Off-world Electronica by Fiona Soe Paing

I was lucky enough to catch up with Scottish/Burmese producer and vocalist Fiona Soe Paing for an interview in support of her new EP, Tower of Babel, coming out on November 30, 2012. It will be a free download release by Black Lantern Records, so be sure to get it here:

Evolving her unique sound since 2007, Fiona Soe Paing’s music has been described by Tom Robinson of BBC 6 Music as “weirdness to soothe your soul,” seemingly an early insight into the brilliance that was to come. Tower of Babel can be described as an exploration of the world in a state of flux; a haunting translation cloaked in an apocalyptic backdrop. Fiona’s compelling voice is woven into minimal yet well placed instrumentation that wastes no time pulling you into its mutant world. Expressive in her ability to convey a type of carnival futurism that is reminiscent of a bladerunner-esque reality, Fiona stands on the precipice where genres are redefined and transcended. Her work is at once strikingly original and sure to be supremely influential. Tower of Babel was funded in part by a grant through Creative Scotland and is accompanied by a limited edition DVD of music videos by the New Zealand animation artist Zennor Alexander which have been screened on Sky TV New Zealand and film festivals including Digital Fringe Melbourne and NEON digital arts festival. The DVD is available at her bandcamp page. A series of tour dates are planned for 2013 with a follow up EP of remixes by other Black Lantern artists planned for the spring.

Here is the interview:

FEMMECULT:  Would you tell me a bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What did you do in your youth?

FIONA: I grew up just outside Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland. I studied languages at Aberdeen University for a year, before swapping my course to go and study performing arts in London.  I was always interested in music when growing up – we have a fantastic yearly festival here which used to be called the International Festival of Youth Orchestras. I used to take myself off on my own when I was about 15 or 16 to go to classical concerts, booking my seat as close to the front as possible, so that I could feel the vibrations of the timp drums on the loud parts, lol!  This was when all my friends were off trying to get into see rock bands… haha.  I did the usual girly things like piano lessons and ballet, and through ballet, I got into listening to a lot of classical music – through records like “Your Favourite Ballet Music”  lol… I remember one recording had a violin solo where there was a scratchy bit by mistake – I played it over and over and that was my favourite part of the whole record, that glitchy bit!   But dancing was my top favourite thing- so I went off to study contemporary dance on the performing arts course in London.   And there, again, it turned out that dance was a way into music – from doing choreography, and having to memorise a piece of music down to the very last beat!  As part of my degree project,  I wanted to make a piece of choreography where the dancers literally danced to their own tune, rather than interpreting someone else’s music, and tried to make a piece of music where the score followed the dancer’s brainwave patterns from an EEG machine. It wasn’t very successful though! It was an idea that stuck with me though, and so now I reckon I am actually starting to achieve what I set out to do all those years ago – making music coming directly out of my own body, with my voice, and rhythms, as I sit wired up to my laptop. That’s hilarious eh!

FC: How did you begin making music? What was your primary instrument? Did you have formal musical training or have you been self-taught?

FIONA: My performing arts course, although my main subject was dance, also covered little bits of drama and music, and I had a go at singing on the course, although I was way too shy do anything serious then.  Then a few years later,  three girlfriends and myself formed a band.  Our boyfriends were all in bands and had a practice room in one of our houses, so we hijacked it one night and formed a band, so that’s how I got into making music. The only training I had was school piano, and basic rhythm stuff from my college course, and I picked up a tiny bit of guitar.

FC: What drew you to the complex world of electronic synthesis, and why have you chosen this form over more traditional forms of songwriting?

FIONA: I started writing music as a way to sing, as I could never find any bands to join which clicked with me, so I did initially start off as a normal singer/songwriter, taught myself guitar, and put a band together with cello, violin and another guitarist, doing folky style material.  Then my tastes developed into listening to more electronic music, and I teamed up with a couple of producers as a vocalist.  At that time, all the technology involved in making electronic music was way beyond my budget or technical expertise, so I never imagined that I would be able to do it myself, as I am not particularly interested in technology/knob fiddling. I really wanted to make my own songs though, and put across my own vision in my own way, so eventually bought a simple four track recorder, a basic drum machine and a bass guitar, and recorded a demo with only that and vocals.  Then the cost of  up a home computer music setup became much more affordable, so I started off using Cubase on a PC with a sampler,  and was totally hooked- at last I could make things the way I wanted them to sound, with out having to run to a (usually male) friend or producer for help!   As far as the “complicated world of electronic music synthesis” goes, honestly – I dont know much about  that – I just experiment with the presets until I like what I hear!   There are huge holes in my technical knowledge, and that’s why I find it difficult to collaborate – I do everything intuitively, and don’t know enough  of the technical language of sound engineering to be able to communicate what I want!

FC: Do you work with other musicians to achieve your productions?

FIONA: As I said above, its difficult for me to collaborate, but I get help from a professional producer for the final mix and mastering, after I have everything sounding pretty much how I would like.

FC: Do you use hardware or software or a combination of both to produce your music?

FIONA: Its all the soft synths within the Logic Pro programme, so completely digital apart from vocals

FC: Can you talk about that process a bit, and how you developed them over time?

FIONA: Hmmm… the process… different with each new piece, so very time consuming I reckon.  But USUALLY I start just by going through the synth presets till I find a sound that sounds unusual to me, or something that I don’t hear very often… I wait till I hear a sound that jumps out at me as having a character of its own, maybe that suggests its own rhythm or atmosphere, then build a drum pattern around that, till I have a short loop that has its own distinct personality.  Then its easy fitting other sounds around that, to fill out the frequency ranges.  I leave lots of space in the mid range for the  vocals-  then put in some very rough guide vocals, using the built in mic on my laptop just as a quick starter.  Then when I have a rough sketch with some vocal ideas, I will go back and make a proper structure to the track, according to where the vocal feels it should fit.   Sometimes I will improvise vocals for a long time over a simple loop, and out of maybe five minutes of improvisation, there will be a few seconds, or even a couple of phrases, that sounds like a melody, then I pare it down till it fits…. its all mostly editing… I just do a lot of random stuff like rubbish, and get rid of what I don’t like, which is usually 90% of what I come up with.  Same goes with the instruments. I like to be able to get down ideas as quickly as possible, and am very impatient (even though I already said the process is time consuming, lol)  so I don’t even take the time to hook up my keyboard to my laptop, and just use the caps lock key to use that little virtual keyboard they give you, to type in sounds!  I can never set out with an intention to make a particular style of track , like “hmmm, today I think I’ll make a minimal techno track” or whatever…because I don’t have the technical production skills to be able to emulate a particular style with any degree of authenticity… whatever “production” I do is by intuition, adding effects and processing till it just sounds right to me.  The final mix and mastering I get help at a studio with… the Tower of Babel EP was mixed and mastered by Morphamish at SoundSound Studios.

FC: How do you go about developing an idea for an album release? Can you talk about that process?

FIONA: Ha! Funny you should ask that, as I never start out with developing and idea or concept for a release – i just let it evolve and see where it wants to go.  I never know what I am going to do before I start – that’s why it’s such a long process, its the experimentation and discovery, and that’s what makes it an adventure, and fun!  Rather than deciding before I start what a piece is going to be, I start with messing around with sounds and see where it goes.

FC: What types of musical styles inspire your vocal expression?

FIONA: For vocals, I love singing jazz and blues styles, and try to also experiment with totally abstract improvisation, and pure sounds, and playing with the textures and all the creaky corners in my voice.

FC: Can you describe your live performances?

FIONA: I collaborate with an animation artist, Zennor Alexander, who makes the visuals for my songs. When I play live, I project the films and electronic soundtracks, minus the vocal track, and sing along live, like avant garde karaoke lol!  Rather than being at a live gig, its more like being at the movies, but with the added live element  – very immersive and transporting to another little world!

FC: What are the influences that have bearing on your music, and lyrical content?

FIONA: The lyrical content I find a conundrum. If I sing words in English, then that immediately slots the music into a particular genre-  and I’d like to go beyond genre – and not be pigeonholed into any one style… so I find what works best is just using random, abstract sounds that I develop from improvisation. Either that, or phrases in Burmese that I get out of a phrasebook, and make an approximate attempt at pronouncing!

FC: What gets your creative juices flowing after so many years of working on music?

FIONA: Phew… ah… wanting to explore –  the adventure of doing something different, exploring different facets of myself, finding out what the music wants to become!

FC: Have popular culture or politics influenced your work, and if so, how?

FIONA: There’s no getting away from being influenced by popular culture, even though I say I want to stay genre free… you are always influenced by what’s around you.  A few years ago, in hindsight I realise it was trip hop that was my main thing, now , I am not really sure, I’ll have to wait and see what it was later.  Same goes for politics, though I never want to consciously make a direct political statement.

Interview conducted and written by Christina Broussard