SCV interviews Ninja Tune Records Emika
I first discovered Emika and her music through a live Ustream session with producer Lorn. He mentioned how much of an influence that his peer Emika is, and that he is out to do music in the same vein as her and what she is creating. Ever since I discovered Emika, I keep finding new projects that she has worked on. Everything from her solid, hard hitting single 7 inches to monumental field recording-based compilation albums. It’s never-ending creativity that brought me forward to conducting a cohesive dialogue that we present to you here, only at SCV. -Pouya G Asadi
Pouya G. Asadi: How do you approach crafting concepts in your music while focusing on using your voice purely for sound purposes?
Emika: Well, I guess I’m considered a songwriter, so it comes from a very soulful place. Which is kind of difficult to describe or explain. But sometimes I just tend to start from an observation or things people say to me, or something I want to present and show people. You know, when I get an idea or feeling, or an instinct. So I naturally turn to sound and music in order to put that together. That’s just how it materializes. Sometimes it starts with me playing my synthesizer, or a bit on my piano. Just recording sounds outside, and then eventually the idea will grow. Then I start listening to the music, and I think “yea, I wanna sing with that, I wanna put some words in.” So the music kind of brings the singing out of me. I didn’t grow up a singer when I was younger, I always wanted to be a composer or conductor. Gradually I ended up working with more and more abstract sounds. So that kind of inspired me and encouraged me to use my voice. Really, it was the first technique or the first thing I discovered how to make electronic music really mine; to put a voice in there, a different language in there. You know people could then recognize me, they could find me, through this voice that my audience has responded to. Little by little, my voice and singing has turned to the conceptual sound, and they work hand in hand I believe.
I was wondering, do you study the psychology of sound, or the psychology of the way our brains interpret sound?
The most interesting instrument of all, I think, is how humans perceive sound; the perception of sound. I don’t really think about psychology so much, but I’m very very very interested in perception of sound, and how we hear, and what it is that we hear in the sound, emotionally as well. The kind of primal/instinctual responses and reactions that we act towards sound. Like the sound of a baby crying causes a certain reaction within a woman, and maybe a different reaction within a man, and even younger children. I’m really interested in the perception of sound as a whole. That’s the reason why I’m composing, the reason why I play piano. Thinking about what my audience will hear, and what will they hear, you know, will they hear the emotional message? Or will they hear how out of tune my piano is? [laughs] Or will they hear that I’m in a crappy bedroom, or will they just assume I’m in a big recording studio? Or maybe just a studio in my flat in Berlin. That’s interesting, thinking about how we understand sound.
Of all the producers you have collaborated with, were there any where the connection was on the highest level, where your visions were already aligned and little dialogue was conveyed in the studio?
Yes, there were two tracks, I haven’t really worked with that many producers. But there were some amazing things I did with Pinch. We did a track called 2012 together, he just did the remix for me, but it completely blew me away. He did it in like, one night, I think. Often, he would say to me, “oh yea I did this tune last night.” And I would honestly think to myself “oh my, it’s probably not very good, probably not finished.” But it’s true, he really did these tracks overnight and they were just phenomenal. So with Pinch, it was almost like memories in my mind. Because when I first talked with Pinch, I was thinking about him beforehand, I said to him “if you’ve got any other beats if you’ve got lying around, please send over.” So then I went for a jog [both laugh] … and got this amazing energy when I was jogging, and it was snowing in Berlin, and it was cold, and I forced myself to go do this exercise, and I was feeling a bit grumpy. And then I got back home and Pinch had sent me the instrumentals for that track 2012. It just shifted so well with the weather in Berlin, and my mood. Within about ten minutes I recorded it, and sent it back to him and he was totally in love with it. We didn’t really talk at all, it was just me asking “Do you have any beats” and he said “Sure, I’ve got this one” and then just a whole tune evolved from that without even talking about anything. So that was really amazing. It’s funny, because now when Pinch and I see each other it’s almost like we don’t know what to say to each other, because we’ve had so many strong musical connections over the last year. Trying to have a beer together at the bar, I’ve never really known what to say to him, I always wanted to say “ohh I love your music so much! Oh my god you’ve changed my life.” So it‘s kind of hard to have a normal conversation. The same thing happened with Marcel Dettmann actually, I mean he’s a guy that can’t really talk about music at all, he just makes it. He’s never been to school, he doesn’t know production language really. He just makes loads of amazing music. I’ve tried to talk to him about the meaning, the sound. But he kind of just agrees, and then carries on with the music he’s playing. So him and I didn’t really talk at all, he gave me some music and I listened to it at home and picked something that I felt a connection with, and recorded vocals for it, and produced all the voice. Then I sent it back to him and I guess he really liked it, so we just immediately put it out. This is the remix that Marcel did for “Count Backwards.” He really liked the effects that I did with my voice, and then we even did a track with just the voice.
Of all the remixes you have done, is there one that hits you the hardest?
I think the one with Pinch, it really blew my mind. I mean like, Pinch is one of the people that inspired me to make the music that I now make. You know, I was like this kid in Bristol, and I didn’t really have many friends, I just followed Pinch around. I’d be like the sober girl in the corner listening to the music next to the speaker. So to have him remix me, I guess he had a lot of respect for my work, it means a lot. Not to make money or big name stuff, just to do it. It was so beautiful what he made, that’s what hit me the hardest really. You know the whole concept of remixes today is often about furthering your career, and putting yourself in a position of getting money, to buy a new jumper with, I don’t know. So it’s very difficult to create artistic connections with other people, streaming mixed culture. You know a lot of times it’s organized by managers and the labels. I think that’s why the Pinch one, the whole thing really meant a lot to me.
Do you remember the first time you ever heard your voice recorded and what age were you? What was that experience like for you?
YES! [laughs] I do! Well, sure, I made, I think the first time I got my laptop I was about 15 and a half, or 16. I didn’t really have anything, I had a piano downstairs that my parents used, and I just got this laptop and it had maybe one horrible synthesizer in the software. So I started using that for a few weeks, but I was more into piano, cello, you know acoustic instruments. I wasn’t ready for electronic sounds when I was that age. Then I had my Mac laptop, and I recorded my voice into that, it was all I had. The one memory that I still have today, it was quite scary for me because I was still very young, you know, like just 16. The voice that I heard when I played it back really sounded like a mature, wise woman. And that really terrified me, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. So I continued to just record quite simple, small things. Then a friend of mine from this old record store I used to work at, a friend and colleague of mine came back to my place after work one day to make music. He had a cassette 4 track and he would record his guitar that he would make into music. So I played him my voice, and I didn’t say it was me, for the first few years I never said it was me, I would say “yea I’m a producer, and I’m recording this one girl, blah blah blah.” I’d always ask people what they thought, and they were always really into it. Always commenting on the breathy, kind of quality that it has. It’s still something that I really don’t understand today, I’ve never had any teaching or anything that’s made my voice how it sounds. It just comes out. It was a very scary for me as a kid, because it really came across as a “wise” voice, so it was terrifying [laughs].
Can you tell me a little bit about your collaborations with Paul Frick and his crew?
Ohhhh my good friend Paul Frick. Well, he’s a Berliner, and he’s quite a nerdy music fan. Some friends of mine were DJ’ing in a club, but he’s like me you know, he doesn’t like staying up real late or taking drugs. Paul would always be the first one in the club with his new record, or his new dub plate or something. And I’d always be there, hanging out with DJ’s, listening to the music they were playing really early when the club first opens. I just sparked up a conversation with him, cos I thought “hey look at this guy, you know he starts early like me, and has a record under his arm, and he looks quite friendly.” So we just got to chatting, and you know hanging out every night listening to music. Now this was before he was with K7, this was very early on in my career. We just became friends, and shared ideas and ambitions and dreams. I write a lot of really poppy melodies and stuff that would sound great in a house music context, and he naturally makes really really great upbeat house music. So rather than force myself to make something that doesn’t come naturally, I will always try to collaborate with someone talented with whatever I do. So I wrote this track “I Mean,” basic arrangement, recorded the voice synths and piano. So I played it for Paul with a temporary beat that I made and I asked him ‘would you like to produce this for me?’ and he did, and he got some remixes made, and the whole thing evolved from friendship, I guess.
Ah yes, we watched your live interpretation with Paul and his ensemble, and your dress from that night reminded us of Period American fashion, maybe something from the Flapper era, something very classy, was that a friend that made it for you, or something you found?
Really? Wow. That was just something I found on the internet, I have these like 2AM type “I need a new dress!” ideas. [laughs] So I found a bunch of great dresses and ordered them, and luckily it worked. I guess I really like dresses, I really like to buy my dresses. I’m not really a musician that’s into fashion, or have any connections with fashion, I just do my best to look good when I have a show. Most of the time I’m in a t-shirt making music in my bedroom, hiding away from the world. You know when you’re a singer leading an ensemble, you have to look the part. They [Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble] all look smart and play classical, that’s what I love about them, they’re very contemporary-minded. Yet they present themselves in a very traditional way. I was quite excited about playing with them and wearing a nice long dress, not something I can wear everyday.
If you had a chance to re-score any film, which would it be?
Wow. I would like to rescore…. Tainted, by Mahler. It’s got this amazing choir voice, which I love, but I always wanted to play a slightly different melody. And I always want to add in some really low synth melodies underneath that. Sometimes when I hear some music, I love it, but I always hear my version in my mind. That’s one of those for sure. Then there’s a different Mahler, the classical Mahler, he wrote this amazing Funeral March, really beautiful symphony. One of the things he was really into at the time was very extreme dynamics over choir parts, like real choir, it was kind of a new thing for orchestras to do at that time. Then the loud parts of the symphony, are insanely loud, I mean when you listen to it on vinyl you constantly have to turn it up an down [laughs]. I love the music so much but it’s kind of impossible to listen to, you know, suddenly it’s too loud for the headphones. I’d really like to rescore that with different instruments and different dynamics and conduct in a slightly different way so that it’s not so extreme. Make it into more of a lullaby I guess, make it maybe less ambitious. Mahler was so ambitious. So that’s two things I’d like to rescore.
Of any person in the world, who do you feel has some of the most powerful vocals that you have ever heard?
Oh wow. Maria Callas, the opera singer. She has the most powerful sound, it just slides out of her. She has so much passion and fire in her belly. I think she’s experienced many many tragedies in her life. The tragedies somehow sort of fueled her in a way, fueled her with rage. You can hear it in the high notes, they don’t juts float out in a beautiful pretty way. You know, often singers are taught to make beautiful sounds. Yet she makes this insane, sound of pain and terror. She sounds like fire to me. And to me that sounds beautiful, the passion that you can hear. It’s not the most beautiful sound quality but she is a phenomenal natural sound-maker, as a singer. I think lyrically, there’s a lady named Madeline Peyroux, French singer. She’s written some very beautiful projects. Nina Simone, very amazing lyrics, and the subjects that she writes about. David Bowie, because he kind of mixes up all these strange metaphors, and you can interpret them in so many different ways. Aesop Rock is my favorite MC, he’s written some amazing stories, he’s about truth and honest expression, not into bling and women, and stuff that rappers talk about. He’s sick.
Do you feel like there is something in Berlin that doesn’t exist in London or any other city as far as the cultural impact of the 21st century’s electronic music scene?
I think, yea there are many things. I mean East and West Berlin have a very unique and interesting history which definitely influence the music. The history is unparallel, there is nowhere else in the world like Berlin that’s been through what this city’s been through. The people that are here that have made the city what it is today. I think one of the most unique things today, relating to Berlin’s history is the weight of liberalism which is still growing stronger and spreading. I don’t think you’ll really find such a sense of freedom in the electronic music culture of people and the society that’s here, I don’t think that really exists anywhere else. The kind of judgment-free, hedonistic, that’s safe and secure, grounded dance community. I think that’s very special here. And obviously a very big attraction, loads of tourists come here for that reason to experience that kind of culture, you just can’t get that in London. Everything is different here, time works different here, what you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do socially is different here. But I would say because of that reason as well, it kind of stopped the development of the electronic music here, because people want to come here for techno. They don’t want to come and hear something experimental or, you know, dubstep, people want to come here specifically for techno, and they have expectations. The purpose of the DJ is to create a party, to please the people, and to do a good job and fulfill expectations, give the people what they want. I’d say, for me, it’s not being just a progressive, risk-taking, free-minded thing, and it’s now kind of stuck in this certain level of professionalism. Clubs are stable now and they have their sound, and they have their audience, and they have their reputation, and they have their Facebook page. That definitely preserves the music, and preserves the wave of liberalism, kind of suspends it in time. But it definitely hinders the music at the same time. One thing that I find quite funny, and it’s a bit of a joke we have here in Berlin, ‘often DJ’s come here through customs at the airport see their records, their techno records, and they’re really excited to be here and play here,’ and it’s just like oh god, not techno [laughs]. It’s always little bit of a let down, but it’s also yin and yang, there are always two sides to everything. I live here because I love the music culture here, but there are times when I feel a bit sad and I think ‘great, is it really gonna be like this for the next 10 years.’ But at the same time it’s healthy because it makes my imagination come alive. Partly the reason why I wanted to use my voice in ‘techno’ music and wanted to work with Marcel Dettmann. Since traditionally techno is made from machines, not really from imagination in a way that conduct classical music. So I was really curious to put my voice into techno, and have my voice work in that school of thought. In some ways the restriction of music really inspire me to do wild things that I definitely would not have done in London. It’s a very good question I could talk all day about it.
Are you excited to embark on your first American tour, promoting your new full length record? I just read you are playing in my hometown of Chicago. I’m very excited.
YES! Ahhh, I’m so happy to come to Chicago, I wish I could stay there longer. One of my favorite musicians are from Chicago, DJ Rashad, he just remixed one of the songs on a single I did Professional Loving, it’s really badass. Yea, I’m really excited about the USA tour, I’m starting to get really nervous about my clothes [laughs] I keep thinking I need cool sunglasses, and new shoes, shit maybe I should go get a little tan. I’m quite scared, but it’s gonna be really good. That’s going to be such a great test for me as a musician, to bring my music to a different part of the world and see what happens. You know there were earlier times in my bedroom where I’ve seen my audience, and I imagined having an audience one day. I’ve always composed for them and it’s going to great to have this American audience to share with. I get the feeling that a lot of people in America, they just love to hear different music and have different musical backgrounds. It’s always interesting to play your music for different cultures, different countries, they just hear something else. Then you talk with fans or journalists and really smart people that listen to loads of music and they’re like “ohhh it reminds me of this” and you’re like “really, wow” and you can never have imagined that yourself. So I’m really looking forward to it. Obviously I’m playing with Amon Tobin with his great big show and it’s just me supporting him with my little keyboard and little machines. We’ll see how it goes [laughs] it’s going to be an interesting learning curve.
Please make sure to buy the new self-titled full length record by Emika, out on Ninja Tune. It’s truly a vision that we support here at Sound Colour Vibration.