Name: Kate Simko
Occupation: Producer, composer, DJ
Current Events: Kate Simko will be performing at City Hearts Festival in LA on November 9-10 (get tickets here). Her new EP Party Wall is out now on Play It Say It.
Recommendations: Subculture and the Meaning of Style (book) // Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi (film score)
If you enjoyed this interview with Kate Simko and want to find out more about her and her music, visit her soundcloud account or facebook page.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music when I was 18. My first love of music was piano, as I played piano from the age of 5, and my dad only listened to classical music. In my early teens first I was obsessed with the Beatles and 60s icons, and then went to my first rave in Chicago at 15. From then onwards my passion was house and techno (hearing the legends from both cities play a lot in Chicago).
But what inspired me to make my own music was IDM. Autechre, Aphex Twin, Plaid, and all the Warp Records and Skam artists making electronic listening music is what inspired me to try making my own electronic compositions. I was drawn in by the spatial soundscapes in the music and that it was mainly music without words, so everyone can have their own unique journey.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
For sure, you don’t get your own musical voice until you learn and experiment (often through emulating what you like). I was really lucky to have a college major in “Music Technology” at Northwestern (they’ve since disbanded the program). It was electronic music composition taught on vintage synths, as well as new technology. There were classes dedicated to learning Logic and Pro Tools, alongside classical theory and composition. That was my space to learn, try new things, and yes, try adding in elements of music I loved into my own music. My first electronic music was super abstract. I couldn’t make beats and it wasn’t very listenable!
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
At the beginning everything felt like a challenge! This was before Ableton and loop packs etc. I’d open a blank Logic session, with a manual back then very poorly translated from German to English. I felt challenged by the technical as well finding my own style.
Now the main challenge is finishing new music. The expectations to keep up with social media and amount of releases, online press, and other admin can be overwhelming.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was in LA, where I moved when I graduated college. I had an IKEA desk with an iMac, two Mackie HR824’s and a keyboard John Tejada lent me.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I use technology to create sound elements that don’t exist. When you have a sonic gap, you can fill it with anything your imagination can come up with really!
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I look at the electronic components as instruments too. Synths, EQ’s, even mixing desks, are part of the compositional process. For example, in a recent film score I used one synth quite a bit, violin, and then certain FX throughout the score. The tools I used to create the sonic world of the score, and the specific electronic instruments were definitely as much a part of the score as the violin, or piano chords underlying.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
That’s a tough question because each collaboration is unique. A lot of the time, I find a good collaboration starts with talking about ideas. You meet someone you connect with creatively, and feel inspired by what they bring to the table.
My preferred way to collaborate is in person. But if that’s not possible, then sharing sessions on Dropbox works well. Jamie Jones and I did our whole show for full orchestra this way. I had assistants helping with the written scores, and Jamie and I were going back-and-forth in Logic with all the songs.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It’s a bit intense these days because I have a 2-year-old son! He wakes up around 6:30-7am, full of energy and ready to start the day. We have breakfast, I get him dressed, and all that other fun stuff, and then I usually have about 15-20 mins (my husband isn’t a morning person) to quickly shower and get dressed myself. It’s a hectic start. Then I walk my son to his nursery (which is a nice morning walk in London), and take a bus from there to my studio. By the time I get in usually it’s around 9:30am.
I try to do creative music-making in the morning, and not get sucked in by email. Around noon I break for lunch, then come back pretty quickly and get back to work. On the bus ride home (around 5pm) do a social media post, or write people back who are just on the radar in the states.
Between 5:30pm until my son’s bedtime (around 8) I try to put my phone aside and give him my full attention. Once he’s sleeping I’ll cook a healthy dinner when possible. But, if I’m working on a US-based project, then often we’ve set-up an evening call or I need to reply at night. So I’m basically back on the radar until around 10pm. By 11pm I’m in bed, hoping that my son sleeps through the night!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My dearest album is the ‘Kate Simko & London Electronic Orchestra’ debut album out in 2016. The creative process of writing for the LEO electronic-classical ensemble is complicated, time consuming, but rewarding.
I start by jamming out ideas on the keyboard over a temp beat (general vibe but not perfect). First I aim to lock in the chord progression. Usually I’ll leave this at least one night overnight, as best to be sure about this before composing other layers on top. Then I’ll loop the chord progression, and start writing more parts. LEO is mainly strings, so I’ll use a cello for a low melodies, harp for more percussive punctuating sounds and arpeggios, and violin/violas for soaring high notes, etc.
While writing for the orchestral instruments, I’ll also add in electronic synths, bass, and textures, alongside all the percussion layers. After getting the orchestral arrangement as far along as possible in Logic, I export the MIDI and put it into Sibelius.
Then begins a totally separate journey, looking at the voice leading, balance between instruments, and areas that feel to sparse etc. The players’ notation is created in Sibelius, with all dynamic and expression markings. I export the Sibelius notation as MIDI and drop it back into Logic to hear it against the rest of the song. It’s kind of annoying there’s not one program that can do both, would be nice! Once the final orchestral notation is done, I work on the final arrangement of electronic elements in Logic. Then bounce that backing track to use at the recording session.
At the recording session we record everyone separately, unless it’s meant to have a full orchestra sound. I find that solo upright bass, and isolated instruments gives more flexibility in the final mix. It takes a lot longer to mix this way, though! After everything is recorded, then I usually add the electronics stems into the Pro Tools recording session, and begin the mix. There’s so much editing at this stage, I usually hire someone to help mix it.
And that’s all for an LEO song. 😅
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal state is a content state of mind and body. If you’re worried about something, hungry, tired, etc, it takes you out of the moment. On the flip side, if you have nice relaxing weekend, and come back to the studio content, you’re in a positive fresh state to create new ideas.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
DJing is live composition, with a lot of improvisation, as you’re guided by the crowd and feeling in the room. When I’m in the studio I try to always go back to listening to the music as frequencies, same as if on the dancefloor at a club, or in a concert hall.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I look at sound as part of the compositions, they already have compositional qualities in their raw form.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
My favorite is the intersection between sound and visuals. It’s incredible to see computer-generated visuals that react to music, or a visual artist’s reaction to music. Music definitely has a sense of color and form.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach is to express myself to my best ability through music, not compromising on the vision (not selling out) or quality. And my hope is that the music inspires some people, and that possibly what I’m doing as a woman composer, DJ, and orchestrator also might give some of the younger female generation a boost of confidence to enter this male-dominated music industry.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Combining our current musical languages (Western notation, Jazz, modal and other world scales, etc) with technology is the starting point.