Reaching across the Atlantic to the lofty mountain ranges of her Swiss heritage, Lisa Conway (aka L CON) began to write and record The Isolator during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Composing music for the German production of a theatrical play remotely from her studio in Guelph, Canada and navigating a calendar otherwise wiped blank, she sought to anchor herself and hone her piano chops by enrolling in online lessons. Encouraged by her teacher to lean into what felt comfortable, Conway found herself repeating short sequences on the piano when it occurred to her to pursue a record that would allow her to exist in her comforts.
“Not that I wasn’t striving towards artistic growth and challenging myself on this record,” Conway clarifies, “but I finally gave myself permission to fully live in sound worlds and lean into writing tendencies that are very instinctual and restorative to me.”
The album opens with dusty tape loops of Conway’s compositions for alphorns, traditional wooden horns originally used as a means of alpine communication, and sets the scene for The Isolator as a deeply personal and vulnerable exploration of Conway’s relationship to her dual citizenship with Switzerland. Taking its title from a line on her Swiss passport that indicates one’s “home place” or “place of origin,” lead track Heimatort contrasts widescreen, mountainous expanses of sound design with comparably dense minimalist melody lines. While a short, circular musical phrase played on a Prophet synthesizer repeats and inverts, Conway lyrically untangles complex layers of feelings towards her inherited hometown.
“When you’re told stories as a child, you create a mythology about a place — my heimatort is a little town in the mountains I was told I could return to if I was ever in trouble and needed to be taken care of,” Conway says. “As an adult, I’m faced with the practical reality of what that would actually look like — many of my family members are buried there, but I don’t have a place to stay, or someone to call, and the rest of my family lives in other areas. How at home do I really feel in my ‘home place’?”
A conflicted record bouncing between romanticism and the loneliness of navigating the layers of your identity, The Isolator dials into the stories we’ve internalized about nationality, home, our families, and ourselves. Thankfully, this sort of reflective work was not done entirely alone: the album features an array of contributions from musicians including Drew Jurecka, Cedric Noel, Karen Ng, Isla Craig, Victoria Cheong, Morgan Doctor, and more.
Holding Swiss exceptionalism to task, title-track The Isolator blossoms from a lonely piano ballad to a sweeping string ensemble suite, while What If Heidi Likes the City (a riff on Heidi, the popular and frequently adapted 19th-century Swiss children’s story Conway has known most of her life) flips the script on the traditional pastoral romance to underline an inexpressible emptiness that can be felt after leaving city life for a rural existence. On Big Pile of Nothing, Conway struggles to take stock of what’s concrete and questions what she can really hold true, singing over a spiraling piano progression and swelling strings.
An intimate, modernist expression from a singular artist whose work in sound art and composition continually pushes her into the unfamiliar, The Isolator arrives as a resolute and deeply lived interrogation of self, wrapped in stunning sonics, lush string arrangements and L CON’s remarkable voice.
Photo Credits: Raise Durandi