Occupation: Producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist
Current release: Ash's ‘White Desert’ is out now on Cercle Records.
Recommendations: "Within" by Daft Punk and "Cuatro Vientos" by Danit. These pieces are unique to me.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ash and would like to know more about him, visit his facebook page for current updates and information.
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 started producing music when I was 13. I have been playing the piano since I was 6. After seeing my older brother playing, I just wanted to start learning.
Growing up with electronic music, my early influences were trance artists such as Dash Berlin, Paul Van Dyk, Armin van Buuren. Being French-Egyptian, my parents would also share with me the French and Egyptian classics, such as Charles Aznavour and Julien Clerc from France and Om Khalthoum and Abdelhalim Hafez from Egypt.
What drew me to music was the ability to mix a lot of different sounds from different universes. For example, in Dash Berlin’s music, there was always this beautiful piano break. I just loved how this instrument was integrated into electronic music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? 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?
Of course, it’s all about emulating others at first. I even remember that my very first project on Ableton was trying to remake ‘I’m Not Alone’ by Calvin Harris. I failed, but at least I tried and learned from it. Then I moved to creating my own compositions using the sounds and synths from the tracks that I had been trying to remake. Then it eventually evolved to me just creating my own compositions and trying to find or create sounds that no one else was using. I think it mainly came from learning to play real instruments like the piano, guitar and saxophone and integrating them into my music, which eventually became stronger still when I started adding the cultural element to it. I think that’s what started the transition to my own voice.
I think in early stages of your learning journey, copying helps you learn from your biggest inspirations to finally find your own creativity. It’s all connected.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think it was always writer’s block. I always found myself stuck because of how I started composing on the piano, trying to find nice chords to build on. I eventually ran out of ideas. I realized later that the best way to overcome this was by experimenting with different ways of producing. For example, now I just live loop, start with any instrument that’s around me and jam for hours, record the entire session and then select my favourite parts and build a track out of these.
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 just a huge desktop computer with Windows XP, Logitech computer speakers and an M-Audio Oxygen 61 that my brother got me as a gift. I also had my first classical guitar. It definitely evolved along with my live performance setup. I didn’t need much to produce, it was more about what I needed for a cool live performance.
For music production, the midi keyboard, Ableton and my guitar were more than enough. For live performance, my first piece of equipment was the Novation Launchpad, but I don’t use it anymore. I later got the Ableton Push 2 and I think that it’s definitely my favourite piece of equipment, because you can do so much with it, live or in the studio!
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?
I love technology because of how you can just do whatever you have in mind, there are no limits. Technology and humans complement each other. When I have a crazy idea, the only way I can get it done is through technology. If I want to sample a ringing phone and turn it into a synth, I can. There are so many useful tools that were only made available thanks to technology.
Humans excel at finding ideas, machines excel at making your ideas come to life. How you use the machines to give life to your ideas is the creative part.
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 think it’s important to have a comfortable relationship with the production tools in a way where you can feel good about experimenting. I honestly never learned the guitar or the saxophone the proper way, or even music production for that matter. I didn’t take extensive and detailed courses, but I still feel comfortable using them even if it’s in unusual ways.
If I’m using an EQ weirdly, or compressing something wrong, if it sounds good, I don’t see a problem. With the saxophone too for example, my technique could be different or “wrong” in a way, but in an electronic music context where it’s all about experimenting and playing around with the sounds, I feel good about using the tools in unconventional ways.
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?
I think collaborations are crucial to the creative process. Each collaboration helps me learn a different skill or approach to music composition. Jamming is definitely the best form of collaboration because the energy has a strong effect on creativity. However, sharing ideas also helps with the creative process. File sharing is obviously cool when you can’t meet or see the other artist, but I’d definitely rather be in the same room as them.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I usually wake up quite early, around 5 AM. I make myself a cup of coffee, sit at my desk, answer emails and then start making music. I usually skip breakfast (I know it’s bad!), and have lunch around 12. Then I continue making music for the rest of the day. Then I usually just go out, get some air, buy groceries, go back home and cook dinner. Cooking is a huge part of my life because I love it. I then spend the rest of the evening chilling with my fiancée. That’s pretty much my daily schedule.
Obviously, some days I’m just not inspired and don’t feel like making music. In the beginning, I used to feel guilty about being unproductive, but then I realized it’s just part of the journey sometimes. You can’t force yourself to be creative when you’re just not feeling it or when you’re not inspired, but I still think that creating on a daily basis is important even if it sounds bad on that specific day, or even if that day you’re really not convinced that the music you’re making is your best. It’s still important to keep trying because creativity won’t come if you’re just sitting around waiting for it.
I think it’s important to keep a balance. I don’t make music all day or chill/go out all day. This balance also helps with creativity.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I’d have to choose my track "Worlds Apart" as an example.
I remember the day I composed this track, it was a time of my life when I was probably the most uninspired ever. I had just bought my saxophone, and was still learning to get a proper sound out of it. Then I decided to just sit and watch a lot of different live performances, and I watched Stavroz’s live stream for Cercle entirely. For some reason, it inspired me so much, that I decided to play a few chords on my synth, recorded that, then I turned on the microphone, took the saxophone and started jamming over these chords for 14 minutes (I still have the 14 minute recording).
What I had at this point was a 14 minute saxophone jam from a guy who had been playing the saxophone for 2 weeks only. It was obviously far from being perfect, it felt good though, I was proud that I was able to play this solo. I started selecting my favourite parts from this solo and structured the track around that. I spent the entire day working on it, finished it, quickly mixed it and then decided to film myself playing it live. I then posted this video on Youtube as a jam, I wasn’t planning on ever releasing this track. To my surprise, I started getting comments from people wanting the track released.
A few days later I decided to fix some mixing issues and release it. I still can’t believe that this track resonated with a lot of people and I’m super thankful for that.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I never force myself to make music, but the thing that ultimately helps me immediately jump into that state of mind is listening to artists that inspire me. I also spend a lot of time watching live performances of my favourite artists because I actually get to see how they build their songs and this often gives me ideas for mine. However, I must admit that other than that, I don’t have any particular strategies to enter into this state of mind because I believe it has to come naturally.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
When you make music in the studio, you basically translate your feelings into the piece you’re creating. Then you share it with the public, they receive it and hopefully feel something from their side. Then you play it live and both the artist and the audience get to feel together. Then you improvise, to create an even more unique experience for both yourself and the audience. I wouldn’t feel good about playing the exact same thing I composed and released live, giving the audience exactly what they can get at home - improvisation is the most important part of the live performance because it just transforms the composition that you spent time crafting into an entirely new experience.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Honestly, the sounds are super important of course but I have always focused more on the composition. I’ve always tried to create or use sounds that are interesting and unique but what mattered the most was the composition. The thing is, at some point it becomes so much harder to come up with a unique composition and this is where the sound prevails and helps achieve a new compositional quality.
A simple example - if I play a melody on the basic grand piano sound, it may sound nice but common and already heard a thousand times before, but then you play that same melody with a uniquely created sound and it instantly has a superior compositional quality. Even though it’s the exact same melody, the chosen sound shapes it in a completely different way.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Different smells can affect my mood and the music I create. Seeing things can also have a strong effect. Surprisingly, I could be in a local coffeeshop in Cairo, Egypt and just this specific coffee smell can inspire me in different ways.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art to me is just my way of escaping any type of social pressure and stress. It just makes me feel good. When I’m sad, it’s my way of dealing with the sadness or when I’m happy, it’s my way of sharing this happiness. My ultimate goal in being an artist, is to just share my everyday experiences through it.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think that music will become intimately linked to AI. I feel like it will become so much easier to create, share and perform music, maybe anyone without any musical knowledge will be able to create music. Music will be more focused on sounds or timbres than the compositional quality. In my opinion, if that happens, the music’s quality will lose value.