Klara Lewis: I cannot improvise my tracks, because then the concert would have to last several months
Klara Lewis‘ name should be already familiar to those who kept an open ear last year. The 21-year-old Swedish composer released her critically acclaimed debut album ‘Ett‘ on Editions Mego in April 2014 and was named Emerging Artist of The Year by Mary Anne Hobbs. Following her debut, in November she presented a new EP entitled ‘Msuic‘ (released by Swedish producer Peder Mannerfelt), which further developed her signature explorations of field recordings, electronics, rhythm, sound and atmosphere. She is currently collaborating with Simon Fisher Turner and Rainier Lericolais on a series of live performances of their new soundtrack to Walter Ruttmann’s classic 1927 silent film ‘Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt‘. When it comes to Klara’s music and artistic approach, there is plenty to talk about… therefore we sat down with this talented young lady in Stockholm after one of her performances for a cup of noisy coffee to find out more about her inspiring background and exciting future plans.
Considering your background, you are coming from a very creative family and you’ve been introduced to music at an early age. What is your first memory of sound?
That’s really difficult to say, but there is this one story that my parents have told us… My sister and I went with my dad to a paint shop and there was a paint mixer, you know this machine that shakes the paint and it’s really, really loud. So the grown-ups were covering their ears, because it was so loud, but my sister and I started dancing. We were like 2 and 5, I think. So that’s a good example of our relationship to music and sound, being very open to that music can mean very different things.
How did you get involved with sounds on a more creative level? When was that point when you felt like you wanted to experiment with your own creativity?
I started playing the bass when I was 12, and I played funk, stuff like James Brown and Bootsy Collins, then I got into Joy Division and that kind of thing… I started working with field recording when I was 14, that’s when I made my first track. I was finishing an art project for school. I was going to make a film and I recorded film material and I noticed that I was filming things because of how they sounded as well as how they looked, so I made a soundtrack with the sound from the film clips. Apart from the playing bass first, I actually started with the field recording technique. That was my first way of making music.
How did you develop your own technique?
I think it of course has a lot to do with my dad [Edward Graham Lewis – ed.] working with this… so to me it made total sense to use field recordings, because I heard him do that. I think I just always found it really interesting to try to find tones and textures in sounds and try to isolate them or increase them… it’s weird because the technique came really quickly and I knew that was the way I wanted to work and that felt like the most interesting and natural way to make music: to use real sounds. It must have to do with the fact that I heard my dad working that way, cause it’s perhaps not the first technique most people would think of using when starting out, “oh, I’ll make music this way”.
You work a lot with field recordings, what does fascinate you the most about them? On ‘Ett’ you have samples recorded in Turkey, Germany, Russia, Sweden… How do you discover sounds you want to record? Should we imagine you running around with a recorder all the time?
I think that’s one of the most interesting things about it, that you never know which recording will be the most useful, because it can be one that can seem kind of dull or really ordinary and plain, that in fact can become a really important part of the track. But of course sometimes you hear a really special sound, and of course you think that this will have the most potential, but you never know. So it’s such a mix between recording during travels, try to find really unique sounds, but it’s also recording in everyday situations: to use kitchen sounds or a ventilation system, the sound of a washing machine and those kind of things. That’s what’s interesting, because I also never know how a track will end up. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do, to follow the sounds… I start by collecting the sounds and chopping them up, trying to find the pieces that I think will be the most useful, and manipulating them, then I try to combine them. And I really never know what kind of track it will be, so it’s all about how things turn out when I start building this puzzle. It’s a bit like a collage technique.
Let’s get back a bit to the instruments. Would you like to involve them in your music in the future?
Yes, I do play the bass and I have used that a couple of times already and I’m really looking forward to doing that more. I really like playing melodic kind of basslines and I have a kind of field recording idea of that as well. I think it’s also the same way that I use sampling. I might be listening to someone else’s music and think “that’s a weird part/detail”… and I’ll just record it in the room when it’s playing and I’ll treat it exactly the same way as I treat the field recordings and do the same thing with the bass, just trying to get an interesting sound out of it then integrate it in the same way that I do with the field recordings.
Who would you name as your mentor? Besides your father, obviously…
Of course both of my parents have been really important but if I’d name somebody else, I’d say Ted Milton was really a big influence on me. One of his albums called ‘Odes’ has been my favourite album since I was 14, when I heard it for the first time. It’s just really weird. He’s a poet and a saxophone player and makes this completely unique, lo-fi electronic tracks with his voice and his saxophone. He’s only well-known in certain circles, which is a shame. He’s also in a band called Blurt, which is a bit more well-known. I think hearing his album for the first time, it felt like hearing something that you cannot place in any genre or category or anything, it’s completely its own world and sound. It was really important to hear that and feel like I could also create something on my own, I don’t have to try to do this kind of music or that and try to copy somebody else or anything, I can just try to make something different. But he’s not a mentor, he’s a big inspiration.
Who would be a mentor whom you met personally, someone who encouraged you to keep up with music then?
Peder Mannerfelt has been very supportive and positive!
‘Ett’ appeared on many end-of-the-year best of lists. What were your favourite albums last year?
I really liked Mica Levi’s ‘Under The Skin’ soundtrack, I thought it was really exciting to see that film and hear that music. And also to discover that she’s a young woman who’s made it. And I thought that was really inspiring and I really like the sound. It’s such a key element of the film, the narrative and the mood. But it also works really well to just listen to it as an album in itself.
First, you were getting to music via film and you also made videos for Stockholm LTDs entire catalog. Would you like to pursue this visual side further?
Yes. I make most of my projections for the liveset myself, and now obviously it feels like the music side has taken on a really strong focus, but I’m definitely extremely interested in the visual side as well. What I’d really like to do is to try to make film music, I think it’d be really exciting…I’ll just have to wait and see if any opportunities arise.
Who would you like to work with if you could choose?
I’d say… my favourite since I was 13 was David Lynch, so that’d be pretty cool, but at the same time I don’t really want to replace Angelo Badalamenti.
If you’d direct a film, how do you think it’d look like?
I think I always felt like… I don’t know if I’d be that interested in being “the boss” in the way that I’ve understood directing to be. I’m into the music side of things and I really like editing and photography and cinematography… but the one thing I really don’t like doing is creative writing. So I could never write a script or anything. I could plan how it should look, how to create a mood in different ways…
Well, as a director you are not supposed to write the script as well.
That’s true… I’ve got a lot of different favourite directors like Lynch, Gus van Sant, Herzog… When I was really young I wanted to be a director. That was my main thing, so that’s how it started out really.
There was a clip from ‘Notting Hill’ in your visuals. How did that get there?
I filmed in my Swedish relatives’ summer cottage. And the only films we had there were my grandmother’s VHS films and she liked Hugh Grant a lot, so we found ‘Notting Hill’, and it was rewinding, so we were waiting for it and it struck me how interesting it is to actually have to watch a film backwards before you could actually see it and that feels so far away now, so I started filming the screen. And I thought it was an interesting image because the TV was next to a window and it was dusk and there was a special mix of natural light and the screen. So that’s how that ended up there.
Considering that creating music is so accessible to everyone, what do you think it takes to stand out and succeed?
Lots of luck. I think being in the right places, contacting people in the right time, knowing who to contact, knowing in what context you want your music to be. I think you should try to make something on your own, but obviously a lot of people who succeed don’t do that really. There’s a lot of things sounding the same all the time, but I think I just did what I wanted to do and it happened to be different. I contacted Editions Mego, that was my top pick among the record labels and I thought that the worst thing that could happen is that they would say no, so I might as well just try it, and they said yes. So that’s how that happened.
What do you do when you’re not making music or touring? Are you pursuing any studies? What are your plans in this sense?
I started a BA degree, but right now I’m working with music full-time. I’ll just have to see how things develop and ideally I’d continue to work with music full-time, but you never know what’s gonna happen. I’ve been interested in pursuing an academic route as well. I think music psychology seems really interesting for example, doing something in a relatively new and unexplored field would be exciting.
How does performing work out for you, what do you do differently live than what’s already there on the album?
In a way it’s a completely contrasting situation, because with the studio stuff I work on my own, very concentrated and it can take a very long time to complete a track and it’s really detailed and often quite a slow process. Live you have to make something happen within 30 minutes, and I just try to focus on how can I make this into an interesting experience and trying to design the experience… that’s where the projections come in. I work a lot with reverb and EQing and I also use a small synth. I work a lot with reacting to and using the space where I’m performing, because the acoustics and the type of sound system can really change the character of the material. It’s tricky to know how you’re supposed to handle the live situation with the electronics. I cannot improvise my tracks, because then the concert would have to last several months. I think everybody within this field has a tricky start.
Do you find it difficult to learn the technical part?
No, not really. I guess it’s just about figuring out what your goal is, what do you want the focus to be and how can you make it feel live, because you don’t want to just stand there in front of a laptop for half an hour. It seems fun to work with improvisation but that’s not the kind of music that I make. In that case I’d be playing something totally different and it wouldn’t be representative. I saw Peder Mannerfelt’s (who released my EP, ‘Msuic’) set at Atonal in Berlin last year and I thought that was really inspiring, because he just builds his tracks from the ground up live. But I think I’m getting closer and closer to a technique that I feel comfortable with, because it both feels representative of the kind of music that I make and that I can feel really focused and active at the same time. It’s a good balance.
You’ve recently played at CTM in Berlin, and you have plenty more shows coming up. How was your first performing experience over there? Do you feel more comfortable about your live performance after playing at such an illustrious event?
It was excellent! I’d say it was one of my best gigs so far. Great soundsystem and space (Berghain) and a very positive vibe. I think playing at an event of that scale so early on has changed my perspective. Now that I know that I can handle that and that I’ve dared to do it I can probably dare most things!
What are your future plans, what are you working on currently?
I’m working on a new album. So that and live gigs are my main focus. I’m also collaborating with Simon Fisher Turner and Rainier Lericolias, and we have several shows planned.
What can you tell about this project? Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.
We’re composing a new soundtrack for this classic film, made out of field recordings that Simon recorded in Berlin. We perform this live to screenings of the film. We’ve only done it once so far. It was a really interesting and exciting experience, because it was my first experience of live improvisation and it was my first collaboration ever. So it was a totally new experience and I’m really looking forward to the upcoming gigs, because I know it’s going to sound different every time and I think it was really great for me to know that I can handle that kind of situation, and to get to be part of a growing piece that I’m not in a 100% control of. Having to react to what others are doing. I think it was a really good lesson to be comfortable in not being in total control and seeing the good sides of that.
If you could choose someone with whom you would like to collaborate, who would that be?
There are so many, but I could mention two people. One because she’s been very big inspiration since the beginning, Karin Dreijer Andersson from The Knife and Fever Ray, she’s been kind of an idol for me. And then a new one would be Mica Levi, because I was really blown away by her soundtrack.
Would you like to collaborate with your father anytime soon? How would you imagine that working out?
Definitely! I’m sure that’s going to happen sooner or later. We have been communicating about music since I was really young, he started asking me for my opinion on projects he was working on and I’ve learned tons from that. Being able to talk about music and sounds and getting to know ones own taste and understanding why one might like or dislike something. I think that helped me build my confidence in my judgement when it comes to music. I think it could be really fun and rewarding for both of us if/when we collaborate!
You might be in a special situation because of your father, your gender and your age as well. Which might mean that you need to work extra hard to convince people about your capabilities. What do you think about this, have you ever had any negative experiences?
I thought that it would be more of an issue, but I think that the fact that the album was released on Editions Mego was really important, because of the label’s high status. I think when people see that something is released there, they think it has to be good, because they have a high standard. So maybe they don’t think that much about ‘oh she’s a young girl’. But I have had situations, for example on an American radio show they presented me as the son of Graham Lewis. That was kind of shocking, because Klara is quite a female name, so they must have thought that the music was more male than the name was female, so they were blinded by the fact that it was electronic music. I thought that was really provoking. I don’t know if I’ve been lucky so far, but people have been really positive and I think they have been looking forward to new people coming into the scene. There have been so many artists/people around the scene telling me ‘oh, great I’ve been so tired of there only being us old men doing this’. So far it’s been really positive, but there is undeniably a lot of stupid stuff going on with sexism and ageism, and I’ve been lucky so far.
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