Name: Azita Youssefi
Occupation: Experimental musician, songwriter
Current release: Glen Echo on Drag City
Recommendations: Jeff Parker - Suite for Max Brown; Mute Duo - Lapse in Passage
If you enjoyed this interview with Azita, visit her website or bandcamp account for further information.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started my first band The Scissor Girls around 1991. At the time the band was a natural way to interact with the music scene around us, loosely a DC/Chicago punk scene. I was in art school for painting and this mode of participation seemed more inviting than the idea of exhibiting art in a gallery, without any direct contact with your audience.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I’m always learning other people’s music, probably even more so now than when I started. As far as what my own voice is— I don’t find it useful to think about that, or “originality”, for that matter. I work on the things in front of me, to wrap them up as they seem to require, and hopefully someone else will get something out of it. Whether that reads as a voice of some sort, that’s for the listener to perceive.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It’s been a long time and different kinds of challenges. At first I didn’t know anything at all about what I was doing. We made the first band in a really intuitive way but then after that broke up I didn’t have any idea how to keep making music with different people. That was a difficult puzzle.
Since I’ve been writing by myself, there aren’t any of those kinds of issues to worry about. Nowadays most of my challenges are probably related to finishing a lyric. And it’s also worth mentioning the challenge of getting a mix that translates across different listening environments— these are probably the biggest things that can keep me awake at night.
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?
I’m not sure what to consider my first studio, but I guess generally speaking, my setup went from going out to a band practice space and recording in a professional studio to doing everything at home. I’ve been recording on computers since the end of Scissor Girls, around '94, so even that’s not so cut and dried, but I have very little reason to leave my home setup now. It’s nice to mix on a real studio board, and we did with this record, but I could probably do without that, too.
As far as what pieces of gear are most important, I have a lot of things I love, but at the end of the day I could probably do (and have done) without any of them.
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?
Even a guitar is technology, or a microphone— or a pen and paper. Without technology you wouldn’t have any recorded— or even amplified— music. You could sing alone at home and that’s about it. There’s not much difference between a computer with Protools and a pen and paper and I don’t see how you could separate out the human part from the, I guess, feedback-loop enabled by the tool.
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?
Continuing along previous lines, I couldn’t describe the contribution any better than you could say how each party, yourself or pen (ok word processor) contributed to a piece of writing. It all seems to come from you but what if you couldn’t read it back to yourself or correct anything or move some part of it around? That would surely be a different process with a pretty different outcome. But would you call it co-authorship on the tool’s part?
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?
This is a funny question to consider in the context of my new release, my least collaborative record so far, on which I didn’t let a single other person touch anything until it came time to mix.
I guess in a general way I always feel like I want to do more collaborating than I actually end up doing. I enjoy playing with other people when there’s a defined purpose, something to put together or an agreement to improvise. I guess I don’t enjoy writing/composing with too many other people, though there have been a few with whom it was great.
Nowadays (even before Covid) it seems harder and harder for people to get together, work, family obligations etc and I’m probably a pretty impatient type of person, so when I can learn how to handle something myself rather than wait for someone else, I tend to go that route.
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 seem to settle into routines that hold for a few weeks at a time and then disperse when no longer useful. It just depends on whatever I’m focused on at that time. If I’m doing computer-heavy stuff where I’m going to be sitting there all day editing or whatever, then I have a different approach to the day than when I have a more relaxed goal to practice something or learn a piece of music. Sometimes everything else in my life seems to suffer, other times I can follow other interests, learn to cook new things, it just depends on how much energy is left. Also in the winter there seems to be less time overall.
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 have a running file of things I’m working with, I let them accumulate content over time and at a certain point some of them will be becoming inevitable to materialize. When a particular idea or story is for sure going to have to be becoming real, then there’s an uncomfortable period of trying to make it happen without getting in the way of what it wants to be. Usually the problems that arise are lyrical since words can be too powerful and ruin things.
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 don’t think about creativity. To me the word lacks meaning. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be. Or what’s a “creative side”? Is dreaming creative? (But I wasn’t actually doing anything...) Is making breakfast creative? Is practicing scales or drum rudiments? Maybe if I think about the opposite, what would it feel like to be not-creative? That does seem like it would be a bad place to be.
Anyway I can’t imagine it’s beneficial to have a ranking of the relative ideal-ness of one’s own states of mind to try to predict beforehand whether what you want to accomplish is likely to succeed or not. You could just be totally wrong.
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?
Gosh it seems so long since I played live. A bit over a year. It’s almost like I can’t remember the feeling right now. And I was playing solo shows which is different than with a band. Many musicians will say you learn the most playing live with other people and I think that’s probably true, I doubt playing solo gives you that same push. For me it’s not really connected to writing music except in a situation like the Year record where we worked out the music more as a band and then went in and tracked it pretty much live. That’s a really great, organic feeling, and there are pockets of improvisation in an approach like that.
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?
I’ve used various approaches over the years, from just having the compositions in chart form for other musicians so it was more flexible as to what was actually played, to this record which was constructed out of the original sounds I put down, where I expended a lot of effort to not let anything change along the way. To be honest it probably has more to do with getting attached to the things you hear over and over again, sometimes referred to as “demo-itis.”
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?
Sound is the sensation in which you have the least choice in whether or not to experience it. You can close your eyes to avoid looking at an image, you can plug your nose to avoid a smell, but something making sound in your vicinity will work on you whether or not you cover your ears. So there’s that.
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?
In matters artistic, I generally prefer to focus on being a technician of some kind, a musician, an engineer, a lyricist— whatever is required of me by what I’m working on. I like to finish the thing and hope it will do whatever communicating it needs to do on its own, without further elaboration from me.
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 music does not have a current form or a concept, intact or otherwise. It’s a purely abstract medium.