Avalon Emerson: A year on

Avalon Emerson is a creative polymath whose music and sets have become a prominent feature on the electronic music landscape, a rare entity that combines new technology with old to create within the broad spectrum of multimedia talent. A software programmer, a DJ, a producer, a video artist and a DIY enthusiast who customises everything from her headphones to her filters. Avalon Emerson is the complete musical package, and yet her music is approachable, slightly innocent, but serious without being intimidating or menacing. We spoke to Avalon before about her origins on the west coast of the states and how her formative years might have shaped her musically to-day, but a year on, and watching the artist and DJ going from strength to strength, justifiably garnering the attention of a wider audience as she goes, there is so much more to the story of Avalon Emerson, than a Q&A session could ever yield.

We talked to Avalon mere weeks before the release of her “The Frontier” 12” on Whities, a release that propelled her further into the populace club music conscious and would eventually lead to her being recognised as one of the most exciting rising talents of 2016 by none other than Resident Advisor. Tracks like “the Frontier” and “Church of Soma” on Spring Theory talk of Emerson’s rich musical education from Arizona to her residency at Soma in San Francisco and acknowledge the artist’s past a she propelled her music into the future. Her early days were marked by Djing, making music, and sending hundreds of self-effacing personalised emails to the blogosphere, which spread her music to larger audience outside of her immediate west-coast residency. Today she’s an internationally acclaimed DJ and producer living out of Berlin and her last release, “Narcissus in Retrograde” through Spectral Sound has sealed what has fast become an oeuvre par excellence in an electronic music language, the male dominated culture of this music was unable to ignore any longer.

“Narcissus in Retrograde” cemented something in Avalon Emerson’s sound that started coming together for the producer on the Frontier.  “I think they are more tonal follow-ups to it (the Frontier)”; says Emerson in an interview with the Quietus, “they neatly follow where I’m going with my music from ‘The Frontier’ – particularly into ‘Natural Impasse’.” The Frontier’s driving personality, its refined production touches where everything fits neatly into its place and Kraftwerk-referencing melody chimes lazily, and evocatively against the purposeful rhythms section sets the tone for something that explores the more expressive corners of of the dance floor, which she then carries into “Natural Impasse”. Like the former, “Natural Impasse” plays in solid, often provocative drum/bass arrangements that dominate the sound system while hollow melodic tones (this time from a marimba) cascade down the surface of the track. There’s something captivating in that playfully juxtaposition that expounds on itself when Emerson takes these elements and applies touches of glitching digital curiosities, that sets her aside from her more purist peers. Much of Emerson appeals lies in this unconventional manner the execution is achieved, even though it’s crafted from a Techno formula. Like her roots, she gives nods in the direction of House and Techno’s ancestry with 303 lines and sonic palettes lifted straight from the dance music’s oldest rulebook, but she manipulates them in the digital realm like it were a time-travelling Doc Brown peeling off his future mask to reveal a rejuvenated younger version of itself to the world.

A Technotronic vision of the past enraptures Emerson’s music, which can go from the more reserved aspects of Tech-House like “Church of Soma” to the more auspicious and grandiose Techno gestures like “Groundwater”.These subtle differences in her tracks  also reflect how Emerson is constantly in flux with her environment. “Church of Soma”, with its melancholic melodic vocals might suggest something of the reverence she has for the place she could call home as a DJ during a time she was perhaps feeling some conflict with San Francisco’s “monoculture of moneymaking” (as she calls it in RA), which provoked her move to Berlin. Similarly “Groundwater” with it’s large-than-life beats and raspy didgeridoo bass-line that form an aggressive Techno amalgamation, might have something to do with 2016 being a tumultuous year for Emerson with old relationships straining; new relations blossoming; and the political catastrophe back home according to her recent interview in RA. “Try as we might we can’t escape where we came from”, she recently told CRACK in reference to “The Frontier”, and I believe that extends to the present and Emerson’s socio-political environment too. Tracks like Church of Soma and Groundwater are little extracts we get to the artist’s current frame of mind expressed through her unique musical voice.

That musical voice often stretches itself into the more literal realm with tracks like “Why does it Hurt” and “Constantly my cure” allowing the artist to lend her vocals to the tracks, entrenching the abstract musical form with something more personal and literal. “I’ve been doing… more lyrics-driven stuff not really made for the club”, she says in that extensive RA piece and looks like she is prepared to take it all the way into an album in the future. There’s a Miss Kitten-like shiftlessness and a Knife-like androgyny in her voice that make these tracks particularly engaging for this listener and in the more subtle aspects of these tracks there’s something there that definitely speaks to a much wider audience – something she could definitely exploit through an album. It will certainly centre an artistic voice, without pinning it down to anything outside of the album context, something we know she does all too well through her DJ sets too. 

And between the DJing and the music she still finds time for other creative outlets, which lately has taken the form of video artist too. For “Narcissus in Retrograde” she created a collage video, which she then turned into a playful emoji mosaic experience. “I trimmed each video, turned them into gifs, and processed them into various emojisaic gifs using a ruby script created by my friend Lucas Mathis (github: @lilkraftwerk)”, she says in that in that interview with RA, “ then edited them all together using Adobe Premiere, a process that took me about two months.”

There was clearly no way of  stemming her artistic ability in 2016, which just appears to be going from strength to strength leaving us very much on the edge of our seats for 2017 when it comes to Avalon Emerson, and her upcoming set at Jæger this week.