Creative Technology? Violet Talks
Inês Coutinho, A.K.A. Violet, has very much her own take on dance music. Her tracks are raw, uncompromising and machine lead, but while she can turn out blistering techno, she’s just at home making dreamy tracks and quasi-jungle jams too. She’s probably best known for her amazing re-works of early house masterpieces with the male vocals reimagined by female singers that are every bit as iconic as the originals. With a new label Naïve just about to launch, we caught up with the Portuguese talent to find out about how she connects with the hardware and software that she uses to create her music.
What is your relationship with the technology you use to create music? Do you feel like you have an emotional connection with any specific item of hardware or software or do you see the studio simply as a tool to realise your musical ideas?
I'm not a hardware (or software) nerd by any means and tend to see my tools to make music as something to play with rather than completely dominate. I'm pretty sure I'm oblivious to lots of things on Ableton Live or some of the hardware I use, but that's OK with me, I do still have a bit of an emotional connection to them precisely because I see them as co-creators of my music. For example, I still use Ableton 8, probably because I'm somehow attached to how it works and not that keen on a new process. I'm not saying I won't eventually adopt a newer version but I think this tendency reflects a relationship of sorts. I'm used to this 'team'. I feel the same way about the hardware I use: I've been using a 303 clone for maybe 3 years now that a friend lent us, and when I moved from London to Lisbon I bought it off him and brought it with me because I felt somehow involved with it – maybe cause I'd done some music on it that I'm happy about? Even not being a materialist/rationalist, it's hard for me to feel detached from certain objects, especially when they're so instrumental (no pun intended) in doing what I love. Having said this, I don't feel dependent on my gear to make music. I'm sure I'd find a way If (knock on wood) I lost it all.
Tell me about how you first connected with music technology and making tracks – was it nerd-love at first sight or did you have to struggle your way through to work out how to use the machines/software to realise the sounds in your head?
I first started making really simple beats on an AKAI MPC2000, and back then I was only doing very basic functions of sampling and layering loops, and never really learned to milk it properly. I would get quite into it but then if I'd hit a wall I'd get too frustrated. When I got Ableton Live though, I took a lot more time to sit with it and slowly learn everything. It's still my main production tool today. I did struggle a bit at the beginning, but it is a very user-friendly software and that helped me progress without getting stuck too often. It still took me a good year to come up with anything decent on it. back when I bought it in 2008 I didn't really have anyone close to me who used it and could give me tips. I'm also somehow a bit allergic to video tutorials (let alone instruction manuals) which definitely works against me. I can't seem to focus on watching/reading the whole thing! I eventually nailed it by extreme trial and error and the odd tip I'd get here and there. I'm still learning to use it after almost 10 years to be honest, when I collaborate with someone I seem to always learn a new shortcut or a functionality I was unaware of. Out to BLEID who actually taught me a few amazing tricks recently. The other pieces of gear I use are MIDI controllers which are quite straightforward key / pad / knob / fader things that I had no problem learning; and I also use the xoxbox (a Roland 303 clone with a couple modifications). I was lucky enough to have been taught by Photonz about the basics of writing on it, so that was a bit of a fast track. It's quite simple to use, really. Again, what's hard is to come up with a decent line on it that doesn't sound silly. I've been slowly getting there by experimenting with the machine, trying different notes and parameters to see what works for me.
So some of your best known material has been the absolutely awesome re-interpretations of old Chicago House tracks but with all female vocals, and much of your sound pallet in your other tracks draws heavily on the iconic pieces of gear that have shaped house and techno ever since. What do you think it is about these classic pieces of kit that keep us producers coming back again and again?
I think the producers coming up with house, techno and acid in the 80s were doing something remarkable which is discovering new ways of using tools that were meant for other music styles, and in the process inventing new genres. That is particularly true about the 303, which was a bass synth to help guitar players rehearse. That spirit of improvising with what you have is what i think made that sound so original – these people stumbled upon something futuristic-sounding and evocative with what seemed a pretty obsolete, cheap machine. They were winging it with what they could get their hands on really and it worked because music comes from a immaterial place, from some sort of sorcery we have inside us. It's alchemical in that sense, that's why it feels so special in such an archetypal, timeless way. Hence music fans and makers coming back to it again and again, like a trusted recipe from a beloved granny. It's admirable that this music comes from a poor community, but one that had some of the strongest social values. That's probably why they wanted to dance together so badly. That's beyond beautiful and I respect it so much.
Your productions often tread the line between chaotic sonic elements and pure dancefloor functionality – how easy is it to get that kind of off kilter sound when the machines/software are often designed to smooth out the irregularities?
For someone who is curious and likes to play with limited resources It's not that hard. I experiment a lot with effects, and particularly with effects that weren't built to be used with certain instruments, much like the acid pioneers in Chicago were using the 303 the 'wrong' way. That often creates a weird sound. Sometimes too weird to use. Some other times, it falls on that sweet spot that combines experimentalism, emotion and functionality.
Do you ever find the technology you use to make music ever gets in the way of realising your ideas? Or put another way – do you ever get hyped for an idea only to see it slowly filter away as you try to put it together in the studio?
All the time. Almost always, in fact. But I kind of love that process. It teaches me lots, it humbles me. It summons that feeling of co-creation. That I'm not alone, that music-making is somehow a two-way thing even if I'm doing it alone. I remember very well that when I started making the first track I ever finished, 'Palmas', my idea was to write a beat that sounded like Lumidee's 'Never leave you'. What came out couldn't be more different: an optimistic deep house track – but I was really happy with it. It was like discovering another side to me that I didn't know existed, and isn't music all about self-discovery too?
Do you ever feel like throwing your gear out of the window in a fit of rage or is your relationship with your studio a perfect picture of harmony?
I'm largely cool with my gear, since it's been the same for ages and I know all the tricks to get it working fine. I remember though that at first it was super frustrating to work with software and machines I had no experience with. Not in a throw-out-the-window way, but in an I-hate-myself-and-will-never-learn-this-sh*t way. Thankfully time and my music friends made it all worthwhile. Having said that, I'm definitely still fine-tuning my production skills and I suspect I will be for a long long time. No rush though, I love to take a mistake and make it sound deliberate.
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