Musician, producer and studio engineer, Evelyn Ida Morris is a celebrated figure in the Melbourne music community. Having released music for many years under the name Pikelet and contributing as a multi-instrumentalist to many bands such as Baseball, True Radical Miracle and Grand Salvo, this year Morris released their first music under their own name. Sitting down with Noisegate, Morris describes their writing and recording process and the immediate emotional expression of their self-titled debut…
You recently released your debut album under your own name as opposed to the Pikelet moniker. Was it important for you to release this music as an entirely new project?
The material was really different, and I didn’t put it out for ages partly because the material was very emotional and about gender-queer stuff, it felt a bit dangerous. I also felt like it would confuse people so I thought I should just start over. It all happened at the same time as starting a relationship with a new label (Milk! Records) and felt like the right time. Pikelet also feels like a different part of me, a part of me that’s a bit younger and looking for approval, which this album totally isn’t. Being able to say ‘I don’t care’, and just put it out was a pretty big deal. Pikelet was so much about wanting everyone to like me, this just felt totally different.
How does this album function thematically? It seems to be such an immediate expression of emotion, did that have an effect on your writing process?
I think that something I realise more over the time that I invest my life into music is how much you look to your idols and think that because you connected to their emotional expression that that is emotional expression. For me, actually it was going to back to an instrument that I’ve played since I was three, my relationship with piano is intrinsic and I don’t really have to think about it… I don’t necessarily listen to piano music and think ‘that’s really evocative’, it’s just more about my relationship to the instrument… this felt like a return to a more cathartic practice. It’s interesting that we take ourselves away from the instruments that we feel comfortable on. There aren’t that many categories that women are allowed to inhabit in the music industry, and for me, I didn’t feel like I was a “successful” woman. Trying to do that felt offensive. But I’ve come at it from such a different way now, it feels like it’s mine. It’s so annoying that we have to go through all these different wormholes to come to a place where we just feel comfortable… When I was originally writing, the songs were a bit obscure in their theme, the whole album, because I didn’t know what I was writing about at the time. By the time it got round to doing “The Body Appears” and I’d done all the feminist work (with LISTEN) for three years, burned out, realised things about my gender, I was so much more aware of what I was singing about. It was meant to be on the next album, but I thought, ‘oh, it actually kind of completes the record’ and that song became the catalyst for wanting to put it out, it kind of summarised it.
Is it important to you that the live performances of this work are faithful to the recorded versions, or do you see each live performance as an opportunity to do something different?
I guess it’s quite a direct expression of emotion. Sometimes I’ll do a lot of improv on the piano, but it mostly depends on gear, most venues don’t have a grand piano… One thing I like about the performance of this record so far is that I’m translating it to the venues. When I was doing the Melbourne Recital Centre launch I thought, well this is a space that is designed for acoustic instruments; it didn’t make sense to use synthesisers. There’s synth all over the album but at the show I had a viola player who also played the saw, clarinet, bass clarinet, vibraphone and drums. We just did everything as their interpretations of the textures on the album. It can also just be piano. Another show I’m doing soon at the RMIT Design Hub with Simona Castricum, we’re interpreting this huge concrete space and I’m going to put heaps of bass amps around the room and put the piano through them. I want everyone to try and feel the music in their bodies, as opposed to listening to it in this cerebral piano way. It will be like an expression of gender dysphoria and euphoria. Focusing people in on their body and sensation as they’re receiving music is a cool thing to do. I think it’s also gendered because loudness is typically seen as male, but I want to say, “interpret loudness as something else”, as just something in your body.
What was the recording process for this album?
Well, I didn’t know that I could record myself four years ago, like I do now. I got Simon Grounds to do it; he’s such an intelligent and sensitive recording engineer so it was a real breeze. He took a portable recording set-up to VCA, we took the recording set up to the piano. I think it was an expression of recording studios not really feeling right at that time, like they were not for me. Simon did a really simple set up, just an X-Y (microphone technique) on the piano and a room mic. I overdubbed a bunch of vocals at his house and then some more at another studio. I was learning how to produce my own record as I went because Simon was so hands off… Gear can be a bit of a rabbit warren for me. I start with one piece of gear but then I get more excitable and curious. I’m like, ‘Why don’t I get this really complicated electron octatrack and disappear into that for two years because that’s the only way to learn how to operate a sampler like that?’ I enjoy that but this current piano album is too immediate, so I kept it simple asides from adding synth textures. Shags Chamberlain and myself did all the synths at a studio that my friend Lukas Glickman was recording from. I can’t actually recall all of the synths we used on the record, but I do know we used a Roland SH101 on a few tracks. One track has Nicholas Allbrook (Pond, Tame Impala) playing flute into a space echo that I was manipulating.
How do you approach synthesis as an artist?
My approach to synths is (very much) like ‘What does this knob do?’… I can find things that I can reliably turn to in a synth but I don’t necessarily always understand how synthesis is happening. Even when I spend an entire day on a synth I still don’t feel like I understand it but my feeling about that is that that’s good. If I understand something fully, I don’t think I have an exciting exploratory journey with it. And that’s how music’s always been for me, a little bit mysterious. Synthesis for me is a matter of playing around until I feel like something works.
Can you talk about the relationship between being an artist, and being a producer and audio engineer? How does that manifest itself within your work?
I’m realising more and more that it’s not so much about gear, it’s about being able to connect with people’s work and create a space for them to explore their music further. Doing production has really demystified a lot of the recording process for me so that now when I’m doing it for myself I’m more playful and enjoy it more. I’m a fan of Sylvia Massy’s videos on YouTube, she’s this producer that’s worked with Rage Against the Machine and Tool. If an artist has a crazy idea she just says ‘let’s do it’, she’s about the journey. It’s more about giving creative control to the artist and saying do whatever you want. Stupid things like using a little microphone that’s made out of a shotgun capsule, because the feeling to some dude that having a capsule from a shotgun pointing at a guitar makes them play different. It’s this element of production and studio engineering that’s not actually about gear at all, it’s really about this chemistry of humanity in music. Not so much worrying about whether it will be the best sound result in the moment. You’ll find something that sounds good eventually, and that should always be the focus. I just think a lot of engineers restrict themselves too much when it comes to their interpretation of what is “good” sound and what is “bad” sound. I love beautiful clean recordings – but I also want to find whatever production boundaries the artist is willing to push with their music and get really into pushing them. Basically, “good” and “bad” in terms of sound and recording so far has been largely defined and controlled by cis white men. So I’m ok with dropping their terms and creating our own.