listen with sarah interview
Sarah Nelson is Listen With Sarah. The name is apt. Her records are a distillation of the sounds that she’s heard. Simple as that. Her My Little Hula Girl EP (on Cherrade) drops a Hawaiian melody under bits of URL snatched from the mouths of Andy Kershaw, Rob Da Bank and others, splices together a farmyard, a bloke wobbling his lip with his fingers and a brass section and, finally, on highlight Drum’n’Berceuse, Listen With Mother and some bits that fell off the back of a rave.
John Peel loved it and LWS has a deal in common with those other Peel-endorsed sample magpies The Cuban Boys – not least a sense of humour about the whole thing – while being much less straightforward. We asked her a few questions.
Tell us a bit about LWS
Listen With Sarah = woman + computer, mostly. It’s me (Sarah) and my electronic listening device, with occasional Yamaha keyboards and production support from the wings (Peter).
Essentially, I make music on and with my computer, using loops and samples. It’s made-up music; music which could be described as plunderphonics, sound collage, cut and paste, music concrete, cut-up, mash-up, as well as electronic, experimental, avant-garde and a bit dada. “Breakbleet farmcore hulastep serendipity” is a genre name I made up last year. It describes it quite well, as I have been known to incorporate farm animals, Hawaiian music, break beats and absurdity
I’ve played music (mostly piano) on and off since childhood (I’m now 41), and played with computers on and off for nearly 20 years. It was only a matter of time before I combined the two. My musical computer experiments began in 2002. A couple of years later I was played on the John Peel Show, at which point I named the affair Listen With Sarah.
How do you start building a track?
I often can’t remember how a particular track came about, what I did in which order and why. I tend to create somewhat subconsciously, as if slightly possessed.
I’ve been gathering samples for the last few years, going through phases of collecting, followed by phases of organising. My collection includes vocal clips from radio shows and TV, drum loops, synth loops, sound effects, loops taken from favourite tunes, and interesting vinyl treasure from local charity shops.
While organising them, certain sounds might catch my ear and I either file them for later or follow the inspiration and start playing with them spontaneously. Sometimes I put two samples together and they work so well I just carry on from there. I’ve used Acid Pro 4 for several years now and it’s very conducive to whacking loops together quickly. It often feels like piling on loads of colours and shapes and then proceeding to hack off and rearrange bits, as if painting or sculpting.
Some tracks I construct quickly, like Animal Hop and My Little Hula Girl, which came together in a few days, but even in these cases, the tunes have usually been brewing as an idea in the back of my mind for some time, and the samples I use were gathered over time. Some things I keep for ages before finding the right place for them. The process varies from tune to tune but there’s a lot of serendipity involved too.
You had a bit of trouble with Oliver Postgate.
In 2005, Mr Postgate threatened me with legal action for using samples of the Ivor The Engine theme tune without prior permission. Postgate claimed to own the rights to the recording that I had sampled in Animal Hop and released on my Are You Sitting Comfortably? CD in 2004. The recording of the Ivor theme, by the way, is less than 12 seconds long.
I offered him a fee, full royalties, and a donation to a charity of his choice per CD sold, but he refused all negotiation. He insisted that I stop selling Animal Hop, which in effect meant stop selling AYSC, or he might pursue legal action. In November 2005 Postgate agreed not to sue or make any further claims and I agreed to “cease offering my sound recording entitled Animal Hop for sale.” I removed AYSC from various catalogues.
How did he find out about you?
He found out about me because I tried to obtain sample clearance retrospectively, following an invitation to contribute Animal Hop to Rough Trade’s 2005 Counter Culture compilation.
The PRS told me that Vernon Elliott’s estate owned the rights to Ivor The Engine. The late Vernon Elliott, by the way, was the actual composer and performer of the theme tune. I wrote to Vernon’s daughter and after initial negotiations, she realised that it was Oliver Postgate who owned the rights to the actual sound recording, since he had commissioned it for Smallfilms’ animation. She passed my letter and CD on to him and I awaited his communication eagerly. Hoorah, I thought. I get to talk to a childhood hero!
Next I received an email from Mr P in pseudo-legal language, which threatened legal action. My attempts to explain my situation candidly (i.e. a previously unknown DIY musician on relatively low income, self-releasing first album, of which I had sold only 200 of 1000 copies of my CD etc), and my offers to pay for sample clearance were met with stern replies:
“Your letter admits that you used a recording of Vernon Elliott's work, one which Smallfilms had commissioned, paid for and now owns, without even asking, and that you have included it in a compilation as if it were your own work, a compilation which you have published as being your own work. That is, simply, illegal, as well as dishonest.”
His final words were:
“Smallfilms did not, do not and will not give you permission to take Vernon Elliott's music and recording and use it in your work: Animal Hop. We have therefore asked you to cease offering the said work for sale. If you will do this we shall not proceed with legal action against you. If you do not we reserve the right to do so.”
And you still went ahead and sampled Trumpton!
I began playing with Trumpton before all the legal shenanigans, and returned to it later. I did consider trying to contact the composer, Freddie Phillips, before releasing my latest CD, but was not encouraged by my experience with Postgate.
Trumpton is quite a cultural reference for many of us and I really wanted to use it, with or without prior permission. So this time I gave myself permission to use it as I saw fit and I openly credited the composer on the CD sleeve which I hadn’t done in the case of Animal Hop.
Do you generally try and clear your samples?
No. I’ve only tried it once! Ideally I’d like to be able to ask the artist directly and get their blessing, as in the case of Om-Pa-Cha-Pap-Cha-Pap (on AYSC), which starts with a few spoken words by Dr John. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform last year and met him backstage (as I had once before, 20 years ago.) I gave him a copy of my CD, told him what I’d done and asked him not to sue. He was fine with it and although his manager muttered managerially in the background, I have yet to receive any legal threats from them. In the USA, I think it’s rarely considered worthwhile pursuing legal action for pressings of 1000 or less.
Has the anonymity and independence that computers, CDRs etc given been beneficial/liberating to female musicians?
I think it’s been liberating to musicians of all genders, especially spectacle-wearing control freaks with stay-at-home tendencies.
Do you see yourself as part of a scenes?
Not especially. I don’t pay too much attention to gender, although I’m generally pleased to discover new female electronic musicians and have occasionally wondered why there seem to be less of them then male.
A while back I considered compiling a collection of music by ‘electronic women’, i.e. women who use computers in their music-making, to include for example, Delia Derbyshire, Vicki Bennet aka People Like Us, Danielle Lemaire, Blevin Blectum, Ellen Alien, Solex and Ms Codex of Codex Machine. If I'm part of any movement, it's the Leisure Party or ‘ludic revolution,’ but that’s another story.
Do you consider what you're doing to be art?
Art in the straightforward sense of “skill”, “craft” or act of “arranging” things, certainly.
Do you play any trad instruments in LWS?
Mostly not, but Ramblin’ Andy (The World of LWS EP) was built around a keyboard line originally played with real hands on my trad Yamaha. In time, I’ll no doubt use more of my finger twiddling in LWS. I also own an Indian Harmonium, a theremin and a Garklein-Flötlein recorder. I fancy getting an accordion this year (and one day maybe even a Hammond B3).
How about singing?
I can’t see that happening any time soon. I occasionally get the urge to sing in a crazed operatic style, but I’m fairly shy in this respect. So far I simply haven’t felt the need or desire for it in my musical creations, though yodelling sounds like fun.
Is composition different for you on the computer?
I didn’t really do much composing before the computer. Computer experimentation helped liberate my ideas and inspired composition. Before that I played tunes on my keyboards from sheet music and learned to improvise a bit using chords and scales. I would try and play various loops at once on my keyboards, within the limitations of two hands and an inability to stick to one tune at a time - all very chaotic and disorganised.
My early computer experiments did include keyboard lines, but they never really worked the way I wanted and I eventually stopped trying to use my twiddling fingers. I got the computer to twiddle for me. This helped me organise the layers of sounds I was hearing in my head and I liked the results, so I carried on.
What do you say to people who dismiss your music because it's (a) made on a computer (b) made up of samples?
In the early days of the piano there were those who dismissed music made on it, considering it a poor substitute for the orchestra. Get over yourselves!
All music is made up of samples, just like writing. In The Cut-Up Method, William Burroughs pointed out that, “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard.” This also applies to music. Collage is not a new art form. It’s been around at least since the Chinese invented paper in 200 BC. In the early 20th century it was used in painting by Cubists and in writing (Cut-Up) by Dadaists, and TS Elliott’s The Waste Land from 1922, is famously full of samples.
Is there a self-imposed restriction to samples?
Given what I said earlier about all music being made up of samples, I’ll interpret this as ‘restriction to particular kinds of samples’ – in my case pre-recorded samples, mostly ‘found’ samples as opposed to ones recorded by me for the purpose and mostly ‘big’ samples or ‘chunks’ of sound, e.g. loops of several notes or bars rather than single notes or drum hits.
I see this more as a preference than a restriction, though I recognise that restrictions are necessary in art in order to manifest it in physical form. In using the computer as a musical instrument, it’s very easy to end up with too many ingredients and just like in cooking, some of our best 'meals' are made when the cupboards are low - it’s amazing what we can create from just a few ingredients.
I certainly have a predilection for ‘found’ sounds. I enjoy taking something from one context and placing it in a new one – the results are different from using a sample recorded specifically for that context. I enjoy the serendipitous discoveries that often arise. Juxtaposition amuses me.
How would you feel if someone sampled LWS without permission?
You’ll find no copyright symbol on my releases. Anyone is free to sample LWS. I’d probably receive it as a compliment. I’d probably like to be credited.
How about if they had a big hit with their track?
I think it would amuse me. If they make lots of money, they’re welcome to send me a donation - just as long as they don’t whore themselves to advertising. I’m with Bill Hicks on that one. Artistic integrity is a valuable thing. I recommend the writings of John Oswald and Negativland on the subject of sampling and copyright – see the ‘Intellectual Property Issues’ page at www.negativland.com
The Hula Girl EP is out now on Cherryade. www.listenwithsarah.org
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