Name: Anna Atkinson
Current Release: Linaire on Capital Zero Records
Recommendations: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown / The zines and writing of Clementine Morrigan - a brilliant Montreal-based artist and educator whose work focuses on the nervous system, healing trauma and finding pleasure.
If you enjoyed this interview with Anna Atkinson, visit her website or bandcamp store to find out more about her work, and her music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I’ve always had a deeply visceral relationship to music. Some of my earliest memories are of it moving me to dance uncontrollably or of it absolutely terrifying me. I remember spending hours at the family piano just playing different intervals, marvelling at how they made me feel (thirds were my favourite). I began to compose short piano songs when I was five or so, and even got part way through writing a musical when I was eight.
I studied the violin as a child, and although I struggled with the rigidity of the culture that surrounded it, I adored classical music, especially Bach. I later switched to the viola because I was drawn towards the deeper, mellower sound. I also had an interest in exploring timbre and colour over technical showiness. I briefly studied classical composition in university (I was especially drawn to the music of Vivier, Pärt, Ligeti and Shostakovich) but I ended up completing a degree focusing on viola performance and chamber music.
While still in school, I discovered the music of Gillian Welch, Franz Schubert, Martin Tielli, Christine Fellows, Mark Hollis, PJ Harvey, David Longstreth and Phil Elverum. I couldn’t get over how these songwriters could be simultaneously tethered to a tradition, while also developing such singular voices. I knew wanted to do the same thing so, I began seriously pursuing song writing, eventually producing rough multi-track recordings in GarageBand. It gave me a remarkable sense of agency, and the feeling that I had discovered the perfect combination of structure and wildness, logic and emotion, tradition and experimentation.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I learned music the same way I learned language – by imitating everything I heard around me. In fact, the method by which I learned violin emphasized the importance of learning by ear.
When I began writing, I emulated artists and sounds that I loved. As a teenager, I wrote a string quartet inspired by Ravel and angsty alt-folk songs inspired by Beck and Ani Difranco.
However, after years of cycling through various influences, I noticed myself repeatedly drawn towards the same kinds of things – a particular approach to linking words and melody, certain aesthetic tendencies, a penchant for repetition, recurring themes. I realized I’d been instinctively distilling all of my favourite elements into a personal palette.
There did come a period when I became completely paralysed by the thought that I needed to be “original” and “find my voice.” For me, this kind of thinking was a trap. For a while, I strived so much to be unlike anybody else that I ended up not really making much of anything, and the things I did make were unsatisfying. I would intentionally subvert my instincts, which I think can be a great experimental tool, but at the time I was doing it out of a lack of confidence. I eventually untangled myself from that, but it took a long time.
These days, my writing process essentially involves listening for what bubbles up to the surface. I try to follow what feels good in the moment and not think too much about where it’s coming from. It’s hugely freeing and I think that it produces my best work. These days I feel quite untethered to the idea of having a singular voice at all, and now just focus on making a thing to the best of my ability.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As I mentioned, one of my main challenges has been learning to trust my instincts. Throughout my life, I’ve felt pulled between the weight and beauty of traditional forms, and a deep curiosity and desire to write music myself. For a long time, I needed others to confirm my suspicions, tell me that my work was good, and occasionally actually make artistic decisions for me. It’s not that other people’s opinions don’t matter or that I’m opposed to collaboration, but neither of these are a substitute for really knowing what I’m hearing and how I feel about it.
Another challenge was getting into music production software, learning how to use Ableton Live and Logic. Even though I was interested in recording and incorporating electronics into my music making, it took me several years to overcome my resistance to it, due largely to my acoustic (and frankly, tech-phobic) musical upbringing. However, since committing to it and getting through the initial learning curve, I haven’t looked back.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was a laptop running GarageBand using the built-in microphone of my laptop. I eventually acquired a decent two-channel interface (RME Babyface), which I used while developing Linaire. I now use a larger interface (Focusrite Clarett) so that I can have more inputs and outputs. I also recently acquired a Novation Launchpad Mini MIDI controller and I love it. However, I still think my most important pieces of gear these days are my Omnichord and my viola.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
These days, I work mostly in Ableton Live, both for live performance and for recording. I love its relatively neutral and inherently shape-shifting qualities, which contrast so starkly with voices and acoustic instruments, all of which have such distinct characters, aptitudes and limitations.
I have found that physical instruments and computers also fail in markedly different ways. When an instrument goes out of tune or breaks a string or cracks a note, it’s usually possible to recover fairly easily. At the very least you can usually diagnose the problem on the spot. However, when a computer or a piece of electronic gear breaks down, it’s not always easy to tell what has happened. Last year, my midi controller died slowly during performance, and did so in such a mysterious and confounding (and hilarious) way that there was no easy way to recover except to unplug it. It later took me hours to figure out what had actually gone wrong. I know that many people are more versed in computers than I am, so perhaps I’ll find that it becomes easier over time.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I usually generate initial song ideas away from the computer, but once it has begun to take shape, I begin to experiment in Live. I intentionally limit myself at first in terms of elements that I use because contrary to working with an acoustic instrument, there are not the same kind of built-in limitations to working in Live. I usually start with reverb, delay and a looping plugin. I will then add other effects or looped samples. I tend to layer things slowly. Each added element influences the song in some way, and I like to give each element time and space to have its say. Currently, I try to create as if I’m writing chamber music – using only essential elements and trying to keep each one distinct within the sonic whole. Once I’ve settled on an arrangement, I set the basic parameters using the ‘scenes’ function and link them together. When a song reaches this stage, it feels a bit like I’ve assembled a toy race car track - the programming becomes a structure that guides the song through its trajectory.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Generally, I write alone. However, when it comes to making albums, I’ve found it essential to have another person to help realise the project. For this latest album, I had the good fortune of having composer/drummer Alexander MacSween as my co-producer. Alexander and I have very similar musical interests and tastes, but come from different musical backgrounds and have few overlapping skills. Working with him brought a level of focus and depth to the project that I simply could not have reached on my own.
I also collaborate frequently with artists who work in different disciplines. Among them is a brilliant video artist named Elysha Poirier (who also designed the new album cover art!). Elysha makes organic 3-D responsive environments using TouchDesigner - video creation software that actually is designed to run in tandem with Ableton Live. Although we create separately, the ways in which our work intersects is really interesting. We also have lots of great conversations about making art, and about life in general.