Name: Sacha Mullin
Occupation: Musician, Educator
Current Release: Duplex (self-published)
Reccomendations: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus/ Paul Cezanne’s Chateau Noir/ Mem Nahadr’s song “Passage”/ and as a bonus, go watch a rerun of The Critic.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Sacha check out his website sachamullin.com for more information and sounds.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
As far as I can remember, I’ve always written dumb little jingles about things. I still do. My greatest misses disc would have titles like “Everybody Loves a Dog Nose” and “All My Lotion is Stuck at the Bottom of the Bottle”.
But I think the first ‘serious’ song I wrote was when I was eight. It was this hokey thing in 6/8 that modulated twice. I had no idea what I was doing or where the song came from. Actually, I don’t think I even knew that what I was doing was writing a song, but I knew I was being led by my voice.
My parents tried to help me write the song down, and they were surprised at how complex it was for my age. I later realised I had been noticing patterns and clichés in church music, and was just regurgitating those, and navigating within templates.
After that, I pretended I was a soundtrack composer for non-existent movies (this is normal for a child, right?), because I wanted to be a soundtrack singer (also normal?). I thought the first step to doing that would be to “create my own opportunities” by writing my own music.
The old Wurlitzer upright we had was my best friend growing up, and I would smash different keys together to create different chords that I didn’t understand at the time theoretically, but I understood them emotionally. So, chords and voices, that’s the root to all this chaos. I started actually producing as a teenager, but I don’t think I really thought of it as that at the time. It’s likely I thought of it as steps to capture what I needed, rather than have the ego to call myself a producer.
And influences… My main four are probably Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Heather Nova, and Lisa Fischer. They’ve all been with me awhile. I also tend to like music that has a somewhat cinematic quality, but also leaves room for conversational and textural elements.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. 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?
Emulation is a very real and necessary thing. I still sometimes portion off parts of songs like, “Oh, this is an ‘X’ kind of phrase, how would they do it”, or “’Y’ would be perfect at this, maybe I should listen to them for a minute.”
When I sing my upper register, I can still picture myself as a teenager trying to sing along to Heather Nova. As I said before, she’s one of my favorite singers, and has been on the brain a lot lately, since I’ve been zoning in on her last record, The Way It Feels. I admire the way she shapes and circumnavigates melodies. And there’s this interesting combination of timbres going on in her voice, which creates a sum of simultaneous strength and vulnerability, it’s fascinating. There are these clear, bell tones, and a yearning fry; a swoop here, a little air there, even the occasional subtle twang. She has a really cool palette and I admire how sophisticated, yet conversational her whole approach is. That’s hard to do, and it’s something I constantly aspire towards.
I spend a lot of time deconstructing the choices of singers I admire. Is it active interpretation of a lyric? Are they on autopilot with their habits? What is the “ancestry” of their own vocal path? I learn what it is that I like about them, what might not work for my own instrument and instead demystifying their work, it increases the mystery for me.
You can really learn a lot about inflection and nuance from singing along to others. And cartoon voice actors, several of whom are singers themselves, like Cree Summer. There’s a lilt to everyday speech… unless you’re monotone, I suppose.
But despite all the above, I have to stress that most of the time, if I can, I just like to let the music wash over me. Sort of like going into a movie and knowing only the director’s name and the title, and that’s it. No expectations, just present what you’ve got. And at some point - and I think this ties in with growing older, and more comfortable in your own skin - you stop second-guessing yourself. All that analysis and mimicry just echoes out of you, and you become your own self.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My best songs are probably the ones shot from the hip; channelled largely in one go. And preferring to communicate conceptually, this has led to several moments in time where I’ve bumped heads with others who are very “by-the-book”. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to be able to find collaborators and producers who have compatible wavelengths, and can help me get out what’s in my head. Another hallelujah for Todd Rittmann, and everyone who contributed to my record Duplex. Everyone who made it a dream.
Also, I understand Logic and ProTools fine enough, and I can speak with ‘engineering vocabulary’, but I find it better if I work with someone in tandem. When someone else is running the controls, I can think more directorially, or even communicate during performance. I have a couple of friends, Gabe Riccio and Cory Bengtsen, that have been incredibly pivotal with their help.
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 setup was in my cold, dark-grey teenage bedroom. I had a desktop computer, and was using three-tier baking display as a desk, which mostly worked. I became a master at what was then called CoolEditPro, trying to emulate what I felt was just the right amount of reverb. It helped reinforce my awareness of sonic texture. I went off it though around the rebrand to Adobe Audition, and went to Digital Performer for a while.
I used a headset office microphone which had incredible sound in it, it made no sense. I even got my first singing job from it because someone thought I’d recorded it professionally. Unfortunately, that died, and then whatever the model was, was discontinued.
At some point, I did a few random taste tests, surveys, medical trials for allergy medication… I was able to pick up an AKG Perception 420, some cables, an m-box, and a janky Yamaha EZ, which I still use to this day. The white keys sometimes light up red, the black light up yellow, and the synth pads on there aren’t great, but I have deep nostalgia associated with its cheapness, and use it to this day.
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’ve gone through quite the shift regarding my priorities in life. When I was younger, I was very tech-savvy. No command prompt could stop me. I was doing a whole bunch of computer programming, and would reward myself with a round of Chip’s Challenge.
I’m still relatively up-to-date on tech, but these days, I think because life requires the Internet to live rather than escape, all the novelty and wonder of it has died for me. I sometimes look at my technology with resentment, but it’s not the tech’s fault, just my reaction to culture shift. (That makes me sound like a pensioner, doesn’t it?)
But what’s strange here is that my music has gone the opposite direction. I started off with acoustic ambitions, and often still use the piano as a springboard, but in the last several years I’ve found myself more often experimenting with electronics.
Humans bring the ingenuity and warmth; machines facilitate the future; but both overlap in creating beautiful and strange sounds. And at the risk of sounding a skosh science fiction, there’s nothing more exciting than finding the bridge between humanity and technology. Those old Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder records are still a good example of that.
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?
The experimentation has been fun and rewarding. Programming beats to find new relationships with groove is really inspiring. Synthesised sounds make me marvel like I did to the world as a child. It’s weirdly life-affirming, using production tools to become an extension of your expression. I’ll settle into a totally produced landscape, and suddenly, my brain gives me permission and freedom to weave, improvise and write in ways that are alien to my habits with piano or a cappella writing.
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?
If I have an agenda, it’s to work with as many people as I can. I’ve spent a lot of my life as a ‘support singer’ — a term my friend and brilliant colleague L. Wyatt uses. I love meshing into the tapestry of a song, and bouncing off the ring of other singers. Duplex uses a lot of singers because of that. I just love voices and identities. I love the part of contemporary music that allows individual timbres to exist. And since I tend to think of singing as ‘elevated speech’, singing with others has the capacity to make for a lovely conversation, you know?
I don’t tend to jam all that often, unless it’s in a controlled environment. I can improvise well, but I live in fear sometimes when everyone is making something up, or when no one is listening to each other. But some jam sessions are better than others, and I have gotten good ideas from them at times, it’s just generally not my bag. I need to jam with sympathetic frequencies for it to work.
File-sharing is interesting too, and the role it plays in having access to talents abroad. “Questions” was produced overseas without having to fly to France. And a few singers on Duplex were recorded remotely as well. I find I work better when I’m actually present, changing things in the moment, but it’s such a luxury live in a world where we can email recordings and ideas.
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 struggling to leave my cocoon of blankets, I tend to zone out on phone-Scrabble for a bit, eat a piece of fruit or something, do some light yoga, and then compulsively run over to the piano. I’ve also been doing the same vocal warm-up tape by my former voice teacher Judi Vinar for years. At this point, I know her narration and exercises so well, I can lip-sync for my life.
By day, I’m a music educator, and teach private lessons and music seminars. I get asked great questions, and I’m challenged to think from the student’s perspective. I have students from all sorts of backgrounds and skill-sets, and I’d like to think this keeps my empathy, excitement, and knowledge in check.
I keep those lives separately in the way that I’m in “artist mode” and “teacher mode”, with clear distinctions in interaction style. But I’m very happy to be surrounded by a world of music.