Erin Barra Interview – Live and Kicking

We catch up with a composer at the forefront of Live technology – both in the ‘live’ and Ableton senses of the word. Andy Price talks to Erin Barra…

Erin Barra is a singer/songwriter from New York. Combining elements of pop, electronica, rock and blue-eyed soul, Erin’s music recently inspired Ableton to approach her to demonstrate the capabilities of Push at an Ableton event that was streamed live around the world. The Washington Post describes Erin as an artist “with intangible star quality” – and we certainly agree. We caught up with Erin to chat about her music, production methods and the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry…

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You demo’ed Ableton Push at Tekserve. Can you tell us your thoughts on Push and how you’ve used it for your own recording and performing?
I have to admit that when I first got it I was sceptical about how well it would integrate into my studio or my stage setup, just because I’m a traditional instrumentalist with a strong background in keyboards and synth-based instruments, so I wasn’t totally sure at first – generally I find that all these new hardware instruments kind of impede the creative process because you have to learn how to work them properly first! However, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s very intuitive. Now I’m doing all my drum programming on it, what with the functionality of being able to do live recording and very specific quantisation.

I don’t like to get stuck at any point when programming drums. Another thing I’m doing now that I never thought I’d ever be doing is all my mixing on it. Push is so streamlined that I can step away from my computer and still have complete control over my audio effects. It does force me to use my ears more, and that I think, overall, is the biggest benefit it has provided for me.

How did you first get involved with Ableton?
A couple of years ago I started messing about with Live and thought I was doing something very unique – not just because I was a female in this industry. I never really intended to be an engineer or to be working on the digital side of music-making and I think I definitely stuck out for a number of reasons, so yeah, I literally just knocked on their door. I’d written them some emails saying this is what I’m doing, I’d love to work with you guys which got zero response, so I located their offices and literally just showed up and had a great conversation with Dave Hill. He gave me some great opportunities to engage with a lot of the user groups around the US and it all unfolded quite naturally.

I do have a passion for sharing my knowledge. It’s beyond just Ableton at this point: it’s all about using software to make music, not just the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ – why are we doing it?

A technological tour de force: Erin performing live

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As a woman in this male-dominated industry, have you found challenges or opposition to you being so involved in the technical side of things?
Not that I’m cognisant of, but there probably are. There are probably opportunities that are given to male producers that aren’t given to me, but y’know, I’ve always just been one of the boys anyway, my entire life. It’s kind of like affirmative action – ‘we need a woman, oh there she is!’ – so it kind of helps rather than hinders my career.

As a songwriter, how do you approach your new material? Do you start in the studio, work on sound and melody first, or take a much more organic approach with lyrics first?
For me, it’s always about the why, and the concept of what I’m trying to accomplish today in the studio. The other day me and one of my co-producers were in the middle of a song and we came across this string patch. He started playing a progression with it and I said, “Hold it! We’re stopping right now and starting another song because this is the start of something new!” So sometimes new ideas can come quickly like that.

But often I just come in with some separate concepts. I’ll come in and say I want to write a song about ‘uncertainty’ or something like that. But that initial idea will dictate how the harmony will progress, what the BPM will be. I hardly ever come into the studio and dick around. I always have a purpose, but there are different ways to get there and that varies with each song.

Let me entertain you: Erin keeps the crowd happy

Who are your biggest songwriting influences?
My parents were children of the 60s and 70s so we listened to a lot of singer/songwriters when I was young, people like James Taylor, Billy Joel, Paul Simon – those traditional songwriters of that era, but then also people like The Doors. At a certain point in my life I found Stevie Wonder – I must have been 13 or 14 – and spent the next decade completely immersing myself in his work. Not only is he a fantastic songwriter and instrumentalist but he’s multi-genre, creating music based upon the ‘why’ of something. I really relate to his electronic experimentation and the fearlessness with which he created it. So he’s definitely my biggest influence, but I’m constantly inspired by my peers, especially here in New York where there’s a very vibrant scene.

How much creative control do you take over your music? Do you tend to collaborate often and allow others to add their elements or do you like to work singularly?
I am definitely a collaborator, yeah – nine times out of ten I’m collaborating. Usually when it’s just me it’s a weird one-off project that I’ve been hired for, but typically, whoever I’m working for is in some way collaborating with me. It’s just boring being by yourself, but there are certain parts of each project that I’ll have to do by myself, whether it’s vocal editing or this, that or the other – I’ll do those in isolation. But when I’m creating I like to be surrounded by multiple energies.

Aside from Push, what other instruments do you use for studio or live work?
My stage setup has been pretty much the same for the last year: I’m playing a Moog Little Phatty for lead lines and basses, I’ve also got a Nord Electro 3 that I’m using for wurlitzers, organs and pianos, almost exclusively using their analogue sounds. I had been using an APC40 but I’m going to switch to Push now. I have an LPD that I use to trigger spliced MIDI tracks.

I use a MacBook Pro with Ableton Live. I’ve also just got some brand-new Novation controllers; they just sent me the Launchkey 49, which I want to give a try as well. So that’s what I do live. I occasionally use some third-party plug-ins on stage and in the studio; I keep going back between Pro Tools and Live quite a bit now. Here in the studio we have a huge live room with lots of mics and outboard so I’ll do a lot of audio recording in Pro Tools and then throw things into Live and really get creative on that side.

The off-stage environment, complete with Moog Little Phatty and live room.

Which one of your releases do you feel the most creatively fulfilled by, and for what reason?
That’s a good question! Probably my second album, called Illusions. I definitely had complete creative control over that; there are some really long tracks – like seven-minute-long things – which in retrospect I’m very glad that I did. In terms of songs, well, there’s a song on there called Satisfied which was when I really started switching to a more electronic sound.

There’s a lot of melodica; the form is really weird and there are a lot of sonic threads going through that. I was really pleased with how it supported itself. It’s like a creepy electronic dub song. I’m sure other people have done things like that, but for me it was a new, original approach.

Erin performs a cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky in her own inimitable style

What’s next on your agenda? Do you have a new album in the works?
Yeah, I’m almost finished with it – there’s been a lot of transition for me, moving from exclusively trying to accomplish the feat of being an artist in this industry right now to being more fulfilled behind the scenes and in the studio and also working with other artists: I’m doing a lot of consultation around New York with musicians about integrating digital technology into their stage setup. Doing this is a happier life for me.

Although I will release it at some point I don’t quite know what that means anymore. It used to mean publicity campaigns, tours, budgets and lawyers! I’m not really sure if I want to go through all that again so I’m going to sit on it until I know. But right now I’m focusing on what works the best – being a woman in audio. I’m just going to follow my nose and stay positive, so who knows what’s next!

Stay up-to-date with Erin and her music on:

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