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.