Ali Beletic | A Songbird + Provocateur of Symbolism
A conversation with the musician, installation artist and thoughtful woman who casts the Sonoran Desert as part-time muse
One of the gifts of Of The Wolves is we’ve no space constraints, no emphasis on brevity. If a narrative unfolds into a lengthy tapestry then we go with it; we don’t tuck the ends or the beginnings away. Ali Beletic…her art and prose deserve to be poured out and enjoyed like a fine wine or single canteen of water on a hot day – sip and appreciate them. Ali is effusive and thoughtful, prolific and respectful of art’s processes. I tried to recall how we originally met, and it was mostly cosmic and completely commonplace, too. I discovered her the same way many of us find each other nowadays – online. I was moved to reach out to her and introduce myself, no other agenda than to be connected. We exchanged beautiful emails afterwards.
The Dallas-born artist works in many mediums. Most recently, she contributed sculptural works to a group show in Los Angeles, and just released her debut album, Legends of These Lands Left To Live, via Lightning Records, the label she runs with her boyfriend. The label is their response to a loss of control for musicians in the digital age and prioritizes the concept of personal power – telling your story the way you want to.
At Lightning Records, a lot of other mandates supercharge them. They handle distribution of music releases, produce a magazine, and produce events and happenings. They’ve created a community and a culture – starting a label as an art project where the ultimate goal is of course to bring financial stability to the artists. All the artists rolled up into Lightning want to connect with a more visceral, sensual side of life, and in acknowledgement of this Consequence of Sound once said “In-the-moment experience and a sense of adventurousness help to define the mission of Lightning Records, and explain why artists, musicians, athletes and assorted wild-makers all belon under one roof”.
Ali’s debut musical release has already begun receiving the attention and praise we believe it should. NPR said: “At times, the record recalls Patti Smith’s ragged and desperate punk, the flat duo Jets’ animalistic rockabilly played super slow, or Cat Power’s cigarette-chewing soul – yet, even with such high-profile reference points, Beletic holds her own…Ali Beletic’s debut is one of the most refreshing rock albums I’ve heard in a while.”
Ali acknowledges being a musician is “weird”. During our chat she mentions “You’re expected to be the face of what you’re saying, but there is a private side to it, too, that’s just yours”. She also acknowledges valuing what you have to give the world is huge, and it’s scary and takes courage. But things must gestate. For instance, when she first started using Instagram she was so leery of it, and she felt a little too Gen X to be on the platform. She thought maybe it cheapened the art, but then she received an amazing response and really connected with like-minded people. At the same time, she also found she couldn’t keep up with the pace that this social media beast seems to demand. Her belief now: it’s good to not throw out the process of what you’re doing. She could bang out songs and paintings every day, but it wouldn’t honor her heart, art or process.
Ali’s favorite quote? “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Here is a mostly unedited conversation between myself and Ali.
You packed your bags a few years ago from NYC for the high desert. What did you think you’d find in the wide open you couldn’t experience in NYC?
New York is an incredible place to cut your teeth as an artist and musician. I lived in Brooklyn at this amazing point in its history. I was one of the younger artists being inducted into a somewhat rebellious beatnik art scene – where everyone was constantly creating new work, building out their own studios, and hanging out at Zebulon to check out some obscure Swedish rock band, a Malian drum ensemble or some amazing underground jazz. I lived in New York for 10 years, and it deeply impacted my work. I spent countless hours in Chelsea, The Met, the Whitney, the music library, Carnegie Hall and MOMA learning about so many different art and music traditions: the Dia artists, classic European art, Polynesian art, blues music, African music, Ancient Egypt, Dadaism, Modernism and so on.
I really developed a sense of anthropology and world perspective through the art practices that I was being influenced by. I personally chose to look at art as a conversation through which humans have been communicating ideas since the beginning of time. I was exposed to a cross section of humanity’s art and its ties to wildly different cultural values, languages and stories that tread both common and divergent ground.
I left New York to explore a more rural lifestyle, to get in touch with the Earth, to spend a lot of time outdoors. For the first time as an adult, I got to extensively explore my love for the wilderness. I started my studies in ecology and plants. I began a personal study of spending about an hour per day in the wilderness observing the wildlife, the changing landscape, and ecological relationships. By the time, many years later, that I moved to the Sonoran desert to work on several projects, this hour in the wilderness was part of my daily routine. The Sonoran desert is a very unique place in that it has a vast amount of untouched wilderness, is very lush, and yet still pretty sparse for cover. So, it is very easy to study behavioral patterns of animals. Every day, I would run into coyotes, deer, foxes, javelinas, owls, doves, the changing edible and medicinal plants, new dens and nests, overturned rocks and so on. As a result of my time out there, I have gotten in touch with some naturalist sensibilities.
You develop senses that feel instinctual and ancient. I think we have sensibilities broader than we utilize on a daily basis; they touch symbolism, somatic awareness, a sense of home and basic security, perspective and knowledge, a sense of collective identity and conceptual frameworks for understanding. I’d say these experiences, both urban and wild, are certainly the basis for my art career.
During my time in the Sonoran desert, I started working on much larger installation works. Works outside of the gallery and the studio. This was an extremely big turning point in my work. In some ways, I diverged from the art world in a traditional sense. I was more following in the footsteps of the Earth Artists and their tradition of getting out of the gallery. I am mostly interested in creating an experience for people – in more radical environments than the controlled gallery space – where the art-goers have their ‘art-defenses’ up so to speak. I like getting out of a rational sign and signifier type experience.
Many of your passions are well documented: music, sculpting, motorcycle riding. What are the intersections of these pursuits for you, commons threads?
Mythology, Vanguardism, Expression, Emotion, & Study.
How long have you been riding motorcycles?
My first experience riding was perhaps over 10 years ago, motor biking around in India with a dear friend. We would find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, in a small village. It was an excellent way to make acquaintance with a place. I got further into it when I moved to the desert, as a way to get out into the backcountry. And it has been a passion ever since, all of it: the sport, the art, the lifestyle, the community, the iconography and rebellion, and the exploration of nature.
Can you paint a picture of your childhood?
My mother was a singer and my father a business man. My brother is six years older, a true artist and genius and a real inspiration. We would make films together with the other kids in the neighborhood. There was a lot of finger painting and creative projects. We traveled abroad a lot, and I very fortunately got to see the world. Both of my parents taught me to see the beauty in nature in their own ways. My mother is a gentle and wise spirit who has nothing but love for all of the Earth. My father loved taking us on trips, fishing, camping, skiing and exploring. We were a pretty active bunch always doing things – sports, art, etc. I’d say I’ve carried all of that into my adult life.
Where do you derive strength when your natural energy is depleted?
I’m actually lucky as I have a lot of natural energy. I think it’s psychological though. If I feel a cold coming on, I go on a run. I think, honestly, I look to my heroes, to our humanity, to a more zoomed out perspective, to why I’m here. I guess inside my emotional well being, I feel there is a well of reserves. I’ve got a lot of awe and passion for this big beautiful world. I think that’s where I personally derive strength from.
Some people say leveraging our creativity to pay the bills is a dangerous and potentially heartbreaking road to plow down. What do you believe?
I’d make a distinction between creativity and artistry. I think one should definitely strive to create a career out of his or her creativity. That can be in any field, either one we would culturally consider artistic or one we consider to be outside of the realm of art. I don’t believe there is a hard and fast danger with trying to be a paid artist. However, I do think artists must guard their artistic self with all their might.
Sometimes, artists sacrifice their art to make work that fits within the cultural norms, in order to make enough to pay the bills. And that is unfortunate, as the world needs our expression, our authentic expression. Sometimes you fit with greater culture and sometimes you don’t. I don’t think authentic expression and artistic brilliance are always rewarded with money. Sometimes you will be a better artist if you make money, being creative elsewhere, and then let your art be free of needing to pay for your lifestyle. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone should fear heartbreak in the face of your dreams. Heartbreak is part of growth and definitely part of trying. It’s a fundamental part of putting yourself out there. That’s actually the real accomplishment of so many brilliant artists, or successful individuals – is how much heartbreak they have waded through to get to where they wanted to be. I don’t think there is any great artist who has become who they are without the aid of what you learn from heartbreak.
I believe we have a lot of personal power in life, and you certainly can accomplish what you set out to, if you choose to engage your sense of personal power.
*All photos courtesy of Ali Beletic and featuring her art work.