Name: Rachel Palmer
Occupation: Producer, sound artist, visual artist
Current Release: Antecedent on Modularfield
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 writing and producing music in the 1990’s but have been musical the majority of my life. When I was six or seven years old my mother had noticed my interest in singing little made-up songs and plunking away on the piano, so she offered to give me piano lessons. Having had lessons herself, she was able to teach me basic scales before my stubbornness had taken over - I think we lasted one or two lessons before I declared that I wanted to learn “my way” instead and continued on my own.
My oldest brother was also very musical; he was (and still is) a beautiful guitar player, prompting my interest in acoustic guitar as well. I began taking music production more seriously when I was about thirteen. I composed and produced original singer-songwriter acoustic guitar music and performed for open mic nights at local coffee shops.
Around that same time I was introduced to electronic music. Although I grew up on a beautifully diverse range of music styles - from Peter Gabriel to Nas to Neil Young to Pantera etc; my most memorable and impactful inspirations were Aphex Twin, The Orb, Radiohead, and The Postal Service. I was immediately fascinated by their seemingly exotic and almost ruleless ways of combining sound, it inspired me to begin composing (mostly ambient) electronic music. A few years later I was introduced to the brilliance of Jon Brion, whose soundtrack scoring combining piano, strings, and ambient electronic sounds, was a huge inspiration to me as well. The infinite possibilities of composing electronic music met by a classic soundtrack sound really expanded my realm of creativity. It taught me that music didn’t have to belong to just one genre.
What drew me to music and sound was how it made me feel. I was captivated by music’s ability to create a mood, to tell a story, and to allow that feeling to be interpreted into a real life experience - like an escape from reality. It was and still is incredibly therapeutic to transport myself into my own world of creativity while I’m composing. It allows a state of mind where nothing but the composition matters, and that has helped me cope with difficult times throughout my life.
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 don’t recall any specific influences that lead to my tinkering around on the piano as a child. And although I loved singing and dancing to Stevie Wonder and Patsy Cline, I think I was just too young to try to emulate any specific artists. It was an exploration and discovery phase. Well, actually ... I did play Chopsticks and classics like Beethoven’s "Für Elise" at some point, so it wasn’t totally original tinkering ... ha!
When I first started taking the acoustic-guitar-singer-songwriter thing seriously, I was very much emulating Conor Oberst. It was a classic emotional-teen-angst type of composing: “you broke my heart”, “will I ever love again?” etc. It’s fun to reminisce and laugh about it now, but I’ve long since moved away from that genre. As formative as teenage years can be, I wanted to feel like I belonged, so it was easy to grasp onto a genre that I already knew people liked. I was dipping my toe into the public domain of creative waters, in a sense, by allowing myself to be creative and to perform, but sticking to a designated structure and overall sound. Reflecting on it now, I think I used that as a defense mechanism ... meaning I didn’t have to worry about showing vulnerability when sharing my music because I was fitting myself into an already established mold. It wasn’t my fully developed inner voice, but I did gain a lot of experience from it.
Electronic music was another story. Because I already felt creatively accepted with my singer-songwriter music, I was able to keep my electronic music composing purely what I wanted it to be, not conforming to any specific genres or styles. Nevertheless being influenced and inspired by the artists mentioned in the first question. If I were to say I emulated anything, it would be the realization of music expression not requiring a ruleset.
I continued composing my own interpreted style of electronic music from around 1999 until about 2010 when I was introduced to the underground house and techno scene in Minneapolis, MN. This introduction shifted my electronic music perspective again, and being in my early-mid-twenties at the time, I was heavily influenced by it. So much that I began losing my originality in electronic music production, instead I was trying to fit into that specific mold. I wrote various genres over the following three years, sometimes working out, but most often not. What writing music meant to me had lost its therapeutic aspects and became more of a burden and a challenge to copy all the cool techno and house tracks I was hearing instead of a much needed release/break from the real world.
It became so frustrating that in 2013 I stopped nearly all music composition and shifted my creativity towards visual art. That break, however, became life-altering as I fell in love with composing and performing live audio-reactive visuals. In short, I knew I needed to stay creatively active to maintain my sanity, but I didn’t have any other creative outlets. I thought it might be “cool” to learn how to “do” visuals, as they weren’t prominently represented in that scene at the time, and would be open to a non-conformist expression of creativity ... and I needed that. I googled “how to create visuals”, found a couple programs, and settled into using Quartz Composer- teaching myself the ins and outs by watching tutorials and joining a Facebook group dedicated to the program.
The return of my musical inspiration in 2018 was influenced by meeting the love of my life, Marco Petracca (HHNOI), who not only is a talented composer and producer himself, but his interest and appreciation of my earlier music was absolutely reinvigorating. To have my originality be appreciated for what it was after years of trying to be creatively appreciated by fitting in was an important self-actualization moment for me. I felt I no longer needed to prove something with my music and was again able to allow myself to just create without thinking, thus rediscovering my inner musical voice. Wonderfully enough, this rediscovery lead to the writing and production of my first official full-length album release, Antecedent.
What were your main compositional- and production- challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I believe my main challenges in the beginning were lack of equipment, lack of experience, and lack of awareness that other technology and hardware could better support my creativity. I was raised with the mentality to use what’s available, so that’s what I did.
My main challenges now are geared around my own quality control; Technically - if there’s a tiny noise that no one else notices, but I feel it doesn’t fit. Emotionally - if I think a note progression sounds too boring or cheesy. Even though I’m mainly composing for myself, I still want to create an experience for the listener. If I can evoke something within myself when writing, my hope is it will translate to others when they listen as well.
An additional challenge for the future will be creating a live set of my music. I’m a live visual performer, but only a studio music composer/producer, so figuring out how to translate my music into a live environment while maintaining my live visuals will be very difficult.
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” (when I was around twelve or thirteen years old) consisted of a mix of gifted items: an early 2000’s Yamaha PSR-160 49-key synthesizer, a Roland VS-840 Digital Studio Workstation, a simple microphone, the untuned wooden piano in our home, and I think a 1990’s HP Pavilion computer - big boxy monitor, of course.
My setup has evolved over time mainly because technology has evolved over time. I mean, my first “studio” was thrown together in 1998. The amount of advancements in music software, hardware, and accessibility since then is pretty insane. My setup has also changed because I’m not only writing and producing electronic music, but composing and performing live audio-reactive visuals as well.
I’m using Reason 11, a Komplete Kontrol A49 midi keyboard, and a MacBook Pro to compose music. I’m using Quartz Composer to create visuals, Resolume Arena 4 for playback, a few additional effects and for live visual performances, and Final Cut Pro X for post-production when creating video.
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 make use of technology by dissecting it and exploring it’s intricacies. Being self-taught in the programs and applications I use, I’ve learned by doing. I generally start with one small thing or sound, then stretch, distort, and skew all parameters possible until something looks or sounds interesting to me.
I strongly believe technology has become a very important part of creativity. Not only because it allows everyone around the world to share their creations with one another, but even more importantly it allows and encourages the creation of sound and art that doesn’t exist in the natural world. How unbelievably fascinating is that? To make beautiful music and moving art out of essentially code ... it’s mind-boggling to me.
To answer the question more directly:
I believe machines are a tool used for amplifying human creativity. Being the sum of human inputs and functions, they excel at laying out all the elements of art and provide the possibility of creating new, never before seen or heard of elements.
Humans excel at imagining, understanding, inventing - we utilize the tools provided by machines to combine those elements into works of art. I think we’re able to be more imaginative when machines take care of the difficult processing work that may get in the way of our creativity.
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?
Production tools are simply that, tools. I started using Reason specifically because of the user interface. Each instrument / effect / utility / etc. in the rack feels like a unique physical object, as if I have all the gear, but thankfully not taking up any actual physical space. The layout and structure of the Sequencer also works well with my workflow - like a timeline representation of each song’s story.
Every sound I use is found by a new path of discovery. As I said in the previous question - I start with one sound and explore all parameters and settings until something sounds interesting to me. This type of co-authorship could be described as ... my exploration of the tools begets sound discovery.