Deerful is the singer-songwriter imagined by mobile developers, found in real life. She’s not just another producer, but an earnest lyricist.
You can follow Emma on her YouTube channel, crooning covers to Game Boy accompaniment or deftly playing with a Novation Circuit in place of guitar. And now she’s got a full-length LP to her name, called Peach, released on London indie label wiaiwya (CD/vinyl/download).
Ed.: With Emma’s unique take on music production with apps and mobile gear, we turn over interview duties to the writer who turned us on to her work – and who foresaw just this kind of creative application for such tools. Ashley Elsdon, recently joining CDM and helming our Apps channel, having built the influential Palm Sounds blog on mobile tech, understands the advantage of mobile instruments, apps, battery power, and simple design empowering creativity. So, he’s the ideal person to lead this conversation with fellow UK resident Emma Winston. -PK
I’ve been following Deerful for some time now. Mostly people who make music with the kind of gear she’s using tend to electronic and dance genres, rather than the kind of singer-songwriter material she’s creating – producing more melodic output than you might associate with apps and mobile gear. And I’ve found her lyrics quite unusual, and her musical voice unique.
So, I took the opportunity to ask her about reflect her creative process, how tools fit in, and her sources of musical inspiration.
CDM: How do you make the decision to use a particular technology or instrument in your music?
Deerful: I am actually not very logical or rational about this. Almost every instrument I own, I own because I fell in love with it. (I think the only exception is the [KORG] Electribe 2 I use live – it’s a bit of a pain, but I absolutely could not find a practical alternative which wasn’t wildly expensive.) Consequently, my gear collection is pretty quirky. Nobody needs a [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 or a Pocket Operator or a [Critter & Guitari] Septavox or a Game Boy, but I adore all of them, and it makes me even more excited to make music. It’s also because I feel like a lot of staple gear can be covered by software much more cheaply, so if I’m going to buy hardware, I want it to be special.
You seem to use a lot of mobile gear in your music. Is that a conscious choice?
It’s more that I really love miniature things, and also producing in bed and on the sofa. I definitely like not having to think about wires/speakers. It’s cool to be able to get down ideas with very little gear, but I think it’s more that the tiny, compact, quirky gear I gravitate towards is often mobile, rather than that I consciously look for mobile gear.
Being able to run off batteries also helps when I’m dealing with a live sound engineer who’s never seen an electronic instrument before and wants to have as little to think about as possible, but again, a lesser consideration!
How do you approach the writing process in technology terms? Do you start with a device or a specific technology, or does the song / track come first and the technology support it?
It depends. Sometimes the song comes first, and I’ll decide later exactly how it gets made or arranged. But if I have absolutely no ideas and a deadline to meet, my first recourse is always to pick up a device and see where it takes me. Something always comes from it.
This also varies from device to device and app to app – Korg Gadget, for instance, is an app I pretty much always go to when I already have an idea and want to flesh it out fast – I use it pretty much entirely as an ultra-fast DAW. The Pocket Operators are the opposite – I think of them primarily as idea-factories and a jumping-off point.
Aside from Gadget, do you use other iOS, or indeed Android apps? What’s your motivation for using them? How differently do you find using apps from using hardware?
I definitely use Gadget more than anything else. It’s funny, because I see people talking about it as a groovebox app that’s best for looping, and that’s not how I use it at all. It essentially replaces Ableton for me when I don’t want to haul my laptop around, or if I need to get something that sounds fairly polished together fast and don’t have much time to do lots of production on it.
For actual idea-generation and more groovebox-type applications, my favorite app at the moment is Studio Amplify’s KRFT; it has a really nice interface that’s flexible enough not to just lock you into endless looping, which is what I feel like a lot of iOS apps veer towards. (They also have a more stripped-down free version called NOIZ, which is fun). For more experimental stuff, I love Samplr. I made my first EP mostly in Nanostudio, so that one’s worth a shout-out, although I’ve had a bit of a break from it since – it was the thing that was finally both flexible enough and un-intimidating enough to stop being scared of trying to produce and actually do it.
Every app is different, just as every piece of hardware is different, which is one reason I find the idea that one is somehow inherently better than the other and that you have to pick to be extremely strange. The fastest thing I can do to generate ideas when I’m stuck is switching to a new interface, whether that’s on a touchscreen or on my laptop or boxed up as a dedicated synth. It depends how I’m feeling and where I am and what I need.
I don’t own an Android device entirely because of the relative lack of music apps. I’m really hopeful that will change as their issues with audio improve – mobile music was a huge part of getting me into production and I would love it if that experience was available to more people on a platform with broadly much lower-cost hardware. I said this in an iPad music forum once and people were amazingly defensive about it. As far as I am concerned, all access to music-making is good, and if the 70% or so of smartphone users who own an Android device had a music market as rich as the App Store available to them, I would be stoked about it.
If you could design an app that would be perfect for you, what would it look like and what would it do?
Terrible response, but it would honestly just be Ableton optimized for a 10” touchscreen. Ableton, if you’re reading this, I’m your mobile market.
How do you approach writing lyrics? Do the lyrics come as part of your overall inspiration for a track, or is that something you find separately? What makes you feel like you have a great lyric?
I have recently started referring to myself as a singer-songwriter-producer, because honestly that’s what I am. I’m a songwriter who tells my own stories in performance, but does it with a box with buttons on it instead of a guitar. The lyrics and the song itself and the details of how it’s put together are equal parts. Sometimes a lyric comes first, sometimes a riff, sometimes a chord sequence – sometimes they’re simultaneous.
It’s very much a symbiotic thing. I’m constantly looking for ways to balance the abstract and the specific in my songs – describing moments and fragments of time in detail, but without so much specificity they become alienating.
Who are your influences musically, and who do you find inspiring in terms of technology and approach to process?
The Postal Service was the band that started me out wanting to make electronic music, and I still adore them. I feel like there’s still this idea that electronics are not particularly well-suited to singer-songwriters, which I find so strange because it gives you so much opportunity to design, right down to the sonic building-blocks which make up the song. It becomes part of the storytelling, and I think the Postal Service did that in such a beautifully tactile and warm way. I can literally point to the sample that comes in at 0:28 of ‘Nothing Better’ as the moment I realized I wanted to make electronic music myself – it acts almost like a third vocal melody but also this kind of plaintive emotional punctuation, warm and bit-crushed and sad.
I’ve been listening to a lot of the stuff that’s come out of the label PC Music over the last couple of years. I feel like a lot of what they’re doing is almost the polar opposite to Deerful, which is an almost embarrassingly honest project – they’re very self-aware, very detached, very cool, all things I’m not. A lot of people seem to respond to their artists as if the whole thing is completely ironic, but I hope (and believe) it’s not, because they’ve released some of the most intensely joyful pop music I’ve ever heard, and I desperately want that intensity of happiness to be real on some level.
EasyFun’s “Full Circle” is the track I’ve had on repeat for the last few days. It’s hyper-fun EDM-pop, but there are all these odd details thrown in, strange pitch-shifted samples, bizarre non-functional harmonies that are thrown into the chord and never repeated, weird, unnatural reverb tails and a lead vocal that’s chopped up and treated like a synth. I don’t sound anything like EasyFun, but I really want to get to the point where I can marry full-on unashamed fun with bizarre experimentalism in a similar way and have it all hang together.
In terms of process, I also find Grimes hugely inspiring – she made Visions in three weeks, in GarageBand, because it was what she knew, and she smashed it. She works fast when she needs to, but she knows when to zoom in, when to work on detail, when to really hone in on sound design and tone and tempo. (There’s a great interview where she talks about using samples of dentist drills to add aggressiveness to an 808 in ‘Venus Fly’, and it’s something I never would have even thought of.) I find her confidence and adaptability and willingness to move between pop and noise really impressive. It seems like she’s never held back by limitations or expectations; she just ploughs in and makes what she wants to make and it’s always brilliant.
Finally, let’s talk about your new album. When you set out to create it, what were your specific inspirations? What were you looking to achieve and how successful do you feel you’ve been?
Stylistically, Emily Reo’s gorgeous fuzzy alt-electropop has been a huge influence on all my releases so far (I also accidentally stole the album title, Peach, from one of her songs – it genuinely was an accident, but I think it probably speaks of how much her work has lodged itself in my creative brain.) I credit her music with finally giving me the push I needed to start writing and performing myself. Owen Pallett’s songwriting and storytelling has also always been a huge inspiration, but I’m not sure if that really comes through in the resultant album – I wish it did!
What was I looking to achieve? God, I’ve no idea. Everything is an experiment and an exploration. Everything I release, I do so having no idea how anyone’s going to react to it, and being excited to find out. It’s a brilliant lesson in exactly how bad at mind-reading I am. In general people seem to have liked it; I’ve no idea how it’s sold, and from an artist perspective that doesn’t really matter. When I listen to it now three months after release, I hear a lot I would do differently – I’m very proud of it but also excited to move on to the next thing!
CDM: Thanks, Emma!
It’s been an enlightening experience talking to Deerful. It’s shed light on her music and I’m certainly looking forward to listening to whatever the ‘next thing’ is she’s got planned, and also understanding how it was put together.
Deerful’s latest ablum can be found at wiaiwya and is available as a download, CD, or vinyl.