Step Right Up: Dead Light
Interview with Dead Light.
“So there’s a very ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic to the textural sounds which we hope make the record feel a lot more intimate, personal and real.”
Words: Mark Carry
Dead Light is the moniker for the gifted duo of Anna Rose Carter and Ed Hamilton, whose sumptuous eponymous debut record (released on UK-based Village Green recordings) delves beautifully into electro-acoustic bliss and neo-classical splendour. The intricate piano melodies and compelling string arrangements are masterfully immersed in delicate textures and timbres; drifting majestically in the ether.
The duo’s eponymous debut forges a deeply affecting experience for the heart and mind: the rich, dense textures of Hamilton’s production is masterfully interwoven with Carter’s stunningly beautiful piano-based compositions. A musical trajectory can be made back to Moon Ate The Dark – another of Carter’s glorious collaborative projects – whose neoclassical-infused drone compositions share a similarly otherworldly quality and ethereal dimension. Dead Light’s music draws upon classical, pop, ambient and electro-acoustic influences.
‘Dead Light’ feels like a new beginning or starting anew where luminous embers of hope burn brightly throughout the record’s drifting melancholy.
‘Dead Light’ is out now on Village Green.
Interview with Dead Light.
Congratulations Anna and Ed on creating such a captivating and deeply moving debut album. These piano-based compositions inhabit a special space, spanning many intricately layered sounds, textures that in turn, elicit such poignancy and rich emotion. Please take me back to the inception of this wonderful collaborative project and the starting point, if you will? I love how one feels the time, care, detail and devotion that is so clearly inherent inside the music, so I presume this record spans some considerable time?
Ed Hamilton: It definitely spans considerable time – It took us about 2 years to make! Most of the first year was spent just playing around together, trying to establish a style and a collaborative voice that we felt represented us, and what we wanted to say…
Anna Rose Carter: We’d just moved out of London, and it took us a while to explore this newfound space, time and quietness and feel comfortable in it. There was a tension that came from moving away from the lives that we were comfortable in and it took us a while to harness this tension into something musically exciting… Once we started recording, a lot of ideas came out of the first sessions, but then we spent a lot of time refining and condensing these ideas into something more cohesive and focused. Space was very important to us but we also wanted to layer many textures into the compositions and it took us a while to get the balance right.
EH: I’m also a massive control freak when it comes to sound! Actually right from the start we were both very protective of the sound, so everything took us that little bit longer… We were dealing with quite an old, rickety, noisy piano, so there were a lot of challenges with the recording… Actually I think this was for the benefit of the sound on the record, because there’s an intimacy there that there might not have been had the piano been really clean, because we might have ended up micing it in a different way and not going off on a ‘texture tangent’! But yes, it did take us a long time to get the sound just right!
As a duo, the listener feels that deep dialogue between the piano and cello instrumentation, and indeed the multitude of effects and preparations that is so masterfully embedded within the compositions. I would love to gain an insight into both the various piano preparations and the many analogue artefacts and sonic wizardry that lies at the heart of this remarkable debut album?
EH: With the piano preparations… the piano we have is a beautiful, old upright that Anna’s grandfather gave her, which has a very nice, warm, round tone to it, but because of its age, it’s very noisy. Initially we fought against that noise a lot, and tried to find ways of recording that didn’t include that noise, but actually when we succeeded in doing that, we felt that the compositions were weaker for not having the textural elements the piano creates within them.
ARC: So, in the end, we started recording again with the desire to harness, and make use of those noises. Some of the preparations included muting the strings, with hands and bits of old sheets and felt and various other things, all of which we used to kind of dampen the sound of the strings, so you actually hear more of the piano rather than less of it. A lot of the preparations were about embracing that sound.
EH: The other elements were ways of underpinning the artefacts inherent in the piano recordings… We wanted the textures to be very real and very tactile so we experimented a lot with tape (which we both love for the richness and realness that it imparts). We’d usually start by cutting tape loops down to size and then recording phrases (from piano, cello, toy keyboards etc) onto the tape. Once we had a loop we were happy with we’d take it out of the cassette and subject it to all manner of processes; from sticking bits of cellotape over the playing side of the tape (to create these sort of gaps in sound), to putting the loops in vinegar solutions, or outside in the sunshine. Anything to see if the process changed the surface of the tape and gave it new characteristics that we were looking for. We’d rigged up a series of reel-to-reel machines as a kind of delay network, which was usually the final stage the loops would go through. So there’s a very ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic to the textural sounds which we hope make the record feel a lot more intimate, personal and real.
Please describe the Pie Corner studio and the inspiration you both must have felt from being immersed in the quiet, idyllic countryside (in stark contrast to the chaotic London city centre)? You must have some fond memories of the recording process itself and seeing these tracks take shape, so to speak?
ARC: Well, I actually found it quite uninspiring at first! In London, I’d be inspired by everything and anything in day-to-day life; just the normal business of a city being a city, fashion, architecture, even just the sounds a train going past, that was all a part of my inspiration. Not to mention watching some amazing musicians and thinking, “Wow, how do they do that?” In the countryside, it’s just us on our own, and you’re like, “Shit. I don’t know what to do.” Pie Corner is this old farmer’s cottage and when we moved in it was pretty run down, old green carpets and floral wallpaper, that kind of thing, which didn’t help…
EH: That’s actually another reason the record took a while, the first month or so was spent ripping up all the carpets, sanding the floors, stripping back wallpaper and painting!
ARC: But actually once we finished decorating, the house became this amazing space… We made the living room into a studio, it’s a really nice room looking out onto a beautiful wild garden, with white walls and these big, floor length red velvet curtains which we use as ‘sound proofing’ (not very well – I’m sure you can still hear birdsong and planes at points on the record!), it’s really atmospheric and it’s kinda got a Twin Peaks vibe, hasn’t it?
EH: Yeah, it’s very Twin Peaks! It’s great having the studio in the building you live in, combined with the freedom we have living here means we can create music whenever we feel the urge to do so; we’re not restricted to studio hours – if it’s the middle of the night, or maybe we’re watching a film, and are inspired to create something, we can just walk next door! ‘Little Blue’ for instance, was created one night when I couldn’t sleep… I went downstairs and started tinkering with that tape machine delay network I mentioned and just ran some piano from a mic test we’d done through it.
For me this record feels like a new beginning – starting anew – where and an overarching feeling of hope resides throughout the record’s drifting melancholy. Many defining moments are dotted across the debut full-length but a piece such as ‘Falling In’ – the album’s centrepiece – epitomise the spirit of the album: an empowering piano composition with a tender, warm heartbeat filled with such divine textures. Please talk me through this particular piece of music and shed some light (if possible) on the collaborative process between the pair of you?
EH: ‘Falling In’ was the first track we wrote in Pie Corner. It was one of the few tracks where we didn’t really condense or refine what we had captured live. As it came after this long process of adaptation and renovation I think you’re right – for me it’s very much about beginnings, renewal and rebirth.
ARC: In terms of our collaborative process, it really varies from track to track. As Ed mentioned, ‘Little Blue’ was just him messing around with some test recordings, ‘Blooms’ was me writing a piano piece to go with some loops I found on his machines whilst he was away one weekend, ‘Falling In’ was live improvisation with a couple of overdub ‘joining’ sections… On the whole it was mostly Ed and me playing with compositions until we were happy with them, then recording our parts live and then fleshing them out with other elements and writing parts for guest musicians (‘Sleeper’, ‘Slow Slowly’, ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ for example).
EH: We tried not to be too restrictive about how we worked. We were very keen to limit ourselves to quite a minimal sound palette, but wanted to have an ‘anything goes’ style of collaborating!
Another great hallmark of the debut is the sheer range of textures and sonic timbres that are crafted and so carefully inter-woven. For example, the ethereal vocals on ‘Sleeper’ are mesmerizing; the ambient pulse of delays of album closer ‘Outpour’, the joyously uplifting melodies of ‘In Red And Red’ and the utterly transcendent crescendo of the tour-de-force, ‘Slow Slowly’. I wonder were there any happy accidents so to speak during the album recording sessions (or indeed the writing process)? Do you feel there were any challenges or concerns posed during any of the music-making stages?
ARC: The whole record is happy accidents!
EH: I’m not sure if ‘accidents‘ is the right word, because we spent such a long time establishing a musical relationship with each other that we kind of put ourselves in a position where things would come instinctively… but definitely not always on purpose… so actually, maybe ‘accidents’ is right! I do think that these ‘accidents’ are a part of that process and not removed from it though.
Looking back over the album, what do you feel were the sum of influences and inspirations that found its way into the music itself?
ARC: I think the lack of cultural activity surrounding us during the process of making the record has meant that the sound palette is a bit more curated than it could have been otherwise… the lack of gigs etc around us means we spend a lot of time listening back through our record collections, watching films and being out in the countryside. We had to work to feel inspired, well I feel like we did anyway.
EH: I totally agree, and I think that this wide array of listening coupled with not having access to music in a live environment has meant that the record, whilst it does have influences, and they’re, at times, quite apparent, is a very personal record… This coupled with the rickety piano and living room studio means it’s definitely not a pristine, polished record. I feel like it’s got personality and a soul…
‘Dead Light’ is out now on Village Green.