Name: Penelope Trappes
Current Release: Penelope Two on Houndstooth (deluxe edition available featuring hardback photo book, digital album and Bonus ‘Withdrawn EP’)
Recommendations: Jenny Holzer They Left Me, 2018, which features accounts from Syrian refugees, as well as the poetry by celebrated Polish author Anna Świrszczyńska / After being a fan of Abul Mogard for a long time, I was super happy he remixed my track ‘Carry Me’.
Website/Contact: Learn more about Penelope Trappes on her Bandcamp page penelopetrappes.bandcamp.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
As a child, I studied piano for 7 years but I naturally veered away from theoretical music study, finding the ‘math’ of it too stifling. My happiest childhood memories at the piano were when I would make up stuff on the spot, improvise, and sing at the same time. The freedom was inspiring, but scales were a drag. In my teens, I loved early 4AD music, shoegaze, left-of-centre pop music, and I also was into psychedelic music and avant-garde rock. I really didn’t start making my own music till many years later.
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 relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
After high school, I studied opera for a couple of years with performance (not composing) always being the focus. Creating sound and becoming aware of timbre and resonance in my body was profound, but my heart wasn’t in classic opera. After moving to NYC, I studied jazz for a year, as I had often sung along with Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin when I was first trying to find my voice. I thought that it was a great way to unlearn the conservatism of opera, but singing other people’s songs was never fulfilling enough for me. After getting more settled in NYC, I began writing my own music. I was sort of a ‘late-bloomer,’ but with a lot to say.
It took me a while to truly find my own voice. All the influences I had growing up in Australia and from my travels around the world, I grew to know who I was. I believe that we all absorb the sounds around us and by what we choose to listen to that inspires us. The combination of what I have learned versus what life has taught me are reflected in what I write, and are necessary for me to write. The relationship between learning and copying is all about processing the information you receive with all of your senses, on a deeply personal level, and then expressing it in your own way. If you have enough diverse influences, no matter how hard you try to copy something, it will likely come out all your own.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Because I was predominantly a vocalist, technically I was proficient at singing other peoples’ work, but, initially, it was difficult for me to find the confidence to begin to express myself as a composer. Writing lyrics and melodies was how I started out, trusting my inner voice, using my jazz improvisational skills to help guide me. Over time I learned how to use GarageBand and then Logic so that I could record piano, guitar and other instrumental ideas. The hardest part is trusting my intuition and letting go of the fear.
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?
In NYC, I had a shared studio in my partner, Stephen, with a lot of old analogue equipment, guitars and basses, but I mostly just played instruments and sang… and sometimes recorded my own vocal takes, but I wasn’t really “producing.” After we both moved from NYC to London we sold a lot of equipment, and started over, so everything was very minimal. This completely influenced my work, so when I set out to write my first album Penelope One, I rented a small room with just a piano for one day a week. I would bring my laptop and my microphone and record the piano on Garageband, and then produce it further at home. My current studio set up is still quite simple. I try to record on real pianos when I can, but have a Yamaha CP Reface for when I can’t. I also use an Arturia Microbrute for drones, a Korg Electribe sampler to manipulate field recordings, a Fender Stratocaster, and a couple of reverb pedals which are probably the most important… and a loop pedal for some vocal loops.
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?
Generally, my approach is quite organic starting with more acoustic instruments like voice, piano and guitar. Sometimes I choose to only start with an ambient field recording and then add vocal loops and build from there. Technology allows me to manipulate those sounds, usually by pitch shifting bits, and adding reverb, which helps them to morph into otherworldly auras. To place the song into a specific space that I have in mind. The ‘machine’ can provide the tools to create, but the human mind and the creative ideas are where the magic comes from.
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 am mostly an acoustic musician by nature. Voice being the first instrument in history, the body being the first amplifier. But I love the sounds around me that I can capture in a field recording, or the rich simplicity of a piano or a guitar in a room. However, the beauty of being able to have so many possibilities with software can add magic to a composition, and exaggerate the qualities I already am hearing within the sounds. Production tweaks allow for certain qualities to be enhanced, but I don’t feel like my music is dependent on complex production, in fact the production is usually quite simple.
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?
For me the collaborative process is mostly through talking with others about ideas, life and anything in between. I tend to feel more collaborative with others that work in visuals, as musically I tend to work slightly isolated and in my own world, at least with this project. However, I would like to break out of that and collaborate musically with others more.
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?
After my obligatory morning yoga, my morning is spent answering emails and planning out the day. Creative work only happens once those tasks are achieved and my mind is clear. Generally speaking though, my days are somewhat flexible. Sometimes I only rehearse, other days I write and produce music, depending on what needs to be done and how I am feeling. Also, because I often direct and produce my own videos, help with artwork and photoshoots, I am constantly working on the visual side of my project with Agnes Haus, which is a sort of a creative co-operative.