Following the release of the self-produced short film for her single “Physicality”, we talked to New York based QUALIATIK about her creative process and how her study of neuroscience influences her art.
The most outstanding fact in your biography obviously is that you studied neuroscience at Haverford in Philadelphia. This probably makes people perk up their ears nowadays but I assume that this wasn’t your first and foremost motivation to go and study this out of all things – especially as a rather creative person. What made you choose this path rather than studying arts or linger around Philadelphia? And what made you grab your backpack and move to NYC instead of working in science?
Emotion, identity, love, mental illness, all the things that fuel music and art all occur in the brain, so I don’t really see a clear distinction between making art and studying the brain. Music and art are an expression of the human experience, and neuroscience is just learning more about how all of that works. I think my fascination with the brain is just an extension of being in love with our capacity for emotion and what it means to be human.
My creative process is really psychologically oriented— it’s all rooted in introspection, but rather than engaging with the brain through detached analysis, I can actually live in it and learn through experience. It’s freeing. The creative process is the tool, rather than lab research, mixing chemicals and performing surgeries. Although interesting and exciting, at a certain point there is a ceiling on how actively and personally you can engage with the brain in that field. Designing studies is really fun, but much of lab work is repetitive and mundane, going through the same motions every day for years, hoping for significant findings that your lab may not achieve until after your lifetime, if ever. I’m also probably closet hella immature and lacking in self-control, so I needed something with more instant gratification and emotional intensity.
Leaving college and moving to NYC with a backpack was definitely a reckless and impulsive decision, but it really felt like my world depended on it, and it felt very “now or never”. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling than this sense of gravity, pulling you toward something relentlessly. It’s the kind of intuition that will shred you to pieces if you don’t heed it, and that’s what was happening, so it really didn’t feel like I had much autonomy in the whole situation.
Your latest project, “Physicality”, got a video two weeks ago which I understand you shot, directed, animated and edited all on your own. It is a very – in the best way possible – flamboyant piece of art which features yourself, coloured and reversed shots of nature and quite a lot of animation. You had been doing animation and programming before, but how did the idea for the combination of the animations and the rather trippy footage of yourself come about?
A lot of it came together in post-production and editing, when I had all of the footage and no idea how to piece it all together but needed to figure it out. All of the visuals—footage and animation—were impulsive, on-the-spot creative decisions that didn’t directly have any forethought or planning other than broad conceptualizing (read: notebook doodling) I did before I started actually working on the video. But more than anything, that “conceptualizing” was just putting into written bubble-lettered words the kinds of concepts, images, moods, and textures that were swirling around nebulously in the “stuff I really like” section of my brain.
I’ve always been really drawn to animation and CGI, so it was never a question that that was going to be an aspect of the video, but filmed footage is much more personal and exposing, so I needed to have that vulnerable element as well. My good friend Alexander Luna filmed the shots I couldn’t hold the camera for, and he did an amazing job with the cinematography, so the trippy outdoor footage and the dancing shots were guided by his eye. The shiny installation, the face dunking in water, and the flashing face glitter scenes feel almost entirely like the serendipitous work of some force outside myself, so I really don’t feel I can take credit for any “ideas” that informed those scenes. Maybe my credit lies in the curation of things I had seen on the internet or in culture that ultimately inspired those moments.
I didn’t intend at all to present myself so directly in the video, and it was actually really uncomfortable and disturbing to ultimately see how the footage turned out and then especially to work with it. As much as I despise that footage—and seeing it over and over again on my computer for months—I think working with footage of yourself can be a really good challenge in understanding your physical form and the different ways it can represent you or caricature parts of your personality. Having a body feels, to me, like a really strange and awkward thing, and I usually feel pretty disembodied, but I’m learning that it can also be a really powerful tool for self-expression.
You definitely deliver on the promise of being a multimedia artist. How come you decided to work that way instead of trying to do what most people do, which is hiring a – usually mediocre – agency to take care of everything?
It wasn’t really a decision so much as kind of the natural inclination, which, I imagine, is what happens to most multimedia artists, or musicians who come from a visual background. When you have always worked with a variety of media, you find necessary modes of expression through them all and it would feel weird to abandon or outsource any of them. Music production allows one avenue of expression, lyrics allow a different one, and visuals yet another, and my emotional ADD is constantly vascillating between the different outlets, so I just follow the creative impulse as it shape shifts. I have mad respect for musicians whose craft is solely the music, and perhaps they will always have a better product at the end of the day because of their focus, but for me, the visuals feel like an important part of what I’m trying to say so I like to pull them from the same source of emotion. I’m realizing, though, that there are really powerful creative kinships to be found with collaborators, and now that I have a better sense of what I bring to the table I hope to start working with other artists soon. I guess the difference lies in whether you are working together to create one final product with one voice or whether you are working together to create a marriage between two holistic visions that each weave their distinct voice into the fabric of the collaboration.
From the production side of things most of your projects but especially “Physicality” are very eclectic in their sound and mixing. I’d love to learn about your writing process a bit. Do you start with some drums, certain sequences that you made or are the text and the vocals the first thing and you build the production around them?
I haven’t been making music for long enough to really know what my process is yet. For a while when I just started, I would mess around first with drums and percussive sounds, including chopped vocals. So the songs would begin as a beat that would either fold open as an intro to the rest of the song or be woven into the structure of it. For the last year, though, I’ve been starting by messing around with chords and notes until I feel that “tug” from a certain chord, tone, or progression. It’s this really compelling emotional “oomph” feeling that can form the basis of a song. When I follow the “oomph”, a progression usually arises and then you can start to channel and navigate the flow of toplines. Toplines usually come out in gibberish, just syllables that I then transcribe when I listen back, to get the vowel sounds and syllables of all the words and phrases. When writing lyrics, they’ll either arise from a word or two that appeared in the gibberish, or they’ll build off the vowel sounds and flow of the gibberish, or they’ll just have nothing to do with those structures altogether and materialize in their own way. Lyrics literally feel like magic to me—I don’t understand where they come from and I rarely have any recollection of the mental processes when I was writing them.
The basic idea for a song can pop out really quickly, but the process of working on and completing a song is really slow for me and develops over time. On days when I’m really writing, I’ll barf out tens of song ideas in a day and export a wav of them all to a folder on my desktop. Then I’ll listen to them and end up working more on the ones that spark feelings and inspiration. If I lose that spark while fleshing a song out, it usually gets abandoned, and the songs I end up working on to completion are the ones that never lose that spark.
The production process is also really elusive, and I do my best work when I’m zoned out in autopilot mode and all the thinking is happening on a subconscious level. It always amazes me to listen back to earlier demos of songs, because I really don’t know where the transformation occurs. Composition, toplining, and lyricism are really emotionally intense experiences for me, and I usually find myself rocking back and forth or moving in some way— it’s really all about intuition, and “plugging in” to that source can be really intense and surrendering. But it balances with the other aspects of production like mixing and mastering, which are more peaceful, and therapeutic to obsessive compulsive tendencies. I mix and engineer as I produce, and the placement and qualities of each sound are a really exciting, important part of composition that feeds the spark of inspiration.
Follow QUALIATIK on Soundcloud.