Artist Interviews

Q&A: Emika

By | Published on Thursday 23 May 2013


Named one of our Artists Of The Year in 2011, following the release of her eponymous debut album, Emika had, by that point, already begun work on her second. Next month, that record, entitled ‘Dva’, is finally released through Ninja Tune on 10 Jun.

An ambitious record, and clear progression from her debut, ‘Dva’ opens with a classical piece, performed by 28 string players and soprano Michaela Šrůmová, boldly setting the tone of an otherwise almost completely electronic album. Elsewhere, Emika covers Chris Izaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, bringing her own feel and new ideas to a well known and well worn song.

Ahead of the album release, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Emika to find out more about the album, the processes behind it and her interaction with the business of music.

AM: What did you hope to achieve with the writing of this album, in terms of developing your sound from your debut?
E: I listened only to my heart. I worked to deconstruct my analytical sound designer mind, and trace my steps back to my musician soul.

I considered performance and improvisation as a form of composition. I wrote most of the material while on the road touring ‘Emika’ and in a sense, it is the performance of my first album which created ‘Dva’. I travelled a lot around the world with my music for two years, especially in Eastern Europe, and it is people, my family, my audiences, the stages I experienced which have inspired this record. Not music technology. It’s the voice of my heart which is the best producer I will ever know, and my heart said it is time for me to let go to the illusion that is music production and simply make an album as a musician again.

Music technology is my instrument at large, but it was put into second place this time. I decided to sacrifice ‘perfect’ sound quality in order to feature raw performance expression and poetry.

AM: What are the overriding themes of the record?
E: This is a record about female pressure, my senses, political oppression from the past, social pressures of today, sexism towards women in music and the arts generally, the fight that I have doing what I do. It is ultimately about liberation and freedom inspired by oppression and the non-creative inhuman actions which are happening around me. Emotionally, it’s about feeling opposites together, young and old, wise and smart, powerful and defeated, beautiful and horrible.

AM: You worked with a fairly stripped down set up this time around. How did it affect your writing and recording?
E: It’s not necessarily stripped down, it’s just the norm today. I work alone, in my apartment in my music room. I have the basic things I have always had – an antique piano, some mics, speakers, couple of synths, and loads of software and computers. My challenge which I take pleasure in is always the same – how can I make something beautiful and sexy and seductive, from what I have that is mine.

It is the simple and basic ideas for songs and stories, which are always the most beautiful to express and share in sound. I don’t need a lot of stuff to make record, just a brilliant idea, and a mic really.

AM: You started working with Hank Shocklee part way through the recording. What did he bring to the process?
E: Hank Shocklee gives me backbone, faith, experience, love, passion and fire. He empowered me to finish the job and take control of my own producer powers and flex my artistic nature in the face of all doubt.

AM: Your first album finished with a classical piano piece, ‘Dva’ opens with a piece featuring 28 string players and soprano Michaela Šrůmová. What’s your previous experience with classical music?
E: Classical music was forced down my throat in school as a child and I hated it until I found Chopin, age twelve. I cried over a piano nocturne. Then I decided to love my piano and the rest is history. I love to compose for the orchestra but also for smaller groups. Nothing compares to the orchestra, no synth in the world will ever replace my love for classical music.

I am starting to compose and produce an album for Michaela Šrůmová who featured on my album. She is my soprano muse and a true artist with more vision then your average soprano singer. She deserves her own music.

AM: What was your process in writing for strings?
E: There is a song on ‘Dva’ called ‘Dem Worlds’ which was also recorded with the same 28 string players as Michaela’s piece, and I hired double the amount of bass players usually considered ‘normal’. Often the power and drama in classical strings music comes from climaxing parts of the violins and high notes. In my pieces want the power to come from the back of the room, from the bass players. A 140 piece orchestra usually has about two bass players. I had 28 players and four were bass. It’s my dubstep approach to classical, or my classical approach to dubstep!

AM: What was the experience of working with so many musicians like, compared to the rest of the album recording?
E: Amazing. I found my future calling. I proved something to myself which can never be taken away. It’s not that I chose to work alone, it’s is just the most practical and affordable. Hiring 28 players, paying their booking agent, the translator, catering, travel for my crew to the recording, the studio etc, it is a lot, and this took me months of preparation to get exactly how I wanted it. I aim to really take care of my creative team, everyone has to have their own space and rhythm, and enjoy working with me. Music is made best when people collaborate in harmony.

AM: Elsewhere on the album, you’ve covered ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak. It’s a frequently covered song, what do you think makes it so attractive to other musicians and what inspired you to create your own version?
E: The three chords, they are so simple and powerful and contain all the emotions we know in just three chords. The emotional power is what allows it to be reborn again and again for other musicians and audiences.

AM: You clearly have a strong creative vision for your music, do you also get so involved with the business side? Is that something you find enjoyable?
E: I hate dealing with the biz side. But I am not a child any more and have to take responsibility for my life and my work. I am a freelance artist, I run my own business and I manage myself. I get myself on tour and to shows, I hire my own crew and people. This is a position I have grown into over the years.

I love my team of creatives, they are all fantastic and I trust their visions and am incredibly lucky I get to collaborate with them. But there is a massive imbalance within music business today. There are many people who are not driven to create, but still want to work in music, and often they sabotage artists’ work, and destroy many creative processes which they have not fully experienced and lack an understanding in. For me, it’s a constant battle with the business people who act as if they know and love artists.

In my lifetime, which is not that long, I have witnessed the biggest liberation of music and for musicians in the biz. But musicians are still suffering under the business systems and constellations, and are often so grateful for being given any form of attention that working conditions for creative people go out the window because the will take any old thing they are given. This imbalance of power, it’s got to be swung round a bit. Artists need to ask for more, and the business side needs to respect that without the artists, it’s fucked.

AM: True. So, how easy is it to maintain a strong creative vision within the system as it stands? Are there compromises that have to be made?
E: One must learn to fight harder, and be smarter. Learn more. Work through things. Talk to everyone. Seek to improve what ever you feel is needed in music. I never ever give up the fight to uphold my creative vision, NEVER. It is not easy today, to get paid, to produce great work to sell. I am lucky I know other artists which I collaborate with who are equally determined to make great work with or without money. Usually my sleep is compromised because I am doing the work of about five people each day, but that’s just how it is for me right now.

AM: Finally, could you explain a bit about your plans for live performances around this album?
E: My show morphs depending on the country and event. In Prague I am performing with the Apollon Sting Quartet, and Michaela will also perform one song with me. At the Mutek festival in Montreal, it’s a hard edgy electronic live show, so it’s just me wearing a body stocking. It changes with my mood.