Interview by Parisa Eshrati
After her set at the 12th annual Gem and Jam festival, we spoke with future bass producer
ill-ēsha on reconnecting the gap between technology and humanity. We discussed foraging for field recordings, finding the balance between electronic and organic living, and where she finds her identity as an artist between those lines.
You create most of the samples in your music by going out and doing field recordings. I know you did an extensive amount of traveling last year, what were some of the most interesting and textured samples you recorded?
I actually started a project last year called “Sample the World”, which I started in Hawaii sampling the lava flows hitting rocks. That was a really textured and beautiful sample because that’s something so unique to that area. Funny enough, I also ended up in a nice resort in Mexico last year due to some airline points. That’s not really my style or the way I like to travel, but I tried to make it interesting by gathering both tropical textures from traveling around Mexico with sounds of the luxury city life, like hitting on marble countertops or tossling through beaded curtains. That ended up being one of my favorite collections from the project because I had no idea what to expect, but overall I love recording pretty much everywhere I go.
Do you feel like your music then becomes a nostalgic reflection of your travels, or all the sampled manipulated enough that they take on another meaning for you?
I think the samples definitely bring a life into the track. Electronic music by nature its nature is a little too perfect because it’s all digital. There used to be imperfections when artists would use analog synths due to voltage fluctuations, but now we’re using ones and zeros and perfect numbers to create music. A real life sample transcends those confines. Even if you don’t know where the sample originates from, you can hear this raw, breathing and lively rhythm.
One of my mentors from when I worked in film scoring would help me with editing music into scenes, and he taught me how everyone talks in a rhythm and has their own unique tempo. I learned that I had to be patient and eventually find a piece of music that would slide right into the conversations and match the flow of the scene. That’s how I feel when I put samples into music. It’s like complimenting a conversation, and there’s always a perfect spot for these natural sounds to flow right in,
You personally are very inspired by the interplay between humanity and technology. Where do you find your identity as an artist between those two lines?
I’m so in love with the limitless aspect of digital technology. You can have a whole orchestra, you can have sounds that have never before existed. At the same time, I find it so important to incorporate that humanity, that life, the emotions, into my music. My identity never fully depends on one side or the other, and I try to find the organic middle ground between humanity and technology. Whether it’s using my vocals to sing or breathe in rhythm or make percussion, I want to build living textures upon the digital side of my art.
On a grander scale, how do you think technology has come to influence human nature? Why do you think it’s important to reflect this notion in your music?
Well, we’re at this interesting era where we have all these tools to communicate with people all over the world, yet somehow we’re more isolated than ever before. There is a lot of fakeness and smoke screens with social media and people presenting a perfectly manicured life. I think our responsibility with music now is to reconnect those gaps. The fact that we can communicate with everybody should mean we should try harder to reach each other and be more authentic, not just to hide behind our social media followers and claim that as an actual medium. Instead, we should be encouraging to make others feel something, and encourage people to be a part of a community and be face-to-face with one another. That’s what I consider to be my mission.
I love how your musical identity reflects into your everyday life as well. You’re both living in a high-tech world of electronic production, and you also garden and harvest all your own food. Let’s talk about curating this balance in your life and how that reflects back into the style of your music.
Oh, absolutely! It’s definitely a big balance in my everyday life too. I found that when I was younger, my parents always forced me to go outside but I wanted to be on the computer. Now I have this job where I’m always on the computer and I want the exact opposite for myself. I get to travel all over the world, when but I arrive to the cities I just know what the inside of the club and green room look like. It makes me feel like I’m so out of touch with real life.
Gardening has been a major thing to bring me back in touch with life. I read recently that soil has a bacteria that can trigger some sort of receptor in your brain, so touching soil and gardening actually makes you feel good on a scientific basis. So, I started gardening because it was something tangible that’s right in front of me that I could practice with.
You know, it’s interesting, because I actually find music to be very temporal. It exists when you’re making it and it exists when it’s being played, but there’s nothing there the rest of the time. On the other hand, you actually get to hold a tangible product in your hands when gardening. You get to eat your own work and do something positive for your health. It’s a very tedious, slow process but I actually find that it really helps unblock me. Going outside and getting into a garden is great meditation for people like me who are bad at meditating [laughs]. Our minds are just so busy and crazy with our phones going off all the time, so I’m one of those people that if I were to try and sit there in silence I’d go nuts. I have to find mindfulness tasks to meditate, and it’s become a very strong and harmonious balance for me.
The past few weeks you said that you’ve been retreating, working more with writing and coaching artists as well. Is coaching a new development for you? If so, how has this evolved your own methods of writing and producing?
Oh yeah, coaching has absolutely evolved my methods in so many ways. I’ve always been some sort of mentor or community member since the days of running chat rooms and AOL instant messenger, up to now where I moderate a music production community on Discord. Having mentored a lot of producers, I found that when you’ve done something for a really long time there’s that old-person mentality of like…”I’ve learned it, I got it, I know what I’m doing.” You get stuck, and I see this with a lot of my friends that I came up with. They find a formula that works for them, so they do the same thing over and over. I was seeing myself getting stuck there and I didn’t want to be so stagnant.
I’ve found that working with other artists, even if they’re less experienced, you have an opportunity to learn something new every time. Everyone has their own way of producing and expressing their art, and this whole mentoring process has really transcended the way that I think. These kids teach me stuff all the time and even peers that I work with who are similarly experienced as me, I always come out of it learning something new. It’s a whole rabbit hole of inspiration after being alone all the time which is what producers do [laughs].
As you said, you’ve done some film score work in the past. Any projects like that coming up? And what are some of your favorite film scores personally?
One of the classics that has always influenced me is American Beauty. Man, 1999….Thomas Newman really pioneered that style of minimalism with the quiet piano dynamics. I also love most anything Hans Zimmer has done. I got to see him perform last year, and the whole stadium was in tears. I love that deep emotional aspect that those two composers have to offer.
I just finished recording a film score for a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada that was privately screened, so hopefully that will hit some film festivals. I’m starting to get more film opportunities from that which I’m really excited about because when you’re making dance music, you’re building up towards a drop. But in film scoring, it’s like...the anti-drop [laughs]. You’re more focused on how few things you can use to fill space around the conversation and illustrate a picture without being overbearing. It’s just augmenting the reality and that’s a cool practice as well.
I love that your DJ name is your MC name from back when you were 14 years old. Are there any other aspects of your youth that you still incorporate into your current work?
Rapping and singing were definitely my thing growing up, and I actually got into electronic music by singing alongside DJs. It’s like we were discussing earlier, I’ve always been interesting in exploring the lines between electronic and organic elements and I think freestyling was my first introduction into that.
I think it’s really special to see an artist seeing things that you can only get live, you can’t just download it. There are a lot of DJs that pre-record their sets and makes me think, “Well...I could just be at home, sitting comfortably on my couch listening to this instead of standing outside in a big field with bad weather.” I think more people are starting to expect that now from DJs, and you can see how some DJs have evolved their live set up to include sax players or drums, or just a little something extra. That’s an element that I’ve always held onto, going back to the freestyling from my adolescence, so it’s really important for me to pull people in at shows. I recently got a wireless mic that allows me to move around and be more animated. That’s something that DJs really need to learn from classic live performances is that you have to get right in there with your audience, you can’t just be tethered to a table with your laptop.
What can you tell us about your collaborations with producer Frost? When can we hear a full album?
Frost is one of the first people I met through the whole Discord community. He came up from a totally opposite scene than me. I came up DJing, handing out mixtapes, MCing and all that kinda stuff. He’s always been more behind the scenes - producing sample backs, coaching, writing with other producers, etc. Despite coming from opposite ends, we have a very similar musical vision. We’ve been working on this album for seven or eight months now and we’re close to a finish. I’ve been playing some of the material live and it’s been received really well so far. We’re pretty much just waiting for the right label, because even though now you can put out things yourself, electronic music is so saturated so you need the support of a good collective so that it really gets heard. I don’t want to make just bangers for people to dance to, I want to make lasting music. Our album has a lot of interludes and tells a story, it’s more than just club music. It’s hard to find a place that will put out something like that, but we’re searching and hoping to get this out really soon.
What else can we look forward to from you for the rest of the year?
I’ll probably be just doing a lot more in-depth writing. Most of my newer sets are unreleased because for the first time in years I’m doing more writing than touring. I think that’s the struggle with a lot of artists. You’re always on tour and you don’t have a lot of time to brush out your ideas. Now that I’ve gotten to brush up on new styles and try out new techniques, I think that people are going to see a new side of me. I’ve been quietly grinding uphill and I think people will notice that this year will be a huge step up for me.
Aside from that, I’m going to be in Panama soon for Tribal Gathering. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to go global again because I was so inspired by traveling around the world last year and realizing the world is such a big place. I have so many places left to go.