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“You're creating a structure of expectation and release”: A conversation with Laurel Halo

Nina Interviews

The expectation-thwarting composer and producer discusses pop, ambient, and the exquisitely flawed nature of acoustic music.

By Steph Kretowicz

2024/02/05

It’s just a couple months after Laurel Halo dropped what she’s explicitly designated her “ambient record,” and the Michigan-born artist, producer, and composer is relaxing in her Los Angeles apartment. I ask her if she’s ever identified as an “ambient artist” before. “People have called me many names over the years,” she says. “I’ve forgiven them.” 

Laurel has built a career on change and thwarting expectation. Starting at the turn of the 2010s, she released a handful of EPs and collaborations into the wilds of Brooklyn’s underground scene before dropping her debut album, Quarantine, in 2012, which featured an adaptation ofMakoto Aida’s ritual suicide-themed Harakiri School Girls on its cover. Even that early LP deviated from the lo-fi IDM of her earlier work: Where she had previously worked with sounds that were closer in tone to the diaphanous hypnagogic pop that dominated the internet at the turn of the 10s, she instead drove dry vocal production through enchanting synth cascades, to jarring effect, provoking conversation in the club world around authenticity and vulnerability in electronic music. 

“I actually think that record is quite redeemable,” she says, reflecting on Quarantine’s themes of queasy violence and unchecked desire. “It predates this moment of cringe and overshare that we're in currently.”

I first met Laurel over a decade ago at a club night in Berlin, back when an influx of largely Anglophone artists and producers were transforming the city’s identity from a house and techno capital into the fashionable post-club hub it is today. Having moved from New York to pursue music full time following the success of Quarantine, Laurel would soon take a more dance-oriented and increasingly self-assured turn, moonlighting as a touring DJ across Europe, while exploring the history and mechanics of club music on releases like Chance of Rain, In Situ and Dust

Through the last few years of the 2010s, our acquaintance would slowly deepen through the occasional interview and chance encounter, followed by intentional hangouts and communications across cities. Laurel would release an exquisitely composed mini-album—featuring cellist Oliver Coates and drummer Eli Keszler—called Raw Silk Uncut Wood in that time, along with a piano and strings-led score for Possessed, a film by Amsterdam-based artist duo Metahaven. Those pieces saw Halo circle back to her early education in classical music, which she would eventually integrate into the ambient and acoustic universe of 2023’s Atlas, released on her own nascent Awe label

At the beginning of 2020, when I had already moved from London to Los Angeles, Laurel returned to the States for an artist residency at Villa Aurora in the Pacific Palisades. Her stay at the Spanish-style mansion—once owned by author and German-Jewish exile Lion Feuchtwanger—would be cut short by the impending lockdowns and border closures of a looming pandemic, but the experience would prove fortifying for our friendship—and for Laurel’s eventual return to the United States two years later. Without it, we may have never found ourselves living in the same city, sitting on a couch and contemplating where the past 12 years have taken Laurel, and where they have yet to lead.

Steph Kretowicz: So you never identified as an ambient musician before Atlas?

Laurel Halo: I don't think one necessarily needs to identify with a genre in order to work within that sound. But I guess, historically, I've released records in a bunch of different styles, so it doesn't really matter. I feel like everything I've done has had some element of atmosphere or mystery. For example, I made Raw Silk, which has ambient elements, or Quarantine, which has ambient elements, but I wouldn't call myself an ambient artist, per se.

I always thought of you as an ambient artist, though I guess I don't really have any solid concept of what it is. What does ambient mean to you? 

My friend Victor Szabo, who actually wrote a book on the subject, could answer this much better than me. To me, “ambient music” possesses certain formal production qualities, which essentially are the use of gaseous pads or textures. Compositionally, there are slow, evolving changes in the harmony or the melody that are subtle and hard to detect because they're happening over time. In terms of affect, ambient music doesn't necessarily have to be calming; of course, you can have dark ambient, or electronic-sound-design-as-psychoacoustic score, like in the films of David Lynch or Apichatpong Weerasekathul.

“Ambient” is an interesting word, because at this point, anything can be ambient. You can have empty, passive guitar music with lots of silences and call that ambient. You can have any kind of music that doesn't have a lot of changes and has some sort of gaseous texture and call it ambient. You could call a cicada hum ambient. You can call convenience store sounds ambient. There are ways that ambient appears in all different forms and styles of music, as well as in sound design and in everyday life.

I suppose, then, that the definition of ambient is as nebulous as the sound itself.

I'm looking up the Brian Eno definition of ambient. He said it has to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Which is why it’s sort of difficult to call Atlas an ambient record: it does have a lot of passive moments that you can fall into, but then it also has active harmonic changes, or colorful piano moments that are more attention-grabbing, or attention-demanding.

I've been enjoying listening to it in the car.

I actually like listening to that record in the car as well, because it’s not a good car record [laughs]. It's not a very loud record, in terms of the master and preserving the overall dynamic range of the tracks. So you basically get a ton of environmental noise competing with the quieter sections, and when the track actually does rise enough in volume to be discernible from the external noise, it creates this interesting psycho-acoustic effect, where you don’t know what is car or wind sound and what is the music. The experience of driving the car becomes part of the listening experience.

That sounds like mindfulness, where meditation is about being present and accepting of whatever happens in your environment.

Ursula K. Le Guin did an amazing translation of the Tao Te Ching, and there’s this quote: “Cut doors and windows / to make a room. / Where the room isn't, there's room for you.” I like thinking about where the room isn't. That's an interesting way of thinking about ambient music:  where all of the space around that stops being space and starts being you. Maybe there is some kind of expansiveness to ambient music that is in line with the notion of mindfulness—your being expands outwards. 

Atlas was mostly recorded before you moved here, right?

Yeah, the record was finished before I moved to LA, but then the album title and the track titles all came after. So I'm sure there was some element of moving back to the US, and specifically to LA, that had an impact on decision-making with respect to the titling and artwork.

So you wrote an LA record before you even got to LA. 

Does it sound like an LA record to you? 

In some ways, because there's so much space, and silence, and isolation here. 

It's definitely a mountainous record. It's a big sky record. I actually think it's better music for walking in headphones than it is for driving.

Were you writing it during the pandemic?

Not really. I’d been making electronic music for a long time, and I think that there was a part of me that wanted to reconnect with the piano. Obviously, you can touch a MIDI controller, you can touch a drum machine, you can touch a sampler, and it will make a sound. But when you have this physical instrument that's larger than you, or heavier than you, that is ringing, it almost becomes this conversation. 

An acoustic instrument is also fundamentally flawed—like, how we as people are fundamentally flawed—because it's aging. The wood can warp, the strings can go out of tune, and so on. I had a residency right before the beginning of the pandemic at the Villa Aurora in the Pacific Palisades. Maybe there is some latent LA influence, because I was starting to work with the piano there.

The piano upstairs?

The one upstairs. In the dark, shady, cold study. My hands were constantly cold, even though it was beautiful weather outside. That place is kind of incredible. I think because LA is so spread out, there is some element of mystery, of not knowing who's behind you or what's around the corner. 

This house was full of history, and it was also quite large, and it certainly had some of that “LA spooky” feeling to it. But I wouldn't call the record “spooky.” It's very warm.

I totally forgot about that residency. That was the beginning of the pandemic, and you didn’t want to leave.

Nobody knew what was happening, so Villa Aurora had offered to just let me stay there. They said, “Well, obviously the next round of residents isn't coming, so you could just stay here while we figure this out.” I was torn: “Do I stay in LA in this gigantic mansion by myself, do I go back home to Detroit to be with my family, or do I go home to Berlin because that's where my apartment and my close friends are?”

Funnily enough, during this incredibly foreboding time, the fire alarm kept going off in the Villa. And because it's such a large space, the fire alarm is designed to be so incredibly loud that you can’t possibly miss it. Like, the most dissonant, shrill, and urgent fire alarm you’ve ever heard. It was terribly unnerving. I can't even describe it. 

Did you record it? 

I didn't record it. It was too spooky to be recorded [laughs]. 

So you were by yourself in this haunted mansion.

I was by myself in this haunted mansion, and then I made Atlas. The end [laughs]. But it's funny, because while I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, there's always a reason why things happen.

Did the piano at Villa Aurora inspire you to get back to piano?

It’s not that I ever entirely left—I make music with keyboards, like synthesizers or MIDI controllers. But I knew I wanted to become more musically fluent, more harmonically literate. Over time, I’d hear more and more specific, ineffable chords in songs or tracks and think, Oh my God, that is such a juicy chord. How did they make that? And a lot of that beauty is rooted in jazz harmony. It was convenient that Villa Aurora had a piano and that I could start working towards this goal of reconnecting with musicianship there.

Because you’re classically trained.

I am classically trained, yes, but I kind of let those classical chops die. For a while, I wanted to shed myself of that, but then there was something deep within me that awoke, thinking, Wait, it's cool to know how to play an instrument

In any case, I'm not a classical musician. I'm good at piano, and I know what I'm doing in terms of tone and sensitivity, but it's my own language that I've created, my own format. I think a dream of mine is to make a record that is just acoustic piano—just naked expression that isn't embellished at all, just pure notes and tones. Maybe one day.

When you say that there are fundamental flaws to an instrument in the same way that there are fundamental flaws to humans—for me, those are the most attractive parts of both music and people.

Yeah, and there's something very tender about improvised music, in particular. That is the fundamental attractive quality of it: the spontaneity, sensitivity, and gentleness one has to have when interfacing with an instrument to bring out these unexpected moments. The sound of decaying volume in a room. 

I saw [French-American composer, cellist, and Atlas collaborator] Leila Bordreuil perform in an acoustic improvised trio with two other string players on an off day during the tour we did together. It was completely transportive. I can’t even describe the warmth and silence of it. 

I often wonder how enjoyable a slow, stripped-back song is to play, or a live ambient set. That duration is interesting to me, because I can’t tell how fun it is to perform.

I think, with minimal music, there is an aspect of patience. There's an aspect of paying attention and not diverting your aural gaze from what's happening—to the point where, when changes do happen, they happen slowly over time, so as to be almost imperceptible. I think there's something pretty powerful about that, because it reflects how we are always in a state of evolving that we can't necessarily perceive in the moment.

I suppose that’s the difference between pop music and ambient or experimental music: the former follows a clear structure, with an imperative of immediacy, as opposed to the latter’s more organic approach. 

Maybe with pop music, you're creating a structure of expectation and release. It's satisfying when the chorus comes back. It's satisfying when you can hear the pre-chorus happening, because the chorus is about to come. It's satisfying when a bridge moment happens, because it diverts, and you are put into a state of tension, and you're not sure how we're going to get back to the groundedness of the chorus moment. Perhaps in this way, there's something about pop music that's more about creating a sense of security, whereas the ambient, minimal, or experimental format can be much more open-ended.

But the immediacy of pop is also kind of short-lived. It's like sex, where predictability can make it routine and boring.

The best sex is ambient, because it’s constantly, imperceptibly evolving [laughs]. I think it’s interesting to correlate sex to ambient, because ambient music, to me, can be very sensual. I think Terry Riley is perfect make-out music. He’s more minimalist than ambient, but ambient is born from that sound. It’s born out of various musical traditions involving slow changes.

The longer the build-up, the better the payoff.

I think the best sex is one that's without expectation, and without racing to the climax. 

It’s like edging, or the difference between watching porn and having sex with a person. 

Yeah, maybe there is some element of ambient music that's anti-performative, because it’s less about the character of the artist or musician who's making the music. It's less about arriving at this neat conclusion, and it’s much more process based. It does create an interesting question regarding performativity: how do you create convincing minimal or ambient music in a live context that isn’t just pressing one note down on your synthesizer?

There was a funny meme I saw, where it said, “Ambient music,” with a photo of two keys taped down to create a ninth interval on a synthesizer. It's interesting to think about how ambient can be fundamentally anti-performative and boring in this way, but then, in many other ways, it’s also more thrilling, or gripping, or tantalizing, because it relates to the concept of becoming—or the concept of edging, even. 

To me, the effect of ambient music is similar to classical. Both of them can be so engrossing, which makes me think of Eno’s description of ambient as being as ignorable as it is interesting.

Maybe in both contexts, your attention is designed to drift. When I'm seeing an orchestral performance, my eyes will drift. I'll watch the violins, and then I'll watch the wind section, and then I’ll watch the brass section, and then I’ll see what the timpani player is doing. Maybe it’s the same with ambient music, where your ears will shift between registers. You’re like, Oh, what's happening now in the high end? What's happening in the low end? Where is this texture drifting off to? It's more diffuse attention, rather than direct attention.

I'm interested in André 3000’s New Blue Sun as a cultural phenomenon. Ambient is almost actively insular, because it doesn't have the immediacy of pop. What happens to this vague, nebulous, and evasive genre now that a major music icon has brought it to a broader audience?

I think this is probably more a question of how musicians reclaim their agency than one about what will happen to ambient music. I don't necessarily think that a bunch of legendary artists are going to all of a sudden make an abundance of ambient music. That's not going to happen. But I do think it might help open the door for artists to say, “Oh, well, I was working within this format before, but now I'm going to work within this new format, and there are no rules.” It is interesting to think about how pop could contaminate ambient, or vice versa, and whether it’s even relevant to pit the one against the other. 

I do wonder if the genre will go anywhere from here: whether André 3000 will make ambient mainstream, or if the record will just be regarded as an outlier in his creative trajectory, and the trajectory of pop culture at large. Like Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk, which was a total flop and everyone forgot about it.  

People do not like when artists establish a specific tone and then digress, modify, alter, or in any way change the audience’s expectation. I feel that, as an artist, I am lucky that I have managed to release records in different styles, and that those records have been equally respected and appreciated by different people. [I am lucky] that I am part of the experimental music scene, and then I'm also part of the club scene. 

It's cool that certain people only know me as a DJ. It’s cool that certain people only know me as that girl who made Quarantine. It's cool that there are people who have all these different entry points. Maybe, for artists who have had a lot of pop success, where they have established themselves as being the “icy-sexy-emo-pop artist,” or the “party-starting-avant-RnB artist,” it's hard, once you've established a specific tone, to divert from that tone.

It’s the curse of success, where that success becomes the standard by which you’re judged from that point on. 

Sure, and there is this question of, if you create a legendary, iconic work, is that a small death in and of itself? Because there is potentially no room for expansion or evolution beyond that one moment.

Once you achieve the best you could ever do, then what? 

Then you semi-retire in LA.

#LaurelHalo

#Ambient

#Atlas

#Awe

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