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Avalon Emerson speaks to Tara Joshi about the creative shift behind her new project Avalon Emerson & The Charm, technology’s impact on art, and making music against the constrains of the algorithm
Avalon Emerson has been playing a lot of Talking Heads lately. An edit of the New York band’s legendary ‘Once In A Lifetime’ has taken regular residence in the DJ’s recent sets; on Reddit, her fans talk about the track moving them to tears. For those who are unfamiliar, the song is one which finds frontman David Byrne ruminating on the absurdity of the American Dream while also tacitly contemplating the sometimes jarring passing of time; how we look around us as we move out of inarguable youth into a new chapter, flowing closer to midlife: “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”
For Avalon, certainly, the past few years have marked a big shift: one that is currently culminating in her taking to the stage at East London venue, The Shacklewell Arms, swaying under the flickering light of a mirrored ball, ruminating to the crowd about how we should try not to hold onto anger in disagreements with our loved ones because “our lives on earth are not actually that long”.
The pub’s back room is largely synonymous with scrappy guitar bands cutting their teeth; shiny electro and synthpop groups; sweaty, leftfield experimental shows; and so, it feels notable on a rainy Wednesday night when the headline act of a tightly-packed, sold-out performance is, instead, a world-renowned techno DJ. Her ascent in the world of dance music has been hard to miss: it was around a decade ago that the 34-year-old started out DJing and making music on the side of her day job in tech, moving from San Francisco to Berlin to become one of the biggest names in the circuit. She has played most of the major festivals, done frequent sets at spots like Panorama Bar, remixed the likes of Robyn and Christine and the Queens, put out tracks on prolific labels like Whities, not to mention curating a ‘DJ-Kicks’ compilation in 2020.
Only, this is a new iteration of Avalon Emerson. This is her first public appearance as Avalon Emerson & the Charm, her polished debut album project which threads together a love for a multitude of genres, pulling more from dream pop (and even bloghouse) than the bold, colourful techno her career thus far might have had you expecting. “It’s a little bit of a shock, a little bit of whiplash, even for myself,” she says with a smile two weeks earlier when we’re sitting in a café in Tottenham, North London, around the corner from the studio she’s rehearsing in. It’s a cold, crisp morning and, over coffee and avocado toast, Avalon is unassuming, a little self-conscious but ultimately forthcoming as we talk about her change in direction. “‘DJ makes pop record’ is a hard thing to do, and it feels like a tightrope in terms of presenting this thing.”
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At the show, she holds herself tentatively on stage singing behind the microphone, occasionally playing synths while accompanied by her wife, Hunter Lombard, on guitar, and friend Keivon Hobeheidar on cello and bass (“At least I’m not just doing it up there alone, and sharing that experience with other people is amazing”). Between them, they’re crafting sonic dreamscapes that plume around her light, mellifluous vocal.
Of course, it’s not an entirely unexpected move: Avalon’s ‘DJ-Kicks’ opened with her sweet cover of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Long Forgotten Fairytale’ (something which she incidentally plays at the Shacklewell). So while she jokes that her attempt at live music is rooted in “hubris”, it’s a move that is far more assured than that. In fact, it was before the COVID-19 lockdowns when the exhaustion of life as a touring DJ was getting to her (alongside guilt about travelling so much given the environmental implications – something she now accepts is not her individual responsibility to fix) that she had decided to take some time out and look to working on this new project. But suddenly in 2020 clubs were closed indefinitely, and this was the clear path (or, as she puts it succinctly on album track ‘Entombed In Ice’: “When one door closes, another opens”).
“I definitely wanted to do it,” she explains of the project, “The thing that was oscillating was my confidence that I could do it, or do it well; that it wasn’t contrived, stupid, that I had the skills to do it – or that I could learn them along the way.” Confronting the challenge of all this, not least trying to understand the specifics of putting together a live show and learning to put herself out there in a new way (with listeners able to sift over her lyrics and do close-readings for the first time) is all something she recognises as ultimately being a good thing, even if it’s not always easy. As she says: “If you’re not a little bit embarrassed with what you’re doing creatively, then you’re not pushing yourself far enough.”
Making work that pushes her out of her comfort zone can feel counterintuitive in the age of the algorithm, she admits. “When everything’s flattened to the same digital metrics of numbers incrementing, up one by one, we’re all kind of forced to devalue art in the same metric, which feels shitty,” she says when we talk about the increasing framing of music through a streaming numbers lens, “Even if you try to not get wrapped up in that, you end up getting wrapped up in that. But it’s also like, do I really even want to win at that game? What does that look like? Does that just mean you’re making necessarily the most average music that’s like, ‘Oh, well, the largest number of people can listen to it’. Is that really the definition of good art nowadays? The entire system is set up for lowest common denominator success.”
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Maybe tellingly, Avalon seems more at ease speaking about these kinds of ideas about the industry, about technology, than getting too deep into herself. As a DJ, she’s known for being a tech whizz, and she seems to be hitting her stride figuring out how that side of things works in live music (she enthuses about mixer matrices and routing and the “curiosity and comfort” she feels around troubleshooting). Still, there are certain parts of technology crossing over with music that she has no interest in, as when I bring up AI’s impact on the industry. “I’m not necessarily interested or positively stirred by the idea of technological progress for the sake of progress, especially in art,” she says, “I want to see it in energy efficiency, in better public transportation systems – I don’t fucking want a robot to make music for me!”
This stance – while completely valid – is interesting when you consider that Avalon’s first real engagement and excitement with music came via technology: she loved trawling MP3 blogs and forums back in the 2000s to find music, nodding to 20jazzfunkgreats, Earmilk, Rose Quartz and more. She describes her first formative “clubbing” experience as being at the house she and her friends lived in during college in Arizona, playing bloghouse MP3s (“this was even before YouTube became the Library Of Alexandria of all music”), dancing under the cheap strobe light they’d bought for their living room. She laughs recalling it: “If it hadn’t been for that, then maybe I would have a different job at this point.” We talk about the sense of a global music community that seemed to exist online back then. “It was very distributed power,” she says, “It was just some kid on Blogspot or WordPress or whatever, it wasn’t so vertically integrated. [Music discovery with the algorithm] is not a very exploratory thing. We were making all these disparate connections across the world, but now the only connection is everyone shoved into this thunderdome competition on social media, everyone doing comparisons on numbers, on likes. Maybe back then [in the 2000s] it was easier to feel good about something because it was only meant for a small number of people, and that’s okay – whereas now it feels like we’re all forced into this horse race competition, no matter what it is. We’re all in this weird internet marketplace; and I think we all agree very simply that it doesn’t feel good.”
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Is it just the case though, I wonder aloud, that we are getting older and becoming out of touch with how younger people engage with music now? “Whenever I’ve talked about this with friends, everyone always says, ‘oh, well, maybe it’s just me getting older’ or some variation of ‘I’m old and I’ve lost the magic of youth when I was really interested in music,’” she says, “And I’m like – not really? You’re just blaming yourself individually for this thing platforms have basically done for us and that’s not fair or true.”
For all this might be coming off as cynical, often it’s the people who think this deeply about music and our consumption of it who are the ones with the most hope and excitement about it, too. “There are flashes of artists doing beautiful, creative things,” Avalon smiles, later waxing lyrical about how inspiring she finds Caroline Polachek’s performances, and the feeling of “being transported, totally awash, by the presence of these sick musicians on stage”, something which she aspires to in her own live shows. Performing live music is a whole nerve-wracking, different kettle of fish to the comfort she feels DJing, she explains – if something goes wrong, “It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m trapped up on stage!’ I can’t just play a long song and figure out the problem with the CDJ, I’ve gotta go.” Again, though, it’s clear she is thrilled by the newness of these challenges. We talk about dance music as a space of release (“eyes closed for like two hours, in itself it’s kind of a meditative thing – there’s a reason we all still do it”), and how her fascination with sound design manifests on the record: “When neuro bass makes all the tiny hairs on your body stand, or when you hear Robin Guthrie’s beautiful textured guitar and it does a similar thing; I’m interested in music as a thing that you both feel and hear.”
Produced by Nathan Jenkins AKA Bullion (“It was a very comforting experience working with him”), and released via Another Dove, her new label with Nic Tasker (“He’s been such a great creative partner to me over the years, and I know I can trust his opinions”), she has enjoyed the process of collaborating properly for the first time. The result is a gleaming album that soars and glides: there are basslines so liquid they ripple; there are immersive inflections of chillwave, freeing disco breeziness, as well as warming nods to house, alongside those more Cocteau Twins-y luscious sounds. Lyrically, reflection on time and where she’s at in life seem at the forefront of Avalon’s mind. “I think it was the pause of COVID that forced everyone to take stock,” she says, “If they weren’t forced to by losing a job like I did, or by a death, or some other traumatic thing; even if those things didn’t happen to you, the rest of the world was going through a violent upheaval. But it’s also like, I’m 34 now, my friends are having kids, and it’s unequivocally incredibly beautiful. It’s so cool to see.”
DJing is her first love, and Avalon has no plans to leave the clubs anytime soon. But she’s excited to try new things, too. Beyond this record, she notes an interest in maybe one day working as an additional producer for other people: “Focusing on someone else and helping them make their vision a reality.”
The uncertainties of the world and all of the changes we face as we get older can be a little scary – overwhelming even – but they also might give way to more intentionality in how we live. With & the Charm, Avalon Emerson seems to be inviting us to feel more self-assurance, to live a little more exploratively, and to soak up the beauty amidst all the chaos. Watching her on stage, feeling out (and fumbling with) new modes of technology and smiling through it all, it’s a reminder that while perhaps platforms are trying to keep us all in certain boxes, Avalon Emerson is still channelling the feeling of music as trial and possibility.
Avalon Emerson & The Charm’s self-titled debut album is out April 28, pre-order it here
Tara Joshi is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins