Name: Rachel Angel
Occupation: Singer-Songwriter, Poet
Current Release: Highway Songs EP on Public Works
1. Catching Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch (Book)
2. Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars by Neil Young (Book)
If you enjoyed this interview with Rachel Angel, check out her Facebook account, Instagram or bandcamp store for more music and updates.
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 about 17 years old. I studied voice and theater from a very young age and got into the Beat poets when I was a teenager. I was an avid journaler and writer of poetry. Then I discovered Bob Dylan, picked up a guitar, and it all clicked.
Through Dylan, I realized that you could put poetry to music and so it only seemed natural that I would start writing songs. The first song I ever learned on guitar was “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Some of my earliest influences were The Beatles, Neil Young, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Silver Jews, and Patti Smith.
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?
I actually spoke about this in a songwriting course I taught the other day. I think to actually learn how to do it, you have to copy for a while. For me, this looked like learning Beatles songs. I played them obsessively until they quite literally flowed through me. Without knowing anything about composition or theory, I was able to intuitively know how a song or a chord structure should work because I was studying the songs. This made my own music come out more effortlessly.
I did it with guitar with Neil Young and Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco), too. When I was younger, I thought that this process would always be a part of how I write songs, but it isn’t anymore. I definitely feel I have to stay curious about listening to and discovering new music in order to stay inspired, though.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think the biggest challenge is myself and being judgemental. I became so judgemental that I altogether stopped writing for a bit.
I still reach that place a lot but have found ways to trick myself. For instance, writing at certain times of the day where that judgemental voice doesn't have as much power and sharing new songs with only a small group of people who I keep on the inside of my bubble. Knowing who to keep in and out of my artistic circle has been beneficial.
I am still a newbie in terms of learning about production. Sometimes I feel information overload when it comes to working software or machines and I don’t know where to start.
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?
I’ve never had a full on studio per say. I bought a four track recorder at a garage sale when I was living in San Francisco and that's the closest I ever got. I was making a lot of experimental noise music at the time and had bought a bunch of hardware store tools to use on my guitar and had some distortion and fuzz pedals. I never released any of that stuff and changed directions almost immediately when I moved to New York.
I had a huge pedal board and ended up selling most of the pedals. I became obsessed with downsizing and keeping it simple. I felt overwhelmed by having a bunch of gear that I felt I couldn’t really work in the way that I wanted to. It became more important to me to focus on writing great songs, stripped down, going back to basics and that's what I did. I am slowly building up to getting more gear and adding stuff in one by one. My most prized possessions are my 1964 Silvertone Bobcat electric guitar, my Yamaha reface yc mini organ, and I just bought a gold tone banjo that I love.
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 am old school. I am now starting to get interested in home recording and exploring options for that.
In terms of technology, I like recording live in the same room and I try to overdub as little as possible. I like the sound of tape and things that breathe. It makes me anxious when studio engineers want to start auto tuning pitches and patching together sounds to cover up mistakes. I know this method works, but I think I'm inherently more interested in capturing a vibe and a moment than overproducing something.
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?
All I know is that I’ve become particular about what I like and I am continuing to become even more particular and that feels good.
Like I said, I am still learning about production and computer software. But in terms of the picks I like to use for my guitar, or tuners, or the type of guitars I like to play, I am very very specific.
I have an affection for small and light guitars, and I only play those. The more like a toy, the more I am into it. I also have my preference of picks which I never deviate from, even when other guitar players complain about how much they dislike the ones that I use. It honestly brings me a sense of stability and relief to have figured out what I like. It makes the music flow effortlessly and keeps me inspired to keep creating.
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?
I am always trying to find fellow artists who are very good at what they do and are good at things that I am not. At this point, I kind of understand my strengths and weaknesses. The best is when I can find someone with a different strength than me and when I respect what they do so much, that I don’t ever have to worry about how they’re contributing to my projects.
So many times, I just want to find the people that I can let do their thing so I can relax and do my thing. I can be a perfectionist and it’s exhausting. I am constantly seeking that trust and admiration in a creative collaboration. I would say that most of my friends are artists and creatives, and if they are not, they at least have that mindset.
I love engaging in conversations about art and music. I don’t know that I could have a deep friendship with someone who wasn’t interested in that kind of thing.
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?
Well, due to coronavirus, my life/routine looks a lot differently these days. I kind of waver between vehemently hating and rebelling against any sort of routine and feeling like I desperately need it to survive. It’s a weird tension in my life.
That being said, I absolutely cannot live without my current morning routine. I get up, make yerba mate in my french press, check the news, answer emails, texts, etc until I drink the cup. Then I meditate for 20 minutes using my transcendental meditation mantra. After, I light candles and incense, and pull a daily tarot card and/or journal or both. More caffeine is usually consumed while journaling and sometimes sketching my daily tarot pull in my journal.
Lately, I’ve been waking up with songs in my head, so before I do any of the things mentioned above, I grab my guitar and sit in bed and try to work for at least 30 minutes on a song. Throughout the day while getting more mundane work done, I practice, continue writing, playing keys, guitars, etc.
My most creative times are right in the morning and late at night right before bed. I find that I am not very creative during the afternoon.
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?
Lately, my ideas come from dreams but beyond that I can’t really describe where they come from. They usually start with the melody and go from there. Everything is built around this initial melody that I hear in my head. Sometimes they come from a chord progression that I am working on. Sometimes it is very instantaneous, like a spark, and riding it out feels like a mania or an obsession, though it's feeling less and less like that these days.
The recording and the post production is often the most laborious and sometimes stressful aspect of it. Writing it alone in my room and later performing it for people is perhaps my favorite part.
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?
Being open. Being in a flowing state is ideal and I’m sure a lot of artists would say that. In a way, I feel like that's the hardest part, to stay in that state. Being in a constant process of reading and writing certainly aids the process. Being engaged with literature and with my own voice as a writer. Journaling is the baseline of all my creative projects. Meditation, though I am semi new to it, certainly helps me tap into that place.
Distractions represent addictive tendencies, or anything that takes me away from myself and my work. They include some people, drugs and alcohol, TV, or anything that is too easy and feels too comfortable.
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?
I write music in my home where it’s comfortable, not in the studio. In a lot of ways, I want the studio to feel like home and in many ways, I want the studio to feel like performing live. This is where I feel most at ease, composing at home, and playing music live for people. I am constantly trying to find ways to translate that to recording music. In my opinion, composition is improvisation. Everything is improvisation. To me, it's about learning to take the pressure off to be in a fully free and flowing place of no judgement. That is where the magic happens.
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 just try to write good songs and achieve my vision based on the initial idea and what I like to listen to and think sounds good. I know intuitively when something isn’t working for me and I am constantly looking for people who can translate my vision into reality.
In a lot of ways, I still feel like a poet/songwriter, first. I have a sharp vision and know what I want, but sometimes it's a challenge to know how to get there. I seek to create something organically with the people I meet, by combining forces. Sometimes, I’ll say to my bandmate, I want it to sound like, for example, “ a blue bath” and then they’ll translate it to theory terms and be like, “oh you mean x,y,z.”
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?
I feel as if my process is vibrational. I receive messages through being open to the world. I don’t always know what I’m singing about but the way I sing it, brings sense to it. Music is this ephemeral and intangible thing. Music has the ability to give us visions, or send us back to a moment in time that we can see and feel.
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?
I sort of describe it like, if I didn’t do it I would die. People who aren’t in the arts often tell me about how “brave” I am for putting myself out there and writing about deeply personal experiences for the world to see, but I keep telling them, I have to do it. It isn’t a choice.
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?
Honestly, not really.