Kelly Moran found herself at an impasse.
The American electronic artist already had a potent catalogue to her name, pursuing fresh elements within digital production.
But she felt stuck. Leaving the studio behind for a few hours, a walk around the countryside of upstate New York seemed to revitalise her; returning to the studio, she embarked on a lengthy, marathon, heavily improvised session.
These recordings form the bedrock of her new album 'Ultraviolent', the follow up to last year's acclaimed 'Bloodroot' full length.
A copy of the album found its way to Daniel Lopatin, a close friend of Kelly's - she works in his live set - and hence made its way to the HQ of Warp Records.
Released on the powerhouse independent label, it's a striking, absorbing, meditative album, remarkably fresh in its execution.
When Kelly Moran picks the phone up to Clash she's in Long Island, and eager to go a little deeper on her new LP...
- - -
- - -
How did the hook up with Warp come about?
That came about because I started working with Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never. He approached me about a year ago to collaborate with him on the live arrangements for his record ‘Age Of’. So he invited me to his studio to talk about the project and to show me the record.
We ended up hanging out and I mentioned that I was working on an album, and he wanted to hear it. Pretty much as soon as I showed it to him he got really excited and wanted to know what my plans were. He ended up co-producing some tracks on the record with me, and when the record was done he – very generously, and benevolently – took it upon himself to send it around to a few labels for me.
And he sent it to Warp, and they liked it! So he came back and told me that Warp were interested, and as soon as I heard that I pretty much fainted… I was so happy!
Has the label played a big role in your life?
I’ve been a huge fan of Warp pretty much since I was a teenager. It’s pretty cool for me to be among the artists on it now.
- - -
It really just opened up my playing in a new way...
- - -
In the press note we’re told a lot of the music on the record comes from a long improvisatory session. Did you use that as foundations to be sampled and twisted, or is this literally what emerged that day?
Well, I had a day where I had a really intense improvisation session. It came after a period where I was struggling to write music. I would say for a month and a half I was having a lot of difficulty composing. I was working on music for other people, so I decided to take a day off to not really focus on writing for other people. I just wanted to relax and let my mind go, so I went to the woods, and I went to the beach, and I was in such a good mood.
I came back and started playing, and I decided that I was just going to play for myself, and not with a goal in mind. I hit record at the beginning of the session, and I just started to play. And I just played for hours and hours and hours.
It was really the first time in a long time that I had made music just to make it, and not with any specific goal in mind. It really just opened up my playing in a new way, and really allowed me to express myself in a different way… especially after I had been trying so hard for months to write something. Just letting go of expectations, and letting myself play, and letting it flow out. It just helped me generate something completely new.
I recorded all those improvisations, and then I listened back to them, and I really liked what I had made so what I did then was I spent two months transcribing the improvisations I did and re-learning how to play what I had improvised. So I scored them out, and I taught myself how to play what I improvised. There was a little bit of refinement in that process, in terms of just smoothing out certain sections, but the structures that you hear on the record are pretty similar to what happened the day that I improvised all the material.
So after I transcribed it all and learned how to play it, then I re- worked it all. I’m not improvising on the record but the pieces all started as improvisations.
- - -
I started getting deep into improvisation in college, and all throughout grad school...
- - -
Was this method of working something new to you?
Well, improvisation has definitely been a part of my creative practice for a long time. I started getting deep into improvisation in college, and all throughout grad school. The past few years my day job has been accompanist for dance classes, so I’ve been actively improvising as a part of my creative practice for a long time. But this was really the first time that I used it to really generate this much material.
In the past my work has had elements of improvisation, but it didn’t form as much of the bulk of the work as it did for this record. So this was a new breakthrough for me as an improviser.
- - -
- - -
There’s a huge tonal range on the record – parts feel like metal, almost, while others recall jazz. Where was all this music coming from?
You know it’s hard to say. I remember when I was improvising those pieces not really thinking so much about harmony or melody – all the things I think about when I’m actively composing. When I’m thinking about the structure of the piece, the structure of the melody, and what chord progression I’m going to use next.
All of those things weren’t being considered. I was really just playing and responding to physical impulses that I was having. Just listening to my body and reacting to how good it felt to play the piano. And I think for me more than thinking about any specific influences, it was really just an emotional experience for me because it really was just a huge release. I felt I had been pent up for months struggling and then all of a sudden I just kind of let everything go, and everything came out.
I’m sure there’s a jumble of a lot of weird stylistic influences that were just subconsciously flowing out that way.
Was it a meditative process? Or something distinct from that type of experience?
It’s funny. I’m actually one of those people who just… can’t meditate. I’m really, really bad at it. I know that sounds funny but a lot of people have encouraged me to try it, and to practise it, but I actually don’t really have the patience for it. The way that I meditate is that I run. So for me, meditation is a lot of activity that puts you into a trance-like state, and that actually did happen to me on this record.
There’s a piece on the record called ‘Helix’ where – when I was improvising it – I was using this new technique of playing where I was alternating my fingers really quickly, and I really felt like I went into some kind of trance state. It really became all about the physical impulses that I was responding to, and the physicality of playing the instrument. I just got lost in this completely fluid, trance-like state while I was improvising that.
So it’s funny, because even though the music itself is very active, playing it is actually very calming for me. For me, it has a meditative quality, but perhaps not in the same sense that you would normally define that as. If that makes sense!
- - -
For me, meditation is a lot of activity that puts you into a trance-like state...
- - -
I actually spoke to Thurston Moore about a year ago and he said exactly the same thing.
That’s a relief! I just can’t sit and be still within myself. The way that I personally meditate or achieve that same sense of mental clarity, is that I like to run. And I run every single day.
A lot of people like to wake up and have rituals, and for me running achieves the same thing that meditation does for other people. And I do think that meditation can be a form of meditation.
The live show seems fascinating; how do you go about re-visiting an improvisation?
It depends from track to track. All the pieces have a certain looseness and fluidity in their own way. And I think some of the songs on the record allow me a little bit more wriggle room than others do. Like for example, when I play the piece ‘Helix’ I am playing every single note perfectly lined up with the music – I’m not playing any extra notes or improvisation, I’m following the score completely accurately.
There are other pieces like ‘Nereid’ for example, which is basically, to me, it’s 10 minutes of me playing scales, different kinds of scales, and passages, and usually when I play that live I take a few liberties with the direction and the speed of the scales that I’m playing and I let myself have a little bit more freedom with those lines. And also especially ‘Halogen’ is another piece that when I do it live there’s a little bit more variety and I’m more loose with it because there’s no electronics. So I can bent it a little bit more.
But all the pieces have a certain looseness to them that feels really, really good to play. So even if I’m playing the notes off of a score because I’m playing something improvised it still has that lightness to it that a lot of my past music doesn’t have.
- - -
When I make albums they usually get sparked by some kind of inspiration, and then I spend a few months obsessively working on them.
- - -
Once you had unblocked your creative facilities did you find you couldn’t stop creating? And if so, what will happen to this material?
I would say something will come out… probably not in 2019, but maybe 2020. I’m usually pretty quick. When I make albums they usually get sparked by some kind of inspiration, and then I spend a few months obsessively working on them. That’s how it’s been for the last three records I did.
Since I finished ‘Ultraviolet’ I have been working on new material but I’ve been working on it very slowly and sporadically. I’m still taking time to figure out what direction the next record is going to take, especially because I was actually still finishing ‘Ultraviolet’ this summer. We didn’t really finish mastering it until June or July, and I’ve spent most of the summer… a lot of what I spent time doing this summer was figuring out how to perform the pieces on the record live with the electronics.
I figured out all the piano stuff first, and I recorded all of it, but then I made all of these synth tracks, and added all these electronics. I really want to tour this album, so it took me quite a bit of time to figure out exactly how I coordinate the electronics with my live set up, and the piano, and just learning how to play it all, as a whole.
I haven’t made a tonne of progress with new solo stuff, but I’m definitely going to be writing a lot next year, and I have a few other collaborations coming up. There will definitely be more material coming out in 2019.
- - -
- - -
Catch Kelly Moran at London's Purcell Room on April 5th.
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.