For some reason I have a very vivid false memory of seeing Ashley Paul live at Cafe Oto, even though I’ve never managed to make it out to see her play. Does the intense detail and intimacy of her music trick me into thinking that we’ve shared company? I’ve been a big fan since Line The Clouds came out in 2013, and was equally endeared by the brittle beauty of last year’s “Heat Source” too. In the next couple of weeks she’ll be venturing over to the UK for a few shows, including a performance at TUSK Festival in Gateshead on October 10th. Be sure to see/hear her if you have the opportunity.
You’ve got several shows coming up in the UK, including one at TUSK Festival in Gateshead. What’s your live setup at the moment?
My solo set-up is prepared guitar, saxophone, tape recorder and voice. It’s stayed pretty constant over the past few years whilst I’ve been working out the kinks of doing it live. Recently, I’ve been using two guitars tuned in micro tones with saxophone.
For TUSK I’ve put together a relatively new group which includes Ben Pritchard (guitar) and Olan Stephens (guitar and sampler). I play guitar, saxophone, clarinet and sing with those guys. I’ve relinquished some control, which is challenging, but I enjoy the opportunity to focus on winds, voice and textural elements without having to hold the guitar bits together.
There’s an intense sense of intimacy to your music. Is it easy for you to invite an audience into this world? Has your experience of live performances changed over the years (i.e. is it any easier or harder than it used to be)?
No, it’s not that easy for me to invite people in. Maybe those in the audience are in a better position to answer? I’ve been told it may be better not to watch but just listen. I enter a sort of bubble whilst performing and never know exactly how it is being received. It used to make me feel uneasy, it still does, but I’m getting more comfortable with that uneasiness these days.
I feel like the instruments in your music are often presented under a magnifying glass. I hear every crevice and blemish. Is there any reason why you gravitate toward presenting sound like this? Do you have a particular interest in imperfection or traditionally “unwanted” sounds?
I really enjoy imperfection in music. The tension caused when parts go out of synch or the slight intonation between instruments, these are always my favorite moments in music. It’s probably why I like older music the most…pre auto-tune and click tracks. I relish in the juxtaposition of a challenging sound with a beautiful melody or chord. I try my best to allow my music to come about naturally, from a place of instinct rather than precise thought or preparation. Because of this, there are things that occur that I could never have planned.
With regards to each sound being under a magnifying glass, I suppose they are. This might come from the way I hear music; most often focusing on a very small part rather than listening to a piece as a whole. I also think my live set-up has influenced the way I now record music. There is only so much I can do live without using electronics; each part carries a heavy weight. Now when I record I think of how each piece may be played live. Because of the physical restrictions of playing multiple instruments, this often equates to less; fewer layers and much more space.
I understand that your ability to record is dependent on being in a particular state of mind. How does environment factor into this? Do particular spaces or times of day lend themselves to recording for you?
There is a very specific state of mind I need to find in order to create new music. It is a place cocooned off from the world. Morning is the best, when I first awake and before I’ve spoken to anyone. I’ll often have all my instruments and equipment set up in advance so I can get right to it; before distraction or reality has time to set in.
I’m really drawn to the role of absence and open space within your work. Sometimes it feels like space that I can crawl into. At other points, it feels as though instruments are being precariously balanced or dangled above my head. Is there an architectural element to the way you approach your song craft and the incorporation of silence?
Thank you. Although my music is guided primarily by instinct, I do think of it as being built up; a construction of linking, overlapping parts. Since childhood I’ve been involved in visual mediums, from drawing, sculpture and jewelry making to sewing and crochet. Particularly with jewelry making, the process of construction, how the pieces fit together, was something I really enjoyed; like figuring out a puzzle. Creating a song is a similar process in a different medium. Using melody, layers, harmony instead of metal and stone. With jewelry, I found I needed to plan everything in advance or the pieces wouldn’t fit together in the end. With music it is a much more fluid and free process. I am constantly adding and subtracting until the final piece is balanced, allowing each sound to have its moment.
Your music rarely strays into conventional concepts of harmony, and songs never “resolve” in a conventional musical sense. In fact, I often find myself holding my breath or sitting on edge; there’s a certain tension and fragility that feels ready to give way. Is this a conscious or deliberate move?
It is not something I think about very much now, but was definitely a very intense process of unlearning for me at one point. I studied music very seriously. I had song forms and traditional harmonies imprinted in my brain. These never felt truly my own and it took a very long time establishing what felt true to me. I began with essentially removing everything, writing very minimalist long tone pieces, and gradually I’ve built it to where it is today. Now the construction comes naturally…with very little conscious thought.
Are there any artists or albums you’re particularly fond of at the moment?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart, Bill Callahan and Bach recently. I just saw Senyawa at Cafe Oto and was totally blown away. Their album “Aca Raki” is great. Really loving the song “Inner Manipulations” by Barry Maguire. I don’t really know anything else he’s done but that one is brilliant!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new album which will be out in 2016. I’ve also been playing with Michael Speers who uses percussion and electronics; noisy improvisations. We’ll be recording the next release on my imprint Wagtail very soon.