Do you have any frustrations with being a musician?
I struggle to find the balance between managing my health and living a stress-free life while playing shows. As a musician you have to play shows, and you want to because you love it, but you don’t make much money, and a huge amount of time and energy goes into it. But there are only so many years that you’d want to be a poor, stressed-out musician! That is the struggle I am trying to figure out. Aside from that, being a musician is great – I’m so happy to be doing what I love.
As a creative, how have you found being in lockdown? Do you have a set lockdown routine?
During the lockdowns last year, I worked on a few projects. Some of them were really big projects (like a few 15-20 minute compositions), so I found them quite grueling, but I was glad to have creative work to keep me going through lockdown, otherwise it would have been really monotonous. I’m not good at routines so no, I don’t have one!
How did you first get involved in music?
I started learning piano when I was four. My older sister started when she was five so by the time I was three I was fiddling around on the piano. I was pushed really hard to do exams and worked really hard but I was also pretty natural at it I think. I did my L.Mus diploma [the most advanced exam / certificate] when I was 13 or 14 years old.
I got into electronic music when I was about 15 or 16, before that it was rap and hip hop. I was always drawn to music that sounded really warm and comforting.
I think I knew as a teenager that I wanted to make electronic music. When I finished school I had this feeling that I could do anything that I wanted, if only I knew what. I did well at school, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. It took me a really long time to work out that I should just make music because that is what I care about the most. And instead I wasted time doing an arts degree writing essays!
What did you study?
Media and Communications. I kept studying piano at the University of Melbourne while I was doing that.
I never really understood how people can make careers as classical pianists. So I knew that I didn't want to be a pianist even though I really, really loved it, but my stage fright was also too bad. But doing my media degree I was just so uninspired, it made it clear to me that I needed to make music my focus. So then I studied classical composition at Melbourne Uni. I wanted to be able to have all the skills necessary to create any kind of music that I could imagine, for any instruments. I felt like I could teach myself to make electronic music. But it turns out that composing notated music is really, really hard to do!
That is what I should have talked about as one of my frustrations, notated music! It’s so much work. It takes up so much time. As a composer you spend months notating a piece so intricately and then performers try to learn the piece in a really short space of time. You spend months and months doing this thing, and you spend years at uni learning how to do it, but it’s so time and money-consuming to finally get a composition performed and recorded to a level that you’re happy with, that it often seems impossible – so making electronic music in your living room ends up being a hugely more satisfying process.
Do you write a lot of notated music?
I did during my studies, but I’ve realised it makes more sense for me to perform my own music myself, and to collaborate with people who I connect with. The way I used to write notated music is I would improvise and record my improvisations in Ableton Live, and then notate them and develop from there. And then I tried to get people to play them, (laughs) but then obviously that doesn't always work so well; they are never gonna play things the way I did, and I’m never going to notate things perfectly either. So the whole notating thing seems pointless for me – if my main goal is for things to sound free and intuitive, I should just play with people who are great at improvising in that way, and that’s what I do now.
What is the importance of improvisation in your work? You mentioned that you use it as a compositional tool, I know that the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music doesn’t teach improvisation, how did you learn?
I improvised a lot as a kid. My sister and I would improvise duets together. Just silly, fun stuff. As a teenager I would do a lot of piano improvisation. So when I got my first synth when I was 17 or 18, I would just improvise. It is a huge part of what I do and how I write music. My music is very much about expressing myself intuitively and letting go of the conscious mind, so improvisation is a big part of my music. A lot of my music that I have recorded is purely improvised. I try to create sounds on my synths that I can improvise with, that morph gradually and are interesting in themselves, so that I can respond to how their sound is changing over time. I often find it really frustrating that I can’t even perform a lot of the music on my albums because it is improvised! I try to recreate it again but I can’t, it's not even half as good, just a poor imitation. So a lot of the music that I perform now has been developed over time so that I can be really free with it; it has a sort of simple structure that I remember and improvise around.
You have played some big gigs including Inner Varnika and Dark Mofo in Australia and completed a European tour. Do you have a favourite gig experience?
Berlin Atonal’s ‘Laterne’ curation at Dark Mofo was pretty great because it was at such a huge venue with such an incredible, massive sound system, and I was so excited to be on an amazing bill with some of my long-time heroes like Autechre. I performed with a live video artist, Don Gray, and I don’t think they had done anything on such a gigantic screen before either so that was pretty special, it just looked incredible. Inner Varnika has been really nice too, I have played that festival two years in a row. The first time I played in the morning on Sunday and then the last time was on Saturday night at 4am or 3am? So it was a really different experience each time, for myself and for audiences. Performing before Merzbow at Carriageworks a couple of years ago was also a huge career highlight for me.
You have such a great studio setup. Do you have a favourite piece of gear?
The two things that I use the most are my Waldorf Blofelds (I have two), and my Nord Lead 2x. I bought the Nord when I was a teenager but it took me years to actually start making music with it. And then I bought a Blofeld a few years ago because I was copying a musician I really like that had one, I had just gotten a scholarship so I had money to buy some small synths. That has really become the cornerstone of my sound I think. So much so that I bought another one so that I can have two going at once because one can only hold so many notes.
Congratulations on the beautiful collaboration you did in 2020 with trumpeter Peter Knight for The Substation. How did that collaboration work?
Thank you! That was all over email. It was an unusual process, because it was made during lockdown. I had made beats before over email; someone sends you a beat and you do synths over the top and it’s a simple process. But this had to be really meditative and free, so I just recorded lots of drones and gave a long recording to him to improvise over, and we went back and forth a few times to realise the ideas a bit better. You can’t hear the piece right now because it’s been taken off SoundCloud, but it’ll be released on Peter Knight’s upcoming album for Room40, hopefully soon.
What artist or person inspires your creative practice?
Since I was a teenager, this electronic musician Jan Jelinek has been a big favourite of mine, because his music just felt so warm and calming; it was just so different from other music that I had heard then. It was coming out of that Clicks and Cuts, minimal glitch era of the early 2000s – he makes mostly quiet, minimal electronic music using tiny samples, field recordings and other things, but I feel like there’s humour and fun to it as well as huge subtlety and depth. I especially love this album that he did with a vibraphone player called Masayoshi Fujita, called Bird, Lake, Objects. It's really free, gentle and meditative and the electronics are really warm-sounding – they’re beautifully crackly and deep.
You have mentioned the word warm a couple of times when talking about works that you like, it seems that this word really resonates with you when you are thinking about music. Is that how you want the listener to feel when listening to your work?
Yes, I guess I want listeners to feel pulled-in and comforted by the warmth in the music, so I use a lot of sounds that are deep, rounded and gentle while trying to be expressive, intuitive and free. But I also explore a lot of sounds that are the complete opposite to that. I think it is really important that whatever you are doing creatively, you’re expressing yourself in a free way. Music and dance and the arts have to be a way to let out whatever emotion we feel or need to feel, but in Western culture we often practice these artforms in a really formalised, pedagogical, and even repressive ways, instead of letting go of rules and inhibitions. But music for me has to be a healing thing. Or fun!
I had a really difficult childhood and so that is where that comes from for me. I have very little interest in electronic music that is all about being cool and dark or cold and aggressive or whatever, because it doesn’t make me feel inspired or in awe, or in touch with myself and the world around me. It often feels repressive to me when artist seem stuck in one of those modes, and it makes their music more of an aesthetic or intellectual statement than a deeply crucial, healing thing. It’s cool to be angry or chaotic or dark or intellectual in music, and my music embodies those states at times, but I don’t understand music that seems committed to one side or part of the emotional spectrum. There’s just so much more depth and nuance to be explored if you let yourself express all states of being, and it’s incredibly healing, too. So, for me, warmth in music is really important – it’s a thing that can pull you up through periods of darkness, because it’s synonymous with life, light and energy – and so are freedom and intuition.
How do you navigate the space between being a classical and an improvising musician?
Being a classical musician makes what I do possible because that is how I am able to play without thinking too consciously about what I’m doing. I do need a level of technical ability in certain moments to be able to respond to things really quickly, and to let the music flow through me unimpeded, so to speak; the sound becomes an extension of my thoughts. So my decades of learning classical piano have made it possible for me to improvise melodies and harmonies on a few keyboards at once, naturally building and releasing tension, which is the basis for my music. At first I did find it really hard to play and improvise with other people though, just because I was a classical musician and I wasn’t used to jamming with others. I was really shy.
It’s really nice to work with classical musicians who are improvisers like guzheng player Mindy Meng Wang, who are also really connected to traditional and folk music. They just really know what they are doing with their instrument and they are really intuitively expressive – I feel like we have a lot in common.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m halfway through a 20-minute composition for piano, synths and percussion that should be released this year, and I’ve just finished a recording with Mindy Meng Wang, and a whole album with the band I’m in, Jaala. I’m really proud of those and I can’t wait for people to hear them.
I also really want to record a few albums of all of the music I have been performing over the past few years which I haven’t recorded because I was too busy performing. I’m a perfectionist, so I need to sit down and record all the music properly, but it’s really hard to find time with so much going on. I don’t know how people do it so quickly!
I know that you were in a duo with Rolling Mass where you made dance music. Are you interested in making dance music again?
Yeah eventually! I actually did a housey track as Fia Fiell a couple of years ago that came out on Butter Sessions. I recorded all this dance music before I ever played a single show as Fia Fiell.
So Fia Fiell was born as a dance music act?
I didn’t even know what I was gonna do. My friend Mat booked me to do my first show, and I had a weird assortment of styles of music that I had recorded but I realised that the only music that I could perform live would be my synth pieces. I don’t know how to perform dance music. So I just kept doing synths cause it seemed to be what I was better at, and I could figure out a satisfying way to play live.
Do you have a dream collaboration?
I really want to collaborate with my partner, Rohan, who’s a drummer and percussionist. Jaala is a dream collaboration, too – I think my bandmates are amazing geniuses!
You mentioned that you are doing your PhD in composition and you want to look into synesthesia. Can you tell us more?
I have a form of synesthesia that makes me hear sounds when I see things moving. Or even if I move my own limbs I experience a hearing sensation. It’s actually surprisingly common to hear sounds in our heads when we see things move, but we perhaps don’t notice it, because of how our brains are so used to hearing sounds that correspond to movements we’re watching, such as watching people talk. I’m really interested in exploring how I can incorporate hearing-motion synesthesia into my work by using visuals and lighting. I feel like visuals can become a part of music in a way, because they have rhythm. So even without sound, you can be experiencing what you see in a musical way. But usually, audiovisual art has everything happening in synchrony, which doesn’t leave room for your brain to interpret things synesthetically. So I want to explore how much I can encourage or induce hearing-motion synesthesia in people, so that people can experience movement as an important part of the music itself.
How has lockdown 4.0 been for you?
It’s been a pretty normal few days so far, but it was really disappointing for me to have two shows cancelled as part of Rising festival that was supposed to be underway! I was so excited to perform for Make It Up Club in an improv ensemble with Chris Abrahams from The Necks, who are probably the most influential band for me that I can think of. And I was going to play in Jonnine from HTRK’s band as well, who are another band I really looked up to since a long time ago. I was also so excited to go to a bunch of shows – The Necks and Chris Abrahams in particular! I just hope everything gets rescheduled – my heart goes out to all the other artists and organisers at Rising because of how much incredible work had to be cancelled and put on hold. Ultimately though I’m doing pretty fine and enjoying my downtime – shooting hoops in the backyard, making phở, cuddling my cat, doing boring things that involve my laptop, and feeling thankful I’ve got decent heating here and a beautiful view.