How Avalon Emerson found her voice through the charm of DIY music-making: “I’m not a new artist, I’m just a new band”
A change in musical direction for the dance producer has opened her up to a new sonic world and marks a return to her roots with The Charm.
Image: Jennifer McCord for MusicTech
Avalon Emerson is going back to her DIY beginnings with her new band, The Charm. Except, it’s with the digital edge that you’d expect from a trailblazing DJ and producer who started out in coding.
On one hand, taking her sun-dappled and critically acclaimed debut album on the road involves playing rustic, grassroots venues like London’s Shacklewell Arms. On the other, it’s about triggering myriad stems in Ableton Live, using a MIDI controller stomp box, amp modellers for bass guitar and cello, a bespoke in-ear monitor rig and an elegant light show. “We’re starting in a high-tech way,” she says, “and I think that’s appropriate for what I want to do. I’m not a new artist, I’m just a new band.”
It’s not a complete pivot from the DJ booth to the stage – her many fans will also be able to see her at the decks during Glasgow’s Riverside Festival in June. It’s not an entirely new musical space either, given that a teenage Emerson played in freak-folk and noise punk bands. But the US-born, Berlin-based internationalist is pouring her years of DJing into a band environment, even as she notices the differences.
“I’m really struck by how different it is playing live versus a DJ set,” she says. “It goes so quickly. We have one album, we don’t have tons of songs, and we use Ableton as the bedrock and the timeline of the show. But thinking about the order, pacing, the arc of the energy feels the same as when I’m thinking about a DJ set.”
It’s been fascinating, she says, thinking about how to build a more participatory relationship with the crowd at her live shows. “With DJing, it’s very communicative and the crowd knows they’re in on the community vibe of the room. With shows, it’s a bit more like people in their own enjoyment bubble,” she says. “They’re standing there, watching you with their beer. I’m trying to figure out how I can let them know that I feel them here and that we’re contributing to this vibe together. It’s not just transactional: ‘Here’s this thing I already built and you receive it, and then the night’s over.’ It’s a journey.”
One of the ways to counter the separation involves “live vibe management” which is mostly, Emerson says, about “navigating the negative space between the songs.” It also involves additional production techniques. “We’re going to build in some interludes where we can enter into a loop portion,” she says, along with road-testing brand-new productions with the band. The Charm currently comprises her wife Hunter Lombard, who plays guitar on the album, and old friend Keivon Hobeheidar on cello.
“Keivon has been coming over after work. We all have our in-ear monitors so we can hear the stems coming from Ableton. We’re using this Neural DSP Quad Cortex [amp modeller]. Guitar and bass can go into that, with loads of effects, so we can hear that in our headphones in nice quality. We’re going to put some of the new song stems in, record loops, and create a truncated version of one of the new songs and play it live – real world feedback loops of ‘did this feel good?’ ‘Was it too long, too short?’ I’m pretty excited to do that.”
The album began life during the pandemic, once she’d finished her critically-acclaimed DJ-Kicks mix. Once that was in the bag, she rented a basement studio in Clinton Hill, New York. Most days she’d start with some chords in Ableton and sketches in a Drum Rack. “It purposefully sounded like shit so I wasn’t distracted by doing too much sound design,” she explains. “I was just trying to make things that sounded good in this lo-fi beats kind of way, so there’s room to expand on it and put different dressing on it. I think the mark of a good song is one that you can play acoustically, or that you can cover, where it’s not too reliant on the vibe of the production; where it can stand on its own two feet.”
This part of the process, which also involved sending ideas back and forth with Godmode label founder Nick Sylvester via Facetime, revealed five or six songs and formed the foundation of these melodic dream pop gems which evoke The Cocteau Twins as much as they do a dream pop Mr Fingers.
Next was a flight to London to work with UK producer and previous collaborator Bullion, who’s credited on records by the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Ben Howard. The pair “basically hit it off, pretty instantly.” They’d worked together on her 2020 cover of Long Forgotten Fairytale, which memorably opened up her contribution to the DJ-Kicks series – and offered the first indication that inside DJ and producer Avalon Emerson was a singer. “I felt that the ideas we had were very analogous. It wasn’t hours and hours of jams and a weird twelve-minute WAV file that perhaps has something in it.”
Then she says something you don’t often hear from producers – that it was “pretty easy” to finish their collaborative songs. So, what about the creative relationship worked so well? “I was unsure of how to get [a track] from step zero to 100 per cent done. There were parts in the middle I didn’t know. Sometimes when I was working by myself [I’d have] those unanswered questions: ‘is this intro too long?’ Or ‘is this kick drum sound good enough?’” She pauses. “If you’re working with another person, you can come to an agreement.”
The secret that allowed them to push a song into its final shape was bringing in instrumentalists. She’d made the original bassline album track A Vision on a Buchla emulator. “It just felt a little weird,” she says explaining that they played “this thing that only existed as a synth on a MIDI roll” to bassist Ben Reed, who played on Frank Ocean’s Blond.
“He was like ‘well, you can’t really play that as a human, but I can play this which is similar and honestly way more groovy and organic’. That’s what pushed it over into being done: it needed to be translated by a human who knows bass guitar really well. That’s what I wanted to do – to work with more people instead of being a lonely island.”
She also picked up some new perspectives on a favourite subject: organisational hierarchies. “I have quite a lot,” she says. “I’m pretty organised with my Ableton instruments. I make it pretty easy. Any time I do anything more than a few times, I want to get things as ready to go as quickly possible, so I can just get to the creative part. It was pretty cool to see how Bullion organises his sample library. He has a ton of different clips from songs – not for the intention of sampling it, just ‘what does this sound do, how is it affected in the song, how does it achieve the emotional return?’”
Certain corners of the studio were particularly well-used. Emerson mentions the Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmoniser (“we used that on everything”), UDO’s Super 6 synth and “Ableton’s everything.” For lyrics, she developed a ‘digital cut up process’ with the note-taking app Notation. Mostly, this involved creating a “lyric dump page, writing down things I came across in life or turns of phrases that I thought were cool or poetic – little micro-ideas.” She’d go back to the documents when she was jamming out vocal melodies and find seeds with which she could tell a story.
Another story relates to the release itself. Avalon Emerson & The Charm came out on her label Another Dove which she formed with Nic Tasker of London-based label AD 93. “I don’t think there are that many labels that give me that much reason to sign over my masters,” she says with some understatement. “Nowadays, there’s so much social media PR and distribution you can just set it up yourself. I’d have to be responsible for people hearing it – it’s going to come down to me anyway so I might as well own as much of it as I can, and have as much control over it as I can; hire out the people who are good at their jobs and build the team. And not have to work around their pipeline.”
The label’s name references her interest in what she calls “touchstones of culture.” In this case, the early 90s band One Dove. The band were heavily involved in acid house dancefloors and were fronted by singer Dot Allison, produced by Andrew Weatherall and released on two culturally infamous labels – Glasgow’s Soma and London’s Boys Own. “It’s informed by dance music in a respectful way,” says Emerson. “It’s not an outsider coming in and saying they want to make a house record. It felt like an analogous template.”
This is a recurring theme in the life of Avalon Emerson, and one that hits the DIY notes of her formative years throwing warehouse parties in pre-Tech Lord San Francisco – and of her co-founding of Bandcamp-browsing tool Buy Music Club. The latter came out of a realisation that there was a layer of navigation, browsing and searching that was missing for the music file-collecting public.
“DJs are some of the last people going out and buying music files. It’s a dying pastime,” she says. “The layer of discovering music by recommendation was missing. It’s just hard to find things sometimes. There are tons of people making cool little tools but there’s such an unescapable black hole, gravitational pull, of some of these huge platforms that make you feel like there’s no oxygen left to support anything tiny and cool, like Buy Music Club or even Bandcamp, frankly. And I wish that was different.”
It’s the warehouse parties that she ran, aged 19 or 20, with her friends in SoMa, San Francisco that provide a historic clue to Avalon Emerson’s continued evolutions. The nights took place in a flat, which stretched across the length of a block which is now a block away from Twitter and Airbnb headquarters, and which was shared by an international crew of friends and flatmates. They’d use a Google form for people to sign up and were early adopters of tap-to-pay on the door. “It’s not that long ago but it’s so hard to remember that type of internet,” she says. “Facebook was around, we were using Square to take payment of the door fee and that was really weird. People thought it was a funny thing.”
They’d go to CostCo to buy booze, run the bar on the kitchen counter and DJ for hours. “We had super old shitty CDJs – this was a time when vinyl was truly easier to DJ,” she says. “You pressed buttons and the trays came out, you put CDs in and used these jog wheels to speed it up and down. Serrato was just coming out, Traktor and Virtual DJ.” The music was “still very blog housey and seemed less musically segregated.” It was a lot of fun – and then, when she passed the age of 21 and was allowed into bars to DJ, realised that DJing in bars wasn’t the same. “My friends had to buy expensive-ass drinks to come and see me. I’d be playing before or after some territorial DJ. It was less fun.”
It was an early schooling in DIY culture that persists. “What I’ve realised is that the DIY stuff is more fun,” she says, “anything that’s less corporate and a little bit further away from any profit-generating machine – that’s how I prefer to work. I’d like to keep it like that for as long as I possibly can. It’s not always possible, and it’s harder all the time.”
Around a year ago, Emerson used a long-haul flight to work on some long-forming ideas about the perfect DJ booth. “I still have the CAD files, the designs and the ideas,” she says before finishing up the conversation, “but I have pivoted into making things for my house. I’m going to make the shed into my studio. The DJ booth is still a dream but I’m going to make a pizza oven first.”
Listen to Avalon Emerson & The Charm at avalonemerson.com.
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