Interview: Deerful

"I learned ixi at an academic creative practice workshop, fell instantly in love with it, and then completely forgot about it. 6 weeks ago I impulsively reopened it, and by the end of the evening I’d written one of the album tracks"

When not writing a PhD thesis on ukelele players, or creating weird and wonderful twitter bots, Emma Winston makes hauntingly beautiful electronic pop music under the moniker Deerful. Today marks the release of Tell Me I Can Fix This On My Own, an album made entirely using coding language ixi lang. I caught up with Emma to find out exactly what that means. 

(((o))): So, this album is coded in something called Ixi Lang, is that right? Can you give us a bit of a lay person’s guide as to what that is and how it works?

Ixi lang is a music programming language built by Thor Magnusson who’s a lecturer at Sussex University. It lets you lay out and manipulate melodies and beats in code, and then combine them, add effects to them and turn them on and off however you want. It’s technically a ‘live-coding’ language which means if you change something in the code, the sound alters in real-time. It’s ridiculously fun and if you’d like to know more about it I did a fairly recent podcast episode on it. The website where it’s hosted is a little aged and confusing so I’ve also written a getting started guide on my academic blog if you’d like to try it out yourself.

(((o))): What made you decide to make an album in this way? Is it something you’d do again?

I learned ixi at an academic creative practice workshop back in 2015, fell instantly in love with it, and then somehow completely forgot about it. Six weeks ago I realised it was still installed on my computer, impulsively reopened it, and by the end of the evening I’d written one of the album tracks. The workflow absolutely blew me away for how fun and simple and conducive to happy accidents it is.

I uploaded a video of myself playing it to YouTube, and ended up being contacted by Alex McLean, a very prolific live-coder under the name Yaxu, who asked if I wanted to play a laptop music festival in Sheffield on the 1st of September. I obviously said yes (I have a history of being quite good at doing music projects very quickly to deadlines, it’s the reason Deerful exists in the first place), and set about trying to pull together enough songs for a live set. I realised about a month in that by definition, once I’d written a song I essentially had a recorded version of it ready; ixi has an inbuilt ‘record’ button that lets you record a performance as audio, so it made sense to decide that the 1st of September would also be when I released the songs. By the time I figured that out there wasn’t time to sort things with any of the labels or collectives I’d worked with so I decided I’d just do it myself. And now here we are.

I would absolutely do it again; I think it’s probably going to become a mainstay of live performance for me, and I’m currently trying to figure out if I can move over some of my older songs that I normally perform on hardware to it. It’s just so much fun, and so creatively inspiring to me, and I’m excited about performing with it in a way I haven’t been in ages. It’s a joy.  

(((o))): Have you always been drawn to the technical side of electronic music? How did you first get into making music in this way?

I first realised I wanted to make electronic music when I first heard the Postal Service album Give Up in a car in 2009. I fell completely in love with it, but I somehow assumed it was impossible to make music like that without a giant budget and tons of equipment. I didn’t realise it was something I might be able to do until I was asked to play keyboards in Darren Hayman’s then-band the Long Parliament in 2012; I thought I’d just be playing piano and harmonium but in my first rehearsal I was presented with a Moog Rogue and told to go away and learn how it worked. I was intimidated at first but quickly became absolutely hooked.

Production always seemed inaccessible to me until I came across the (now defunct, RIP) iPad app Nanostudio. From there I was able to start slowly teaching myself to produce until it suddenly didn’t seem scary any more. I made my first album Peach partly to force myself to learn to mix. It’s funny listening back to it now because there’s so many things I’d do differently; I guess that’s always the case and is how you should feel as an artist or producer or mixer but the learning curve I went (and am still going) through possibly makes it more extreme in my case.

(((o))): What have been the main pros and cons / how has it been easier and/or harder than how you’d normally make music? How has the writing process been different from when you made Peach, or is it largely the same?

It’s been a lot easier in terms of workflow; Peach was made entirely with hardware so there was a lot of messing around with audio interfaces and levels and feedback and noise, and planning and writing before committing anything to a recording. Ixi lets me change things in real-time, and tweak, and swap sounds in and out, so I can write as I go. I left myself a lot less time than I had for Peach (which was written over several months, although it was recorded and mixed in about eight weeks), so the seven tracks on Tell Me I Can Fix This On My Own were written, recorded, produced and mixed in six weeks total.

One thing that has been a bit harder is that because of the timescale I haven’t really been able to iterate all that much; although I don’t consider myself a perfectionist (any more!) it’s been quite difficult deciding enough is enough on some of the tracks, but I had to, otherwise I wouldn’t have made the distributor deadline. I also ended up mastering it myself (which I don’t recommend!) because my budget was zero. For Peach, although I produced and mixed it myself there were a few other pairs of ears on it; a few friends, my label, my mastering engineer. This time around it was just me (and one of my best pals who I sent the whole thing to when I wasn’t sure if I should even put it out or not, who essentially went ‘yeah it’s good you should do it’). It’s cool to know that it’s possible for me to do that and to come out with a record that I’m really excited by.

Both records were made primarily on the coffee table in my front room (but also on buses, and in parks, and in coffee shops). That’s something that hasn’t changed and I don’t think it ever will.

(((o))): How do you perform music that’s essentially a bunch of code? Do you recreate the code in a live environment? Is any of it coded differently to how it was for the album and if so, why?

A lot of people who live-code music start with a blank text file and build everything up from scratch, totally improvised. That doesn’t really work here; I have pre-built files which have the various parts already loaded into them, as well as occasional (usually vague) performance directions. But in a live performance, I choose which parts I want to trigger when, and can mix them in and out as I wish. The album is essentially a recording of one possible live performance of the code as it’s written.  

The code used for the album is identical to the code used live. It’s kind of like I’m playing from a musical score, which is to say that certain things might change; I might alter the order I bring parts in or loop things a different number of times or change an effect, so the performance isn’t fixed, but how the code looks in the text file remains the same. This is a product of ixi being a live language — you don’t just run all the code in the file and have it play itself from start to finish, that’s not how it works. You select parts of the code and play them as if they were an instrument instead. The score only tells you so much.

(((o))): The album title, Tell Me I Can Fix This on My Own, speaks to a sense of self-doubt / lack of confidence which is something it feels a lot of musicians are plagued by, even (perhaps especially) those at the top of their game. Is there anything you think the industry could or should be doing better to help support musicians with mental ill health?

The album title comes from feeling caught between power and powerlessness I think. Like you’ve been handed this realisation that you’re the only one who can fix all the stuff that’s broken in your own life, which is an amazing thing to discover, but at the same time you’re like, no, this is too much responsibility, take it back, or at least show me how the hell to use it, don’t just leave me alone with it. I don’t think of it as self-doubt so much as simultaneous extreme eagerness and extreme reluctance in the face of change. It’s a lot.

I feel weird about saying ‘this is what we should be doing for musicians’, in all honesty, because I genuinely believe that the single biggest issue with mental health support (along with neurodevelopmental stuff which is not quite the same but there’s a big overlap, and probably a bunch of other things too but those are my wheelhouses, I guess) is insufficient funding. I can’t talk about this without getting ultra-political ultra-fast but there’s no point in raising awareness or making time to talk or whatever if the long-term professional support isn’t there, or if it isn’t there quickly enough, or if what’s available is inadequate, and the only way to fix those issues (in my opinion) is by throwing more money after them. And that’s not an industry thing (what even is the music industry? Do I work in the music industry if I’m doing this on my own time? I’ve no idea); it’s much bigger than that.

(((o))): You’re making the album code open source, is that right? What exactly does that mean and how will people be able to use it? Is there anything in particular you’re hoping people will do?

One of the reasons I’m open-sourcing it is that I have no idea how people will use it, and I’m really curious to see if anyone does, and if so, how. I think it will likely be useful to some people just as example starter files for ixi lang, because there aren’t many out there; but beyond that, I love the idea that people might be able to kind of ‘remix’ the record just using a text file.

That said, using the ixi files will always be more approximate than a conventional remix. Because of how most of the samples I’ve used are licensed, I haven’t been able to release all the individual sounds I’m using. Each ixi file includes an approximate description of what they are, but it means that even if someone uses the files to do a straightforward cover of one of the songs, it most likely won’t sound exactly the same; I also haven’t provided step-by-step guides of the exact part groupings, so that is also left (as it were) as an exercise for the reader. It’s closer to providing a score than providing the stems, but a score that leaves a lot still unsaid, and I’m really excited to see what (if anything) ends up happening to it!

The album code can be found on GitHub here.

(((o))): How would you describe the album for people who are completely new to you as a musician?

I guess I would describe Tell Me I Can Fix This On My Own as: electronic indie pop about friendship and feelings, now with additional Weird Time Signatures™.

(((o))): If people listen to this album and love it, what other albums / bands / musicians should they seek out?

I have no idea who I sound like any more, but someone once told me I sounded like a cross between Kero Kero Bonito and the Postal Service, and it was the best compliment I’ve ever been given.

In terms of influences, although I don’t know whether any of them actually come out in my music: Owen Pallett, the Magnetic Fields, Grimes, Baths, CHVRCHES, Max Tundra (most notably when producing for Daphne and Celeste), Sufjan Stevens, Anamanaguchi, the Mountain Goats, Emmy The Great.

Actually now I think about it probably the biggest influence on Tell Me I Can Fix This On My Own, sonically, was Broadcast 2000, who released an EP in 2008 (which we reviewed in the early days of E&D) and an album in 2010 which I completely adored and absolutely ran into the ground, and then disappeared off the radar never to be seen again. They seem like a weird influence for a live-coded album because they were completely acoustic, all glockenspiels and cellos and violins, but all their songs are made up of these tiny interlocking intricate sounds, and I was thinking about them a lot when I made this record. If you know what happened to Broadcast 2000, hit me up.

Photos courtesy of Ed Sprake Photography.

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