Introducing: Christa Vi

Christa Vi is an Australian/German singer songwriter, living in East London, who has been honing her synthpop sound over a number of years. Her debut album ‘Makeshift Happiness’ is out now. The singer has been busy in the run up to her first album, releasing four EP’s, ‘Invisible’, ‘Loveblind’, ‘Futureproof’ and ‘Makeshift Happiness’ and collaborating on tracks with Joyce Muniz. Fans of the sound on Christa Vi’s EPs will be happy to know that many tracks have made their way onto the ‘Makeshift Happiness’ LP, which she worked on with producers Andrew McDonnell (Petite Noir, SUNS) and Dan Brown (Massive Attack). Her singles lend themselves to exciting interpretations, having been remixed by the likes of Fybe:One, Amtrac, Russ Chimes and Amateur Best.

The artist’s approach to music mirrors her casual obsession with origami; the concept of creating something beautiful or functional out of something ordinary – a metaphor for making the best of difficult times. Having drawn comparisons with other progressive pop vocalists such as Shura and Jessy Lanza, Christa Vi has emerged as an intriguing synth-pop artist, exuding not only style and personality but a talent for songwriting and impressive melodies.

KALTBLUT spoke with the artist about origami, how East London has changed in the years since she has lived there and making the most of life’s hard knocks.

KALTBLUT: What are your experiences of living in East London?
Christa Vi: I’ve been living in East London for about 12 years and it’s really changed dramatically in that time. When I first moved to Hackney in 2003, it was the most multi-cultural place I’d ever lived, it felt very creative and there was definitely an edge. It felt a little bit dangerous. At the time I was looking for new experiences and to get away from my white suburban upbringing in Adelaide, Australia. I made the most of my time early on, going out in Shoreditch and Kingsland Road when there were still warehouse raves going on, and I went to random parties in Bengali restaurants, Turkish social clubs lock-ins in East End Jazz Clubs. It was just at the cusp of gentrification which has since just grown and grown. I used to love going to a legendary little club called Plastic People, which was known for having one of the best sound systems in London. It was really dark inside so people would just dance and not care what anyone looked like, and people were openly smoking weed before the smoking ban came in. I was also drawn to the area because of the markets, vintage fashion and street art in places like Brick Lane and just being around interesting and creative people. Sadly gentrification has taken it’s toll – Shoreditch has become full of bankers and commercial bars and even parts like Hackney Wick have changed in terms of the clientele who go out there and clubs like Fabric have been forced to close. We now have the night tube, but there are less places to go late at night! It’s become ridiculously expensive to live here now so I think the younger artists and musicians have moved out to places like New Cross, Peckham and Tottenham. Even with the negative aspects of gentrification, I still find things here to get excited about. I don’t go to clubs as much these days, usually just to support my friends who are DJs and musicians at their shows. But there is always so much going on in my local area, great new food and coffee places opening up, festivals and art exhibitions to go to. I feel very lucky that I can still live here and have all this on my doorstep.

KALTBLUT: How does having London as an adopted city, as an Australian/German singer songwriter, impact your music?
Christa Vi: I think that both the country and city you live in can definitely change your music as I tend to absorb what I hear around me and I’m sure that gets reflected in my song-writing, even down to the production choices, melodies and the way I sing. I first came to the UK because I loved 90s British electronic music like Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, Moloko, Bjork etc so I definitely was inspired early on by those sounds and even though it’s been so many years, I think those early influences have stayed with me. Since living here all this time, I’ve been exposed to the music taste in the UK, going to music festivals and probably listened to more UK artists. There is so much music happening here, it can be overwhelming sometimes. Even just hearing what’s on the radio and Top40 influences me as it’s different to America and Australia. When I first came here I was fascinated by the DIY garage and grime scenes. I used to work near Bethnal Green and listened to local pirate radio stations broadcasting from the top of the estate buildings in my car when driving around Bow and the Isle of Dogs. I listen to all sorts of music even if it’s nothing like my own. I think if I’d made this album in Australia or in Germany it would have sounded very different, also because the producers I’ve worked with are all British and bring their own influences, from both London and Bristol.

KALTBLUT: How did you come to collaborate with Joyce Muniz’?
Christa Vi: I was actually introduced to Joyce through her publisher and we first discussed ideas for a collaboration on email. But I met her when she DJed in Hackney Wick. I could only get there about 2am in the morning and it was a crazy little rave in an old factory building which felt very local and real, like it used to feel in my early days of living near Shoreditch in the early 00s. She was so welcoming and fun and so I watched her DJ and hung out with her and her friend from Berlin until the sun came up. I’ve collaborated with people I’ve never met via email before, but I always prefer to meet people and enjoy the exchange of energy. I ended up writing and recording the vocal with my producer Andy in his Dalston studio and then sent it to Joyce who worked on a couple of versions before settling on the one that made the album. Joyce comes across as a very positive, energetic person and she’s a talented DJ and producer so it’s fantastic to see her doing so well, especially in the very male dominated DJ world. I’d like to work with more female producers in future as, sadly, there are not many compared to all the male producers and DJs in the dance and electronic world.

KALTBLUT: You’ve been building your sound for a number of years in the run up to your debut album, what has that sound building process involved?
Christa Vi: Well when I first started taking music seriously again, about 6 years ago, I just began writing songs with my guitar and recording them, so they ended up being more folk/ acoustic because I didn’t have the production skills to work with electronic sounds on my own. But I’ve always loved electronic music, so I reached out to work with producers who could help me bring in the sounds I wanted, like vintage synths and trying out different beats and textures. I’ve always loved the crossover between acoustic instruments and electronic music and prefer working with analogue sounds where possible as the sound in my opinion is just so much warmer than always using digital plug-ins. That’s where I’ve needed the help of producers and engineers as it takes skill to get all those elements working together as well as making sure the musicality- like the chords and topline – fits also. My background is in classical piano and I also studied Jazz vocal so it sometimes helps to use a bit of traditional knowledge in the song-writing phase, but most of the time it’s about using my ear and critical listening until you get the sound and arrangements balanced. I tried to be a little consistent with choosing synth sounds and production style, but also let each song find it’s own way and develop as organically as possible. There’s a point where you just know the sound is right and it’s just a matter of working it through until you you feel relaxed about the track. For me it’s about bringing all my sub-conscious influences together, just trusting my taste and respecting the judgement and experience of the producers I’m working with.

KALTBLUT: What was it like to work with Andrew McDonell and Dan Brown on your latest record?
Christa Vi: It’s been a pleasure working with both. Andy and Dan are both multi-instrumentalists as well as being technically minded as engineers with creative production ideas. Andy has produced for bands like Crystal Fighters and Petite Noir as well as other cross-over indie / electronic artists so he has a great ear for combining synths and electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. With Andy I would mostly come to him with my songs pretty much completed as most were in demo form from working with other musicians. Most of the time we had to pick the songs apart and start the production from scratch, so they sound completely different now. The first time I worked on a song with Andy, which was album the title track ‘Makeshift Happiness’, I brought a live drummer and guitarist – Joe Allen and Matt Ho – to the studio, who’d both played live shows with me in the past. Everything just clicked straight away, which doesn’t always happen. We started jamming the song between the four of us and came up with some really exciting ideas. Andy has a stripped back old piano in his studio with exposed piano strings, and he was experimenting with different ways to play it. We actually recorded the drummer Joe hitting a radiator to get some angular percussion sounds. I love the process of experimenting with sound and recording something unique. Andy and I also worked alone on some tracks, with Andy playing most of the live instruments like bass, guitar, synths and even some notes on the saxophone. I mostly played keyboard and percussion. I like it when production is not totally ‘in the box’. Live elements make it much more interesting and fun for me so that’s why it’s great to work with someone like Andy who knows how to bring it all together.

With Dan, he’s worked with artists like Massive Attack and Karin Park so it was great to learn from his experience of crafting great pop music. The process was pretty similar to working with Andy, except Dan got more involved in the song-writing side, helping with top-line melody and lyrics. It’s really the first time I properly co-wrote and at first it was a bit daunting. For me song-writing, especially the lyrics, is quite personal and it takes trust to bring something else into that space. But I believe that most great songs are written by more than one person, and Dan helped me to improve my songs by choosing the right chords and melodic changes which bring out emotion, and finding just the right words to express a feeling. I’m still amazed at how powerful music can be that it can impact emotions and mood and even be healing physically. It’s partly a science and about the vibration of energy, so harnessing that is always the challenge for me. Both Dan and Andy and another producer / DJ Bxentric worked together on one track ‘Loveblind’ so that’s a combination of all of our ideas. Dan is also a talented mix engineer, so he mixed most tracks on the album. I think a good mix can totally transform a track and it’s so important to balance everything so that sounds are not competing with each other and everything is in it’s right place. I’m grateful to have worked with Andy and Dan on the album as well as a couple of other producers including Ben Fitzgerald (Stubborn Heart) and George Shilling and I’ve leant so much in the process.

KALTBLUT: Your casual obsession for origami has also been used as a metaphor for your music, as something beautiful or functional that emerges out of something ordinary. It’s a great statement, could you elaborate?
Christa Vi: My mum was a kindergarten teacher from South Germany, near Karlsruhe, and she spent a lot of time with me and my sister doing arts and crafts including origami and paper folding. I don’t know if that’s a normal thing for pre-school in Germany, but we were always different to our friends in Australia who preferred the outdoor life and going to the beach. So I got interested in origami as an adult and have always found paper folding to be calming, like a kind of Zen, and it brings me back to my childhood. I’ve pretty much always had origami paper in my home as long as I can remember. I Iove that you can take a very ordinary piece of paper and make it into something fantastic and all it requires is your patience and time. I like that as a metaphor as I feel that it’s similar to my music as I literally start with an idea in my head and then I’ve used whatever is around me to take it further, whether that be my guitar, keyboard or just singing over a beat that someone has sent me. I like it that you can create an end product to share out of nothing, well just an idea and your own energy. This concept also helped me at times in my life where things didn’t go to plan, especially when past attempts at being a musician didn’t work out. Each time I just went back to the basics and looked at what I had in front of me, usually just a piece of paper, a pen, a guitar and an idea and started again. It’s the same with times in my life, when I’ve needed to adjust or re-focus. There is always hope of something new if you are prepared to be positive and problem solve.

KALTBLUT: You’ve spoken about making the best of life’s hard knocks, what were they and how did you turn them to your advantage musically?
Christa Vi: Well I’ve not spoken about this before in an interview, but I lost both my parents in the past 6 years, my mum to cancer and not long afterward my dad to heart failure, so those things were hard knocks. I went back to live in Australia to look after my mum for two years in 2008 and 2009 and brought her over to live in Switzerland with family where she died in 2010, so that was a very difficult time for me. After she died, I went back to the UK but had to start my life there again as a lot had changed in 2 years. It was also then that I decided to take my music more seriously and try to finish the album I’ve always wanted to do. I think when you grieve and go through personal pain, it kind of resets your body and mind somehow. For me, it’s like I went into a different gear and suddenly had all this extra energy to burn. It’s like I needed to put all those feelings somewhere or else it was going become harmful to me and others around me. For me song-writing was an outlet and I also think the act of singing was healing too, so I just started doing as much of both as I could. While the songs aren’t really directly about my personal grief as I couldn’t bring myself to write about those things in an obvious way, I probably used the creative medium of music to express some of my emotions at the time, more to benefit myself than anyone else.

KALTBLUT: Do you have a personal favourite remix of any of the album’s tracks?
Christa Vi: It’s so hard to choose as they are all so different and all equally amazing. But I love Russ Chimes remix of ‘Futureproof’ as it reminds me of 90s remixes like those for Everything But the Girl. I also love what Fybe:One did with ‘Loveblind’ as it takes in a really different, almost UK garage direction and was picked up by House DJs Eton Messy on their recent compilation release. And London producer Earl Grey did something interesting with ‘Invisible’ as he took a lot of the original parts and re-versioned it in his own way. I think a lot of remixes these days can be a bit lazy and just throw a new beat over the vocals and add reverb to everything. But I enjoy it when I can hear so many of the original elements re-imagined and remixed in the true sense of the word. It’s exciting to me when a producer really gets creative, like making a new picture out of the same pieces of a puzzle.

KALTBLUT: How do you feel about comparisons with artists such as Shura and Jessy Lanza?
Christa Vi: I’m definitely a fan of both Shura and Jessy Lanza and listened to both their music when I was making my record so maybe some influence can be heard, although I don’t think I sound much like either. I think Shura is a great melodic songwriter who just knows how to tease out a great hook but in a very subtle way. I saw Jessy Lanza play at the Pickle Factory recently and her sound was amazing, her album is so well produced. I love the way she plays with effects on her vocals to magnify her RnB hooks, but underneath all those great sounds are some unique melodies. It’s when I can hear some personality and soul as well as quality song-writing that an artist really stands out for me among all the many female synth-pop artists that populate the internet right now. I guess I relate to both of these artists also as they write great pop music but don’t seem to want the typical pop image to go with it. That’s a challenge for me too, as what comes out of me is pretty much pure pop writing, but I don’t want to be a pop star at all and performing is more difficult for me as I’m quite an introvert and a private person.

KALTBLUT: What do you have planned once Makeshift Happiness comes out?
Christa Vi: I would like to do some live shows next year to support the album, but it’ll need some time and effort as I want to make sure the live format works and does the album justice. It’s been a while since I’ve played live, so will need to get back into the headspace of performing again, which for me is a totally different headspace to song-writing, producing and recording. I also want to keep writing for other artists and doing more guest vocals so there are a few projects in the pipeline!

Makeshift Happiness is out now on Tangelo Records