DAPHNE Camf has been a part of legendary Melbourne “heat beat” collective
NO ZU since 2010.
Her most recent musical project is a synth-goth duo with Simona Castricum titled SaD. She’s also a makeup artist and internet TV presenter, and has now taken up the decidedly witchy activity of making her own homemade fragrances from essential oils and plant-based potions.
In a soon-to-be-released episode of The Witching Hour podcast, we talked about hedge witchcraft and herbalism, the experience of living with chronic pain, the transcendent power of dance music, and the multidimensional, hallucinogenic party world she has helped create in the No ZUniverse.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation ahead of the release of the full episode soon on LNWY.co.
Do you make perfumes that are tailored to particular people?
Pretty much all of them are custom made. I did do one perfume that was sold through the fashion label Alabama Blonde. I have also done two which are sold at Mr Kitly in Brunswick [Melbourne]. Apart from those, all of them have been custom-made perfumes. Those are my favourite ones to make.
When people come to you to produce a custom-made perfume, what’s at play with the kind of scents they like?
First, I’ll talk to them about the kind of scents they like and dislike. I definitely like to get an idea of what they don’t like, so I don’t put that in. I feel like everyone has a strong idea of what they do and don’t like. A lot of people say, “I’m really bad at describing scents”… but it’s a much less intellectual process than that. I also ask them what commercial perfumes they currently like and use, and what they like about them. If i don’t know what scent they are using, I’ll go off and do some research and go and smell the scent.
I also ask for any notes and references – whether it be images, memories, or songs. I tell them to go as abstract as possible. I always make it clear to them that I won’t be able to replicate the scent that they like completely, like a mirror image of it, but hopefully I can catch the feel of what they are after. I will always do alterations too. I’ll usually do a first take, so they can say, “I like this, but I’d like less citrus, or more woods.” … Then I’m always happy to do alterations.
That’s interesting that you mention memory, because it seems like smell is so linked to memory. I just smelled one of your fragrances before, and it brought up this memory in the back of my mind. I wasn’t sure what it was but it felt very strong. Sometimes you can smell something that reminds you of a place or a person and it all comes flooding back.
I feel like it’s an underrated sense. We focus so much on visuals and the auditory. Smell is something we deal with every single day, but it’s not harnessed as much as much as an artistic medium. I think that feeling of a memory flooding back, it’s almost like déjà vu. There are studies that talk about how the olfactory system connects directly with the brain and with memories. I would love to do more research into that part of things.
"I had to find something to believe in after only believing in music and partying when I was younger."
It’s a bit like music too, in the way that you are connecting to things that are beyond language. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was music and dancing, and that idea of embodying music. I remember NO ZU being described as “body music”. Can you tell me what that means, and what it means to you?
Well, for us the music is very accessible. Even though it’s really experimental and can be abstract at times, I think it’s very accessible music in the sense that people who have never heard of us, or don’t know anything about us, everyone can get on the dance floor and dance to these salsa rhythms, or dance rhythms, or techno rhythms. It’s also to do with the self-referential world that we have created with NO ZU, where our aesthetic and the imagery that we take on board is very much about the body and things that are tangible. So that’s dancing, that’s a little tongue-in-cheek nod to things like bodybuilding and drag queens in our music videos.
It reminds me a bit of this Kirin J Callinan line in his song, ‘Embracism’, where he sings about the body being real. I guess in our Australian culture there’s a body worship that’s to do with gym culture and beach culture, and we feel quite alienated from that. So we have created our own body culture that’s to do with multiplicity, the dance floor, and just expressiveness in general.
NO ZU has been around for a very long time. I was thinking back to a particular video, which I just realised was eight years ago. It had a huge impact on me. I just watched it over and over again. It was ‘Emotion’. That video really struck me. There was something about presenting that older woman’s body, and the gaze upon her, that felt really unique. It was something quite different to anything I’d seen in music videos, and how the music related to that too. It seemed a very physical video. Didn’t you do the makeup for that video?
Yeah, I did do the makeup for that. I’m actually a makeup artist. I’ve mainly worked in the music industry, in music videos and also for people’s promotional photos. In NO ZU we are into things that are quite camp and glamorous, but in a multidimensional way. On the one hand, it’s camp and it’s garish, but also we find it unironically beautiful. It’s also got some humour to it, and we also tie it in with Australiana. It’s like when ugliness and beauty collide. I’m glad that’s what you took away from the video, because we do try make things that have layers of meaning, and not necessarily in a super intellectualised highbrow way. It’s just that we try present images that have multiple meaning and convey multiple messages.
That’s the thing about that video [‘Emotion’]. When you talk about that ugliness and beauty intersecting, there’s that idea that you have quite a bleak environment, but this woman is having this internal experience that was so pure. It did seem quite Australian, to have that feeling of menace that is always under the surface that are in images of Australian society, especially in rural areas. There’s that aesthetic that this beautiful land has all this menace and threatening vibes just under the surface.
I think that is something that we also touch in our video for ‘Spirit Beat’ and that was filmed near a quarry near Ballarat. Most of us grew up in suburbia. I grew up in Geelong, and so we all have quite similar experiences of being trapped in the suburbs. All of us have different experiences as Australians and also as immigrants and refugees.
So some of us have an understanding of Australian culture as it’s made for them – you know, they’re like white Australian males – and then some of us have an outsider perspective. But all we have had it almost from the day we were born. I think we’re trying to add a bit of glamour and add a bit of dance music to those images of Australiana that normally wouldn’t be associated with dance music with a dance/indie/rock/punk band.
I guess dancing is the ultimate form of literally embodying music, so the pulse in your body is tuned in to the pulse of the music.
I find I can’t play in time unless I’m moving to the beat of music. I literally cannot play in time. I don’t feel like I played a proper gig if I’m not sweating. We all feel the same way … Sometimes when we play winter in the day time, it feels really odd to not be sweating afterwards. Or sometimes if we play really really late at night it feels odd as well, because we’re used to being so up close to each other and I’m used to the sweat flicking off my bandmates hair into my mouth. At one of the last shows, my bandmate tipped his trumpet back and all this trumpet juice tipped out of his trumpet and into my ear. [Laughs]
We all get very physical with each other on stage, and that’s just the nature of NO ZU. I’ve only played in bands that are very raucous and are very bodily and very physical in that way. I can’t imagine playing in bands that aren’t like that. I have a lot of admiration for people who can just play an hours set with just a guitar sitting on stage. To me, that would be terrifying … It’s weird, because in my personal time I listen to quite somber, dark and dreary music. I don’t listen to that much dance music. So the stage is kind of like my cathartic release.
There’s something about that group energy that you create on stage, but it’s also like the energy is coming back from the audience. It is some pretty wild party vibes. How do you contain that while also looking after your physical and mental health in that environment where you are creating these wild party experiences for other people?
It’s actually surprisingly staid backstage. I find I hide a lot before the show. We have to spend a bit of time before the show. I find it’s good for us to hang out together, have dinner and do all that. I’ll hide right before the show, and then when I get out on stage I completely lose myself. After the show I can go two ways. I can be full of energy and just go where the night takes me, or I’m done – it’s time for a shower and bed. Especially the older we get, the more we feel the need to rest.
I’ve dealt with various chronic illnesses my whole adult life. There were points where I could only get on stage and then go [home] … My bandmates have been very understanding that there have been lots of points where I couldn’t perform at full capacity. Being the vocalist in the band, it’s less of a big deal if I can’t turn up to rehearsal here and there. Whereas if you had a bassist or a drummer who can’t turn up it’s a bit done. But it’s been a massive struggle over the course of my music life, which started when I was 20. From the age of 22 was when I started to get really sick. I really couldn’t give up music though. It’s my biggest source of happiness in my life, and you really can’t give up the thing that gives you the most meaning.
For me, my issues were mostly with a chronic pain condition called vulvodynia. I manage that now, so it’s not a bad … But then I also deal with chronic bladder infections and kidney infections. When I was younger, up to my mid-20s, I really buried things like physical pain in partying. It would just push on, and keep pushing on. For a lot of people you get to about 27-28 and then you can be like, “I can either keep doing this and not be well, or start changing my life.”
That is a real turning point, the end of your 20s. Chronic pain is one of those things that can be quite isolating. For people that don’t experience chronic pain, it’s very hard to convey what it’s like. When I was going through dealing with my pain condition, I felt this connection to all those other people out there who had chronic pain. It’s not something you can convey in words.
Especially because it is an invisible illness. Because I’ve never looked sick. Everyone’s like, “But you look so well.” It creates a ball and chain in your day, where some people might have a child or a bunch of pets, they have these responsibilities. But they also have this responsibility toward this chronic pain…
What relationship does music and performing have with chronic pain and chronic illness? Over the years I’ve interviewed quite a lot of musicians who had periods of real sickness and that’s when they’ve discovered a lot of music and connected to music in a different way.
I personally find that if I’m feeling very very unwell and my chronic pain also connects to endometriosis, and just general gynaecological issues, which then connects to depression and anxiety. I’m like your garden variety artistic temperament depressive type. I have this theory that people who make make really really energetic and happy music are all really really depressed. It’s like the sad clown. Then people who make really introspective, emotional music are often really happy and fun people.
When I’m in that isolated, alienated pain state, I’m not very creative. I’m one of those people who requires a certain level of happiness and stability in order to be creative. I might reflect back on those times, in order to harness the creativity. I’m not someone where there’s a strong creative outpour that comes out of pain, while I’m in the midst of it. I think It’s all about being as comfortable as possible. I think some of my bandmates see me as quite a neurotic traveller. I carry so much stuff with me. They know if there’s anything they need, that I’ll have paracetamol, bandaids, scissors – I have everything, I’ve got it all…
What was your pathway into dance? Were you into dance when you were a child?
I did ballet when I was very little. I’m not much of a super coordinated dancer. I like to dance when I’m on stage, I like to lose myself in physical movement, but I don’t have much background in dance. I would love to be a triple threat, to be able to act, sing and dance. I’m quite interested in acting, and I’ve done small amounts of acting here and there in advertisements and in short films. It is something I’m definitely interested in pursuing … I have all these grand plans, I want to take more singing lessons, dancing lessons and acting lessons. I want to be a triple threat. I already don’t really have an amazingly conventionally gifted voice to begin with. My talents are not conventional talents. So I’m pretty sure I won’t be acting in the ABBA musical anytime soon. [Laughs]
You’ve taken a lot of unconventional paths musically and even with perfumery. So I imagine that’s your strength. You’re not going to turn around now and start doing things mainstream.
I’ve deliberately put obstacles in the path of my life to prevent that from happening. I think coming into my own and fully realising myself and my identity in my late-20s helped me realise that that’s just not for me. I think the way I get into these categories that I pursue is that I have a really really obsessive personality, which I’m sure a lot of musicians do. So I got into music through being an obsessive, obsessive music fan. I always played music, from the age of seven or so, but I never considered I could be a musical performer or a recording artist.
And same with perfumery. That was me delving into witchy, spiritual interests when I was in my late-20s and then going on an obsessive path and just reading and reading and being like a little magpie and just collecting interests. The interest became a hobby, and then the hobby became something that I sold to friends, and then it just kind of grew like a virus from there. That tends to be how I pursue anything that I love. Just like an unhealthy obsession.
"My talents are not conventional talents. So I’m pretty sure I won’t be acting in the ABBA musical anytime soon."
Can you tell me more about some of those witchy, spiritual interests?
I started off reading about Wicca and then came to realise Wicca was not as much an ideal spiritual path for me. I started reading about Buddhism, even Satanism – just purely out of interest. I read about folk witchcraft, the history of witchcraft. I don’t have any defined formal spiritual path. I have this believe that lots of different spiritual paths can converge and generally convey the same spiritual message. Lots of people don’t share that belief.
I guess I’m pretty new age as well. I definitely consume a lot of new age spirituality, so I feel like if I collect a lot of different information from different paths that at some point on this journey I’ll find that the journey is the answer and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. I’ve aligned myself a bit more with solitary hedge witchcraft, which is very much a witchcraft based on looking at herbs and herbalism. At one point in my life I was interested in studying herbal medicine, or Chinese medicine. My grandfather on my dad’s side, who I never got to meet, was a Chinese herbalist. When you grow up with that in your family you are naturally not a skeptic…
I had to find something to believe in after only believing in music and partying when I was younger. I did that – the music and the partying – and I was like, “This is not enough for me.” I’m definitely not a rigid spiritualist. I don’t wake up every day thinking, “I’m spiritual.” [Laughs]
My friend Tehani [from Melbourne witchcraft store Muses Of Mystery] puts it really well when she talks about exercising your spiritual muscle. So I went from someone who was not spiritual at all, pretty nihilistic, to being someone who was like, “This is something I can cultivate and work on.” And the more spiritual you feel, and the more spirituality you explore, the more spiritual you are…
How does that apply in your musical life? What is the connection between that ability to cultivate that spirituality and how do you see that expressing in music?
We all definitely see the performance of our music as something that feels spiritual – we talk about that in a literal and figurative way. We feel this energy exchange and this sense of communication with the crowd and each other that goes beyond language and words. It’s this very bodily, very primal communication. I guess all of us are seeking in our own way that sense of transcendence through performing or dancing to music. I don’t think I apply my witchy inclinations towards that [performance] as much…
In terms of a NO ZU show, part of the enjoyableness of it is this sense of a shared ritual because we don’t have many rituals in our day-to-day lives.
We have our little rituals when we play our show. We make a lot of videos that end up on Instagram. There’s so much downtime when you play a show but it’s downtime where you can’t just walk off. You have to stick there. There’s only so much social media you can do, there’s only so much you can talk about – we’ve talked our heads off for many years now – and it’s too noisy to focus on a book, so we’re like, “Why don’t we make a video?” … It’s a way to express that hyper, pre-gig energy without drinking a bottle of vodka.
Dressing up is a massive part of getting ready for our show because the visual element of our show is such a massive part of NO ZU … One of the things we like doing is pooling all our clothes together, borrow each other’s clothes, get dressed and put our makeup on is something we like to do … We’re doing a little catwalk down the backstage runway – that’s a big part of it – and then telling each other we look great. It’s really fun getting ready with the guys and girls in NO ZU. That’s definitely a ritual element. Getting together in a little group and then psyching ourselves into it is really fun. I hope the crowd shares that sense of messy ceremony which is a NO ZU show.
The full episode of The Witching Hour with Sophie Miles and Daphne Camf will be out through LNWY.co soon.