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Born in the backwoods of Virginia, Rachel Austin is a interdisciplinary artist, carving her name as an improviser, songwriter, and electronic composer. Whilst a large part of her career has been spent writing, touring, and recording as an indie folk songwriter, her heart beats for free jazz, where she pulls her work as a free improviser, punk and jazz singer, and songwriter into create spontaneous, life-throbbing performances. She began diving into her back catalogue of extra-vocal sounds as a left of centre vocalist in free improv / free jazz contexts whilst working at the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. Whilst rubbing shoulders with such diverse bands as Duke Special, Florence and the Machine, the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, Rodrigo y Gabriela, POD, and Declan O'Rourke, Austin was also shouting to Sun Ra tunes and trumpeting Mingus horn sections as an instrumentalist-vocalist.
Her work with ikon, the performance art collective that laughed in the face of Northern Irish fundamentalism, also brought her to various festivals, an abandoned police station, and the crypt of a church for site-specific confrontations of ideological religion. When the Tories were elected in the UK, she swore she would start a punk band. Teaming up with two other improvisers, Paul Stapleton and Conor Barry, they began an anti-corporate immigrant improvised punk trio called Rachel Discrimination.
Austin released and toured a series of EPs, the Age Trilogy - inspired by Alphonse Mucha's unfinished triptych of the same name - between 2010-2012, recording Age of Wisdom at Big Space Studios in Northern Ireland. Age of Love, the second, was recorded in the old DeLorean factory on the edges of Belfast. The third, Age of Reason, saw her going to Austin, Texas to record with producer Brian Beattie who has worked with other notable indie/experimental folk artists such as Daniel Johnston and Okkervil River. Dony Wynn, the New Orleans native drummer who toured and worked with Robert Palmer for over 20 years and was working with Robert Plant at the time, played drums on the EP.
After legging her way through a crowdfunding project which included hand typed editions of poetry, lyrics, and haiku, Austin continued to tour throughout Ireland and Europe. This project was a turning point for her, after which she moved to California to study with Fred Frith at Mills College, Oakland. During a brief stay in Michigan, she discovered the deeply experimental work of various hip hop artists whilst recording audio for the Unseen. This time was pivotal in her understanding of electronic composition and the relationship between individual beats and the freedom to experiment rhythmically.
In Oakland, Austin delved into electronic composition and worked with Maggi Payne, Zeena Parkins, and Roscoe Mitchell. Rachel the Improviser has performed with Fred Frith, Okkyung Lee, Simon Rose, Zeena Parkins, Pauline Oliveros, Maria Chavez, Jordan Glenn, Simon Waters, Erika Oba, inkBoat, Wax Poets, Úna Monaghan, and Tom Arthurs. In 2015, she performed with and designed sound for inkBoat (Kronos Quartet, Dohee Lee, Sherwood Chen, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Dana Iova-Koga, Yuko Kaseki, Crow Nishimura, Joshua Kohl), in a celebration of the 95th birthday of Anna Halprin, pioneering postmodern choreographer, called 95 Rituals, which won special recognition from the Izzy Dance Awards.
Austin's electronic work exposes the links between sound and narrative — the abstract sounds we hear so often in improvisation and the words that lace the head when filled with sound. Her work has recently taken on an obsession with the sublime with impulses toward narrative, noise and computer interventions. She sometimes creates pieces of divided sound and performance art, art that intersects with the personal-political to create momentary space for suspension of auto-prescribed narratives.
2017 has seen her complete commissions for Christchurch Cathedral Dublin with choreographer Maria Nilsson-Waller and for Patel Dance Works (San Francisco). She was artist-researcher-in-residence at Kunstuniverstät Graz (Austria, 2016) and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (Belfast, 2012). She recorded an EP at Tiny Telephone in Oakland, CA, the release date of which is to be decided.
Austin teaches individual lessons and workshops on extended voice, vocal recovery, and voice/improv as trauma coping/recovery.