I caught up with the very talented Emancipator before his set at Lightning in a Bottle to learn exactly how he creates his beautiful multi- layered etheric melodies. His latest album, Dusk to Dawn, is a stunning orchestration of natural rhythms, that truly cannot be grasped with words. Check out some of the tracks below.
He’ll be touring this Winter in American and Europe, check out the dates and locations here.
Your music tends to revolve around an underlying sense of balance, connection, and beauty. Can you talk about what inspires you to create that?
Emancipator: That’s a really good point: the concept of balance is really important in music. I try to construct songs with a lot of different puzzle pieces that are all firing on the same cylinder. In that sense all the layers are of the song are balanced. A lot of times my music is inspired by nature, and that’s where these concepts of balance and symmetry apply as well.
You have Ilya Goldberg playing the live violin. How did you guys meet up and get connected?
Emancipator: We met up in Denver, Colorado. Our friend Dom from Big Gigantic introduced us. I always featured violin in my tracks and I played a couple shows with a violinist, so someone just connected the dots for us and put us in touch. First show we played was improv, just feeling it out, and it really clicked so I invited him to join me full time.
And you yourself play guitar, mandolin, violin, viola, and banjo. Do you write everything he plays or does he write what he puts down on the tracks?
Emancipator: He writes most of the melodies that he plays even on the album. The way we work in the studio is I’ll have some sort of beat going and I’ll ask him to record or jam. We’ll record a few times and certain melodies will start to crystallize and as a producer I help him decide which parts to keep and which parts to record. I then take those recordings integrate them into the track, often while he’s still there to re-record parts of give input, so it’s a collaboration. I let him jam for the melodies.
Can you talk about the progression of your sound from “Soon it will be Cold Enough” to your last album “Dusk till Dawn”?
Emancipator: Yeah, on Soon it will be Cold Enough, I made those tracks when I really didn’t know what I was doing, it was just all for fun, experimenting with sounds. I was coming out of an instrumental Hip-Hop background back in those years, I thought I was going to be a Hip-Hop producer, so everything was beat oriented.
Moving on to Safe in the Steep Cliffs, I realized there was more room in the beats for more layers, there didn’t need to be a rapper or a singer. I was infusing it will all sorts of instruments, working on making the tracks really dense and well-balanced at the same time. These days I’m still branching out in styles, definitely appreciate the electronic production, with crisper, tighter, bigger, punchier drums, which sounds good lately.
And what would you say has changed in the way you produce? Obviously the genre has changed as a whole, but what specifically in your sound would you say you’ve mastered more over the course of your albums?
Emancipator: I think I’ve grown as a producer. I’m still learning about mixing and mastering, I mean that’s a life time of learning but I’ve gotten a lot better at that. Working quickly: I’ve found a good work flow too, I’m able to get all sorts of good ideas out into a song quickly.
What would you say your greatest challenge is?
Emancipator: I think one the greatest challenges is having so many options. Back when I just had a guitar and a folder of drum samples, that was all I was working with. These day I have all these instruments in the studio, all these plug-ins, its almost like the more options you have, the harder it is to pick one of them.
I've noticed that if you force yourself into a confinement, it makes it easier to break out it creatively.
Emancipator: That’s a good mindset to use going into a track, because it narrows the tools you start with.
You’ve said that a song is often sparked by a certain sound or a loop and then you add layers. Can you talk about one sound that started a song?
Emancipator: Oh yeah. Certain layers and loops imply a good complimentary sound. Say I have a piano chord, that’s a great starting point to add some finger-picking guitar, something with a shorter attack and they’ll go well together. Once I have the first sound, sometimes the songs just write themselves, the ideas keep flowing. On the other hand, I love browsing through sounds. I’ll keep a loop going and just browse through samples and see what sticks. I’ll keep certain layers; it’s not always a premonition, it’s not always a crystal clear, but sometimes it works.
You listed Bonobo as a favorite artist of yours. Can you talk about how your sound has been influenced by his work?
Emancipator: He’s been a major influence. In terms of instrumentation, the instruments he chooses to build his songs out of, I’m really on the same page: smooth guitar and traditionally lounge chillout music combined with hip hop beats. That’s my favorite kind of sound.
Based on your background, would you be interested in going back and possibly making an hip-hop instrumental or have you moved on?
Emancipator: I do enjoy working with rappers and I have a few projects I’m working on with MCs. In some ways it’s actually liberating because I don’t need to inject the beat with 100% dopeness at all times. There’s room, I can sit back and make it more loop-based, more head nodding, and let them do their thing.
Any specific MCs you’re looking forward to work to?
Emancipator: There’s a prodigy of Mobb Deep that’s been branching out and working with some Downtempo Producers that I’m gonna be working with. Hasn’t been announced yet, but yea.
Did you catch Polish Ambassador’s set by the way? Speaking of Hip Hop over Electronic music.
Emancipator: I missed it last night, but I’ve seen a few of his sets before and I love his use of glitch and hip hop samples. Really tasteful.
“Greenland” is really beautiful. Did you do all the instruments on that track? Because there’s a myriad of different instruments being played.
Emancipator: The violin is a friend, the electric guitar and keys were me, and there’s an acoustic guitar sample that comes in that my friend Tourin from college recorded. We were just jamming in our dorm room and I said, “Hey play that” and ended up keeping that loop in the song.
In college you studied psychology at William and Mary, what interests you most about the science behind how our brains react to sound?
Emancipator: Its really fascinating the complexity of our brain, how it can interpret sound and translate it into music. The ability of our ears to dissect sound, you only have two eardrums and there’s only a single waveform reaching each ear, but our brain analyzes it and breaks it down into all these different layers. Really good music will stimulate so many different areas of the brain at once, and that’s when you’re really getting into a song, when its activating certain expectation and memories based on the combination of sounds that are in that track. The power of one waveform to that is really special to me.
Speaking of the power of music, what do you aspire to do with your music? Do you have a goal of how you want it to affect people?
Emancipator: Making this music is more of a personal thing and a pleasure to be making it, but I’ve gotten a response from people and been told that people go to my music as a healing tool or a source of entertainment and that it means a lot to me. It’s really inspiring, my goal is to keep writing more music and to grow as a musician and a producer.
You founded Loci Records last year. What is your dream for the future of your label?
Emancipator: I’d like to expand the artist roster and have it serve as an outlet for this style. I know there are a lot of producers out there that are on this wavelength that are just waiting to be heard.
How do you feel about the future of electronic with all these young producers coming out?
Emancipator: It’s exciting. Technology is incredibly advanced these days and kids are learning at earlier and earlier ages, so the output of electronic music will only get more and more impressive as these producers hone their skills. Its only recently gotten really popular, people are buying laptops instead of guitars…
What hardware and software do you use on top of the instruments?
Emancipator: I still use my Fender Stratocaster and Acid Pro; I still have a few songs in Acid Pro land that I’m finishing up, but now I’m working in Ableton. I’ve also got a Moog Voyager synthesizer and a Nord Stage Piano and a Drumkit that I’m gonna get mic’d up soon to start recording my own drum samples.
If you someone had to choose between downloading your album or going to your concert, which one would you prefer?
Emancipator: That’s tough- I’d say go with the album because you’re going to have that forever. You’ll have memories of the concert, but the album is a better way to experience my sound. Some things get lost in translation in the live setting.
What music did you listen to growing up?
Emancipator: I played violin as a kid, so I always listened to classical music. In high school, I was into bands like the Pixies, Fugazi, and Modest Mouse, so a lot of alternative rock and underground hip hop. I’ve always enjoyed folk music as well, Iron and Wine sort of stuff.
What music inspires you now?
Emancipator: Lately I’ve been digging a lot of garage music from the UK. I started producing a few tracks in that style, artists like Burial that are able to encapsulate a decade of influences into one song, that’s inspiring.
Who are you most excited to see at LIB?
Emancipator: Nicholas Jar. I love his music but I’ve never seen him live. And Tycho. One of my favorites, I listen to him all the time. ODESZA too. Purity Ring yesterday, I really dug them.
Have you been to Burning Man before?
Emancipator: This last year was my first time, and I’m already playing a few shows this year too.
Emancipator: I’m doing the sunrise at Fractal nation Friday night/Saturday morning (the weekend of the Burn). I’m playing a show at Sacred spaces that same night, before. Hopefully I’ll do an art car set on Praxis, the big golden dragon. They usually launch from Fractal Nation.
Can you now take me through the different steps of creating a track?
Emancipator: It’s a long process. I’ll start with one loop and I’ll work vertically for a while, adding loops and layers that go together. Eventually I start working on the arrangement, writing it out over time.
By vertically, you mean in the way Ableton’s structured?
Emancipator: Yea, like I’ll loop the first 10 second loop and keep adding layers that go together until there are too many layers, and then I’ll spread them out over the course of a song. I’ll sit on tracks for a while, I’ll let them distill, and then I’ll open them up months later.
That sounds almost like a big bang theory of music, packing everything into one little space before it expands.
Emancipator: That’s true, most of the work gets done in that initial wave. After that it becomes more like work and less like play. Like “Alright, I gotta fix all these sounds I recorded earlier.” But I like both, I like the creative aspect and the engineering, logical aspect. Electronic music is a good fit for me.
How do you feel about vinyl vs. CDs vs. controllers? What do you see for the future of that and how do you feel about it?
Emancipator: It’s more what you’re doing with it then the medium. *Champagne pops* Wooh! Certain controllers will let you do things that you can’t do with vinyl, so you gotta choose how you want to perform it. I don’t have an allegiance to either, I’m not a vinyl purist. I grew up not using vinyl, using midi controllers and computers.
Where did the name Emancipator come from?
Emancipator: I came about that name when I was in high school. I think it started with a sense of freedom, like “This is my project, and I want to create an epic legendary alter ego with a mythic character: Emancipator.” These days I interpret it more as using music to free your mind from the moment: transcendence through music.
How would you describe your album to someone who’s never heard your music before?
Emancipator: It uses a lot of clean production, chilled instruments, melodic and uplifting atmosphere.
What’s show are you most looking forward to play?
Emancipator: Well Burning Man’s a huge adventure. I’m excited to go to Europe in October. Russia and Denmark and Ukraine and some cool places I’ve never been. I was just there in April for a big adventure, we were driving on the Autoban, rowing boats in Slovenia, hanging on on the London Bridge.
Are there any young artists you think I should look into?
Emancipator: Tor, check him out. There’s an artist called Ambinate that I’ve been talking to about signing to Loci, there’s an artist called Two Days to Alaska. Cello and beats and piano, its really good melodies.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Emancipator: Hope to see some readers out at Burning Man or Red Rocks, and throughout the rest of the summer.