Name: Sally Decker
Occupation: Composer, performer, writer
Current release: Sally Decker's In The Tender Dream is out on NNA Tapes.
Recommendations: I really loved the film Saint Maud. I also recommend Jenny Hval’s novel Paradise Rot – it’s a dark, mesmerizing world to be in.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sally Decker and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I played piano, violin, and guitar in elementary through high school, and I would write songs on piano and guitar starting pretty young. An early influence was Björk (Post was one of the first CDs I had) and I’ve always been drawn to dramatic pop. I listened to a lot of emo, pop punk, and definitely a lot of Lilith Fair-era artists. There have always been sad and experimental songwriters in my listening orbit.
My other early passion was writing poetry. I studied creative writing in undergrad and only dabbled in sound stuff then. I initially was drawn to working with electronic sound when I got tired of the representational nature of language. For a while I was into the challenge of expressing within the parameter of language, but the medium of sound excited me because it opened up a whole new level of meaning, the intricate kind that cannot be expressed with words.
The fluid, indefinite feeling of sound as a medium was inspiring, and I had a strong foundation and love for listening and playing music. So I sort of made my way back to it.
For most artists, originality is 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?
I definitely have gone through many different periods of emulation and exploration/trial and error. And I still go through those periods, it’s a constant evolution and searching. Finding my own voice has taken place mostly through discovering instruments, systems, and tools that provide me with the kind of approaches that fit my mode of expression.
It’s like when improvising with an instrument, you need a certain foundation of technique, understanding, and relationship with that instrument before you can easily express ideas on the spot that feel immediate. I have found that my own originality comes through when I find the right match of instrument/system/technology that I can really feel at home with. Then I can explore intuitively inside that space.
When I can feel through sound and channel directly, the possibilities are much more expansive and that’s when my own voice comes through.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My introverted and self-reflective tendencies show up strongly. My creative work is pretty tangled up in my own processes of personal growth, so the way my own emotional and psychological states center themselves in my work can feel pretty introverted I think.
Although this is a bit of a trap I can fall into, I identify very heavily with my own emotions. This ultimately isn’t who I am; they are emotions I inhabit. However, I think my way of relating to emotions comes through, and it’s that relationship that really influences what and how I create.
Also as a value system, I hope to uplift others’ devotion to growth and inward reflection, I want to encourage a kind of heart space with oneself. Another way I identify is through my relationships with people and these methods of support and love and care and pain; my writing and music has often grown from these landscapes of relating.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Self-doubt has always been a main one, which was very debilitating at the beginning and has gotten much easier to work with and untangle. Self-doubt is wound up in where I used to search for inspiration and starting places; sometimes I would try to reach too outside of myself or to random, unrelated places because I thought that would equal more interesting work. So, manufacturing inspiration was a naïve starting place.
Also related to self-doubt was plunging too deep, occasionally, into my own specific stylistic and conceptual tones. I think this happens still, when I haven’t done the work to see and validate myself and thus the work is hinged on that goal. This I have found leads to work that lacks a certain strength and autonomy. Over time I am learning how to go off of what feels authentic to me and explore what feel like new possibilities in that authentic space, while not drowning in the isolated, repetitive depths of my own experience.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first instruments were piano, violin, and guitar, but when I started getting interested in sound again after mostly writing, I got a glimpse into the software MaxMSP and became newly inspired by electronic sound. I was interested in how directly you could work with the sound in that program, mostly with basic synthesis and sampling at that point in time. And the aspect of creating your own system (even a very simple one, at the beginning) was really exciting to me.
But then I played with an analog synthesizer that a friend had, and was really drawn to the hands-on nature – maybe it felt familiar because I had early experience with more traditional instruments that you could pick up and play, which differed from the unfocused feeling I often experienced using the computer as an instrument. I was also drawn to analog electronics because they enabled me to be more present by having a limited amount of options. I still use digital technologies for the same allure that Max initially drew me into; the infinite possibilities are really inspiring, and it’s powerful to be able to fairly quickly realize a system that you come up with in your mind. But more and more I’ve been drawn to tools and instruments that have more limited possibilities, that require a restricted, creative relationship with the tool itself.
I also try to seek out instruments that do not lend themselves to distraction – something about using the computer makes it harder for me to enter a real place of experimentation. There is something really freeing about just using cables to make connections and explore.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Yes, working with electronic feedback has been a technology that has greatly influenced me.
When I first started working more with analog synthesizers I also explored no input mixing a lot, and was instantly drawn to the sounds – there was something mesmerizing about following the repetitive sounds and making small adjustments to slightly change the course of the behavior. I was also very drawn to digital systems that had generative or randomized elements; this was my first experience with giving away some agency and collaborating with the technology.
But then when I explored more complex electronic feedback systems, I was really taken with the kind of behavior that the system would slip into. My relationship with the system I have been working with has been very rich. Over time there is behavior you learn and can activate, predict, encourage.. but there are always surprises and new sounds to discover. The state of mind and heart I get into while collaborating with the system has really changed my relationship to process.
The relationship has acted as a kind of mirror for my relationship with myself: it has been a place to safely practice a kind of attunement. Feedback became a type of teacher: it demands presence, because it involves a psychological and emotional negotiation, choosing, and yielding of kinds of control. I have learned about presence and acceptance.
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 love talking through ideas. I love playing and developing music with other people. The collaborators I have found that I really click with are the people I feel comfortable wandering through ideas with, rather than a concrete or definite world. Being able to explore in an indeterminate space with someone else feels amazing.
I also really love writing pieces for people, usually compositions that encourage types of listening and presence, or searching within themself. A lot of the pieces I have made that most excite me are the ones I have written for others that include a fair amount of improvisation and flexible interpretation.
To see what can happen internally in others and then externally via expression, based off of my direction, is really rewarding.