Over the last six years, Smith-Rolla has embraced the unknown, spurred on by her decision to take on even the most daunting of opportunities. In 2016 the self-proclaimed Drexciya devotee performed live for the first time, opening for Carl Craig in Ibiza and more recently, she’s been drawn back into her love affair with film and as a result, was invited by the Royal Northern College of Music to provide a modern interpretive score for score the cinematic hard-hitting documentary, Baraka. Trailing the path of her predecessors Autechre and Boards of Canada, Smith-Rolla followed suit in the summer of 2018, releasing her cathartic debut album, titled Break Before Make, via esteemed IDM label Skam Records.
In the sixth grade, Smith-Rolla longed to learn the cello. And since then, she’s set out to include soul-stirring cello samples and a range of evocative string snippets in every aspect of her musical output. Implementing KONTAKT libraries —such as EMOTIVE STRINGS— has allowed Smith-Rolla to emulate the superlative strings reminiscent of the chordophones she dreamed of playing as a child.
In 2006 you joined Sisters of Transistors, the Manchester-based music group and research project founded by 808 State’s Graham Massey. You aren’t classically trained, and at that point, you didn’t know how to read music or play keys. While your production is self-taught, where does your piano background come from?
When I was a child, my mum used to clean houses for a living. I would finish primary school and walk down to this one particular house that she used to clean. The woman who owned the house would play on this big beautiful piano, and I would sit beside her, listening attentively. Her long nails would click on the keys like talons. I recall making up my first piece of music on that piano. I still remember how to play it, even now.
When I was asked to be in the Sisters group, I didn’t realize I was being asked to join a band, rather than a collaborative project. I was playing keys with just one finger for quite some time or doing simple basslines with synths. During that time I couldn’t read music, so I figured out a way where I could learn the pieces through colour association, where we dropped parts of the tracks into Ableton and colour coded sections which I then learned by ear. It’s very intricate. At one point, I didn’t have any other option but to learn so I could keep up with the group, and I ended up teaching myself through trial and error.
I’m constantly learning and being honest about skills I simply don’t have. I’ll admit that to someone and ask if they can show me. ‘I don’t know how to do that? Do you know how to do that? And can you show me? Furthermore, I know something that you don’t know how to do and, I’ll share it with you.’ It’s an exchange.
Is it possible that your lack of classical training allows you the freedom to let go of any apprehensions and completely immerse yourself when new opportunities arise?
Definitely. When you’re classically trained you’re bound by a very strict set of rules. When you learn the rules, it’s very difficult to unlearn them or even act outside of them. Without the rules, the possibilities are infinite, you can do whatever you want. You decide if something sounds good. Not being classically trained has been extremely freeing. However, I did always want to be. I wanted to be part of that world. I’m not judging that path, though I do feel that for me it worked out better that I didn’t take that route. I discern sounds differently.
Music was always in my life. I always wanted to play the cello, but instead, I ended up taking violin lessons until I was twelve. My mum got me a double tape deck to practice, and I remember learning ‘Twinkle twinkle, little star’, as well as a duet. I would record one part and then play the other over the top of the recording. I was always recording something on that tape deck!
Besides using storytelling to structure particular tracks, how do you approach producing?
I don’t write music all the time, and I’ve realizd that’s because when I’m making music, it’s to process something specific. Other times I’ll have a bassline recorded, add some drums, put it on repeat and just dance away for hours. If it’s something heavier or more in-depth, then it will be a late night operation. I’ll work into the early hours of the morning until I see the break of day. I never start in the same place, though usually, it’s with a melody or a chord. Something dark with a slight twinge of optimism. There’s always some light at the end of the tunnel.
Earlier this month your debut album, Break Before Make celebrated its first anniversary. How did that release come together?
It’s crazy, where did that year go? I never thought I would ever release my own album. It never seemed like a prospect until it was happening. That album was a processing album — it’s called Break Before Make because I was broken when I made it. I’ll still play certain pieces from the record when I need to process life occurrences. It’s a form of therapy. I had no expectations of how it would end up turning out or how it would be received. When it was done I felt free to let it go out into the world. I don’t know who listened to it, but the feedback over the past year has been spectacular.
I started putting together music for the album before I even realized that it was going to be an album. That record was a collection of 14-tracks that I’d been working on for a long time during which I was sending material back and forth to the label as I was making it. I had all the records and music in my life, but it’s only been in the last five to six years that I shifted to actually being able to make music. It’s interesting being called a producer. And I mean, when does anyone ever actually start to call themselves a producer?
You’re currently employing EMOTIVE STRINGS in your production. How did you discover the library? It seems that you had an affinity for string instruments from an early age.
I was looking to work with strings and everything available at the time sounded incredibly synthetic. It was impossible to make anything sound like a viola, violin or cello. I remember watching a video on the recording of the Budapest Scoring Symphony Orchestra for the Emotive Strings sample phrase library and I said to myself, “wow, they’re going deep”. That sample. I found it unbelievable and kept watching the footage over and over again. I needed it in my life. And nothing before that had worked out. When I started using them in my electronic production, it just made all the sense and everything I’ve made with them since I’m obsessed with. It’s about learning the parameters and being able to transpose that into whatever I want to hear. I’m moved by them straight away. They’re not synthetic at all.
Additionally, you engage with a range of compositional projects that involve scoring films, documentaries, and theatre productions. What piqued your interest to begin working in those industries?
Film and composition have always been floating around in my head. I’ve always been drawn to those practices and particular composers like Vangelis and Hans Zimmer. I live in their world and understand their language.
In 2017, Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music reached out to see if I’d take part in a project they were working on which involved re-scoring a section of a documentary from the 90s called Baraka. I had the opportunity to use an exquisite grand piano that they had there, alongside my Korg MS2000 synth and Ableton, teamed with Emotive Strings. I love writing for visuals and making sense of a moving image, especially when I can involve my love for string instruments. They say that the cello is the closest frequency to human speech. The way that I work when scoring films is that I drop the visual into an audio file channel in Ableton and view it as a video window. That way I’m able to measure the pace of the visual media and follow exactly where it goes. Another short film I worked on recently just qualified for the Oscars. My dream would be to score a full motion picture, from beginning to end.
My life at the minute is very, very cosmic. People ask me to do things that I’m not sure if I can do, but I say yes, work hard and end up pulling it off. It’s always a case of being nervous and worried that I can’t do something and just doing it.
Check out the new Afrodeutche EP on Rover Rapid here.
photo credits: Giovanni Dominice