked: after school, Devi went on to be awarded the prestigious Swiss Bourse Federal graphic design prize.
While Devi delighted in the utopian possibilities of her student practice—rooted firmly in the belief that her and her peers’ creativity and ideas could “change the world and have an impact”—from a graphics standpoint, things slipped rather off-grid after graduation. “When I started to work as a graphic designer, it made me really depressed,” says Devi. “Art school was such a laboratory for experimentation: there were no limits for materials or ideas. When I worked as a designer [professionally], it felt very contradictory. I started to lose myself.”
Design has to communicate something and carry information. My music, too, always has a concept and I want to guide people somewhere.
That’s when she fully turned to music, piecing together a sense of creative purpose and identity that finally felt true and personal. Still, the musician claims she still uses aspects of her design education.
“In graphic design and in music there are simple rules, like form follows function,” she says. “Design has to communicate something and carry information. My music, too, always has a concept and I want to guide people somewhere. I’m using tools like subs and mid and high frequencies in a context to bring people to an altered state of consciousness.”
Her eye for typography and beautifully cogent collaborations clearly hasn’t waned since switching her focus. The designer for all Devi’s releases to date is her close friend Niels Wherspann, another ECAL grad. For her most recent release, DNA Feelings, Wherspann created an entire typeface called Serpent (sadly not available to buy yet, but Devi’s badgering him on it), which is used across the record packaging.
The serpent idea that informed the album imagery–the icon is a DNA helix-like shape formed by two snakes—hints again at Devi’s relentless game of conceptual join-the-dots. DNA, sound waves, serpents, Ayurvedic texts, and “alchemical symbolism” are united, and that’s just in this sleeve. She points out that the two intertwining strands in a DNA symbol—which she sees as snake-like—also correlate with the patterns made in oscillating waveforms. “For me, DNA and sound frequencies are the same—it’s a reinterpretation of alchemical symbolism.” (Her belief in all of this is so unwavering that Devi even has the inner sleeve double helix drawing by Alec Ross, who goes under the artist name 118, tattooed on her palm.)
While it’s not unusual to hear both musicians and designers offer up lengthy, profound explanations to their output, it’s rare to hear such a verdant scattergun of complex, deeply considered ideas over quotable post-rationalization. There are a couple of reasons we could surmise that Devi’s thought processes are so elaborately labyrinthine: one, her devoted meditation practice, and two, the fact her grandfather was a CERN scientist, “a pupil of a pupil of Einstein.”
“I’m really interested in physics; I think it will give us the answers about the multidimensional world,” she says. “In physics now, they’re accepting and acknowledging that vibration is the basis of every manifestation, and also the primal manifestation of music.
“All that knowledge makes sense and finally clicks in my body when I’m meditating. Then I inject it all into the music to make people more aware.”
That sense of using her art as a transmission as much as a performance is heightened through her stage visuals, created in collaboration with Emile Barret (yet another ECAL grad). “I wanted to tour with visuals that respond to my sound,” says Devi. “If you combine dance and visuals and music, you open up and connect synapses in people’s minds. It opens up new paths that can make you lose the sense of belonging in the 3D world, where your feet are on the ground and your head is in the air. I’m doing that with my voice and with different frequencies, but combining that with multiple sensations helps the audience reach a transcendental state.”
For the 2015 album Of Matter And Spirit, Barret also created a video game to accompany the release. While many see the world of coding, programming, and computing as a cold, binary science, for Devi, such realms are an obvious step for people to understand that we exist in wider spaces than simply the tangible, visible plane.
The sounds shimmer and thump straight into the spinal cord.
The artistic partnership that made me first fall in love with Devi was her video for 2015 single Mazdâ, directed by Chinese artist Tianzhuo Chen. The sounds shimmer and thump straight into the spinal cord, prickling the skin with all the sex and ritual and terror Devi evokes in her vocals. The film itself is a brutal collision of fetish, ferocity, color, joy, saliva, the grotesque, and the eerie. The millennial pink palette is a saccharine foil to deeper visual references, including third eyes and the Shiva symbol. The action seems to align bondage (as a physical route to transcendence) with sound and chanting (as aural pathways to metaphysical transcendence). The mood of it all feels rooted in surrealistic films like the terrifying post-psychedelia of Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm, or Kenneth Anger’s distinct brand of “magick,” or even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. But it’s also firmly coated in the sheen of the internet age.
Devi and Chen’s shared interest in iconography and symbolism connects back to Devi’s graphic design background in some surprising ways. “In graphic design, the origin of the logo is ritual. If you think about a symbol like the swastika—not the Nazi symbol but the ancient one—as a logo, its presence has been here for centuries, in Africa, Asia, Greece,” says Devi. “That was kind of the first logo of the world—it synthesizes an idea. I use a lot of alchemical signs to reinterpret them in the contemporary world as a metaphysical symbol. A logo does the same thing: it sends a subliminal message. A contemporary logo that’s trying to sell you something is using a subliminal hypnosis effect, but the logo’s origin is spiritual.
“In music and design I’m trying to reinterpret and build up a new iconography that’s also subliminal and hypnotizes in a positive way,” says Devi.
The origin of the logo is ritual
In the course of a conversation not longer than about half an hour, we’ve covered seeing ghosts (she’s felt their presence), graphic design, the non-linearity of existence, Kundalini, string theory, typography, chakras, and a little more, too. So what—dare we ask—can we expect when Devi performs at the Barbican in London later this week, in another collaboration with Tianzhuo Chen?
“An altered state of conscious. It’ll open the door to eternity,” she says. “Well, that’s the intention.”