Brooklyn musician Laurel Halo on her new album and how she got from the violin to electronic music
Electronic musicians can sometimes be, let’s say, remote. If you’re dealing in ethereal sound, as many are, it follows that you might not be quite earthbound. No harm, no foul.
Laurel Halo isn’t like that at all, as I learned when I reflexively asked, “Is this Laurel?” at the top of our scheduled interview. I got the answer I deserved: “What do you think?” Of course—we were on Skype. Who else would it be? (Halo amended some answers via email.)
That combination of spacey and grounded has featured in Halo’s music for the past three years. The Michigan native, now living in Brooklyn, makes tracks that float in the netherworld between song-structured pop and programming-led instrumental beat-scapes—particularly on her debut album, Quarantine, out this week on the widely fêted English dance label Hyperdub.
Quarantine distills and condenses the approach of Halo’s three prior E.P.s: 2010’s King Felix, 2011’s Hour Logic (both on Hippos in Tanks), and this April’s Spring, the latter credited to King Felix. There’s a menacing crawl to pieces like the first third of “Thaw,” with its heavily pitch-shifted bell tones and softly synthesized bird-attack sounds, or “Holoday,” two minutes of fogged-up filters and low moans that climaxes with a quick, bursting, pitched-up vocal snippet (“Just wanna be with you!”) like an early-’90s U.K. hardcore track. A similar sense of agog permeates the rest of the album: “Wow” is an 83 seconds of manipulated vocal glide, “MK Ultra” loops its fuzzy, rubber-bandy analog synth lines while Halo multitracks herself to an eerily icy command. (The album's dark undercurrent is well represented by Makoto Aida's fairly creepy cover image, Harakiri Schoolgirls, pictured below.)
“Apart from my parents playing me some good records when I was a kid I wouldn’t say there’s much of a bonding over music in my family,” she said, though she noted some guitar-playing cousins; her father was also a harmonica player in a blues-rock band during the 1970s.
The piano lessons she began taking at age six were self-motivated, Halo said.
“They probably got a sense that it was a good idea from me banging the shit out of a toy piano they got me when I was two or three. There are these really funny home videos of me just banging away. They got an upright piano one day, and I was pretty much glued to it.”
Did Halo think of herself as an incipient classical musician?
“Maybe when I was ten I wanted to be a professional violinist in a touring orchestra,” she said. “But I never really took to violin. Then in high school I started jamming more on the piano and not really investing as much into notation as I had previously, though I played jazz music and didn’t understand it so well then. I've always had a dream of being a musician, but I think the context of the ambition has changed over time. I was interested in being a writer and a visual artist as well. I was pretty all over the place. At one point I got a hard urge to be a film composer, and I still want to be a film composer, but not in the original way that I thought of it, through learning specific styles of Hollywood composition. I started wrapping my ears around electronic music later, when I was 16 or 17.”
Halo said that her early musical experiences were scattered.
The impetus for Halo’s interest in electronic music came from attending Movement—the Detroit electronic-music festival—at age 16.
“I was just experiencing huge club music, huge techno music, through P.A.s for the first time,” she said. “But I never felt compelled to learn how to make techno or D.J. when I was that age. Friends of mine who came up practicing D.J. sets in their teens are coming from a different perspective, because [to them] that’s like folk music, it’s so commonplace. I had to unlearn a lot of rules to make better music, primarily how hard I was on myself. When I was 19 I started messing around with different DAWs [digital audio workstations] like Digital Performer and Logic, just to write down some musical ideas. At first I had to get over the idea that everything was shit, plus I had no picture of the extent of production. [I was] definitely stumbling in the dark.”
She got over that part of it fairly quickly, though she laughs when she describes the very boy-like culture of electronic-music production.
“I think a lot of people look at gear the same way they look at baseball cards or something: ‘Oh shit, you have an SH-101? I’ll trade you a Pro One and a delay pedal.’”
Not that Halo is averse to some gear talk.
“I just picked up a pretty Star Trek vocal pedal,” she said. “It’s a touch-interface mike-stand mounting pedal, but it’s good for live [performance]. I get a kick out of it, at least.”
Indeed, one major sonic difference between Halo’s earlier E.P.s and Quarantine is the quality of her vocals, which ring out more clearly than they did on her earlier work, where the singing was often laden with echo. It suggests a newfound confidence in her singing, but that's only part of it.
“It wasn't a deliberate intention going in,” she said. “But I think that was the outcome … [T]he tracks are already so full-on that having a lot of effects on the vocal didn’t make sense. It would be redundant. I get tired of the way people use reverb and echo too, but it’s not that I’ll never use it or anything. Plus there clearly is reverb and echo and effects on the vocals, but they’re much lower in the mix than people are used to. The vocals sound rawer than they actually are—they’re pretty inverted in a way.”
Electronic albums seldom hold together as anything more than a compilation of tracks, but Quarantine feels more of a piece, its mood a "heavy" one, according to Halo. But I wondered if there was any intention of making a statement.
“This is not meant at all to be like, ‘This is my album!’” She let out a big laugh. “I just wanted to make a great piece of music. I made 30 demos and slowly discovered the vibe. I wasn't even really anticipating starting making a heavy record. I was anticipating making an aggressive record. And what comes out of that is this.”