From designing sound packs for Ableton, to establishing the Female Frequency network Julie Kathryn, aka I Am Snow Angel, is passionate about the industry and the music she makes. MusicTech speaks to Kathryn about her new album…
I’ve always been a musician, but for a long time I played more acoustic, Americana, type material.”
A surprising admission from Julie Kathryn, aka New York’s synth-pop rising star I Am Snow Angel: an artist who’s been receiving plaudits for both her intense, emotive performances and her richly textured mixes. But as Julie tells us, initially her music-making aspirations were focused on just getting people to listen.
“At some point during this early period I started producing my own music,” Julie says. “I really didn’t feel all that connected to the type of stuff I was doing, I wanted to do something more interesting.” ”
Soon the desire to make more thought-provoking music became too much. “The music I was doing at that point never quite felt how I wanted it to feel. To be honest I didn’t really feel like I had much control over what I was doing. I was working with musicians and producers but I still felt like I hadn’t quite ‘locked-in’ with what I wanted to be.”
It wasn’t long before Julie realised that to feel comfortable with what she was doing, she’d have to rethink her musical direction. “I started producing some demos, just in Garageband. I’d always been a little resistant to mixing my own tracks, I didn’t think it was something I could do. It’s kind of strange as I’m actually pretty good at it! Anyway, the demos I made, they turned out sounding much more electronic than the other music I was doing. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, it sounded better and more like the sort of thing I wanted to do myself.”
Julie began to relish the control that self-producing allowed. “I realised also that producing was a really big part of the fun of making music,” she tells us. “I just started doing it, basically around the clock. I got really obsessed with it and worked as hard as I could. Anyway, now in 2018 I’m producing my own projects and also work with a lot of other songwriters, and I love to collaborate with a lot of other artists, particularly women. I live and breathe music completely.”
Julie soon began to learn the art of production, and her way around the latest electronic performance tools with the help of a familiar face to MusicTech readers…
“My tracks were coming out really well and I realised that I was going to have to perform them live. I didn’t really want to – I was terrified. So shortly thereafter I thought about using Ableton Push for live performance, because I had to have a way to transfer these quite complex mixes on to the stage without it sounding all stripped down. I started working with (MusicTech’s contemporary production specialist) Erin Barra who is just amazing. She lived in New York at the time so we started hanging out and she’d tutor me one-on-one with Push for about a year. Erin taught me everything.”
Aside from the technicalities of Push, working with Erin made Julie realise that her gender was no barrier to learning more about music production. “It’s a subconscious thing, but I didn’t know any women in the production sphere, and that’s why I think I thought that production wasn’t for me. Once I met Erin it really made me realise that she’s done so much and that I could do it too.
Is it Future, or is it Past?
As Julie’s skills and sonic personality developed, so too did her stylistic approach, dubbing herself I Am Snow Angel and releasing several singles, EPs, as well as the full length album Crocodile in 2014. Julie now plans her next big move – a fully-fledged concept album called MOTHERSHIP, slated for release this year and born from a particularly isolated creative retreat.
“I’m an artist that isn’t just influenced by the auditory, but the visual too,” Julie tells us. “One of the big influences for me on my new record was actually David Lynch – especially the new series of Twin Peaks. I had previously covered the Twin Peaks theme song [the ethereal Falling, which Julie adds her own distinct stamp too].” Keeping up the Lynchian vibe then, Julie reveals that she recorded the album in a cabin in the woods by herself.
“I brought a lot of things with me to the cabin – a bunch of microphones, a few guitars and my Novation Ultranova. I had a vintage Farfisa organ with me. I also used the ROLI Seaboard which is great for expression and the ROLI Blocks too. I worked quite a lot with Ableton Push and for interfacing I used an Apogee Ensemble.”
Aside from a creative arsenal of music technology, Julie tried to really make the space feel conducive to making music.
“I brought lighting to help me get into the zone. I programmed it so it would blink and react to the music I was making. It really helped with the mood. I dragged all kinds of stuff into this place. I had extender cables going into the bathroom where I was recording quite a few vocals – it was great!”
Purpose built studio
So how did the process go, and the big question is, did it ever get lonely? “Well the studio was purpose-built for the record. Once I’d finished I dragged everything back home with me. I wanted an isolated feel. I tried to get into a zone where I could work and give myself over to music – it’s probably not the healthiest really, but I was away from all distractions.”
However Julie says she did take time out while there, “I was also in nature so if I wanted some time away I could go for a walk. Being able to see the sky was important and some of the songs were definitely written from that place of being alone and in the woods. I just felt like I could totally control my environment. It did disrupt my normal life – I didn’t have the usual things that I had to do. My cell phone didn’t work but, you know, it definitely helps to go someplace to be creative.”
So was Julie totally alone through the entire process?
“The one other person that played something on the record is a guitarist called Charlie Rauh. At the end of my process after my tracks were recorded he came in to lay some stuff down. He’s an amazing guitar player and he creates these wonderful, deep swells. He’s really special. I mixed his parts in to my tracks in a really ambient kind of way. I didn’t want guitar solos – just textures. When it came time to mixing I did a lot of it myself. I’ve learned a great deal about the process in a short space of time.”
Performing her dense, layered compositions live has its own challenges, but Julie has prepared a streamlined set-up, that allows her to present her tracks as they should be heard on stage. “I use Ableton Live and Push when I’m performing live. I also play a Fender Telecaster and use an LPD8 Akai pad controller.
I also sometimes bring lighting – as getting the visuals right is a big part of what I do too. The lights are mapped to the beat. I send everything through a Focusrite 8Pre Clarrett interface.”
Aside from her car full of physical tech, Julie also loaded up her DAW with a range of plug-ins and sounds which she used to build the record.
“I use a lot of different things really. I recently created a bunch of sounds for Ableton’s new Synth Essentials pack, which was released alongside Ableton Live 10 and I put a lot of work into that. I really enjoy that sort of thing, just finding and inventing sounds. I quite enjoy working in the box.”
Julie tells us that she holds no affiliation to any particular camp though:
“I’m not someone who comes from an analogue synth background, I grew up playing guitar and piano. So I’m kind of learning as I go. For me one method – analogue or digital – doesn’t feel superior or inferior to the other. I do use a lot of Native Instruments plug-ins a lot. I really like Reaktor and Massive. I also quite like using the Korg plug-ins. I use Equator a great deal too. To be honest I just use whatever I feel like using, I’m not the kind of artist who uses the same thing over and over again.”
Julie continues, “Having said that, I do have some Ableton sounds that I’ve used from the beginning that I continue to bring up and use to this day. There’s a sound called Electro Ceramic and I use that a lot as a layer – I like the tone of it. In Massive I often use a three octave sub preset too. So there are a few things that I’ll use, but I like to build on top of these things and merge them together with live instruments and effects. By the time the track is done it sounds totally different every time.”
Is Julie strictly an Ableton aficionado through and through?
“For live performance I use Ableton Live. I find that for creativity, like making a soundscapes, it works wonders. I just get on with it really well and it works as an extension of my musical brain. After I’ve built things up and added all the cool things that you can add with Live so easily, like reverse vocals, blending reverbs, chopping and so on, I export the stems into Logic. I love tracking vocals in Logic, I really like how the comping works in it. It’s intuitive.”
Julie also says that she tends to find that third party plug-ins intergrate better with Logic.
“That being said in Live 10 there are some new features that adds a lot more traction for mixing. They have the Drum Buss and a whole host of new effects, especially the delays. I think a criticism in the past has been that the sounds have been a little sterile from a sound design point of view. It has definitely improved recently, but I’m not fully at the point of mixing there yet!”
The actual song-building process begins differently for Julie each time. “Sometimes I’ll start with a beat, making loops and reversing things and just singing riffs. These ideas can turn into songs occasionally. Sometimes I’ll just play with these elements and the next day I’ll come back to them and I almost don’t remember arranging individual pieces, but I listen and I think, ‘Oh wow, there’s a song here’. Other times it’ll be more traditional, I’ll sit down with a guitar and write a song, and then produce it, very old school. So it’s a different process each time.”
Beam me up
To the record itself then – birthed in this detached environment, MOTHERSHIP sounds like it’ll take the listener on quite a journey over its eight tracks. “The concept has several layers to it,” Julie explains.
“The songs pieced together tell a story about an abduction and the idea of wanting to be abducted, alienation and all that kind of stuff. The title track is centred around the idea of people in cults, drinking their elixirs and waiting for the end, waiting and willing the mothership to come down and get them.”
Julie continues to divulge the concept.
“When it comes, though, it’s not entirely what they thought it was going to be – it’s kind of scary. There’s another song on the record that has a nightmare-type sequence. That song is actually a co-write with a guy called Brian Murray who’s a great songwriter.”
Despite the aliens, Julie says that the concept is more metaphor than science fiction.
“It was more a political feeling of alienation than a literal one. Then at the end of the album, on the tracks Wake Me and I Love You, there’s a bit of a plot turn where the listener is dropped back off on Earth and it’s all changed. Anyway I’m speaking very literally here – it’s a thematic, emotional journey really. I think the songs are open to interpretation by the listener, but it’s got the narrative running through it that keeps it all coherent.”
At this point in her career, being in control of her music is a huge part of Julie’s approach. That’s not to say however, that she’ll sometimes bring in more ears to help hone her material.
“Mixing is such a big part of my songwriting process for this kind of music-making. I did send three songs to Travis Ference in California, he’s a really great mixer and had mixed a bunch of things including an album by Lo Fang that I really liked the sound of. I also sought out the help of a mixer in New York called Ari Raskin who did the mix for two songs.”
Restoring the balance
Aside from her own music making, Julie is one of the founders of the female production collective, Female Frequency.
“We started in 2015. I became aware of a musician/producer named Dani Mari who was looking for a female producer to work with. She sent the email out to a Women In Music email list and I believe that I was the only person who responded.”
Their meeting proved creatively fruitful.
“So Dani came over to my apartment and we started talking about working together. An idea came up during our conversation that was something like, ‘Oh wow, wouldn’t it be great if we made an album that was entirely generated by women from start to finish – at every stage of production. The composing, the writing, the arrangement, the mixing, the engineering, all of it’. I’m sure it’s not the first time this has ever been done but it’s definitely not the norm, whereas there are countless albums created entirely by men.”
The pair set out to do just that and quickly enlisted many more women to work on the project.
“A really great singer/songwriter called Claire London came on board and once we had some ideas we started holding events. Out of this initial idea, Female Frequency really evolved into a community and a collective where female producers can learn and meet each other to collaborate. We host workshops where female artists can come in and give demos on different topics. We have a great social media presence too. It’s a really fantastic group.”
Female Frequency has subsequently established itself as a truly global community of musicians and producers.
“We had our launch party in 2015 and so many women just came out of the woodwork. There’s not just us, there are some other great organisations out there as well, there’s a group called Female Pressure which have been going for a while and we’ve actually joined forces with a lot of other groups. It’s very collaborative. Erin’s Beats By Girlz group is also doing amazing work with young female producers. I feel like a lot of organisations are coming together with a similar goal, because there’s absolutely a need for it.”
New angel of promise
So, with the release of MOTHERSHIP imminent, and her status as a unique and skilled artist and producer assured, what’s next for I Am Snow Angel?
“Well right now I’m still putting a plan together for the album release, though that will be coming out soon,” Julie tells us. “I think we’re going to get a single out soon. There’s a few other things going on too, I collaborated recently with a Swedish artist called The Land Below. That track, Someone to Save Me, is out now”.
At the time of speaking to her, Julie was in Canada.
“I’m in Ottawa right now wrapping up a couple of weeks working with a really young female artist called Grace Lachance, It’s a real pop album. They brought me up here to work on it with her. I’ve done a little bit of songwriting with her but she’s a fantastic songwriter in her own right. It’s a six song EP.”
Julie describes the record as “a mix of things Grace wrote on her own and co-writes. I basically just came up here to try and make them pop songs. This was actually very exciting for me and totally different to how I normally approach music making. Making pop songs is really the opposite of how I create my own music, but in this case it’s a professional gig and I’m really here working for her. So it’s a real challenge and actually a lot of fun. Taking songs and shaping them into something that’s ready to play on the radio, but still in my own way.”
“It really stretched my brain to do this and think this way. But Grace is a wonderful singer. She is going to have a long career in music I think – if she wants to that is. It was an honour to be involved.”
What fuels Julie’s own artistic direction, and her hunger to learn more about the music-making process is the desire to hear music that ultimately, she herself wants to hear.
“I would say that your goal should be to get to a place where you love what you’re doing, You want to be in a state so the process you have is so enjoyable to you that you just want to do it all the time. I’d also say to keep doing it as much as you can. I also think that you need to make music that you yourself love a great deal – So much so that you really want other people to hear it and you kind of don’t care if they like it or not.”
Julie summarises this point, and her entire music-making ethos by saying, “Have fun, make music that’s pleasing to your own ear and take the pressure away from trying to please people or make music people want to hear. With me I just got tired of trying to make music people liked. I got burned out on it and just thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great if I just focus on making music that sounds good to me’. Strangely once I started doing that I do feel like other people liked it more. It was more authentic.”
MOTHERSHIP will be released later this year and the single ‘You Were Mine’ is available now. Check out iamsnowangel.com for more information. For more on Female Frequency, head to femalefrequency.com.