Technology is power: pushing the boundaries of music tech with Chagall

Vocalist, songwriter and producer, Amsterdam-born Chagall has plenty of strings to her bow. An early user of gloves, her captivating reactive visual performances are hypnotic. She explores new relationships between music and technology while delivering heartfelt, personal songs.

Having presented three TED talks and performed at tech events such as Ableton Loop as well as multiple UK festivals, Chagall is now participating in the PRS Foundation Keychange Project, which aims to form a network of female music creators and innovators and rebalance gender inequality in the music industry.

We caught up with Chagall over a coffee to chat about her journey into music technology, the challenges she’s overcome and her plans for merging music with virtual reality…

Tell us about your musical childhood…

My earliest musical memory is classical music playing in our house in Amsterdam. I had a real thing for Mozart!

I started playing piano when I was seven, then swapped to singing when I was about 10. When I was in high school I was in a show choir, which taught me a lot about harmonising and singing with other people. Then later I had jazz and blues singing lessons. I covered all genres!

I studied history at university and, on the side, I had a soul / pop band with some friends. I started integrating my computer into the whole thing and really enjoyed the combination of electronics and the band.

What sparked your interest in electronic music?

When I was in the band I had a Yamaha keyboard, which broke, so I went to the music shop and got a MIDI keyboard. I had to use GarageBand for it and then realised there were loads of other sounds too.

In 2010, I met a production duo in Amsterdam who were making a dubstep record. They put one of the tunes I’d originally written for the band into a different arrangement with super wobbly deep bass – I immediately really liked it.

Did you start teaching yourself music production?

Yeah, by sitting in the studio and watching them do it and asking lots of questions.

When I was working with a record label in Holland, they didn’t want me to produce anything myself, which was really annoying. Maybe I wasn’t firm enough about it.

You produced your debut EP Stray Flux by yourself and released it independently. How was that as an experience?

It was so much work. I didn’t get a PR agency, I just put it on the internet. You need such a different part of your brain to do it. It’s very distracting from what you actually want to be doing, which is grow as an artist and spend time with your creativity.

For me, it was a milestone having a body of work that I’d made completely by myself. I worked with Eduardo Fitch on the visuals, and he’s amazing, so it looked really slick.

Chagall wearing the gloves
Chagall wearing the gloves

One of the most noticeable elements of your gigs is the gloves. When do you start working with

Around 2012, someone sent me a link of Imogen [Heap] demoing a very early version of the gloves in Bristol. She was looping her voice and EQing it, and I was like, whoa this is amazing, and started following her on social media.

Just after I’d moved to London, I saw an announcement for Reverb Festival, which she was curating at the Roundhouse. Part of the festival was a workshop with the gloves, so I signed myself up. I saw on their website that they were looking for other people to test the gloves, so that evening, I sent an email saying how amazing I thought the gloves were and that I’d just moved to London and had nothing to do. I had lunch with Kelly [Snook from] the next day and here we are three and a half years later!

I think that’s my major tip – always express your enthusiasm for things, because people who make or develop are human too and love hearing that people are out there seeing what they are doing and admiring it.

After I joined, I got to take one of the gloves home and wrote Sappho Song. Making music with computers was so inherent to how I heard and felt music and now I’m able to get all of that stuff out of the computer while being able to perform it in a very human way.

Your performances are really visual – there’s a lot of choreography. Is that process hard to navigate?

When I knew I wanted to make a video for Sappho Song, I immediately asked my friend Leyla Rees, who’s a choreographer, to help. It’s not like every step in the show is rehearsed, but we thought about the necessary glove movements to trigger the sound. There is a lot of symbolism and meaning to the songs that we’ve tried to express in the movement at the same time. For example, in Hidden I sing ‘I just listen to his heartbeat’ and I sort of rip my heart out – there’s lots of little things like that.

Last year, you performed your new show Calibration. How did that come about?

I did a two week workshop supported by the Arts Council with Adam Stark, who is a software and visual programmer, and Eduardo, who did all of the art direction. I worked with Adam to make it reactive to the glove movement and the music. Leyla was also there to make sure the choreography and visuals worked together, as well as lighting engineer Natalie Rowland. It was so powerful to see all of those things come together.

What’s your plan for this year?

After my tour last October, I decided to take some time off gigging and focus on writing. I’ve got a bunch of new songs and some unreleased songs in the show that I want to put out.

I have a pretty crazy plan to release the next EP as a VR experience. I know that it’s not going to be perfect as the technology is still developing, but I think that it’s a really interesting space that could keep people focused for a little bit and give them a tonic from the incessantness of everything.

Artists are making music all the time and then it gets to the internet and everyone can listen to it. People might listen to it with their headphones on while they travel, but doesn’t that mean that music is becoming more like background noise rather than art that you pay attention to?

I love music, but I don’t even take the time to sit down with my eyes closed and listen to an album start to finish. We’re so used to being on our phones, scrolling through Twitter… I’m hoping that when you close yourself off from the world completely and listen to music in another space, where you’re sort of floating in a nice environment, that it’ll be easier for people to listen to the EP from start to finish without also reading the paper, doing the washing up or travelling to work. I think they’ll get so much more out of it once they understand what I’m trying to say and hear the details in the production.

What would your advice be to women in music tech? Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

I really hate it when women feel like they’re being blocked by technology. I’ve got a lot of friends who are amazing singers and songwriters but they don’t want to engage with the production side of it because they feel like they can’t.

When you produce, your music becomes you. You can independently make every decision on every single sound that you want. When you’re starting out and you can’t make it sound like you want it to, that can be a bit inhibiting, but you’ve just got to embrace it because that’s your sound. You can make your own music and you can use your computer to be independent.

I work with another producer now, but because I want to. We actually collaborate – we have an Ableton session that goes between us and that’s a really cool way of working.

Another more general bit of advice is just to check yourself – make sure what you’re making and saying is really you, and matters to you. If it doesn’t start there, then there’s no point.

Who are your female music tech idols?

Bjork and Imogen Heap are amazing female pioneers in music technology.

Another amazing role model is mastering engineer, Mandy Parnell. She was speaking at Ableton Loop in November last year and I loved everything that she was saying. During the Q&A I asked her, ‘what if you don’t have loads of money to get your music mastered in a fancy studio with lots of outboard gear?’ She said that if the emotion is there and comes through, then the sound quality is second to that.

You’re taking part in the Keychange project. Tell us more about that…

It’s a European-funded project led by the PRS Foundation and they’ve selected 60 female artists and innovators from six different countries across Europe. The idea is that it becomes a community and think-tank about how we can reach the goal of having a 50/50 gender equal music industry. Vanessa Reed, who leads the PRS Foundation, is amazing and she does a lot of lobbying work.

I think it’s a really important conversation and I’ll approach it by talking about empowering women through technology and using it to make their own music. The first event where we’ll all get together is in April, so I’m super excited to meet all of the other women and start coming up with plans. I feel like PRS are taking a lead in the world on this topic and I’m really proud to be part of that.

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