Dial Em for Dva
MUTEKmag reached Emika at her Berlin abode for a sweeping chat about muffled Berghain sounds, volatile learning patterns and erotic emancipation on the dance floor.
Michael-Oliver Harding - May 24, 2013
A classically trained British musician and sound designer who conjures up music in terms of energies and stories – not genres – Ema Jolly (aka Emika) caused quite a stir among bass music connoisseurs with the release of her self-titled debut in 2011. The Berlin-based electronic performer, who first interned at revered electronic imprint Ninja Tune before being added to its prestigious artist roster, garnered critical kudos for her dark, downtempo melodies, vaguely unsettling vocals, and sensual take on dubstep – one entirely at odds with the genre’s much maligned “brostep” wave.
On her sophomore album, Dva, Emika further explores the influence bass music had on her as a young Bristol clubber coming of age, while also broadening her atmospheric palette to dabble in opera, torch song and revealing pop structures. MUTEKmag reached Emika at her Berlin abode for a sweeping chat about muffled Berghain sounds, volatile learning patterns and erotic emancipation on the dance floor.
You often dip your powerful emotional choruses in deep pools of dub. Where does that soft spot for layered bass landscapes come from?
Definitely, definitely, definitely from one night when I was in Bristol. My friends Pinch and Mala from DMZ were DJing. (laughs) I can’t explain it, I just felt like I was having sex on the dance floor with the sound. It was the most erotic feeling I’ve ever experienced from music, it was just so intense (laughs) and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my sexuality through bass, which might sound really bizarre, but it’s true.
That makes a whole lot of sense, especially given the visceral, wobbly bassweight that Mala and Pinch are known for bringing to the dance floor.
Exactly! There’s nowhere people feel more sexy, confident or liberated than on the dance floor. When people dance, they look sexy. Often dancing is how you come together with somebody else. Bass kind of inspires all of that stuff. Everyone can stand together in a club, but if there’s no music, no one will be doing anything – it will just feel very awkward. As soon as you play music, everyone gets into a certain headspace, and when you add bass to the mix, it just takes things to another level. I had never experienced club music on that level before, and as a young kid – I must have been 18 –it made me feel like a grown woman.
Since moving to Berlin, you tapped into your sound design background for Fünf, the fifth-anniversary compilation from Berghain label Ostgut Ton. It’s a fascinating project of field recordings carried out in collaboration with the city’s revered Berghain/Panorama Bar, and there’s a great backstory to it. Upon visiting your friend Nick Höppner behind the DJ booth at Berghain one night, you began to hear many of the space’s oft-inaudible sounds during one of his sophisticated breakdowns. What was it about that moment – as you stared out into a sea of rapturous revelers jonesing for rhythm – that gave you the idea for the project?
In that moment, I heard all the other sounds happening in that club, which you never normally hear because they’re just drowned by the music in the P.A. I heard all these small, intricate, detailed little sounds, and they really sounded like techno. I thought it was really interesting how the whole space of this techno club actually sounds like the music itself. Then I was thinking of Berghain and how it’s famous for having this particular club sound, how the space inspires DJs to do crazy eight-hour sets, and how it seems to give people this special creative energy. I thought it would be cool to somehow feed that whole constellation, to go there with my equipment, explore the space and record sounds, because the club space only makes up about 20% of the building. I was going there every weekend for years and I was so curious about that place and the people and how it all works.
Interestingly enough, your sound has veered away from techno since setting up in the German mecca of throbbing 4/4 pulses. With Dva, you’ve given the cold shoulder to bass-infused techno to embrace the spirit of pop songwriting and torch song, with potent lyrics that don’t shy away from the personal and the political. How in God’s name did that happen?
Ha! Yes, this album took quite a different turn, which even surprised me. With the first record, I didn’t know who my audience was, and my music was pretty freaky, definitely not pop. I don’t DJ, I don’t have visuals in my show, I don’t have much, but somehow this still created a massive audience in so many parts of the world. I went to so many crazy places in the East – Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Slovakia – and in America with Amon Tobin. I had so many experiences of people being hungry for my music. It just gave me such hope that there’s this broad interest for music that operates outside of the dominating pop markets.
I was filled with inspiration and ideas, and suddenly I met so many people, had so many crazy stories to tell. I wasn’t just writing the album from one perspective – techno with bass influences, as you said, which defined my first album. This one is definitely a singer-songwriter record. It’s about politics, some pretty twisted stuff in there. For Dva, I performed as a way of composition – I wasn’t sitting in front of a computer with software before making a song. I was just picking up a mic and recording. So there’s been a massive shift in my focus and perspective.
Can you tell us about the song “Hush” – featuring Czech soprano Michaela Šrůmová? I read about it being based on the story your mother, who was uprooted from the Czech Republic as a child and forced to move to England?
Yes, I had been taking opera classes for a little while and I got to a certain place where I was comfortable enough to compose “Harsh”. It’s the story that I wish my mom would say to me, but she never will. It has to do with how she was exiled from the Czech Republic and made it to England when she was really young; she’s never had a home and has always struggled with that. That struggle was passed down to me as a child.
It’s a song that I just couldn’t sing; I tried recording it for months, but I just couldn’t do it. Then I decided to translate it to Czech, and I found this amazing Czech soprano who was part of the orchestra I was working with [the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague]. Without that opera training, exploration and experimentation, I would never have conceived music on that scale, or have been able to direct her on that day, in the control room.
After rekindling with your classical music training care of opera, I was told that you recently halted those classes to pursue pop and soul singing. How did that come about?
Yes, it actually got to a certain point where it didn’t feel right anymore, I got all the answers I was looking for. It was really cool because having opera training really got me thinking about my body as an instrument, and learning that perspective was super interesting. How to sing without words, just with open vowels, for instance. But then it got to a point where the training needed to excel was too much, too heavy for me – I didn’t want to sing vowels for six hours daily! (laughs) So I’ve cooled that down a little bit, and I now have a different teacher, with whom I explore pop and soul. It’s typically what I do – I usually focus on something for about six months, get kind of bored with it, then I always want to do the opposite of what I was just doing. It’s a pattern that keeps me engaged, you could say!