The Uncompromising Art Of SSION

WE live in arguably a post-Britney world, where video is often indistinguishable from the essence of song.

Within this world, where MTV is well past the point of decay, artists like SSION’s Cody Critcheloe can readily make visual choices of their own volition. In his video for ‘At Least The Sky Is Blue’ from third album O, Cody glides through the Main Street of an unspecified (but hyper-aestheticised and clearly American) city in a shining convertible, alongside a similarly bearded and handsome protege.

The scene shifts at different times to create a raw pastiche of direly specific scenarios: the afterglow of a bender while reclining in a Hollywood-style mansion; a gym setting so bleak and low-light it could pass as a factory or rave; and the finale where he evolves into a drag Liza Minnelli.

Ariel Pink’s glowing, shockingly white Eraserhead-esque character appears momentarily in all of these scenes in pivotal moments like a demented angel as if to question the fabric of these disparate realities. The truth behind each setting stays tentative.

These oddly satisfying stylistic choices are indicative of Cody’s directive flair. His paintings, often turned into album covers, are the preempts for the worlds he creates through video.

Writer Ruth Saxelby conceptualised them as being “blessed with a cast of beguiling characters plucked from the art, music, and fashion scenes that Critcheloe orbits”.

O – the brilliant punk-pop album/compendium by SSION – is a perfect backdrop for some of his most resplendent visuals. These are snapshots that take from proto-punk but could just as easily attach themselves to new rave, Italo-disco, queercore, britpop, indie rock, or any given fashion queen video if seen in the right context. It is a multi-sensory, artistically vociferous response.

When we start talking I immediately mention the time difference (he’s in New York, I’m in Adelaide) in a way that is almost too arbitrary for an artist interview, but it’s sort of apt. The worlds with which we live in are decidedly remote and our conception of each other’s environment could only be properly understood through garbled and surreal cultural references.

Prompted by this, I ask Cody if he feels like O, and the work attached to it, is more realised than other work he done.

“Yeah,” he exclaims. “I’ve done this for a while, so I know this stuff kinda comes in waves … and I think it sort of came out in a perfect time culturally for people to really fully embrace it and even just to give it a chance.

“There’s a real longing, or maybe not a longing, “ he continues, “[but] people are more open to this kind of a voice then they were 10 years ago. I wanted to make pop songs that could hopefully exist next to a Katy Perry track. If you were at the club and they put on one of our songs next to it.”

Pitchfork has described Cody’s practice as an “almost academic approach to dissecting and reconstructing queer culture into clever dance songs”; an ethic that extends to every thread of his output. His non-musical collaborations with Hunx and his Punk, Beth Ditto, Robyn, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (he did the artwork for Fever To Tell) and CSS are as noted as his more fleeting work with Kylie Minogue on her 2014 video ‘Sexercise’.

“I didn’t contextualise her impact, I guess that’s a fairly American way to go about it, “ he explains, “and that’s not a diss at all. I love her, but I just kinda did my thing.”

All the greatest creators in late modernity share such noticeable qualities – knowing precisely when to pay homage to their predecessors and exactly when to move beyond, to be swallowed totally into the legacy of all those that came before without being too cannibalistic

The point of no return is the line you cross when you stop imitating and start being. SSION fulfils this procedure so well that you almost can’t recognise the heart of his art, even as he bares all his most exaggerated fantasies for a willing viewer or listener.

How are you feeling about the release of this huge body of work? ‘Comeback’ especially, sounds like it’s meant specifically to be in competition with the Katy Perrys of the world, but maybe a bit less calculated?

Well, I’m really excited about it. I love this album so much. It was done for over a year basically. We sat on the record for over a year before we hooked up with Jack [Mannix] and found someone to release it. Cause I think I’ve always made great pop music. It just took a while for things to align. We did it in this really DIY way, which was really difficult, to pull all these collaborators together and to make sure it sounded – production wise – really good, and to have this vision come full circle. I would love for these songs to have a kind of big pop platform, to be put up against that kind of music.

It’s a total shame because music is such a small part of making an artist, in a way. There’s all these other factors that come into it – fulfilling an archetype, the kind of money that gets put into playing stuff on the radio. There’s so many other things outside of the songs as well come into it as well. If say, Robyn came back and did a song like ‘Comeback’ it would be enormous. Because there’s that built-in fanbase, and there’s that archetype that everyone’s desperately yearning for in that specific way. Coming from that kind of pop artist, people would be just like, “Oh my god that is so brave and so brilliant! Wow!”

It’s all related to the platform, hey? How do you feel about newer pop stars like Troye Sivan?

I love him. The things is, Troye, Olly [Alexander] – I’ve said this a bunch – but any kind of gay guy, or gay chick too, I’m always rooting for it at all costs. But honestly, I want a real deal dyke. I don’t want a chick who panders to like, the boner, y’know what I’m saying? I want a full lesbian to come out and be like, “I’m not even interested in guys. I am not bisexual. I do want to be bisexual. I just want to roll with a chick!” I want that kind of character type to get massive.

Even just the other day, I was thinking about how invigorated I was by seeing Beth Ditto break the mainstream when The Gossip were getting popular, and how ahead of its time their music was … Even just seeing her walk for Jean Paul Gaultier and deliberately taking up space in fashion editorials side by side with these hyper-skinny models. It just hasn’t been recognised.

I think the unfortunate thing is that people forget, and every year it gets worse and worse. I mean there’s a good chance Troye Sivan has no idea who Beth Ditto is. That’s how quick this turnaround is. That’s not even a diss towards him. I’m just using an example of someone who’s young in the music industry. How old would he have been when she was having her heyday in 2006-07? Like, he probably doesn’t know or, understand the magnitude of it. Cause I feel the same way – I love Beth so much, it was such an amazing fluke. That’s my favourite kind of thing – and in all honesty, Beth Ditto should’ve never happened, on paper.

But isn’t it amazing that it happened?

It’s incredible. It’s just so awesome that there’s no trepidation with her. There’s no fear when she speaks. An acquaintance of mine posted something on Twitter that kinda summed it up – i’m gonna paraphrase this – but instead of us trying to focus on these pop stars to speak for us as gay people, why don’t we focus on more queer artists like Beth, because there’s an abundance of them right now. There’s all of these LGBT artists who are talking about all this experience in a nuanced, eloquent way. We shouldn’t even get upset about a Rita Ora song, for example, because they were never going to be able to speak for us.

It’s such an instinct to gravitate toward the diva figure.

I get it. I do it too. I think about it all the time. What is it that makes me gravitate toward that voice? What is it about that tone that is so attractive to me? I even felt it really hardcore when we were on tour with Beth Ditto this last time. In the US she plays to a very gay audience. It’s not like you’re in Europe or the UK where she’s a much bigger star. In a place like America she’s playing to much more niche audiences and I noticed that with SSION … The gay guys in their 30s and early 40s were the hardest for me to get.

I don’t know if it’s like they’re looking at a mirror of themselves, and there’s something about it that is just so paralysing? It’s difficult. I don’t know why. It’s funny, after we finished doing 15 dates with her I just said, “God that is the one demographic that I, unexpectedly, had the most trouble connecting with.” The young kids that are more like, queer, fairy types, they’re down. It was my age kinda guys in their 30s where it was like, “You guys are really hard!” And y’know, the hotter they were, the sexier they were, the harder they were to get. It was crazy.

I totally understand, because although i don’t have an equivalent experience in the same medium I often feel like my biggest detractors, or maybe the people I feel the most competition with or even conflict with, are queers my own age who may actually align the most with my experience. It’s such an existential spiral, to have to grapple with that. I think a lot of it is to do with being the star of your age bracket or something, even though we should feel solidarity we just freeze and put our walls up when we come into contact with those characters.

I only just brought that up because I noticed there was a lil’ bit of diva worship in your video, or rather the homage to Liza Minnelli was really touching. It’s almost gothic, the way she seems to escape the time she exists in, because she is so sheltered or couched within the nature of her environments or industries, or whatever. I’ve watched it so many times and while I don’t have a deep intellectual understanding of what you were trying to do, there’s a deep emotional response that I get with it.

Good, I love that. And that was the goal, that it would hopefully really pull on your heartstrings, y’know? Something super emotional and honest. But also I wanted it to be super specific and not generic. I wanted it to be a specific story; something that no one could copy.

The way you draw influences, themes and images together really are hyper-specific and like an imagining of a new subculture or environment that previously didn’t exist. Are there any directors or other artists you pull in and really reference but maybe they get lost in the end result?

With this era, especially ‘At Least The Sky Is Blue’, I was on a hard, hardcore Pedro Almodóvar binge. I was watching tonnes of his movies. My boyfriend is Mexican, and is furious with me while it was happening, saying things like, “You don’t understand half of the stuff you’re watching.” But I still feel it.

I also loved watching Pedro’s movies because I couldn’t be on my phone. In order to really watch it I had to focus in on it. At the same time, while I was doing that, it was very much telling my story. I’m always keeping a visual scrapbook of things I wanna do or wanna shoot, and without really knowing why, I’ll spend a month putting treatments together and working on it bit by bit … until you start to feel “what’s happening here?” It starts to present itself to you, in a way.

In ‘[At Least] The Sky Is Blue’ video I wanted to talk about having a crush on someone, a really insane life-altering crush that never fully manifests, but I wanted to tell it in a way that isn’t so literal that it’s like, “Yeah, I get it.” It needs to be more like you’re walking through this fever dream of something that never happened … I’ve been in multiple long-term relationships that have been great. But the ones that marked me the deepest, were the ones that never fully got to manifest, so you just replay this fantasy in your head and it becomes so over the top…

PHOTO: MEGAN MANTIA/SUPPLIED

I feel like everything you’ve said before is so true, or things I’ve thought before in this obsessive way but haven’t been able to articulate. Because of the traditional nature of album creation and promo, do you adapt well in the move from one medium to the other? Or is it difficult to categorise and streamline ideas when you are so multidisciplinary?

I guess it depends. Sometimes i feel like I adapt really well. I’m always juggling a bunch of different things. I guess my biggest weakness is being able to articulate the work after the fact. Sometimes I’m great at it. I’m sure I could get better at that if i put more work into it but i’d rather just make cool shit.

When you mentioned your work being like a fever dream it felt apt, because there’s suffocatingly solipsistic place you reach when you’re crushing on someone, where you’re so internal in the process of fantasising about them, subconsciously trying to bring scenarios about what it would take to get their attention.

I think it is so inherently adolescent, in the sense that it doesn’t require you having to come into contact with the the vulnerability that comes with knowing another person, really. Its so intoxicating to get caught up in that projection … Or being in a situation where it’s even necessary to open up and realise they are as damaged or as boring as you are.

And the person was a highly damaged person, who would have been such a nightmare for me to be with. There was so much tension between the two of us because we did actually connect with each other. But inevitably in the back of my head I knew it was a terrible idea. It is adolescent because you revert to impulses that aren’t actually good for you or things you’ve already moved on from. But at the same time, that’s what life is about in a way. I think about that particular time in my life where I wrote that and I’m like, “Man, he gave me a couple of really good songs!” [Laughs] That was a terrible time but what a gift this person gave to me. Thank you for that.

That’s a really sweet way to interpret it. Yeah, I was just thinking about that video and how funny i thought it was that you so directly interpreted the Grindr lifestyle that we are so impacted by as gay people. The idea of romance is often so foreign because … we only really have the ability to connect on this very superficial level, and we only use apps to reach other people but there’s no element of spontaneity in that exchange, which I feel you really need in order to feel romance or intrigue. I just joined the gym at the start of the year and I almost did it as this reluctant act of self-improvement where I was thinking, “Y’know, I’m getting a bit older. I’m on the market, and if I want to find someone i need to be hot.”

And that’s the culture we live in, too. I mean, I was a punk kid, so when I was 18 years old, going to the gym was for losers. Now there’s such a paradigm shift because everyone works out.

I was in a relationship for five years … In the midst of that all the apps happened – Grindr and Scruff and everything. I was completely out of the loop, in my own world with this person, and when we broke up … it was very shocking to me. I was like, “Oh, my god. I have to be in shape.” I was shell-shocked … I really wanted ‘The Sky Is Blue’ video with Grindr, Scruff stuff, I wanted a very bootcamp gym, because I don’t see that in anything right now.

None of these gay artists are doing anything that gay aside from being cute and dancing without a shirt on. That’s not groundbreaking. I don’t know. I just felt like it needed to be seen. You’ve gotta make a critique of those kind of things. Even though I actively participate in it. I can’t fully comment.

We’re all so used to distracting ourselves from our bodily intuition and it’s kind of hardcore that the only way we can reconnect is through this high intensity activity. A lot of the time when I’m connecting to other queer people – where we’re in this state of surveilling and assessing each other before meeting, whether it’s more mundane or intimate, there’s rarely an opportunity to truly witness each other. Was there intention to turn a mirror back to a community you were close to?

Yeah of course, 100 percent. I mean there’s a critique in it but i’m not trying to come off as if I’m better than that. It’s very clear that i’m an active participant in this culture. When you’re growing up and finding gay movies and gay music, it’s really amazing to see those things reflected and it’s just not being reflected right now. It didn’t feel like it was a “duty to queer people”. It was more of a duty to myself, because I miss it, I wanna see it. It’s crazy. I’m a huge George Michael fan and when he died last year I remember thinking, “I really wanna put this record out, an updated version of what a 30-year-old queer musician can look and sound like.” Y’know what I’m saying? I don’t even know how to articulate it at this point.

What you said before about being cute and dancing with your shirt off. That is really the limit of what queer musicians can do.

That’s why i can’t be frustrated with those other guys – they’re young. At the end of the day, when you’re functioning on that level you’re paying for the livelihood of 20 people and their houses and cars. It’s an entire industry in itself. There’s a place for it. I appreciate it – I even really like it. Personally I’m in the position to not hold back for anything or anyone. And honestly, to be totally real with you, I don’t know if I could do otherwise. I don’t know if I had it in me to make a basic video of me dancing around trying to be hot. I wouldn’t know how to do that. Even if I tried I would somehow fuck it up. It’s just not in my nature.

I have no understanding of what North America looks like or what its culture looks like up close. I feel really fascinated by – as I’m sure a lot of people who grew up there do – images that directly reference the landscape. And i feel a lot of your work does that where it’s not glamorising it or critiquing it, but existing in a place in between. Are you indebted to the places where you grew up?

I don’t feel indebted to it, but usually if i’m making a video for a song, it’s very very rooted in a location, in a story, its very narrative. And I feel like regardless of how whimsical and magical and over the top they can be … it’s always grounded in a place. And I guess it’s whatever that story needs to be told. I also think that, I lived for a really long time in the middle of the US which is a really barren farmland area and it’s extremely cheap to shoot there. Also for me a lot of those places look like they could be anywhere in the world because they’re so basic in a way. I don’t have a specific connection to any location.

Who would you love to work with next?

I dunno who I’d want to work with next. Almodovar? The Ghost of Lenny Bruce?

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