February 25, 2010
Trying to find a label for Artemis’ sound is difficult – electro-pop, trip-hop and downtempo have all been used to describe her. What is not difficult is becoming completely captivated by the music. Check out our interview with this Bay Area musician below.
1. Your eclectic musical background really comes through in your work. What was your early exposure to music like?
I really did sing my way through my first book. I still have the recording – it was Mouse House. So I guess it’s not surprising that music became a big part of my life.
We spent weekends at gramma’s house in the country growing up, spending many afternoons all nestled in the living room immersed in our own thoughts and art projects and books – what connected us was the music we were listening to…lots of classical, like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Saint-Sa‘ns Carnival of the Animals, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain – oh and of course Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a perennial favorite – my grandma was pretty clever about how to turn kids on to classical music. Also great 45’s of pop singles from the 1950s like Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera and the Teddy Bears’ To Know Him Is to Love Him, and old 78 albums of jazz from the 1920s and 30s. There was an old upright piano I could play on, or sing along to my uncle’s playing, which always had a sense of rhythm all its own and taught me alot about following musical cues. I feel like I learned to listen in that little room.
At home, mom and dad’s record collection was my sonic universe…I explored vocal harmony and imaginative songwriting with the Beatles, sweet lullabyes from Donovan and Cat Stevens, and danced around in my tutu to Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, imagining the instruments as my prancing partners (likely inspired by the goofy album cover). I got my pop fix staying up late on weekends with my best girlfriend wearing out Saturday Night Fever and every ABBA (yes Dancing Queen was my fave) and Michael Jackson album we could find, watching Saturday Night Live…and of course we never missed an episode of Casey Kasem’s Top 40. Always recorded onto a cassette to be played all week long. My cassette player was my other best friend – I had two of them, and would record myself singing into one, then playing it and singing harmonies or rounds over it while recording into the second one, going back and forth until i had a fabulous (and horribly distorted) chorus of voices.
I played flute and piano and sang in choruses in grade school through high school, so got some good classical training, although I was always very lazy about sight reading – I’d read enough to hear a melody once and then relied mostly on my memory and my ear…that still tends to be the case today. I had the good fortune of going to a high school with voice classes where I learned a lot about singing technique and stage craft, and I performed in several musicals, including playing the lead character of Luisa in The Fantasticks, which was a blast…occasionally I’m tempted to meander back to musical theatre, but…nah, not just now…
2. Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Lots of artists from different times and places – Lamb, Bjork, Joni Mitchell, early Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, The Beatles, The Police,Tori Amos, Pink Floyd, Ravel, Tim Love Lee, Nick Drake, Dead Can Dance, Cornelius, oh and who can forget Imogen Heap – I remember when my good friend Kevin Angus opened for her at Bimbo’s 365 Club back in 1998 (apparently it was her very first solo performance without her band) – it’s been inspiring to hear her sound evolve and blossom over the years.
3. When you decided to become a professional musician you left New York for San Francisco. What did it have to offer that was lacking on the east coast?
I don’t think upstate New York was lacking anything – it’s definitely got a big home in my heart…but I’m a sucker for new thrills and adventures – and the first time I visited San Francisco when I was seventeen, I fell in love with this crazy amazing place and knew that’s where I wanted to be one day. It took me a while to get there, and I actually lived several places in between, being a bit of a gypsy. I still can’t seem to stand still for too long, and it often amazes me that I’ve been in the bay area so long. I think that what drew me and keeps me hovering here is the magnetism this area has for creative, quirky souls with big dreams, outrageous ideas, and the balls to keep running after them. I do miss big summer thunderstorms, fireflies, and autumn leaves, though.
4. What is the electronic artist collective at RTFM and how is it connected to your work?
When Keith Crusher, David Earl (aka SFLogicNinja) and I started writing electronic music together back in 2000 (David and I had already been playing together for a few years), we saw how the music industry was evolving into a place where artists could produce great, professional albums in bedroom studios…the old paradigm of success requiring megabucks was beginning to crumble, and we wanted to create a collective where artists self-producing high quality downtempo electronic music could join forces and support each other in creating the kind of local and global music scene we all envisioned – one where success is not bequeathed upon the lucky few by some golden egg-layer from upon high, but is in our own hands and built on perseverance, ingenuity and the symbiotic power of community. Thus RTFM was born, and has become a gathering place for the folks we’ve connected with musically and creatively – all the artists on the RTFM netlabel have their own respective projects, and also do a lot of collaborating and performing together, as well as promoting each other and sharing new opportunities to spring our music on the world.
5. In the past, you’ve expressed that writing on a guitar was somewhat restrictive. How is your process different when you write using a synthesizer?
Well, that was a bit of a narrow view I developed from the perspective of only having one instrument and my voice to work with. I wanted to be able to write parts for all the instruments I heard in my head without having to find many other musicians or being a virtuoso myself on twelve different instruments, like some of my bandmates.
Learning to write first with a synthesizer (my trusty old Ensoniq Eprime) and eventually with a computer and Logic allowed me access to a virtually infinite palate of sounds, effects, and production tools. That said, I now get the view from the other side, where it’s sometimes a bit overwhelming to have the whole candy store at your fingertips, so I’ve learned to step back a bit and give myself limits to work within, like choosing only a few sounds or instruments (virtual or real) to write a track or album with. That’s the goal, anyway. It’s a bit of full circle…kinda funny, these days I’m aiming to re-learn all my songs on acoustic guitar.
6. I can’t remember the last time I came across a musician who played the Theremin. How did you get started with that?
I’m still something of a novice on the theremin – I can play simple parts, but have lots to learn yet…I have a good ear, which helps, but controlling a voice by wiggling your digits about in the air is definitely an art requiring fine-tuned control and a steady hand. It’s an amazing instrument. I got turned on to it by Keith Crusher, our resident electronics tinkerer, whose many creative projects include building theremins – the first one I saw was one he built out of an old television set, and I fell in love on the spot.
7. Speaking of rare instruments, Daniel Berkman (another RTFM musician) plays a twelve-stringed African lute/harp called a kora. How does Daniel’s kora playing influence the electronic side of your music?
I’ve always loved blending spacey/electronic and organic/acoustic elements in my production – that’s another great thing about writing with synths and samplers – it’s easy to sketch a part electronically and then later replace it with an acoustic instrument if that’s really the sound you want. Not that Daniel needs anyone to write parts for him – he’s a bit of a musical wunderkind – he can pick up almost any instrument and play it like it’s been his true love for years – which is wonderful for recording sessions (and performances!) since he can add so many different colors to a track. But the kora is one of his main instruments, and it’s so lovely to have his kora playing on tracks where that dreamy yet earthy lilting harp sound takes my bent toward the ethereal to whole new level – it fits well in an electronic soundscape and lends it warmth, sweetness and dimension.
8. Given the unique combination of instrument involved when you play, is there any room for jazz-like improvisation?
This speaks to the adventure of taking this still somewhat new world of electronic production into a live setting – now that anyone can construct entire orchestras from the comfort of their living room, the challenge is how to translate that into a live performance – now it really DOES help to have other musicians playing with you – certainly not an absolute necessity, there are plenty of amazing one-man/one-woman shows – but I think one of the things that excites people about live shows is live musicianship, on instruments you can see and touch and play.
Lots of electronic/laptop bands, including ours, depend on using backing tracks or loops for at least some of the instrumentation, and then live instruments are played over those loops or tracks. The difference between using loops vs. tracks is that a backing track has an absolute structure – press start, the song starts and everyone sings/plays along. This makes it difficult to have more improv than what is afforded during established break sections in the track. It makes things easy, but is limited and can get a bit repetitive to play that way after awhile. Using loops where backing instrumentation is desired is much more flexible – the laptop controller can extend any section of the song so that the band can stretch out and improvise.
Also, then the laptop becomes more of an instrument rather than a glorified boom box or karaoke machine. This is much more interesting, I think – loops of individual tracks (beats, bass, synths, whatever) can also be tweaked, effected, dropped out, to change things up in the moment. This is what we’re always working towards in our live performances – playing as many elements as possible live, and replacing backing tracks with live looping so that we can stretch out and have some fun! That said, it’s nice to keep loops or tracks of most of the song parts available so that you don’t have to have every band member available to pull off a great show.
9. You’ve been recording at a steady pace for about ten years now. How do you think your latest release, Auralei, is different from some of your earlier work?
In most of my earlier work, I came up with the basic musical structure of a song (with a guitar or keyboard or using Logic and virtual instruments) as well as the lyrics/melody on my own, and then got together with my mates to develop the production. Later, I began exploring collaborating with others by taking someone else’s musical idea and writing a song arrangement from that basic sketch. The excitement of writing this way was that I could jump out of my own style to explore others, and grow into new territory. Undone was written mostly the first way, Gravity was a combination of the two, and all of the tracks on Auralei were written with me developing someone else’s musical idea into a song structure, and then working with that person (or a third person sometimes) to flesh out the production. In general, I think the production on Auralei is more dreamy, ethereal and lush perhaps than earlier work, and perhaps less raw and direct.
I really enjoy both ways of writing, and I continue finding new ways to collaborate, because I love a musical conversation as much as I enjoy endlessly talking to myself. But I may take a step back and start writing more tracks from scratch on my own again, especially since now that I’m out of school and have more time for musical exploration. I’m curious to discover where my own style has evolved to…
10. What is going in within the San Francisco music scene that the rest of the world should know about?
The SF music scene is bubbling over these days with amazing music and production talent – we recently attended the latest Test Press listening event hosted by Epiphyte Records, and it was astounding to hear how much new music with GREAT production was being produced locally – both from folks we’ve been hearing for years, and others we’ve only recently discovered. The production school at Pyramind Studios is churning out some great new electronica artists – it’s definitely a place to watch for up-and-comers. Another thing I love about the bay area is that it’s a great melting pot for musical styles – there are so many talented musicians here, passionate about a wide variety of musical styles from around the world and across genres, and people are not afraid to throw things together in unexpected ways – I mean, where else could you see two looped-cello bands in one evening?
We did, at SF MOMA a few weeks ago with both Zoe Keating and Loopstation. And of course there’s our band, with its koras, bansuri flutes, laptops and theremin. It’s really exciting to be in a place that is such a magnet for imaginative exploration and creativity of all kinds – and it also seems to draw people who are very community-minded – this is why we see things like Burning Man come to life here. The electronic music community is very much the same way – there’s a plethora of great bands, and rather than a competitive environment, this is a place where artists find ways to support themselves by supporting each other.
11. Where can people go for more information about where to see you live?
Visit the Artemis website for upcoming dates – invite us to your hometown!
Thanks Artemis, we enjoyed chatting with you! And for all you social media butterflies, you can also find Artemis on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace.
Posted by A. Sogal at 6:57 am