Name: Mary Ocher
Nationality: Russian & Israeli
Occupation: Vocalist, Lyricist, Songwriter, Director
Current Release: The West Against the People on Klangbad
Recommendations: The latest James Holden album with The Animal Spirits, Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and anything by Aeneas Middleton (that one's for hardcore fans of The Room).
If you enjoyed this interview with Mary Ocher, her website and bandcamp profile are great points of departure for finding out more about her.
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?
Started writing as a kid, recording into portable tape recorders, then as a teenager into shitty laptop microphones and trying to start a band - then having shitty rehearsal recordings.
I went nearly full circle from listening to cheesy 90s r&b vocalists and songs produced by Max Martin at 11 or 12 to White Noise and Silver Apples at 16, then recently finding a perverse fascination with - more the fact rather than the music - that bloody Max Martin is just a spit away from throwing Lennon and McCartney off the top of the #1 charts ... isn't that mind boggling? (I can't bear the music, the old 90s stuff is embarrassing, and the new hits are incomprehensible ... that's where pop music goes to die).
What drew me in must have been a sense of belonging. Music allowed an escape into a magical world where you were not part of a collapsing society and a dysfunctional family and you were free to make up everything in that magical world.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you?
One must have thought of themselves a little Mozart ("if he can do it at 5 - so can I at 11!"), then fancy yourself a little Lou Reed or a John Cale. You must set up the bar quite high, otherwise it's all downhill from there. :)
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?
Perhaps it is only through the works of others that one may learn objectivity, or guidelines for measuring everything by, taste of course is everything but objective.
I don't think there is a final destination, a moment when one becomes "themself", it's a never ending search for new impossibilities. Usually getting a new instrument does the trick, and you're like a kid with a toy you don't quite know how to play with just yet.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
A particular focus when I was a teen was perhaps to play (the guitar) well, I never learned technique or chords, but did try to push as far as to see what I could do with it. It stopped being a point of focus for many years, though I dread I may have resolved to two chord pieces, or worse - two of the same chords!
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 don't own a recording studio, my home setup is very modest, my gear shifts between the rehearsal space, my bedroom and the road.
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 don't like machines very much and try to rely on them as little as possible. when they break on the road it's always an adventure to get them running again in time for the next show.
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?
The most freedom I allow a device is an arpeggiator. Of course computers allow a lot more freedom in the post production stages, with the mixing and editing. We also use the Internet for research and the exchange of sketches for collaborations.
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?
All of the above. People's processes and comfort zones vary radically. I encourage folks to respond with ideas to files or start by sending themselves a file. Those who are confident enough to improvise on the spot are rare, but that's also very exciting when it happens. It's then only a challenge to rework it or recreate it in the studio, because our rehearsal room is not where the albums are made.
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?
It depends whether I'm on tour on my own, on tour with the band, at home in Berlin, at my husband's in Hamburg or else (visiting family, or on vacation). My life is a real cluster of schedules and logistics, which makes it exciting. I love days when I can take it slow, hang out with pals and not have to respond to emails, or run from one appointment to the next. But when traveling times tends to pass differently, you learn to relax knowing you are in the midst of a journey (I am on board a train in the north of England as I am typing this. Worries about the next tour logistics and the nearing recording sessions far in the back of my mind).
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?
It is a constant battle, and music usually comes first, everyone that knows me knows that. I am desperately dependent on it, which sadly means that during bad years I am a pathetic pool of self doubt and misery, Luckily over time you learn that bad times are only bad in comparison to the good ones, and I've now had a few of those, and perhaps it is important to experience the bad ones to be truly able to appreciate the good ones and never to take it for granted.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
The last album, The West Against The People is a mishmash of techniques in writing, I hope to be able to keep up the determination and persistence to keep trying. Just about to be heading to the studio with even more sketches and unfinished pieces than before, and it's hard to predict how things pan out. So much of it depends on the chemistry with the engineer, whether we understand each other and whether they don't find my obsessive hovering over details exhausting.
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?
My little notes have impressed many a German.
When working on an album, I collect lyrics, instrument settings, ideas for producing vocal sounds, rhythm patterns, samples of field recordings and sounds from others for collaboration, or if I do not own the copyright, for possible usage when and if the rights are cleared. What happens next is either magic or a long and frustrating battle at the studio, and losing is not an option.
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?
Being in secluded environments helps, sticking to a schedule does too. Spending time alone with no Internet in the rehearsal room is very helpful. Also taking months at a time away from touring, that's extremely helpful.
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?
I don't write specifically in the studio, the studio is the last part of the chain, though some writing is still made there. I mainly write at home, at the rehearsal room, and a bit on the road, anywhere really. Improvisation becomes writing, there's perhaps more and more of it happening, but it's always very calculated, I like to keep the parts that work best, so they become a permanent fixture.
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?
In minimal pieces, in ambient in particular, the two are nearly one and the same. It can be a little difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
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?
We are really quite dependent on the information filtered by our senses and the way we are taught to use them to perceive the world. it's really quite limiting. I remember reading about a certain culture where there was no word for a particular color and they dd not recognize the difference between green and blue, because language constructed that barrier, not sight.
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?
The content of my work has always been vastly political, but it depends on one's interests, some can listen to it and read into purely other elements.
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?
Perhaps that depends on how quickly humans will take the leap into other forms of being. According to trans-humanists - it isn't a question of if, but when will the biological form adapt to technological and bio-engineered enhancements - then the next question is whether our minds and hearing apparati will remain the same as they have been for centuries, until fairly recently, with nothing much but natural selection at their disposal.