Last year, Harlem-based producer Veronica Lauren, who makes radiant electronic music as vhvl, was very sick. A botched treatment of a spinal injury left her on bed rest for most of 2015. But Lauren, committed to her practice, continued working through her almost-fatal illness until she no longer felt able. The result was her latest EP, EVN, a stunning collection of finely layered, rhythmic ambient tracks that are packed with power, even in their gentleness.
ODD, the follow up to EVN, will be out next year. In the meantime, The FADER is stoked to share “Empthy,” an incandescent track once intended to be on an EP of the same name. We also got to chat with Lauren on the phone from her parents’ Harlem apartment about the physicality of performing live, coping with anxiety, and how making music helped her heal.
Tell me a little about “Empthy,” and your creative process.
“Empthy” was from an EP called Empthy, which didn't come out because I was too sick. It was supposed to come out last year, but I just couldn't do it. I didn't have the ability to do what it would've taken to support the release with shows, or anything really, so I asked for it to not happen. I have all of the material still.
I wasn't sure what was gonna happen. When I made EVN, I was still really sick, and in order for me to continue working I said, alright, for me to do this and have it really motivate me, it needs to be broken up in two. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have sounded right to me. The way that I was working felt so inconsistent that EVN ended up making itself on its own, and then became motivational for me. [ODD], the second half, gave me another part to work on, which promised me some sort of continuation — like, hey, if you get through this project, then you can do the other part of it.
It's a little disjointed to explain because it's a disjointed project. It just... made sense. Even if it wasn't EVN and ODD, there probably would have been something else in two parts, due to the nature of how I was working at the time, and what I felt would help me continue on. Something had to be done in two parts; I really needed to feel like there was something else that I could do.
Is it difficult to talk about your injury?
It's difficult to talk about because what happened was something that I didn't really understand, and still don't really understand. I'm vague about it only because it's difficult to explain. What ended up happening wasn't something that should have been happening. I had no prior neurological issues, no back issues; I had nothing going on before that. Something just went wrong in trying to treat something else. I still don't know what the initial issue was, so there was a lot of back and forth for a couple of months just trying to figure out what was going on. Other issues began to pop up because I was on bed rest for a really long time, and shit happens when you're not moving or functioning in a normal manner. I'm alright for the most part now. But to talk about it, yeah, it's hard.
How do you feel about doctors now that you've gone through this?
I have mixed feelings. I had some good doctors, I had some interesting ones. I definitely have an altered view, only because I had to interact with so many. That would change anybody's perspective, having to deal with more of something than you necessarily would any other time. But I think they're alright. Some of them really helped me out of a hole, and some of them exacerbated some of the issues unknowingly, but that could happen to anybody. Medicine does that — it's touch-and-go, doctors take guesses, humans take guesses, we all take guesses. We take chances. It's just how it is, you don't always know exactly what to do in a situation. It either affects you personally or it affects the person you're making a choice with or for; it's a human thing. So I can't be mad at it. I respect it as human behavior. It's really difficult to be a doctor. You hold people's lives in the balance at times.
“Doctors take guesses, humans take guesses — we all take guesses. It’s just how it is.”
There’s not that much information about you out there.
I don't think anyone knows a lot about me. Even people who know me. I'm a quiet, kind of withdrawn person most of the time. I keep a lot of stuff closed off ‘cause I'm a generally anxious person. It's hard for me to share a lot, even with people that are pretty close. There's not much to know publicly. My life is pretty boring, I'm gonna be honest with you. I always say "my mundane life." I'm very insecure about myself in general. It's hard to talk about myself.
What’s next for you?
I feel like [there is] so much music in the world that I don't want to put out a lot of music. For the next year or so, there might be more activity, but I like to space out anything that I do. Conceptually, I'm not even sure what will be going on. Not much has happened, because in four years I haven't felt like my material would be strong enough to create something cohesive and have it stick.
If I don't have cohesive material and I can't make something stick together, and it doesn't tell some sort of story or it doesn't make sense to me, I can't do anything with it. So I keep a lot of material. There's so much material from the past five years in the same vein of what I'm doing now. There’s a ridiculous amount of material, like maybe 800 or 900 songs. And I just sit on it. I play a lot of it live because I never play the same set twice. I try not to play even the same song live twice unless there's gonna be people I know there — sometimes I play stuff just for them, I like to be pals with people who consistently come out.
It sounds like you like performing live more than you do recording.
I do. There's a lot more freedom in it. I don't feel so constricted. Before I got sick I was playing so much, it was kind of crazy, and it is very liberating. Especially because, as a female producer in the world of electronic music, the odds are you're probably gonna be the only female on a bill of just men. Every now and again, you get some guys who make beats, you get some guys who are doing juke footwork, like trap stuff, and it's difficult to find a place. For me, it's been very difficult to try to find a place on bills because people bill me incorrectly. I'm not sure if they know what genre I am for the most part, they just stick me somewhere ‘cause I’m a woman. So it is very liberating to carve out a little spot and perform some of this material live, as opposed to just pulling a whole bunch of it together and having to essentially market that, instead of being with it in a moment where you can literally see people react to it. It's a different sort of connection that I generally prefer. You can see people moving, see how people feel. They tell you how it made them feel in that moment. It's so important to share those moments with others.
“Playing live, you can see people moving, see how people feel. They tell you how it made them feel in that moment. It’s so important to share those moments with others.”
Have you ever had times when it hasn't been liberating?
Yes. I have. I am like the queen of show disasters. I've had all sorts of equipment break in the middle of shows, or things just stop working, or I just feel completely inadequate in the middle of a set, and smoothly hand off the rest of my allotted time to the next artist. I do have very serious, severe anxiety, so sometimes things get the best of me in my mind and I create a bad show in my mind before it happens. I feel like it's bound to happen if you ever play or do anything. I had a couple months a few years ago where that's all that was happening. Just back-to-back, everything would break every time I tried to play, or it was just a really fucked up situation each night. But I still like it! It's just... during that time I definitely had a different response. I would say, no, no, no. I prefered being at home just making it.
Do you have a mantra that you use to curb that anxiety?
That probably would help a lot! But I just go in there really nervous and then I'm in it and I don't remember it. Last night, the first song I played was an absolute fail on my end. I don't know if it sounded that way, but I turned an effect on and I stood there and stared at it like I didn't know what I was looking at. And it kept going and mangled my entire first track and I was like, wow, what is going on? Why was I paralyzed in fear? Just standing there. And it felt like the longest moment. I don't even tell myself anything positive before I try to do anything live, which would probably really help. I've never even considered doing that, that's crazy. Wow.
How do you feel right now in this moment?
Tired as hell from the show last night. I'm good though. I'm chilling. It's tired in a good way, because I got to do something that I really enjoy and see people that I really like seeing. That's always fun, you know. That's worth it! You know when you're tired after a fun party? It's like, Ahhh, I don't care. Whatever.