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Dollars to Pounds: Saa

August 19, 2013



Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

Saa are a duo made up of producer Asher Levitas and singer Linn Carin Dirdal. Levitas is a Londoner who some may know for his role in experimental beat collective Old Apparatus, while Dirdal hails from Oslo—not that you’d ever realise that given her impeccable, accent-less English.

The two collaborate through fibre optics, sending their musical ideas back-and-forth over email and Skype calls. It’s a method of working that can often yield flat, disjointed results, but with Saa it fits together so smoothly it sounds like old friends who have been working together for years.

In fact, Levitas and Dirdal have only been making music since last summer, and it was even more recently that they started sharing the results of their work with the world, dropping a handful of dark, bass-heavy pop songs out of the blue. One of those songs was “Against Interpretation,” the first piece of music that they made together and currently their best, a dubstep lurcher with a minor key melody and a bassline that sounds like it’s been hollowed out in the middle. Dirdal’s vocal is really what holds the song together, yet the beat doesn’t just feel like a vehicle for her voice.

I spoke to the duo (over a Skype conference call, appropriately) about the genesis of the project, being positively misrepresented by the music press and the logistics of online collaboration. Stream an exclusive live version of “Against Interpretation” below, recorded with their new drummer. Their self-titled EP is out now via Left Blank.

How did you two meet? DIRDAL: We met at college. I moved to London to study journalism and I went to the same college as Asher, who studied sound design. We met through friends. I moved back to Oslo a couple of years ago. I started doing some music, putting it online. Asher heard it and he said, "How about we start doing a little collaboration?" It sounded really good, we thought, so we kept going.

What was it that attracted you to each other’s music? LEVITAS: Linn can sing well, and she’s really gifted, technically—she can do a lot with her vocals. It’s really fun to work with her. I’m not being sent one vocal track, I’m being sent, like, 16 to 30 vocal tracks per track. Which is a bit of a nightmare to work with, but you can do some really amazing things. If you have a six-part harmony or more, you can make a vocal sound so much better than you would otherwise. I appreciate the lyrics, too. DIRDAL: I’m really attracted to moods, a feel of music, and ideas. With Asher’s music, he’s got loads of great ideas. With every beat he sends over there’s always something more to it—ideas I wouldn’t have had. It makes me think about new stuff, it challenges me, so it’s just really cool to work with. LEVITAS: Another reason I’ve enjoyed working with Linn is that it’s quite different to other projects I’ve done. Old Apparatus has mainly been instrumental, and also quite dark and quite moody, and suddenly I found myself doing music that’s catchier and easier to sink in to.

Linn, I read that you come from an avant-garde background… DIRDAL: [laughs] That’s not what I came from, but I quite like it. LEVITAS: It’s your name! It makes you sound like an avant-garde singer. DIRDAL: I guess my background is classical, first and foremost. I grew up on classical music, I did piano training and choirs, and in college I did classical vocals and stuff. But I was also really into pop, like growing up with MTV and all of that. So I get both of those worlds under my skin a bit. As I wanted to explore music a bit more, I guess I just dabbled in different things and ended up involved in various projects. But where that avant-garde thing comes from, I’m not sure. LEVITAS: That’s what happens on the internet when someone’s new, isn’t it? DIRDAL: Yeah, but it does sound good.

How is the work split between the two of you when writing the songs? LEVITAS: With the EP tracks, it was mainly me coming up with ideas for instrumentals, then sending them back to Linn, and Linn writing something, and then sending something back… But with the newer stuff, we’re trying to take a joint approach to songwriting and coming up with musical ideas—I don’t wanna just produce for Linn. We’ve also got a drummer on board for a live show, and he’s gonna take part in the next part of our project in some way, possibly.

When I first heard your stuff, it was just after listening to a house tune with the most phoned in, stock “female vocal”. I liked that there seemed to be a more collaborative thing with what you were doing. DIRDAL: It’s definitely more organic. It’s also because it’s not split like he does that and I do this. I know some people get quite precious about what they do and get a bit offended if people try and make them adjust it, but Asher’s quite happy for me to be in his space and I’m quite happy for him to come up with ideas for what I do – so lyrics, and vocals, and stuff. That’s really nice, to just keep things open, and maybe that’s what you’re hearing in the music.

How often do you two get to see each other in person? DIRDAL: Aha. Well… LEVITAS: It’s turning out to be once every six months, or something. But it’s gonna have to be more than that because we’ve started on a [live] set. We’re developing that so we need to get together more.

I was wondering how it’d work with a drummer if you’re all in different rooms, in different timezones… DIRDAL: Yes. Skype, perhaps? LEVITAS: We’ve already worked out two songs live, and we’ve done a video performance of that which hopefully people will be able to see soon. I guess it’s gonna have to be occasional meet-ups where we try to get as much done as possible within a few days. And then from then it’s just Skype calls and emails. Lots of emails.

I like how the internet has enabled all of these collaborative possibilities, but I have always wondered how the logistics of it work. LEVITAS: It’s just that you have to be patient and responsive to each other. I probably email Linn like three or four times a day. You have to really want to work together to make it work, and put the time in. But it was a similar thing with Old Apparatus. I think a lot of people work through the internet. I don’t really like working with someone behind me, and I don’t really like recording vocals, so it’s easier for me to just be in this production/composer kind of thing. I wouldn’t want Linn to be sat behind me when I’m trying to work out something like EQ’ing a snare.

But you are looking forward to seeing each other? DIRDAL: [laughs] I’m looking forward to it, it’s lovely. It sounds like it’s not… LEVITAS: It is lovely seeing each other, but personally, working with other people musically, it’s nice to have space and then go off and develop it yourself. I guess that’s how I always work.

Did you have any discussions about shared inspirations or how you wanted the music to sound? DIRDAL: I don’t have a set idea when I approach something. When Asher sent something over I thought, "That sounds great, I’ll see what comes out when I start working on it." LEVITAS: Those tracks weren’t written for Linn, really. After I wrote a couple of them I had more foresight into what I was gonna produce for her, but initially they were just beats. With the newer stuff, maybe we can say we’ve had some influences that are more obvious, or even agreed on, but this EP was made quite quickly.

You never had any intention of how you wanted it to turn out. LEVITAS: I couldn’t really tell how poppy it was. And now it’s being classified as pop, which is fine, but it didn’t sound like that in my head. So that’s kind of surprising to me.

Is it fun to work on music that’s more in a pop vein than, say, Old Apparatus, or writing classically informed music? LEVITAS: It’s hard to say, because it’s in such an early phase. The only difference to me is that slightly different blogs are covering what we’re doing—it hasn’t had a big effect.

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Dollars to Pounds: Saa