By Katherine Hambrick
How long have you been doing electronic music and how long have you just been doing music in general?
Well, I’ve been doing music in general most of my life in some capacity or another. I started out doing things like choir, band, piano lessons. Then I started doing little kiddie bands when I was 11 or 12. Then graduated to electronic music not that far later, I had my first DJ residency when I was 14. So it’s been about 17 years now that I’ve been doing electronic music.
Why electronic music?
I guess the thing is, ever since I was little, I’ve just heard things in my head, and I can only learn to play so many instruments and they only have a limited sonic palette, you know? We generally in a traditional orchestra or band, you’re writing within a certain bandwidth or frequency of tone, for each instrument. Whereas, with electronic music, it’s almost limitless. If anything, it’s all that more difficult, because you can go anywhere. So it’s pretty…it’s just pretty amazing to have that boundless capacity. And be able to command not only any sound in the universe, but an entire orchestra or guitar player without any of that.
That is something that I wanted to ask…I was wondering how – I know you write music and sing and play piano – is your songwriting process different for your electronic music as opposed to songwriting in a more classical genre?
Absolutely, because you’re not only dealing with sonic palette, you’re dealing with format. So you know, there’s an interesting crossover – I think we’re in this time now where we’re sort of reaching the peak of vocal front in electronic music, because you know, back when I started there was a very divisive band vs. DJs. Gradually we sort of morphed together where electronic music is on a stadium level, and people still want sort of stadium-level catchiness. Anthem-ness. So now you’re having all these different types of songs, but for a long time, it was DJ mixed and vinyl before CD’s. So at that time, I would write long intros and long outros because the DJ’s were beat matching and it was just a very different format. These days, it’s sort of all been shaken up, people’s attention spans are short, music has gotten really spastic kind of, and really quick, and where I used to write a 64 – bar intro for like a longer, more mellow drum and bass track, these days sometimes 4 bars is all anyone can wait.
And when it goes for vocal track too, it’s a similar thing. If I’m trying to write a 3 ½ minute pop song, it’s got a very precise verse- chorus – verse format. Part of the cool thing about electronic music is that you don’t have to survive that format, you can be weird and experimental, but now that we’re in this position where it is mainstream, I do feel a little bit like the same standards are starting to apply, where I’m going “wow, okay I am writing a 3 ½ minute pop song with beats on it, no matter what I do, whether there is vocals or not.
So you produce mostly electronic, but you also produce film scores : what is your ratio there? And what are you working on for the most part?
I would love to do more film score, but Denver is not really the place to live to do that. I am from Vancouver BC, which is often known as Hollywood North, because the level of post production, I think other than L.A….L.A., New York and Vancouver are pretty much where all the films are done. And unfortunately, despite the fact that you can live anywhere and we shouldn’t really be location bound at this point, there is still a sort of nexus of networking that happens, so in order for me to really be active in the film scene, I’d have to be going out to premieres, meeting directors, shaking hands, all that organic old school stuff. You know. So these days I spend a lot more time writing, and I have been on tour constantly for the last few years, so that was a focus, you know Denver is kind of one of those spots because it is sort of a thriving scene, and because it is sort of a literal hub where you can fly out. That being said - and sorry if my answers are too long – I am focusing right now on trying to meet in the middle on that. Because I do enjoy not being on the road all the time, and I do enjoy writing stuff that is used on T.V. so I am exploring licensing and library music, which is definitely writing a lot of stuff and not knowing necessarily where it’s going to be used, but that it will be used with an image or with a video. That’s a whole different humbling thought process that I really enjoy. I hope to divide it more evenly in the next year or two.
That’s really interesting. As an aside: you want to write archival music that is part of a public archive?
When you’re writing one of your DJ’s tracks, do you write lyrics first when you decide to sing over it, or do you write the DJ track first, or how do those things come together when you’re singing over one of your tracks?
Well, the nice thing about being the one and only person in a process is that I can do whatever I want, versus when you work with another artist, if I am doing vocals for someone else, I inevitably have to adapt what I am writing to the music because the music comes first, but in my own stuff I generally do – if it’s going to be a vocal song, the lyric and the hook is the most important. The whole track is going to fit around that. The captain so to speak of the journey. If I’m writing a vocal track I usually will just lay out a simple drum loop or even some piano, just something to write around, and then build everything around it, for sure.
And you said you don’t work with anybody right now for your music – have you collaborated a lot in the past?
I actually do constantly work with people, just not with Ill-esha stuff. The solo project. It’s a very contentious, sort of thorny point that I have to always tell people that, because the assumption with women unfortunately is that there is a guy in the background somewhere that does all the technical stuff. But that being said, I want to establish, I absolutely love the genesis of working creatively with other people, and it’s something I constantly keep up. And I actually have a really long constantly increasing whiteboard list of tracks I’ve started with other people just so I don’t forget, and I’d say it’s about 20-30 tracks plus deep right now. And if I was actually able to finish all of them right this moment, I would have hours and hours of music.
In fact, I love that part so much, I am starting a little miniseries, called collab city. At the moment it’s just going to be these little small, 3 minute episodes. But it’s focused on the enjoyment and the magic that happens when you get together with someone else, and your energy fuse together, and the way that your process changes.
Is it like a little podcast?
It’s a little video show, and you know I have pretty big plans for what I want to do, but it’s starting small. It’s going to be little clips that are more the fun part of the process. With a few little tips here, and gradually I’d like to expand it to having samples and sounds available from each video for people to play with and download and stuff. You know, eventually it’s going to be a very interactive experience. It’s meant to inspire people creatively.
I really feel we mythologize talent in an unhealthy way in our society. You know, we talk about, you know, “I’m not a professional singer, so I don’t sing,” but the funny thing is with athletes, we don’t say “I’m just no good at javelin throwing,” because we all know that’s something that you decide you want to do, and you learn and then you become good at it. No one just throws up their hands and says, “I’ll never be a javelin thrower!” but they do that with singing. And with production, and all kinds of things. And it’s kind of dangerous, because the funny thing about it is, it’s quite easy as far as anything you would learn goes. You know, it’s just a case of that 10,000 hour rule. You decide you want to do it, you practice around, you suck for a while, and gradually suck less. And I think if people see that hey, this is just another thing you can spend time on, maybe we can demystify it and get more people inspired to create.
That’s really interesting. You said two things, you said ill-esha is your solo project, so that’s different from your Elysha Zade? What’s different musically between those personas?
Well, the second thing is just my name, and that’s why I’ll use if I’m doing composition, or work for hire, anything where my artistic name isn’t really attached to it. It doesn’t really matter. But I definitely have a lot of plans to start a lot of new projects.
But it’s interesting, what’s in a name? it’s a question, Shakespeare dealt with it many years ago, but what it is is that now in our culture, people are so attached to the newness, the next big thing. When I was in high school – and I was just thinking about this today – because a bunch of friends of mine, we used to be online together in 2001 with music. We’re sort of having this online reunion where we’re listening to old songs, talking to each other. And my one friend puts a song on the radio and right away I stop what I’m doing and scream out the name of the track, and think about the artist, and I picture the vinyl that goes with it, and you know we don’t really do that anymore to that same extent, cause there’s just simply so many artists. There’s so much music, and even the artists I love the most, there are so many of them, I couldn’t possibly have them on my mind all the time. And people are always like “this is the next big thing, this is on the front of the wave,” so I do you know…ill-esha is sort of like my child that I’ve had, it’s almost 20 years old, and it’s tough to let it go, but there is a certain part of me that’s realizing it’s not as exciting to this new generation, or to people who want something new…it would be interesting to try out new names to represent how far the music has come. Because Ill-esha now is very different than Ill-esha 17 years ago.
I didn’t want to harp on it too much, but you did mention being a woman and there being a stereotype that there’s a man somewhere doing more work than she is – but it sounds like that’s been a theme in your life as a woman DJ? You’re the only woman DJ on sub.mission’s agency artist list, so I thought was kind of interesting, I was wondering if that’s what it’s been like, and how does that change how you perform or how you think you’re perceived?
Yeah, well. I’m definitely not afraid to talk about it, but obviously be very careful if you quote me on this, because I don’t want to be misinterpreted at all, but it’s kind of – I’m not trying to relate it to this experience, but it’s sort of like being a black person in America. You don’t really get to ignore that you’re a black person. You don’t get the choice to take that off when you get home, whether you like it or not, you have to confront the cultural issues that are surrounding you that are important, and you know. Again, not to compare the struggle at all because it’s infinitely more difficult, but you know, being a woman in the industry, it really is the elephant in the room. There are a lot of women that I respect and love a lot and they won’t talk about it. And if you interview them, it’s sort of like in their package, like “this person does not answer these questions,” but I’m not going to be one of those women. I feel like until we don’t need to talk about it anymore, we need to talk about it. I just think…of course my whole career it’s surrounded me, and for many years I was trying not to acknowledge it. I wore really tomboyish clothes, and was dressed very plain. Because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to get by on my gender or my looks, and I also made a point when I started releasing music, as a solo producer, in 2009 that it was all instrumental. Because as soon as I sing on an album, everyone just thinks I’m the singer. Because that’s all women do.
It definitely affected…I mean, as soon as I get up there, I’m oblivious, it’s not like once I get up there I’m conscious of being a woman, but as far as my creative output and how it’s presented, it’s been a very calculated and difficult decision making process every time I put something out… it’s like “oh, do I want to sing on this? Because then that’s just sort of just throwing away all of my production credentials right there.” Which is terrible! That shouldn’t be a thing. Not even to devalue the skill of singing and songwriting. You know, doing both, sometimes I would say that it’s way harder to write a compelling lyrical on key song than it is to write a good beat. But unfortunately, singing, dancing and painting are these traditionally carved artistic pathways for women. Whether I walk into a venue for sound check and get asked immediately if I’m a gogo dancer while wearing a hoodie and carrying 50 lbs of gear, or you know…me just trying to talk to people backstage like “oh I had a show, or I played here” and trying to jump into a conversation and they’re response is “oh a show? What kind of show? Are you a fire dancer?” and if I say it’s music, it’s “oh really? Do you sing?” it becomes embarrassing to constantly validate my technical credentials as something incredible because I don’t think it’s incredible. And that’s another deep part to why I want to keep talking about it, and why I want to take this mystique away and dissolve that boundary because I think that women more than ever are affected by that imaginary wall.
Imposter syndrome is such a female thing to me, because every woman I know, myself included is like “I don’t know if it’s good enough to put out yet, and let me measure it some more, and let me think about my strategy and I don’t know if I’m ready,” and guys are like “I did this thing.” They’re not taught to question or measure themselves and there are so many models in society of mediocre male artists and it’s fine, no one complains. But the other thing is if a woman does appear, she better be a triple threat. She better be singer, DJ, producer, multitalented, super genius mensa…you know, the bar is so much higher that it discourages women who are like, maybe I just want to DJ, but that’s not okay. I have to be this super producer, I have to be this extroverted insane person.
Definitely. Do you think that any criticism that you’ve read, do you think that it has stemmed from that?
My criticism is interesting, because – not because I’m necessarily at all a Hillary fan – but sort of like the way that people talk abuse about her during her campaign is something I can relate to. Because on a technical level, I’d say that I’ve been very very fierce and very very proactive to know so much, and you know some of the personalities online that are well known for teaching, like Illgates and Mr. Bill that have tutorials and make somewhat of a living off of this – they call me and ask me for technical advice on things. And you know I fix people’s macs and people’s PC’s and I’ve gotten to a nerd level enough to protect myself from any technical scrutiny, because there are enough people that will not only vouch for me, but laud my credibility. And you know, in some way I have to thank discrimination for making me so knowledgeable, that was definitely the fire under my ass. You know, you can’t not know anything. You have to know not only as much as the guys, but you have to know more, and you have to be better at it. Smarter at it. Because people are always going to think that you’re lower.
That’s one thing. But the other part though is the personal side, which I am much more harshly judged in difficult situations. And difficult situations do come up a lot. Because I tend to do a live show that is different from other people’s shows, I tend to push the envelope, which is yet another way of having to do it harder and better and smarter – and often the sound person will be uninformed or knowledgable and should I not dress up my words with platitudes and sorry’s and pleases and smiles, I’m a bitch, and difficult to deal with, and 100% that’s where I feel the difference. Not just the technical side, but the composure and interactions with people. And you know, I’ve literally sent emails to people with bullet point concise lists, of A – Z of a problem and had a reply back telling me my tone is inflammatory. And that I’m being aggressive. People don’t say that! If you screw something up with a man, and he’s giving you a very calm way to rectify the situation, nobody tone policies him.
That’s a good point…Even I had felt when I listened inherently that maybe the singer was just singing and not necessarily the person who produced the tracks. Do you feel like your produce more DJ tracks because of that perception, or do you not let it affect what type of music you produce?
Now that I feel like I’ve established myself enough as a producer, I’m not as concerned, but…the only way that it affects me is if I’m at a show, and I constantly hear the DJ yelling out “this is an original,” it actually really irritates me but I find myself having to do that at least a couple times, because as soon as I don’t I’ll have someone come up to me and say “I didn’t recognize any of those tracks, you gotta tell me who made them,” and you know…I do definitely have an entire sarcastic t shirt line in the back of my brain that’s like my way of dealing with frustration. T shirts that say “yes, I made this.” I’m not the only one. There are other producers, this one girl, Ducky, in her bio on soundcloud it just says “yes, I produced it.”
So, I’ve been in a couple of support groups for girls in the industry, napgirls for instance, where it just comes up all the time, it’s such a common theme. And it’s so sad in 2016 to see women seeking help for “I haven’t been paid in two months and another guy that works this gig has gotten paid 3 times already.”
That’s crazy, I would love to talk more about that but…what critique do you have of your own work? Is there anything you’re constantly trying to work on?
That’s an awesome question, I’ve never had that question before, so congratulations. I think definitely I’m super critical of myself. I’ve had people ask, “do you ever stop after something happens and celebrate that it happened?” and I’m like “no no no.”
I think my biggest criticism if my perceived inability to bend to accessibility. What I mean by that is that a lot of people will criticize and say that “oh, this edm track it’s so shitty, I could make that in 5 minutes.” Yeah? Do it then. And I won’t ever say that because I’ve definitely had lower points in my life where I’m saying like, oh gosh, I’m not doing so well, maybe I should just make what everyone else does, and I try and I really just can’t. I can’t explain it. I can write something for a film that’s not necessarily a style I like, but when it comes to trying to make a piece of artistry that has my name on it, that will fit whatever trendy format at the time, it just never works, you know? I just have too many diverse tastes to ever be able to just check all the boxes for one thing.
In a way, it sounds sort of narcissistic “I’m so great because I’m so much more diverse than these people,” but that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s a frustration I have with myself. Like, “hey can’t you just compromise and do weird stuff that you do but just put a little bit of formula into it so people are into it?” and that’s something I’m still working on. By dose of humility, I’m still going through and doing the same things that I did when I started, watching tutorials, listening to other people’s tips. I think the most dangerous point you get to as a producer is when you get too comfortable and think you’ve figured it out. And that’s where you get that person that makes the same track every time. That’s my greatest fear. I think that’s what keeps me stubborn in a way. And I’m definitely hoping in the next year or two to train myself to get a track out in the next year or two that hits on that mass appeal level and still is me.
In that same vein, has there been any trend that you’ve managed to successfully incorporate into your own weird because it’s just naturally mixed in well?
Absolutely. I am loving the future bass trend. Because it’s all the things that I’ve always done. I’ve always chopped up my vocals as samples because that was the tool I had available to me, my voice. And I’ve always made big melodic chords because it’s a huge strength from playing piano since age four. So I’m definitely…this current genre is the closest thing I’ve been able to get to something that fits into a style, because there’s less rules, there’s no tempo rules because that’s something that I’ve always not been able to deal with. Yeah, right now is the closest I’ve gotten, so I’m hoping it doesn’t change too much next.
Have you felt any positive response in that regard? Do you think other people are responding more because it’s popular?
It’s hard to say because the course of my career, I would say my music making related production ability is inversely proportionate to the ability of an artist to organically reach people. So when I started it was much easier to reach people, but I wasn’t as good as I am now. And now we’re at this point of extreme oversaturation, and it can be pretty frustrating, to be honest. I’m making the highest quality, best produced, well-thought out music I’ve ever made, way more than I ever did before, but now it’s impossible to get it to anybody. Everything is constantly buried under the constant algorithms, fanboxing, ad buying, all this stuff. I think the people who do hear my music – and every body, my peers, the people who support me – are saying this is absolutely the best stuff you’ve ever written, but the reach has just dwindled.
Just the other day I was doing a DJ set for my friend at grassroots for their store opening and somebody came up to me and was like “man I bumped nothing but your tracks 5 years ago,” and I said “so what happened in 5 years?” and he said “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.” And I said it’s totally cool, please stay for my set, I promise you my tunes are a lot better than they were five years ago.
That’s really interesting. Can you remedy that?
It’s sort of funny what you have to do. When I was a kid, I used to play chess against the computer and I could never win because it was a computer, and nowadays I feel like it’s the same thing, constantly fighting against technology to be heard.
I’m going to try to segue hard here, but this is a really interesting point. You’re saying technology is changing the way you reach out to people, but how has it changed the samples you use in your actual music? Is there something you’re excited about?
It’s so technically based, sometimes you can date a track by it’s sonic texture, telling what plugins were used, because there’s trends in the music scene just like in beauty or fashion. They’ll be a new plugin that will come out and people from a new genre will catch on and talk about it, and then it catches on. And it definitely changes the way I make music because every time a new tool comes out it can entirely change my process. Right now, I’m dealing with my mind being blown because one of the things we’ve always joked about – all of us – is wouldn’t it be nice if there was a little gnome that lived in your computer and once you’ve done all the fun part, all the writing, the gnome comes out and does calibrating and making the level okay. And so a plugin came out that basically does that. So I feel like we’re almost at singularity level with this technology, like soon you’ll just be able to wirelessly Bluetooth from your brain into the computer, and then after that we’ll just open our mouths and it will come out.
Not for myself, but for producers who rely heavily on sampling existing music, which is not me because I’ve always been an instrument player and composer so it’s easier for me to sample music, but for those people it can be really difficult because back in the day you could just simple things, but now it’s super illegal and focused on and now there’s algorithms that will instantly run your song through and it can detect without a person that you’re using this copyrighted material. I think that’s changing the way music is made quite a lot, sample based music. They either had to buy that sample, or they had to hack it up so much or they had to remake it. It definitely measures the creativity a little bit . but for me I would say the development in plugin technology is definitely changed the way I make my sounds. The ease of the technology available.
Do you use other samples?
Absolutely, what I mean is the difference between a single hit sample and an actual piece of music. I’ll use a sample of a kick drum being hit once in a drum kit and I’ll play the drums using the single hit samples, but I’m not going to record an entire hip hop track and cut a section out of it or you know what I mean? Or sample the chord progression of an existing piece. Like I might use a sample of someone playing the A note on a violin and write the melody with that, but I’m not going to sample an entire classical piece of music.
What are your electronic and non electronic music influences?
Definitely of all time, Imogen Heap and Bjork are the two sort of major influence. Not only are they badass women, but they’re also pushing technology and developing them. Like Bjork has developed these physical midi instruments, like the reactable, I think she had a part in. And Imogen Heap is making these gloves, midi gloves. Beyond the fact that they’re amazing musicians and cool people, they just seem to always be pushing technology, which is a passion of mine. And it ties in a lot with music. And I have a lot of friends that play instruments who are very old school about, I play the violin, the cello, the guitar, nothing better than just the guitar. And I enjoy that, but for me the excitement is making a sound that has never been made, or commanding an entire virtual orchestra. Doing crazy things that haven’t existed in sonic space.
What genre do you classify yourself in currently, are you moving to any other genre? What new music are you working on? I really loved the Wordless EP, it seems a lot more groovy and funky than other stuff I’ve heard from you. Is this the sound you're moving to?
I would say somewhere between alt-R&B and future bass would be my home planet, but I'm a galactic explorer who has landed in many systems. Currently, I actually have several projects nearly completed and I'm not even composing but just fine tuning the mixes, trying to organize them into albums, and deciding their destination! I'll have to take a break to finish this tour with PartyWave first.
And Wordless is definitely closest to my newest stuff for sure. It is the newest release.
Is there any current or future project you want to plug?
Mostly just the new video content that's going to come from me. There will be a number of segments but the first one is called CollabCity and it's going to air starting in November on a new network called RecordMob.
When you're being interviewed about your music or career, what story do you want to tell about yourself? Is there a way you want your music or persona to be perceived?
The story I want to tell with my music and my message is one of creative inspiration and indulgence mixed with balance, health and awareness of the world around you. Using your own innovative impulses to leave the world a better place than you found it. I dedicate a certain part of my time to education, mentoring and just plain helping others because I think it keeps you humbled and balanced - and I feel like it's a key part to being happy in life. I've always wanted to make people feel happy through music, but as I get older I become more aware of the deep problems in society around me and it's just as important for me to do my part in those too.