Name: Natalie Chami
Current Release: Acquiesce on NNA Tapes
Recommendations: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante / Harmonium by John Adams / Whitney Bradshaw’s Outcry exhibit
Website/Contact: Natalie shares news, music and videos online at her website www.talsounds.com
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 writing songs as a child and playing the piano when I was three years old when one was gifted to my sister for her seventh birthday. It was my favourite “toy” and still is. I would perform for my class at school whenever I could and started recording music in high school. Whenever a holiday that included gifts rolled around, I’d ask my family to get me some sort of recording equipment—everything from headphones to one of those Boss 4-track digital recorders. Instruments in general were my biggest influence as a child. I knew I loved piano, so I started listening to Beethoven, Chopin, Duke Ellington, and various compilations. I also was influenced by my older sister’s taste in music, which at the time was mostly rap, R&B, and electronic club music and somehow I segued into the more “alternative” music genre. I saw Bjork perform on TV and fell in love with her. I loved the combination of complexity and simplicity in music. If the timbres are complex, the melodies can contrast with that by being simple. I don’t know. I think I just love marrying the contrasts and figuring out the balance. It’s such a delicate game we play in order to find ways to soothe the soul. I physically love playing music and that’s what draws me to it; the way physical vibrations and combinations can stir up our insides. How feeling the vibrations within our fingertips or from our breath plays with our brainwaves. Sound is so fascinating to me and I love manipulating it and then feeling my reactions to it.
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?
As I started playing music at such a young age, I didn’t initially have the “learning,” per se. I was just banging on the piano! I was enrolled in lessons at five, and have been formally educated ever since. During the years of music education (that’s what my degree is in, and now I’m a music teacher), musicians can actually lose that initial excitement that happens when you’re first presented with an instrument—when I first laid my hands on that piano as a three year-old —and this applies to singing, too! Children sing songs naturally. And once a music student becomes more and more serious in their studies, they start to practice other people’s repertoire. We learn rigorous technique. We’re expected to practice because for each day we don’t, we go back two days in our skill… crazy stuff like that. But I’m a teacher now, and I do make the promise that once we build our palettes by learning other people’s rep, by practicing technique for the facility of our instruments, we can then return to that freedom we once felt as beginners; when we fell in love with music for music’s sake.
Now, because of our dedication to practice, we are again free to do whatever we want. It worries me in music education that some teachers don’t always build in creative outlets as well. It’s so important to not lose that! Otherwise we’re just technical robot-music-makers, and who cares about those? I mean, virtuosos are amazing, but I’m more interested in personality, creativity, and letting music serve us individually in whatever way works. If copying other people feels nice, keep doing it. If you have another gift to offer, that’s cool, too. I don’t know that I actually consciously sat and developed my own voice. I think that happens naturally in music, you know, when you are able to find what feels right for you. I think the biggest challenge in that transition was to believe that whatever sounds and music were coming out of me, maybe people would like them. I wasn’t very familiar with synth, experimental, improv, or ambient music when I started making it. I just did it for myself in my house. I doubted that whatever I was doing was even a genre. I’d play, and then some friends eventually guided me towards my music community. I still doubt that I fit in really, but I like what I’m doing, and people seem to like it. So, I guess that’s my voice.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My biggest challenge is having to use a computer as a middle-man for my music to be recorded. Some people really enjoy the process of engineering and multitrack recording and editing. To me, that’s a whole separate skill. I don’t think I’m great at looking at screens and clicking around. I do it, but I don’t really enjoy it. I like playing music the most. All of my early TALsounds releases are exactly that—I set up my equipment to have a direct line out into my computer and record, and that’s it. That’s the recording and final output. Maybe it’ll get a little EQ here and there, but that’s not how I enjoy spending my time. To me, the post-production process is work. In the beginning, I was fascinated with the production of music. I felt like it was cool or something. Now, I’ve realized that it’s okay to not like doing every aspect of music so I’m always trying to find the best way to record where I can do the least amount of computer work afterwards. It’s hard as a solo musician that loops, but wants each track isolated for mixing purposes. So that’s still my challenge.
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 recording equipment was a Boss 4-track digital recorder. Before that, my step dad (who is a reporter) had some sort of mic and recording device and I’d use that to record songs I made up on to tape. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had a laptop and would record using a DAW, like GarageBand and the free Ableton demo software. I bought a USB mic and had a midi controller. I eventually got an interface and some synths during college and would use those to record. I got monitors once I had my first real job outside of school. That’s also when I was able to invest in buying my first synth (the other ones were gifted to me) and some pedals. I started with reverb and a looper so I could play music alone.
My studio has always fortunately been a space in wherever I’ve lived—a dedicated area where I could fit my synths. I remember even traveling to visit my mom one summer, and I’d just brought a microKORG and recorded on my phone. I think because I love improvising, my studio has to be portable. I don’t love recording in professional studios. I want to be on my own time, in my own space, feeling everything out. I’m really not a gear nerd, though I would definitely not deny that I have some very cherished and valued synths. I say this because the most important gear for me is something with keys. If I had to pick a favorite instrument or pedal or piece of gear from what I have, I’d probably say my Juno-60 or KORG Lambda.
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 the feedback between the two so much! I think it’s what inspires a lot of my creativity when improvising. I let my human physicality land on one of my electronics, hear the reaction from the machine, and then in turn I react to that. There’s so much room for expression with variables, especially with unwieldy analog synths and pedals. Not always knowing the way something will sound is part of the fun for me. Humans excel at triggering and reacting and having taste and skill to manipulate. Machines are ready to be manipulated, but have their own personality and also sometimes resist. It’s a fun little collaboration and exploratory process, especially when you can’t play with other humans.
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?
All instruments have their own timbre, even if they’re being manipulated by the player. I think the sound is ultimately what inspires my playing and compositions. I rarely consider the mood or tone or theme before improvising. The thinking happens after I hear what comes out of a random dance—and by dance, I mean plopping my hands somewhere and seeing what comes out. That’s at least the most fun way for me to play. Repetition helps our brains to make sense of something, even if it’s tonally/harmonically messed up or abstract.
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 really love making music with people, but sometimes I do feel like I’m a little too particular about it. I love singing and rehearsing classical music with people, but don’t love doing that solo. I loooove choir! I teach and lead choir rehearsals, and that’s what I went to school specifically for. I don’t love solo singing and practice as much—I only enjoy singing solo repertoire if I am working with a collaborative pianist. I do love solo piano, and solo piano practice. I don’t like rehearsing pop or rock songs. When it comes to playing music outside of the classical world, I much prefer improvising. I get bored with the repetition of rehearsal for pop music. Probably because the harmonic structures or melodies are not as exciting to me as classical music. It’s just the way it makes my brain feel. I love being around other similar-minded music makers. I don’t like being around mega ego players. If we’re going to collaborate, I want it to be for the actual collaboration, unless it’s clear that I’m being used as a human music robot, in which case, it should be a paying job, right? I want to make art with music ultimately.
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 need a schedule, otherwise I can very easily get anxious or just waste a lot of time wondering what to do next. My schedule looks mostly like this every day: Wake up around 8 or 9, walk the dog, make a latte, exercise, shower, make a late breakfast, work (admin stuff for school and teaching music), dinner, work on music, watch an episode of something, and go to sleep. Of course, interacting with my fiancé, pets (cat and dog), family, friends, and plants are interspersed in there, but those are the big structural things. The “work on music” part of my evening varies: it usually means practicing or recording or writing music for a film or collaborating or just playing with no intentions or doing music related computer things at times, like working on my website or answering questions for interviews like this one. I also like going to shows and eating at restaurants and traveling, but you know, not doing any of those things right now, sadly. I usually go to sleep around 12:30 or 1 these days. I prefer 8-9 hours of sleep, so the later I go to bed, the later I’ll wake up, and vice versa.