Having teased us for over a year with her occasional singles for Ninja Tune, her sound design (like the field recordings of Berghain which served as the basis for Ostgut Ton’s Funf compilation), and collaborations with the likes of Brandt Brauer Frick, the British-born, Berlin-based musician, singer and producer Emika finally released her self-titled debut album this month.
And what an album: while nodding in the direction of bass music, ultimately it’s all about Emika’s own, idiosyncratic style. Her voice and her melodies lend a pop sensibility that balances out more abstract experiments in sound design; the record’s mood is perfectly calibrated to the growing chill in the air as winter draws close. And the deep involvement of Dubplates & Mastering’s Rashad Becker means that the sheer sound of the thing is thrilling.
We asked Emika to tell us more about the album, her methods and her philosophy; read on for the full interview.
BEATPORTAL: Did you find that having a day job made it harder to find time to work on the album, or was it a good way of freeing your mind, so that you weren’t obsessing over the record all day long?
EMIKA: I have always had several day jobs since age 14, and I have always made music. I get the boring work stuff done in between the musical adventures. I always obsess over my music, all the bloody time, whether it is while cleaning a floor, walking to the office, or sat at a piano. I live my records.
Your field recordings from Berghain were used as the source material for Ostgut Ton’s Funf compilation; what techniques did you use to create the sound set for this album? It certainly sounds like there are a lot of “real-world” sounds here (percussion, piano), but they’ve clearly been heavily treated and made quite strange.
I often compose something for an instrument I do not have or cannot play, so I work with what I do have to create something that behaves like the instruments in my imagination, modeled on the acoustic world I know well from my musical past.
I think that the strangeness you mention is possibly unfinished sound design which I fell in love with for its unique quality. You know? Happy accidents.
In the search for one thing, you find another, and this other is even more beautiful because you could not have designed it, or intended it to be.
That is the great thing about recording and listening while composing, not just to your feelings and ambitions, but deep/shallow listening to actual audio. This is very important. Hear what you have coming from the speakers, and know when to stop. These are some of my techniques: analysis of perception of sound, creation and abandonment.
The “scene” is a cold, dark place where one learns to be tough, weaving in and out of the shadows.
You obviously have links to bass music and techno, but I hear a lot of references to post-punk in your music as well—particularly in some of the drones and general clang. Could you talk a little about some of the influences you had in mind when making the album? I know you’ve mentioned Delia Derbyshire…
“Post-punk” impressions come possibly from my desire to not make shiny, loud, plastic, fat, “electronic” records. Sound which is mega boring and void of dynamic. Punk production is typically not about hyper-realism, or the sound of money.
Delia Derbyshire, if you don’t know her releases, life, attitude towards sound, the technology she used, creative nature, and how she just got down to work, got on with it all…and simply stopped at a certain point too—then you must do some research about her. You will learn a wonderful perspective on electronic music and how it was, before today’s dance music trends.
To answer your question, two main influences are Mahler and Rachmaninov. Historically they are worlds apart, and yet much of their music shares a beautiful sense for tragedy. The tragedy of life itself, as it were. Not in a way that creates sadness within the listener, but in a way that makes one hold on dearly to every moment lived.
The Ostgut compilation was, in many ways, about all the powerful moments lived in the space of Berghain. What kind of inspiration are you finding in Berlin these days?
Here is a selection:
Hard Wax. Hard Wax makes me broke, it has amazing inspiring stock. Best record shop in the world.
There is also this amazing restaurant Gorgonzola Club, amazing Italian food, I get very inspired by the quality of the food. It is a sensual meal experience, for sure.
The architecture on my street.
Marcel Dettmann. Always Marcel Dettmann. He is my muse.
And I am always inspired by the Pfand system of returning bottles and getting money. Drink a beer, waiting for the tram, put it on the floor, someone who wants a few cents can collect it, return it to a shop, get the coins. Why is this not everywhere in the world already!?
Could you tell us a little bit about your live set? What exactly does it entail? And did the fact that you’re playing live more influence the shape of the album in any way? Are you thinking about performance when you’re writing music?
I sing live, which is a weird thing to state, but it needs to be said. I dub mix the music, and I play my synth keys. I record myself “performing” whilst composing at home, which is the very core of my music. Playing “live” it is not something I think about, as it is something I do whether on stage or at home. On stage it is not recorded, it is a continuation of me being the music and it is a billion times more exciting because there is an audience, a real one, not one that I am pretending is there.
You’ve also been recording and performing with other artists, like Brandt Brauer Frick. Have you learned anything from your collaborations that you’ve been able to feed back into your own music?
Yes, I learned to be a focused singer from my collaborations. My voice is the instrument people want to feature in the collabs I have done so far.
If I compose for a collab and have to wait for the instrumental before being able to record my vocal part, for example, then I practice and perform my vocal part over and over again. Often the original motif morphs into something new after a while, which creates A, B, C, etc. melodies, and this all becomes more music for the melting pot.
It can be wonderful to work with people you trust creatively. With Marcel, for example, we barely talk, we just make independently and send music back and forth via email. I like connections like this very much.
You do sound design for Native Instruments; how do you find that work impacts your own music? I can imagine that a computer might be the last thing you want to look at, once you come home from the office. More than that, even I wonder how you separate the two activities in your mind—do you ever have to decide on whether to use certain ideas for your job or your own music?
I do not work there any more actually, but when I did, I was permanently tired and wired from all the creativity and ideas at work (and free office coffee) and then the long nights making stuff at home after work. It was a great time for me and my work in both environments. I gave up trying to separate my creativity into specified outputs, that is not good for the music. My mentor at university told me for years: don’t be precious about your music, just get on with it and make more and more.
You worked with Rashad Becker on the record; what was his input? I can imagine that when one spends so much time working on music alone—just you and your laptop—it could be really helpful to have another set of ears. (Especially when those ears are Rashad Becker’s, possibly the best ears in the business…!)
He took care of the sound and “production” of the album, and I composed the music—composition includes recording, mixing, sound selection/design, lyrics, performance.
He has lots of analog gear at his studio where the production took place, and years of musical experiences. He has grown to be my most trusted musical friend. There is so much mixed up random opinions in electronic music about “production” and miseducation due to poor use of vocabulary.
It is amazing for me to consult Rashad with observations about sound and have constructive discussions. Until I knew him, I felt incredibly isolated with my observations about sound and production. It’s through my nourishing relationship with him that I realised the “scene” is a cold, dark place where one learns to be tough, weaving in and out of the shadows. I hope to break this down as much as I can during my lifetime for the next generations of musicians making electronic music—shine as much light as I can.