Sound of the Week: Emika

The crossover between electronic music and classical composition has never been in more vibrant and dynamic health. Multifarious musician Emika explores this fertile ground on her ambitious new opus Melanfonie: her first orchestral composition, some four years in the making. Funded by a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its target by an impressive €25,000, the seeds for the project were first sown in 2012 when Emika enlisted Prague Symphony Orchestra soprano, Michaela Šrůmová, to sing on Dem Worlds for her sophomore album DVA. As well as taking inspiration from her electronic music background in composing the music itself, Emika also applied some of production and playback principles from that realm to create a piece whose every element has been carefully considered. Melanfonie makes for a captivating listen, Emika’s unconventional approach giving the classical form renewed potential and dynamism. Composed, executive produced and devised by Emika in collaboration with her former music teacher Paul Batson and the accomplished players of The Prague Metropolitan Orchestra, it makes for another impressively bold step in her ever-evolving career. Emika is on a quest to try and change what we mean when we talk about ‘classical music’. For her, the magic of the ‘genre’ is about the instruments themselves and more importantly the people who play them; not the restricting traditions and conventions of the classical world itself. We spoke to Emika about moving away from these restrictions,  Prague’s classical music background and working on such an ambitious project.

Emika: “Do something edgy, do something fresh.” As soon as you do they’re like, “No, we don’t want that”. That’s why I’m not with labels anymore. You spend all of this time arguing over nothing when you could be making something.

KALTBLUT: Is that why you ended up making your own label?
Emika: Mhm, it’s one of the main reasons. And I don’t want to be in this single genre. I think that the main thing was that I could feel everything was shifting, and there were loads of things that I couldn’t do, in what I now call “the traditional music world”. Things like Kickstarter, Bandcamp, and just working with people I wanted to work with rather than people that the label usually worked with. Labels generally have their own aesthetic that they want to uphold and that gets a little complicated when the artist has their own aesthetic that they really want to pursue. Maybe when you’re new and not sure where to start it’s wicked when it’s all handed to you, but when you start to get your own fanbase and you really become connected with them it becomes really difficult to just keep that all together. So yeah, I wanted to do all of this classical stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit the classical world at all, but it also doesn’t fit the electronic world so there’s sort of no world for it. I figured my own label was the place that I could do projects that I wanted to do and change the sound of each project rather than put it in a genre. This project right now is with an orchestra, the next can be something completely different. So this is really hard to do under a restricted label when all they want to do is sell one particular thing and keep on selling it.

I’m also sort of aware of how the whole hype thing works. The music industry is really good at selling through hype, but I’m really afraid about the other side of that. I never want to blow up so big that my career stops. To get all the way to the top and stop. I think just being able to be free and keep evolving is the best thing to do as an artist. Also all of things that we have available at the moment, like social media, Bandcamp, self releasing platforms, it’s so amazing that I think it would be tragic to not take advantage of any of that. There’s just massive opportunities there. It’s been a huge difference leaving behind this kind of label constellation where you’re only booked because of the name behind you, I feel a lot smaller than I was. It’s been really hard emotionally, but I would rather be on this side and keep growing and changing than to be in that moment for one record.

KALTBLUT: It must be tough to break that cycle 
Emika: Yeah, I mean it works. Obviously lots of people do that, but I do wonder and think a lot about artists generally. I think, “Are you really an artist if you’re signed up to those types of companies?” You know? It’s a huge conflict. I think in some way as an artist you’re meant to be independent, supposed to stick out and have opinions rather than be moulded to fit the current trend. You should be setting the trend and speaking against it at the same time. I’m not sure you can be a true pioneering artist if you’re being told what to do. So that’s where I’m at right now (laughs)! I’m in Berlin, with a huge fucking symphony and I’m just trying to make it all actually fit back into the industry. It’s a hard challenge. I have to do the metadata, the campaign, all of the industry stuff I’ve taught myself. But it’s a good challenge.

KALTBLUT: I guess taking a step away from a previous label tests your true fanbase too. I mean, you had an amazing response to your Kickstarter campaign to push the symphony project forward
Emika: Yeah, but then the thing that is even scarier is when it actually works! It’s like, all my planning went toward making it happen, but then I never actually thought about what happens if it works. I was like, shit, it actually worked.

KALTBLUT: You weren’t sure about it ever working?
Emika: No! I saved a bunch a money, my dad backed me up and I was ready to put in more of my own money, to make it look like it didn’t flop so badly, and you know even if it flopped it still would have been a step in the right direction! But yeah, now I’m faced with thinking about a tour, and the shops will order stock from you based on a tour. So that’s the sort of position I’m in now, whereas last year I never would have thought about it. I was just thinking, “I hope I do well on the Kickstarter” and when I was recording, “I hope this sounds okay” and now I’m thinking, “I hope people like it!”.

KALTBLUT: But the reactions have been great so far, right?
Emika: Yeah, the fans have been amazing. I think we’re all at that same level of awareness, we’re like music junkies.

KALTBLUT: It’s also accessible to different music lovers. Like you said, it’s not trying to fit into this single genre 
Emika: I also think people love classical music but often don’t realise it. You hear it on TV and on film soundtracks, and most of the time it’s classical music. A lot of people learned how to play instruments when they were kids, things like the piano, most people have a connection to classical music. They just haven’t realised it yet.

KALTBLUT: I guess classical music is often related to these grand, old fashioned events, particularly to an older generation
Emika: They just don’t really happen anymore either. Since everything moved towards digital I think it’s died out a lot. The average classical listener might be around 60, and since they’re not going to be using Spotify the interest has been lost. But that’s something I want to change with my project. I want to separate myself from that tuxedo wearing, rich sponsorship world. And I was thinking today about how the project might be the first crowdfunded symphony. Something funded by a collective rather than a sponsor. Maybe something like, a DIY classical collective.

KALTBLUT: How did you get to know the people involved in the orchestra?
Emika: Well my mum is from Prague, and I love Prague, so I wanted a reason to work there more. I met the soprano Michaela through doing the album DVA and she introduced me to her friend who was the ex boss of the Czech philharmonic orchestra and had his own classical music booking agency. So we met and he drove me to all the music studios in Prague for a whole day, showed me everything and said call me. Every time I go to Prague for meetings it’s in a pub and contracts are done in like one day. You can just hire players and they’re all classically trained so they’ll arrive and play what’s on the paper. I didn’t do any rehearsals. They’ll just go in and do it. They’re like machines! And then they’ll go and do maybe two or three other jobs in one day.

KALTBLUT: Is classical music common in Prague?
Emika: The music in Prague is classical. Almost every day you can go to a church and there’s a lunchtime classical orchestra playing. Tourists love it. It’s all old, with the old buildings and old style music. It’s kind of like what techno is for Berlin. But it’s not really the best type of classical music, it’s your bog standard radio music. So that’s why the musicians are really into this project. It’s fresh and they know it’ll go towards a younger audience. They’re all really happy to do international projects too. I’m really lucky that they’re up for trying it. Nobody there is snobby about it.

So I went onto meeting the Prague Metropolitan Orchestra and found a hall where I liked the sound. We recorded there and then worked on the pieces. I got to know Michaela, where the music was written for her. We’ve shared similar experiences in our lives so I could write from my heart but it would also fit with her heart. She could really sing it and feel it. Also I wanted to work with Eastern European musicians because they have a different background to music. It’s completely different to how we know it in the UK. They’ve got a more romantic, melancholic vibe. For sure if I had recorded that in somewhere like London it would have sounded completely different.

Taken from Emika’s Melanfonie Momentes

KALTBLUT: When did you start writing the symphony? Was it before or after you’d got in contact with Michaela and the people you wanted to work with?
Emika: I started working on it beforehand and then I got dropped by Ninja, which was a crazy, huge shock.

KALTBLUT: Did it feel like a really bad breakup?
Emika: Well, you know when you want to breakup with someone, but you just don’t know how to and then it happens? It was a little like that. I just thought, “Yes! But what the fuck does that mean now? How am I going to live? Who gets what? Who gets the cat?” (laughs). So that was mad. And a lot of that is in the music. I wanted freedom and they just gave it to me. Like, in one email. But then I plunged into this horrible, depressed state. Nobody called me anymore and I didn’t have any deadlines. I just had to start from scratch. It was a massive dent in my ego, I can only just see that now. I kept thinking if only I could have done this stuff that I’m doing now with them, how great it could have been. But it just wasn’t meant to be. So that happened and it was pretty horrible. I felt a bit like a failure because I hadn’t inspired them enough to more forward in a way.

KALTBLUT: But maybe they could just see you wanted to move in this different direction and gave you a little push
Emika: Definitely. It did seem a little scary at first. I just kept thinking that I’m 28, I’m going to have this 5 album career. And then it all just imploded. So I started from scratch and sat down to write a symphony for two months. Everything else was so mental to think about but that just came so easily. I may not have ever written it if none of this happened to me. It was all safe and contracted before. So in a way I’m grateful.

KALTBLUT: Would you say focusing on your symphony was your main support after all of this?
Emika: Well the main support was the fans. I know that sounds really cheesy and people say it sometimes for PR benefits, but there’s actually proof through the Kickstarter. I had basically nothing and they put the wind back in my sails. I got overfunded in fact. Nobody had even heard the music! £25K is a lot of trust and a lot of responsibility. It’s insane. I was sat recording and I couldn’t afford a rehearsal, I just kept thinking, “Please, please, please be good.” We had 2 4-hour recordings, all done from scratch. And also we had different players on one day. So I had half a different orchestra who had to start halfway through a page. Oh God, it was so hard. Everyone I was working with was so experienced and we kept disagreeing about the way things were done. So there was a lot of tension in the control room and the studio team. I want to be this badass producer and be all chill, but sometimes you just have to disagree and say you want it done your own way.

It was so beautiful hearing it played for the first time. I was trying to keep my cool but kept tearing up a little in between bars. It was just such an intense experience. I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack at one point. But now it’s done and on vinyl.

KALTBLUT: How will you be performing the album live?
Emika: I really want to do a worldwide stream concert. So I’d want to go back to Prague, find a really nice space and partners to play live so everyone can watch it. People supported from all over the world so I want them to see a really kick ass show. I think that’s sort of cooler than doing a tour in a way.

Melanfonie – Emika featuring Michaela Šrůmová and The Prague Metropolitan Orchestra is out now on Emika Records