Emika live at "A Day for … David Bowie" at Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin.
All photos: © Gregor Blanz / Haus der Berliner Festspiele
British singer slash producer Emika is no stranger to experimentation. The 28-year old artist has reinvented herself again and again—from being a sound designer at Native Instruments, to collaborating with artists such as My My, Brandt Brauer Frick, and Marcel Dettmann, field recording Berghain, and shaping her very own sound signature—somewhere between leftfield electronica, dubstep-inspired rhythms, classical music, and Trip Pop.
For her second album Dva (Ninja Tune, 2013) she got Hank Shocklee as an executive producer aboard. He's been a pioneer in layered sound since his early days with Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad. Most recently, Emika took on David Bowie's classic "Let's Dance", which she performed during a live showcase at Berlin's Haus der Berliner Festspiele in compliment to the british music legend.
"Where's the harm in trying things?", Emika asked when we caught up with her in advance of the show. We asked her about her history with Bowie, how she befriended Shocklee, and what she's currently working on. Watch her David Bowie cover video below:
Emika—"Let's Dance" (David Bowie Cover) [Shocklee-Emikaized Version] | Made by MKMK
THUMP: You've covered David Bowie's "Let's Dance"? Why did you choose that song?
Emika: I like new challenges. I was very intimidated of the thought of covering "Let's Dance". I've covered "Wicked Game" [by Chris Isaac] before, that was intimidating enough. But this seemed like a whole new level of intimidation. When there's a challenge in front of me, that's where I can be the most innovative. The only way I can deal with a challenge is to experiment. If the idea comes quite quickly, then something great will happen. My executive producer Hank Shocklee had the idea, I originally picked "China Girl". But he pushed me much further—so we decided to try and do "Let's Dance". Also I think this has never been covered in the context in which I work, so we thought it would be interesting for our audience.
What's the context in which you work?
Sound design, electronic, contemporary classical pop.
That's a pretty wide range…
Basically not Jazz, and not… (laughs) Rock.
A couple of years back I had the impression that people and press have put you into the Dubstep-y corner.
The longer you're an active artist—releasing, creating, performing—the more time you have to share what you do with people. When you put out your first record, that's all people know—you can't expect them to understand you as an artist until you have some time to share your ideas and publish more work. I can now finally say: electronic.
How much convincing by Hank did it take to…
… A lot! I'm pretty stubborn.
Especially given that Bowie's career is that extensive. There are hundreds of songs to choose from, and this one's taken from his fifteenth album. Also one of his commercially biggest hits.
The main thing that's intimidating is his fan base. For somebody to come in and pick that song with its impact on the whole world of pop music… Me and Hank, we have a quite deep relationship where we discuss a lot of things. I considered i t for a while and didn't want to do it. But Hank has really good ideas, and the things that I'm the most stubborn about are the things that work best for me in the end. Where's the harm in trying things?
Speaking of trying: Your vocals in this cover version are so much different from all your other songs. Why the deep, dark voice? It's even darker than Bowie's own voice…
Hank told me: If you're covering a leftfield, outsider artist like David Bowie, then you have to try and push it further left. Basically create a new sound. You can't just take the lyrics and the chords, and recreate it on a different instrument. It has to have a whole new, relevant production approach. I've noticed since Burial, since Dubstep, that all the guys use vocals and pitch them up. It's everywhere in electronic music now, a very recognisable production sound. I like the idea of having a female voice and take the opposite approach, pitching it down. Electronic music can be very serious. When I started I felt to have the opportunity to explore and escape the rules of classical music. But today everything feels too restricted, too genre-, club- or dance-orientated. I'm looking for ways to break that apart, to smash it down. This cover version has a serious concept and a lot of thought behind it, but it's always very playful and simple.
I imagined it had a political dimension, too.
I like the idea of gender and sound, but that was more of an afterthought. If you think about pop music, there's this obsession about female singers using Auto-Tune to photoshop their voices…
Not just women… It's a go-to processor.
That's what producers are being paid for. Make it sound clean, squeaky and great. I like to fuck things up, basically.
Did you grow up with Public Enemy or David Bowie? You're born 1986…
"China Girl" is the first record I remember hearing and asking my dad: "How does it sound like that?" I was basically referring to the echo, that record sounds very special. So my dad explained it to me and then got me a 4-track cassette recorder. So I started recording my piano on cassette… I didn't get to know Bowie's catalogue at a young age, I was obsessively listening to one or two songs. "China Girl" was an important song.
How did you and Hank Shocklee meet?
I was on tour with Amon Tobin in the US, opening for his ISAM show. The guy that Amon rented the extra PA [system] from is an ex basketball player. He's really tall and could never sleep on the tour bus. And I couldn't sleep as I was too excited. So we were hanging out at night, and at one point he said he wanted to get his friend Hank to the New York show. Everyone was freaking out that night because Hank Shocklee was there. To be honest, I didn't know who he was, but everyone else seemed to be excited. I performed, he came backstage later and we had a chat. Gave him my records…
Did he know about your music upfront?
I don't think so. He listens to music all the time. He maybe knew of me, but he didn't know if I was a producer or a singer. That was at a time when I was insecure about mixing my music, I had a lot of pressure finding and working with a producer. I was in a corner with my work at that time. But I also didn't know how to ask Hank if he wanted to be my producer. How do you even say that to someone you hardly know? We then had some late night chats through Skype.
But how did you do it then? How do you ask someone like Hank?
My dad was in New York at this show, and he met him before I did. When I came back from New York my dad told me: "This is a serious guy. Write an email, follow up, this is what you should do with your career." So I wrote a follow-up email to his manager. I asked him if we could be friends. The more I opened up about my process as a producer, the more he recognised that he could help me. He became my mentor, so to say. That process developed all through my Dva album, he became the executive producer of that album and all my new music. It's a fantastic partnership.
What music are you currently working on?
I've written a ton of new songs which will form an LP, a couple of EPs, maybe some 12"es. I've also remixed everything since I want to put out my own club mixes. I've started writing my first symphony for an about 100 people orchestra, just went to Prague and checked out some studios. This symphony is going to be based on a song called "Miracles", which is a lead track for the Emika LP.
Back to "Let's Dance": The music video for your cover version is a bit contradictory. Very few dancing, more slow movement…
Slow and suggestive posing. The guys I shot the video with—MKMK—wanted to create several Me's.
It feels more like a fashion shoot, like a Vogue cover shoot session.
It's very much the mindset that I'm in right now. I want my stage to look dark, everything orientated around shadows, not so much lights. The opposite of what pop shows of female pop artists are. I wanted to put this into a music video, rather than putting effort into a narrative. You can't do wrong with a straight-up performance video: to see the artist do their thing. The video should represent me right now: I'm 28, that was the hair I had that month, that was the mood I was in then. I wanted to be that cool, slick producer lady. It's straight up.
Did you hear back of Mr. Bowie about the cover?
I'm not sure. Maybe I'll tweet him … (laughs) "Hey Bowie, what do you think of this weird cover?"
Walter has no fear of pop. You can follow him on Twitter: @wwwacht