Talking Heads: Emika

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Most people hate January…but then, from early on in our chat, it is clear Emika is not one of them. “I love January, it’s the one!” she gushes. “Everyone’s moping around, but I’m just on it doing all my work so I can relax in the summer! Everywhere is cold and dark in Berlin currently but I really love it at this time of year.”

We have connected to talk about the many and varied musical projects in which she is currently involved. Head of the queue is new piano album Klavirni Temna, a sequel to 2014’s Klavirni – about which she became Arcana’s very first interviewee in 2014. A lot has changed in her life since then, in particular the arrival of a baby girl. The new addition is heavily connected to Klavirni Temna, of which more later – but first Emika is talking about how her music is developing.

“My creativity is getting a lot worse now I’m a mother! I’m doing more and more, I’m collaborating a lot more. I have a new label concept, working with a lot more artists, and working in much more creative zones. There are things that don’t fit my Emika project but I can do them on someone else’s record. I call it having music kittens, lots of them!”

Klavirni Temna can be thought of as the pedigree in the litter. While the new release schedules and streaming platforms are packed with solo piano records, it has a distinctive voice of its own, and when heard on headphones (listen above!) it is like having someone in the room next door. “That’s what I wanted”, she affirms. I like the feeling that someone’s actually performing, a person in a time and a moment. All the pieces and improvisations are ones that didn’t have mistakes in them, and they were recorded on my phone. Then I went back to them, racked up on a lot of things and recorded them properly.”

Emika was effectively recording for two. “It’s a particularly interesting record because I wrote it while I was pregnant, and I could feel how the baby was responding to the music. When it went too dark I could feel the baby didn’t like it, and it got more uncomfortable! I finished the record and was in a rush, so I whacked plug-ins on it and thought it would be nice, I could put it out, and concentrate on becoming a mother. But when I’d had the baby it sounded rushed and clean, and not really me. I re-did it and used broken, dirty, dusty tape compression and delay. I wasn’t sure what to do, I had the test presses and didn’t know, so I put the test presses on and my daughter came in. She was listening, and then came over and tapped my stomach and said ‘mummy sound’! She understands the piano as being home and me. Forever we have this sound connection, and it’s one of a kind, a strange musical thing.”

Her Czech musical ancestors wrote similarly intimate pieces for piano, the likes of Dvořák, Suk and Janáček putting down some of their most private thoughts in suites and individual pieces, such as the Janáček example played by Piotr Anderszewski above. Emika is no different. “The piano’s my notebook. It feels like a black pencil and a white piece of paper, and it’s how I can set down to work.”

Each of the pieces is identified as Dilo, which means ‘moment’ in Czech. “It is exactly like that, and I feel akin to it”, she says. “Janáček made a lot of pieces for his children, and that was a big confidence boost to me. If he’s done it I will do it! Since the first Klavirni album solo piano has become so popular and trendy, and that’s why I wanted to develop the sound this time. Usually my music is not so trendy but this feels like the height of the trend! And it is five years since I did the last Klavirni album. It’s cool – it could have gone either way, but this release makes the other one safer if you know what I mean.”

There are unexpected twists and turns as the album develops, meaning the listener is kept on their toes while experiencing the darkly meditative scores. Dilo 31 is an example, dropping in pitch as it progresses in an affecting and slightly disturbing way. “The engineer couldn’t believe I wanted it that way, he was really confused! I think bending the piano’s pitch afterwards rather than playing it live is cool.”

Emikae loves the escapism playing the piano affords. “My studio is close to a forest, and that’s what I see when I’m playing, with the weather changing. The piano is right by the window, so it’s connected to the outside world. I’ve shifted from a dark Berlin room to a lofty space outside. The studio is a work in progress, and it’s really inspired by Earthship. I saw how Michael Reynolds builds houses from trash, using glass bottles and tyres. The houses capture energy and heat from the sun and have their own ecosystem, and you can grow food too. I’ve been researching solar power, and the goal is to have somewhere sustainable, rather than being part of a grid system. I am trying to downsize, to not use too much energy and to do more with less. The piano is the ultimate instrument for that…synthesizers, not so much!”

Her enthusiasm for the move is contagious. “The first step was to move out of the city. Then I wanted to look at designs, and to get architects. I’m really inspired by the Tiny House movement, and I would love to build a tiny house studio. You can run them with solar power, and reuse your waste. It’s all about getting ready for the next era of survival and energy, and it’s making me think very differently about shrink wrap, vinyl and all those things. It’s difficult in the digital age to replace that with something meaningful, but we will find a way!”

Now she’s fully installed in the German countryside, Emika can devote more time to her second symphony project. “It’s inspired by the economist Jeremy Rifkin, who delivered a talk with VICE on YouTube (below):

I looked him up and just e-mailed him. I let his chief of staff know that I wanted to do a piece of music inspired by his work, and to my surprise he got back to me! Melanfonie, my first symphony, looked back to the past, but this one is looking 300 years into the future. I’ve been experimenting with using Maxim SP to play synthesizers, deciding what they play with a set of conditions that you program in first. It plays for half an hour, and I’ve got about 80 recordings, each one of them getting better with the process. Now I’d like to get the orchestra to play those parts.”

Emika’s willingness to embrace both the analogue sounds of the piano and the future digital ways of working is inspiring, each complementing the other in her music. “The more we understand technology, the closer it’s getting to nature and feels like it will save it again. I would like this symphony to be a live process. With Melanfonie everyone got it on the CD after, and didn’t get the live experience. For this symphony the idea is to do it in front of a live audience, with no click track or headphones. That creates a lot of pressure, but if you’re going to do it it’s the best thing you can do. This time I want to have synthesizers and to perform with the orchestra. That was the feedback, to have some bass-heavy, epic stuff going on!”

Klavirni Temna, Emika’s second piano album, is released on Friday 14 February on Emika Records. You can listen to extracts and order the album on Bandcamp here:

You can read more detail about Emika’s studio set-up on the Music Tech website (opens in a new window)