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Interview: Emika

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Emika is a contradictory figure. The bubbly, chatty character munching a McDonald’s as we arrive at Ninja Tune headquarters cuts a very different figure from what her austere, dark electronic pop would suggest.

EmikaIn a female-music world where the likes of Lady Gaga are considered to be pushing the envelope, innovators like Emika seem all the more bizarre and out-of-step.

I have had a fascination with Emika since a promo for her debut Drop The Other EP fell on my desk in early 2010 – the most promising debut of the year, a colossal collision of pop, dubstep and austere electronica. It turned out to be a teaser, with just a few more singles surfacing between then and now – October 2011 and the long-awaited release of her debut album, simply called Emika.

Emika makes pop – not the shinny pop of glitz and empty sentiment but something with a bubbling under-belly, something you can’t quite place. Pop but not as we know it.
What does she call this sound that seems familiar but throws constant curve balls?

“Subvox – because I am really fascinated with sub-frequencies which can kind of act as another universe, that is a new development in music and in sound to have such an extreme, dynamic range available now because of technology and speakers.”

There is certainly ‘another universe’ living and breathing below the mix. Is it the creation of such intricate compositions that lead to the new album taking so long?

“There was a huge response to ‘Drop The Other’ which I wrote very quickly and without much thought and then all this stuff I have been labouring over for years I thought ‘oh no, none of it is like ‘Drop The Other’.”

Her honesty regarding the development of her album is refreshing in a world of pre-conceived PR sound-bites, and belies the struggles of many a young artist finding their feet.

“Truthfully, I had the wrong people around me and had terrible direction from people posing as friends and I as a younger artist was really looking for that guidance and reassurance about what I was doing. I had an audience of people I was always playing my unfinished ideas to, when you have an audience in between you and the finished music it can become very difficult to understand why it is you are changing something, or how to finish a song once you have people’s opinions in your head. It can be quite distracting. I made the mistake of playing my music to too many people and listening to too many opinions.”

The initial brilliance and success of ‘Drop The Other’ gave her cold feet, the weight of expectation becoming a suffocating force in the creative process. The delay wasn’t a search for ‘perfection’ but for reassurance and self-trust in her own creative path.

“It wasn’t a perfectionist thing, I wasn’t at home obsessing over each sound. I would finish the album and send it to Ninja and they would say ‘more of this’ and ‘less of that’. Ninja were fantastic, they let me take this much time to do it, they have been really supportive. I definitely wouldn’t have got that with other record labels.” 

In allowing this time to breath and develop Ninja Tune have, in Emika’s debut album helped birth a perfect modern pop record.

But where does this otherworldy pop sound come from? Her was born from two very different cities at the cutting edge of modern electronic sound – Bristol and Berlin.

Bedded down in Bristol during the dubstep explosion, this was central to her revolutionary spirit and need to create. “In Bristol, I really learnt about guts and taking risks and there is such a young spirit in Bristol, so many young people fighting. There is a revolutionary type feeling, every person feels like they are going to revolutionise the scene with their next single and then someone else comes along with that vibe and you think ‘my next one is going to be better than that one.”

Despite this it is the move to Berlin that opened it all up and pushed the music to the next level.

“Everyone in Berlin lives like it is there last day, they are like ‘let’s LIVE’ and ‘I want to release 20 albums in my life-time’. It is live, and awake as a city it is so productive. I was really inspired by techno culture, not the music, I am still not really at one with techno as a music. I doesn’t really get me going. The thing I love about that culture is the open arms and acceptance of abstract sound. They wanna hear crazy, wild sounds at ridiculous volumes and you can kinda turn any room, anywhere in Berlin into a club and just go for it.”

“You can make a wild record and all the DJs will play it, where elsewhere you’d have to beg them.”

As a female artist looking to push the boundaries of what electronic music can do, it was inevitable that Emika would find a kinship with electronic-pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and in groups like the White Noise changed the way music was made forever.

“[She is] phenomenal. I am totally fascinated by her, I didn’t live at that time, I didn’t know her and there are hardly any actual interviews of her talking and so I created a bit of a character of what I think she must have been like. The thing that interests me most about her is how quickly she stopped working in that field as soon as synthesisers became a consumer thing.  I have a lot of respect for that.”

As a result aims to bring experimentation back into electronic music, taking the lead from Derbyshire and her adventures in sound.

“There must be other things presented in the sphere of electronic music that aren’t just conceptual sound art or drones or dance music – there must be some other systems and possibilities and ways to touch people and make songs. I think she was very much from that school of thought and I think she was quite rebellious, with all the dudes around her. I am sure she was quite dominated by the job pressures and she seemed to really flourish with the limitations of equality, men, the BBC and all these kinds of things. It seemed to really inspire here – I mean she made that incredible Doctor Who piece.”

Listening to the multi-layered, sonic sculptures of her self-titled debut you can hear how she sees electronic music than more than the accepted norms of the genre.

“I’m a composer, I’m not a producer. I am not interested in production, I am interested in composition and composing techniques. Not thinking about dance music, but making something electronic. I feel there was a time before electronic music was swallowed by dance music culture and I would like to go back there and take a step forward from there. “

This ‘step forward’ is definitely being taken in the music of Emika who with her debut has produced the best kind of pop – pop that sounds familiar and strange in the same moment. In the predictable world of pop music Emika is a refreshing change as someone doing something actually interesting – no gimmicks, no style over substance – just innovative sounds.

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