In Conversation with Laurel Halo
Over her three albums „Quarantine“, „Chance of Rain“ and „In Situ“ the American producer Laurel Halo has taken a highly original musical journey. Despite these records she’s never pigeonholed herself with a single trademark sound, instead constantly searching for volatile new approaches in her music. Her latest experiment called on the talents of virtual singer software ‚Hatsune Miku’ for the „Still Be Here“ project at this year’s CTM festival.
Could you tell me something about your music initiation?
I grew up playing music and over time got the courage to start DJing at WCBN, to go to gigs, and shop in record stores. I tried out things like joining a Gamelan and playing violin in a free improvisation ensemble. That last one was terrifying the one time we had a gig with Henry Grimes. Luckily I’ve always had supportive friends, whether musicians or not. In general I’ve never felt connected to a specific crew or scene but rather have a lot of friends from different communities, maybe because I’ve bounced around a bit.
When you decided to move to Germany, what was the idea behind that?
It was mostly practical: I wasn’t getting booked so often in the States, I was playing most of the time in Europe. I also had friends in Berlin and I loved the city.
When you moved here, did you walk around a lot through the city to get familiar with it?
I am a person who likes to have a sense of orientation, so it’s important to get out and become familiar. But I also can be a homebody and stick around my kiez, as I work mostly from home. The last good thing I did outside of my radius was to see an exhibition at the Helmut Newton Foundation.
Do you need a daily structure to work on music?
No. It depends on the day, the project, whether I have gigs on the weekend, et cetera. I used to think you had to make set hours to work on music, but over time that’s changed. Sometimes I only work on music for an hour a day, sometimes I get into long writing sessions that go late into the night. Breaks, taking walks, eating good food, going to the gym, meeting up with friends, this is all important cause otherwise your music can sound too worked over.
From the outside it seems like ideas come easy to you.
No, I am very slow. I wish I was prolific!
That said you already have quite an back catalogue. Compared with other artists of your age your output is high.
That is nice of you to say. I don’t think I would agree with you. For me it takes a long time to complete music. When I was younger I was in a hurry to release music, which probably makes up the majority of the pile. I don’t regret it but maybe some curation would have been useful. I enjoy letting tracks marinate these days.
Are you saying that you do not like some of your earlier recordings from today’s perspective?
Chances are you’re a psychopath if you like everything you’ve made. I think it’s typical to have your perception of your own music change over time. So maybe you love it when you first make it, then six months later you hate it, one year later you love it again. During an album’s completion the music can just sound like torturous stuff in your ears after the composition and sound design have become so familiar. I think that on each record there are between one and four tunes which stand the test of time and the rest I just laugh: „That was a learning exercise!“
Okay. Maybe this reflects that your records are quite different when it comes to the style of sound. Between the debut „Quarantine“ and the new album „In Situ“ a lot seems to have changed. Do you sometimes play the mind game and think how you would produce a certain track from the old days differently with your current skills and perspective?
I don’t think that kind of mind game is possible, hindsight is always 20/20. When writing music I find it’s dependent on your current interests – with melodies, harmonies, rhythms, textures, low-end – combined with what kind of weather you have, who you are around, how healthy you feel physically or mentally. All these create specific coordinates for a musical vision. I am always growing as an artist and have different things to say with each record, and while it’s not a clean story I still find a continuity, however iterative it is.
I am listening quite a lot to your monthly radio show on Berlin Community Radio (BCR). How did you get involved there?
I did radio at WCBN for some years and I loved it. I would have friends come and DJ with me and we’d spend hours going through the different sections of the music library. Before becoming a full-time musician I thought I would actually work in radio, but more on the production side of things as my speaking voice has a regrettable intensity between 2 and 5 kHz. With BCR it was just them asking me to do a regular show, and I basically have done since 2014. At home I’m always listening to online radio – BCR, NTS, Rinse – not so much the normal regular stations here in Berlin as you know they are, well, what they are.
Do your radio shows help set the scene for your own records?
More and more, yes. Though my shows have a wide range and I can’t possibly sound like this or that, it is a good indicator of what I’m inspired by.
Is the Berlin Community Radio as much about community as its name suggests?
Sure, it’s a fun crew. Plus they do a lot for artists in the community, like the Incubator program.
I love your new record. Again you did not go for the obvious sound and changed your identity. Along with this you moved from Hyperdub, who released your first two albums „Quarantine“ and „Chance of Rain“, to Honest Jon’s. Was this about changing your context or something?
Not really, no. It’s more that I have been a fan of Honest Jon’s for awhile. I sent them the demos for ‘Quarantine’ in 2011, and Mark gave a polite ‘too busy’ reply, but asked me to send more along in the future. So I got the courage to send the ‘In Situ’ demos last year. I am still in communication with Hyperdub and I’ll work with them in the future, but for this record it felt nice to release it on Honest Jon’s.
Are you as a musician thinking in similar terms as you find them here in my notes on the paper in my hands? There is written: „… dark sounds … dubby … dancehall influence …“
Maybe both, wordings like yours and my own ones. I think it is dangerous, or maybe just boring, to only use a style-vampire approach, hedging your bets on the rise or fall of one sound or another…I think it is really great and important to have a firm knowledge of music history and to be aware of different eras of music, but to not indulge too much in historical fluctuations and lose sight of your own intention.
Do you know the feeling when you listen to music and you close your eyes and go into the sound … at that stage you would never say something like „that is a dubby sound“, instead you are floating much deeper into the experience.
No, of course I hear genre signifiers when I’m listening. But for me that shouldn’t be the most important thing. Well-written and fresh music is just that, regardless of the era or style.
Are you a narrative person? Do you have narratives for your songs in mind? Do they talk to you?
I always try to have my music convey a vivid feeling. When working with lyrics maybe that creates a direction, although as a listener I rarely grasp onto lyrics.
How do you decide when to sing and when not on a record? You worked in the past in a beautiful way with voice and without.
Oh, thanks. I think it just depends on the project I’m working on and whether it makes sense to use lyrics or not with the music.
You are not afraid of artistic changes at all, right?
A certain amount of skepticism is healthy, but letting that turn into self-doubt or fear isn’t useful. Of course if you make the same thing over and over again you can potentially have an easier go of it, but that’s just not me, and that’s ok.
Are there role models, other artists whose careers inspired you?
I think it’s difficult to look at heroes and want to emulate their careers. They’re from different times and places, with varying levels of access and resources. And there are some artists who I derive a great amount of influence from but will never make music actually like theirs. Then there’s the fact I’m an omnivorous listener and discovering everyday.
Laurel, are you working on the same time on several songs … do you say song or track?
That is a good question. I take a bit of an issue when people say „I really like your song“ – and there’s no voice or lyrics. I guess I make the distinction that a song is defined by a voice performing lyrics, and a track without. But then there are always examples that exist in the middle, so it’s hard to say.
How long does it take to do a final mix of a record, for example „In Situ“?
Some tunes come immediately and some take ages. For me working on music these days means being unafraid to put it away for some time. I tried to put out the tunes on ‘In Situ’ in 2014, but I overworked them and the magic was lost. So I just switched focus and worked on other projects, and then came back to the tunes eight months later. From that point it was a quick process. It’s so helpful to visit old material with fresh perspective.
When you mention you wanted to bring out the record in 2014, do you feel a certain pressure to publish a record on a yearly basis as you need it for your constant flow of performances and income?
I know how hard it can be to get gigs when you aren’t releasing – as there was a two-year gap between ‘Chance of Rain’ and ‘In Situ’, and there will likely be more gaps in the future. But for the most part I’ve been lucky to have enough gigs to get by. It’s unhealthy to think about just releasing whatever on time to get gigs. I was joking with Steve Goodman that my next record will be fart sounds with gorgeous blooms of tape delay, out this fall. Trust it’ll clear the dancefloor, but book me for your next party!
At this point it makes sense to talk about „Still Be Here“, this collaboration you did for CTM with Darren Johnston, LaTurbo Avedon and Martin Sulzer on invitation by Mari Matsutoya, a performance / installation working with the vocal software Hatsune Miku. How did you start that working process?
I was invited by Mari and Jan from CTM to get involved back in 2014. It was Mari’s original idea to work with me and Darren Johnston, a London-based choreographer. At first we had this vague idea of wanting to do a piece about Miku somewhere between concert and commentary. And over time it evolved to take this concert documentary format, alternating between original songs and interviews with those familiar to her. Along the way LaTurbo and Martin were brought on to assist with realizing the visual and technical aspects of the piece.
I was originally at a loss what the songs should say and be about – it felt patronizing to assert an opinion or vision about her, when it is her performing on stage. They should be her words! So I started compiling lyrics from existing songs of hers that have over 1M views on YouTube or Nico Nico Douga, the Japanese equivalent. When we ran these through a simple list generator the results were fascinating; the lyrics all mixed-up had become these sprawling half-cogent poems on love, hope, drive, loneliness, workaholism, self-doubt, convenience stores, leeks, jealousy, revenge, murder, dystopian futures, police states, prostitution, et cetera. From here we started to form an idea of what lyrics should be used, and how – how to let Miku be most herself on stage.
And did you at one point think of playing live on that stage?
Not really, no! I always thought it would take away from Miku if there were more people on stage, as the piece is about her. When she performs live in her official touring concert the band is mostly concealed.
How did you like the final presentation format?
I’m happy with how it turned out! For a long time we were all unsure of the direction of the piece but it came together in the end.
Laurel, thanks so much for this conversation.