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The following questions were sourced from the TLS Facebook page.
What made you decide to focus on creating instrumental music?
It wasn’t on purpose at first. A guy from a record label I had been in touch from some remixes I had done actually put me up to it. I didn’t initially think that people would be interested in music with no vocals, but he encouraged me to go ahead and try it, to at least have a demo out. That “demo” ended up being the first TLS release “Underneath”. People responded to it fairly positively, so I decided to keep exploring in that direction. In our culture, instrumental music is generally seen as a background element in films/games, etc. so it was an interesting challenge to try to write engaging music without vocals that wasn’t dance-focused.
There are definitely some positives though, instrumental music provides a lot of good opportunity for experimenting with genre. I’m able to play around with some elements of extreme metal like blastbeats, because of the lack of death metal vocals that may typically be a turn off for people. In the past, I did get a lot of comments suggesting that the music would be better with vocals, but its decreased with time. Ironically, I’m actually seeing more of the opposite now, typically any remix or collaboration I do will result in some emails from people wanting the instrumental tracks.
How do you make a living selling music as an independent artist?
“Making a living” may be a bit of a stretch at times, but it works with certain accommodations. If you want non-mainstream music to be your primary source of income, you really have center your entire life around it. My partner and I have always tried to live in the cheapest places possible, I sold my car and now only have a motorcycle (it’s cheaper, and I can typically repair it myself), and we have a very strict food budget, etc… The only reason this works is that I do everything myself. Without the expenses of recording, art, and promotion I can put 100% of income into living expenses or reinvestment.
Everything being 100% DIY keeps things sustainable, but also creates a situation in which I am my own bottleneck. I’m usually so tied up in the production side of things that I can’t get to every email. I’ve got a bunch of cool ideas, but just don’t have time to put in the legwork needed to make them happen. I’m definitely at a place now where I need help, but I’m admittedly not really sure what that looks like. It would be great if there was a label out there that would be a good fit, but my experience with labels so far has been disappointing. I’m looking into putting together my own team, but it’s tough with limited funding.
What equipment do you use?
I typically prefer software over hardware, since it supports my workflow better. I’m using Cubase, Native Instruments stuff, Fabfilter plugins.. pretty much the same stuff as anyone else doing electronic music. I’ve purchased some analog synths recently for live usage, but some did show up on the Invocation Array record. I think a lot of musicians tend to overestimate the need for *specific* pieces of gear or software. There is nothing I use that I would say is an essential and irreplaceable element of the TLS/IA sound. I wouldn’t even go as far to say that I think the gear I use is even the *best* of the available options, it’s just what supports my creative process best. For example, I do most of my initial songwriting in Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 (which still works in Windows 8!), that came out in ‘99. Its archaic by today’s standards, but I’ve used it so much that I could run it in my sleep and it doesn’t get in my way when I’m trying to get an idea down quick. That being said, there’s all kinds of stuff that I would love to have, but having a very limited budget requires me to be very selective about what equipment I invest in.
Recently, I was working on a song (Invocation Array – Little Dark Star) and had a very specific guitar sound in mind. I really wanted a huge, shoegazey wall of reverb tone, so I spent a whole day researching bands who had that kind of sound. I traced a couple of records back to one particular producer, then found an interview with him and noted one particular reverb unit. I looked it up on Ebay, couldn’t afford it, started looking for modern alternatives, and ended up finding a small modular company that made a comparable effect. The dev had a blog about making some of the devices, and he mentioned a subtle pitch modulation in the reverb signal. To make an already too long story shorter, one of the reverbs that come with Cubase allows you to modulate the pitch, so I was able to exact sound I wanted with stuff I already had… and actually ended up turning the effect way down in the final mixes, so it didn’t even matter.
How did you get started producing?
Out of necessity. I never really wanted to be a producer, it just becomes an essential skill when you insist on writing music that labels don’t want to put out. 15 years ago, my first band wanted a demo and we couldn’t afford a studio, so I recorded it myself. That happened repeatedly over the course of 15 years and almost as many bands. Occasionally, I made some money recording someone else’s band and made some money to buy some better gear. Its really only been in just the last 2 years or so that I’ve been making a specific effort to increase my skill, which is much easier now that you can look anything up on Youtube.
How do you stay inspired to create music?
I generally try to avoid using words like “inspired”, as I feel they have a kind of romanticized connotation that isn’t necessarily realistic or helpful. Instead of seeking “inspiration”, I try to keep an attitude of openness to new experiences. Back in college, I recorded a local punk band and played a few guitar riffs on one of the songs. They asked me to play guitar for their CD release show, and I ended up joining the band and spending a few summers in a van. I was exposed to many different influences during that time (actually, one of my favorite bands now), and I would have missed all of it if I had stuck to the metal world I knew. It’s all about diversity. Get out of your genre. Walk down the street and meet some new people. There is an infinite variety of music out there, if anyone thinks everything is the same and they’ve heard it all, then they’re not paying attention. We have Youtube now. There is no excuse to not be able to find something new.
What is like to be female in traditionally male dominated space and genre?
My current situation is probably a little different than most, since I’m independent and my own personal space/network isn’t male dominated, though it certainly hasn’t always been that way. My experience is largely the same as any other women in the industry. I have all the same anecdotes about people assuming I’m incompetent, assuming I have a ghost producer, refusing to book me outside of the annual all-female night, and bizarre fixations on my appearance, etc… I don’t really see much value in talking about specific instances, but there is definitely a cumulative effect over time that makes you feel very unwelcome and unwanted.
I used to fight more, but in general I just opt out of lots of things/events now. To clarify, that’s not because my “delicate” feelings are hurt, or I’m offended and have to run home and cry or anything. If people are going to look down on me for being female/black/trans/whatever, I’m just not going to waste my time on them. If a gaming/music site asks me for an interview and the first thing I see on their site is an article about how evil women are ruining everything, I’m not going to do that interview. If I go to a store and they tell me the synth I’m there to buy is too complicated and I probably wouldn’t understand it, then I’ll just order it online direct from the manufacturer.
For better or worse, my general policy of avoiding stuff that pisses me off typically has me avoiding the entire industry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my favorite female musicians are also independent. Its definitely tough at times without the resources and networking that come from being involved in the scene more, and I’ll admit that it can be tempting at times to just give in and play the game. But ultimately, is it worth fighting to be a part of a system that will never value you? I don’t need who they are.
Has the increase in transgender visibility over the past few years made it easier to be a trans musician?
Even though there has definitely been an increase in visibility, I still feel a lot of pressure to not talk about it, as it still has a tendency to dominate people’s thinking about everything. One social network in particular seems to be very fixated on me being trans, and it’s consistently brought up as a negative almost every time my music is mentioned. I’ve even seen some reviews that spend more time talking about my appearance or theorizing about my genitals than talking about the music. Overall, it’s pretty disappointing and frustrating.
I’ve always wanted my music to be evaluated on its own merit without people’s various cultural or religious hangups being a factor, but often the cost of that is that you have to erase or minimize part of your identity. If you ever acknowledge being trans outside of trans-specific places it’s frequently used against you. People will say that you are just talking about being trans for attention, or that you want special treatment, or you’re trying to be “controversial”, etc… (which I’m *obviously* doing with my music with no lyrics that never features images of me in the packaging…) which isn’t what it’s about at all. Art is built on the foundation of the artist’s ideas, experiences, and perspective, so you can’t ever really separate who you are from what you create.
There is definitely a balance that is tricky, and I don’t claim have it figured out. It’s tough, especially as an independent artist. Since I’m doing everything myself, a lot of PR and networking is based on personal interactions with me, which can be a barrier for some people. Music culture is shifting in a way that people are expecting more access to, and interactions with the artists, so you have to put yourself out there and open yourself up to a lot more negativity than in the past. I expect that things will continue to improve in the future, but it’s still lonely at times.Because of the social pressure for trans musicians to not talk about their experiences, most don’t. Obviously, there are a few key figures, but there are *tons* of other trans musicians out there that you never hear from.