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Dollars to Pounds: E.m.m.a.

photographer James Clothier

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.

One of my favourite albums this year has been E.m.m.a.’s Blue Gardens. Ostensibly it’s a dance record—it’s got a rhythmic basis in British inner city sound system and pirate radio music, like UK funky, dubstep and grime, but it sets these contemporary rhythms against baroque melodies. These melodies and harmonies come from bright, colourful synths, but colourful in a slightly fake way, like brightly processed food. The album’s final track is a field recording of a British seaside town, an old man playing an accordion while seagulls screech above—a far cry from the South London rudeboys that the beats evoke.

What’s so good about the album is its complete disregard for convention. Whereas a lot of dance music producers get obsessed with genre and history, E.m.m.a. has a refreshingly singular, modern sound. Blue Gardens sounds like E.m.m.a., you can’t really put it any other way.

The album’s press release cites non-musical reference points like picket fences, Coney Island and obsolete CD-ROM encyclopaedia Microsoft Encarta as her major influences on the album, but this isn’t E.m.m.a. being ironic or oblique—it’s just seems like her natural way of thinking, and she speaks with a similar lack of self-censorship. “Someone transcribed me once and it wasn’t pretty," she says. "If I’ve chatted shit, just delete it.”

Stream: E.m.m.a.'s “Lost Encarta Files” Mix

One of the first things I wanted to ask you about was the intro and outro on your album. The intro was actually the last thing I made, but I just thought, you know what, if you’re gonna ask me to do an intro, I don’t know what else it could be other than epic, end-of-days synths. With the outro, I recorded that guy on the accordion for a separate project when I was at university in Brighton, and made it into a soundscape by adding a few sailors and thunder and lightning. That was really because I wanted to put something on there that would just throw people, I just wanted to take it completely off any genre. [I wanted to] put in something really atmospheric that people could listen to on a stuffy tube, or on a bus, and be like, “oh, I’m by the sea”.

It’s funny because the album’s rhythms are more like urban, sound-system music, and that ending is really olde-worlde. Well, I live in London, but I’m not really coming at it from an urban perspective. Actually, I thought it was going to get rejected—I thought Martin [Blackdown, head of E.m.m.a.’s label Keysound Recordings] would be like, “Okay, you’re just taking the piss now. We’ve got you signed up to an album and now you’re just taking the piss.” Respect to the man, he wasn’t an obstacle.

How did you get into making music in the first place? You know when you hear something really good and it has a real profound effect on you? I just thought, well, I want to make something that makes people feel like that as well. It’s a creative outlet, it lets you be yourself. You can put quite a lot of yourself into it without letting anyone know anything about you. I quite like that.

Was music something you’d always done when you were younger? I played the piano, I had piano lessons. But I always got bored. I liked certain kinds of music, but I didn’t like the regimented exams, or playing other people’s tunes. I would do stupid things, like listen to “Stan” by Eminem and try and play it on a piano. And then I had that eJay – do you remember that CD-ROM called Dance eJay? It was some Christmas present I got when I was maybe 10 years old, which was just making trance from blocks. I was convinced I was gonna be number one in the charts.

There are so many producers who talk about video games like Music 2000 being their entry into making music. Yeah, because it was all prewritten bits and bobs, like drum loops. Me and my sisters would get all of our cousins over on New Years Eve and say, “Listen to this trance song we’ve just made!” Then obviously I didn’t consider it at all for years. But when I was listening to dubstep at uni, in 2006 and 2007, it was the first time I’d known producers and I felt impressed by it. I thought: I can have a go at that, and I can probably do it better. Without sounding like one of those people who hates on music, I just thought: do these people even know what a tune is? It’s almost as if scenes, especially around London, get quite insular to the point where people are so bothered about what the rhythms are like and who they’re giving a nod to and who they’re referencing that the melody is an afterthought. And that’s fine, but that doesn’t tick my box. I thought I’d just get involved—I’ll write melodies, but I’ll make them really extreme, just overload it.

You mentioned scenes being really self-referential there, but your album doesn’t really seem like that. It doesn’t really seem to be part of any kind of lineage. You just take it as it is. That’s really, really pleasing from my point of view, because I’ve never put myself out there before and I was quite concerned that, because you can’t put it in a box, it would go against it. But in a way, the whole point of me producing was because I wanted to break down that cycle.

About 10 minutes before I came onto Skype I got an email about your “Lost Encarta Files” mix. You’ve described Encarta as your “muse” before. I remembered Encarta once I’d graduated and had a load of free time to think about these things. It’s one of those words you just say to people and they go “hang on, did you just say Encarta?” It has an effect on people. I had this freakout one night where I was just in my room and thought: there was a time when we’d just log on, put that CD-ROM in and get, like, the lifecycle of the penguin. And at school we’d print it out and put it in Comic Sans and pretend that we wrote it. And we didn’t even question it.

There was something else I wanted to mention—there was a game called MindMaze on Encarta. Did you ever play that? I played it, purely because I liked the theme tune. It was quite dramatic music. Even though it’s low quality, someone’s really made an effort with that. It’s something I’ve listened to quite recently.

You mention loads of other non-musical reference points as influences on your album, abstract things like “Long Island” or “picket fences”. Oh god, the idea of “picket fences” getting into public domain is pretty soul destroying. Well, I’d do something or watch some kind of film about American high schools, or whatever, and just think: maybe I’ll be a soccer mom, and go out and live in Long Island and take the kids to baseball. My album is just taking various lifestyles that I might want to live and just remind me of it. Then I can listen to a track and be nostalgic about that time I was thinking about America. I suppose unreservedly what I put into my tunes is kind of how I would like to see the world. It goes back to the escapist stuff, really.

Have you always thought about objects as ideas? I suppose I am quite a daydreamer. I do get quite obsessed with certain things – I’ll spend a few months listening to The Doors, thinking Jim Morrison is amazing, and just look into what they were trying to do when making music. I do think a lot about history and things because I think you have to be connected to your past, but I think if you’re gonna do an album, if you’re gonna produce, you need to put yourself into a track. Some people have said the synths sound cheap, but I’m not trying to be an orchestra – I’m trying to put something truthful, emotion-wise, into the tracks. Ultimately I haven’t put anything fake in there, I’ve just put what I am into the tune.

It’s very truthful. There’s a lack of signifiers of a certain genre or a certain feeling—it’s not saying “this is the sad tune” or anything like that. That’s what I liked about the album—I was uncertain of how to react, and that means it’s doing something. That’s really cool, that’s good to hear. I’d rather die than put out some kind of generic wallpaper music, I’d rather put out something obscure where only some people get something from it.

It’s more effective if you’re not telling people how they should be responding to it. It becomes schmaltzy if the emotional response is signposted or dictated. Yeah, like if you name a tune something like “Love Me.” I’m not about that. I have more of an emotional reaction to the Django theme tune then some kind of emo fake Burial. It’s a pastiche of emotion. You just think, well, how many cogs have been turned to get this out? Some people would just sit down and listen to another tune, get all the sounds out of it, put it together themselves and I just think…I think they shouldn’t be allowed, basically.

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Dollars to Pounds: E.m.m.a.