Interview: Julia Reidy

Photo by Cristina Marx

The first track on Julia Reidy’s new album is a half-hour 12-string guitar piece titled “Surrounds Outlast”. It’s improvisation with the accelerator stuck down. Her fingers run fluidly and incessantly over the strings, swerving in and out of motifs, hitting microtones that jolt through the piece like speed bumps taken at high speed, capturing every improvisational micro-movement and sudden retraction.

As I listen to Dawning On, my mind switches between focusing on Reidy herself and marvelling at the twangs and resonances that emanate from her guitar. I hear vibrations soaking into the instrument body or dispersing into the room in which she sits. I hear the shimmer of fresh strings, particularly during the frantic flurries and pinch harmonics of “Upwelling”. Player and instrument exploit the potential within one another.

Dawning On will be released as cassette, CD and download on February 13th via Slip. In the meantime, be sure to check out the wonderful material available on her BandCamp (all of which was recorded while she still lived in Sydney, prior to her relocation to Berlin). Below, Reidy and I discuss intuitive tuning, psychoacoustic ideas and really nice rooms.

These compositions seem driven by impulse as opposed to being carefully shaped in advance. In fact, there’s a nervous excitement – danger, almost – that defines my listening experience of “Surround Outlast”. I get the sense that you’re just as oblivious to me in terms of knowing lies ahead; the progression seems the result of swerves and adjustments made on the fly. Does this sensation accurately reflect your way of creating/performing your music, or is Dawning On actually more pre-plotted than it seems?

Generally speaking I’ve approached solo playing as arrangements of known territories. I like the feeling of having a loose structure in mind that I’m willing to completely abandon at any point if something more interesting surfaces itself. I suppose this kind of unconsolidated approach to form is conducive to feeling compelled or stimulated, which is important to be able to harness as a soloist. Last thing I want to do is feel like I’m going through the motions, in front of an audience or on a recording.

I’d love to know more about the instrument itself. How long have you been using this guitar? Are there any particular ways in which the characteristics of the instrument influence your approach to playing it?

I bought the 12-string about 18 months ago. Before that I played electric almost exclusively, and was focussing on trying to work out how to improvise with other people – and I still totally prefer playing electric in groups, there’s a much broader pallet to draw from and I feel I have more access and fluidity with it. With the acoustic, the possibility for every attack to be a diad or an octave (both in or out of tune to any degree) has everything to do with how I’m treating it. I think texturally it lends it self to being explored as one kind of modal area, explored in different densities and intensities.

Did you prepare the guitar in any particular way – in terms of tunings, string gauges etc – specifically for the creation of Dawning On?

I’ve always tuned it completely intuitively. I’d only try to employ any kind of system if I felt like I was doing the same thing, or as an exercise. I think more about the outcome of what I’m attempting to execute, whether it be really raw and stabby or very controlled and measured. That said, I’m real interested tuning systems, microtonality and just intonation. I think you have to be selective about how much of your interests inform your actual work. I find a lot of things very exciting but I exhaust myself sometimes when I try to find a place for it in what I’m doing. If you’re listening to lots and working lots, methods and approaches tend to present themselves and you can grab them or let them go as they come, I find…

The longer I listen to this record, the more I’m aware of the contrast between the bright attack of the strings and the warmth of the notes resonating through the body. At a certain point, I almost start to perceive them as two independent sounds in duet with eachother. Does your persistent, repetitious method of playing the instrument affect the way you hear it over time?

I really am trying to play thematic material, melodic fragments and create a feeling of some kind of counterpoint. The potential for the material to be both resonant and short means that I’m able to frame things in different ways – playing stopped, open and natural harmonics. For someone who’s attracted to having lots of options, it’s both an exciting and difficult instrument to work with. In the sense that I have to really limit myself and not get carried away with generating new ideas, and try to work with developing things, or being persistent. Obviously that’s a ubiquitous compositional problem not just specific to 12 string guitarists. But it’s a bit too fun to play, its true.

You worked with Owen Roberts and Giulherme Fill to record Dawning On. Where and how was the album recorded, and how easy was it to arrive at a sound you were satisfied with?

Both of the said sound engineers are very good at what they do, so it was all pretty easy. Two of the tracks are recorded with 2 mics in a nice room, the other (“Upwelling”) is recorded with 6, in a VERY nice room, because that opportunity presented itself. Sometimes I luck out!

You also play in various duets and groups – for instance, with double bassist Adam Pultz Melbye under the name Tennis Of All Kinds, and with percussionist Samuel Hall under the name PALES. Both seem to involve a completely different approach to the guitar. Are these projects catering for different inclinations and interests within you? To what extent have these various collaborators influenced the way you think about your instrument?

The stuff with TOAK is kind of more like explicit attacks on specific rhythmic or psychoacoustic ideas. Trying to use rhythmic ostinati and particular harmonic areas to evoke overtones and harmonics. The approach for that was derived from these techniques we were both practising (tremolo on the guitar, and a specific kind of spiccatto thing that Adam is the world champion of) and a shared geeky enthusiasm in learning about science-y sound stuff. It’s definitely a good thing to explore the purely acoustic possibilities of stringed instruments in various spaces, that’s mainly what that project has been about thus far. PALES is basically me and my friend Sam getting angry and playing thrashy improv. Which is certainly an approach to the guitar that I am a fan of also.

I notice that you’re listed as playing an 11-string guitar on the self-titled Tennis Of All Kinds record. A silly question perhaps, but is that 12-string with one missing, or an instrument in its own right?

The answer is just as silly.. I just broke a string which I’ve never replaced because I lost the little thing at the bridge that you lock the string in with. I quite like having one string that isn’t doubled by something though, can sometimes give a bit of respite from the otherwise onslaught of twangy mess.

You seem to work heavily with microtonal harmony / detuning across many of your projects. What is it about these unconventional tunings that appeals to you?

It appeals to me as a device for making something sound very consonant to quite uncanny, from one moment to the next. It can be a shifting thing, it doesn’t have to be static, I think that’s where I find it most effective. I don’t think that playing an instrument in a de-tuned or microntonal way means that it needs to be demonstrative. Or explicitly referential to any kind of tradition.

What other music have you been listening to lately?

I’m listening to some Vangelis these past days. And “Swimming In Light” which is another amazing thing that Mike Majkowski did.

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m working on some electric guitar recordings. Also writing music for various groups. At the moment it’s all an extremely large mess (in both a physical and mental sense), but there’s plenty on the burner.