How – Interview with Katie Gately

Katie GatelyIf you are a human being, it is likely that you’ve had some sort of emotive response to a piece of music. Katie Gately is such a human being and the LA native has recently had the opportunity to see the affect of this first hand. Her self-titled debut is a remarkable creation of a composer that wears her heart on her sleeve. Samples are obscured behind processes that bear very little indication of their origin. Her voice floats through all of this, often putting aside any lyrical content for the sake of pure sonic expression. Her talent was first discovered in her work as a sound designer and as an audience we are fortunate that she’s made the leap to music today. I managed to get Ms. Gately to answer a few questions before she made the journey to Sundance, where her film Passer Passer, has been included in its official selection.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that as an undergrad you endeavoured to elucidate on the emotive responses that humans experience when listening to wordless music. How did making your own music affect this subject for you?

As an undergrad I was approaching music outside-in with logic, trying to dissect a foreign specimen in a really detached way. Making music has been more personal and physical; a fluid experience that is almost devoid of logic. It’s far messier. Meaning does creep in and there are rational choices along the way but emotion and physical energy really steer the ship.  Making music has taught me more about being human than studying logic because our emotional experiences dominate a lot of our decision-making even when we’d like to think otherwise!


When you wrote/produced the music for your Self Titled EP did your own emotions play a prominent role and was it your intention to incite a similar response in your listener?

Yeah, it was all emotion, a sort of free association of immediate sensations and deep-seated memories, anxieties and everything in between. At the time, I didn’t consider the listener because I had no clue that my songs would turn into a record. I’m still growing accustomed to having an audience and very grateful for every listener but I try to stay with my original approach of just: expressing emotions in a void. I’ve never been able to be self-conscious and honest at the same time.

I always try to remind myself that I am not unique. If I have felt something, so have a million others. Knowing this, I can have faith that if a song feels honest and interesting to me, it will resonate with someone else. Maybe not for the majority of people, but probably for one other person. If I can achieve that while being totally vulnerable, then I am pretty delighted.

Your music is mostly made on a computer if I’m not mistaken. Do you believe a method as abstract as a computer process could actually induce an emotive response in human beings or is that why you also feature vocals in your tracks?

Emotion can come about from almost anything because humans are just so irrational and sensitive. Coming from film, particularly the work I’ve done with picture editing, I am really used to artifice and manipulation leading to deep, huge emotive experiences. It’s quite odd to have a film production degree but still go to movies and cry! The mechanisms just work. For me, it is often related to the voice of the actor – the empathy we feel for another personality – which is surely similar to the way a singer can move us in music.

I love instrumental music though. It can often be a more spiritual, massive experience for me to not hear a voice. It inspires me to look up at the sky and remember Europa exists and that yes, I’m going to die. So, that’s important stuff. Voice offers more company, empathy and roots me inside the human experience. I am drawn to use my own voice because it’s the most accurate and immediate way in which I can express myself. However, I really couldn’t live without both forms of music and hope to work in both capacities.

And I believe the visceral element of your vocal elements is not subjected to the lyricism? In fact, your songs are very reminiscent of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and his use of nonrepresentational vocalisation.

I am not prone to tell stories and write out lyrics intentionally but I do think lyrics matter. Often when I sing, it’s an unplanned burst and the words and melody come out at the exact same time. They rely on each other to exist. It’s a weird process that I don’t fully understand. Sometimes what feels natural is “Bop Bop” though, you know? Because sometimes what you want is to not make any sense and vocables achieve that really well.

After listening to the examples of your sound design work, I got the impression that your EP was quite a departure from those working methods.  

Definitely. With sound design you’re always slaved to picture so it’s a different process, but I still use the same tools, sound libraries and processing methods. What pictures offer are boundaries and directions. You’re constrained and you have a clear map. This is convenient and fun but gets predictable. Even in the most experimental sound design, a lot of conventions dominate your choices. If you go to a film and there’s too many FX in the surround speakers, you will instinctively turn your head to look for the sounds. This takes you out of the film, which isn’t really ideal for any film because even the most experimental films are usually visually dominant.

With music though, you can pan things anywhere and the listener accepts it. This is what I love so much about music: people just roll with things because the imagery is all in their heads. You also can’t shock anyone anymore because modern listeners are so used to experimentation in music. It’s very freeing to have an audience like that.

Experimental film sound really has a long way to go before it can catch up with experimental music. This is mainly because it’s so much riskier (i.e. more expensive) to experiment in film than in music. I can make a crazy noise record for free in my bedroom but even a tiny film costs loads of money. At the end of all that work, not a lot of directors want to take sonic risks and you can’t really blame them. The conventions of film sound, work really well at keeping an audience engaged with picture and story. Still, I am interested in fixing things that aren’t broken and pressing the red button! So I’m always trying to find directors that want to take risks even if it means we might fail.

Considering your work for film and especially the examples on your website Passer Passer (congratulations on your official Sundance selection) and Sensory Overload, there’s a distinct dialogue there over their respective subjects that requires an initial concept. I assume when you write music the concept is absent. How do you approach a composition?

Exactly, the joy of music for me, is having no concept at all. I start from nothing: a found sound, a weird mood I’m in and then….a world emerges. I lose track of time completely. It doesn’t feel like anything else and is the most exciting part of the process. After a week or so, I usually figure out the whole structure of the song and the elements. This is when I go into a more pragmatic mode of producing/editing/mixing. It’s neither romantic or logical at all, just loads and loads of intense OCD work at the computer. If a concept arises, it’s usually later on in the process and often it emerges subconsciously.

I can distinguish abstracted samples that might be concurrent with your sound design technique. Can you explain how you select and process these samples?

I usually hunt for initial sounds just out of a pure aesthetic attraction. When I am further along with a few initial sounds, I will try to fill in holes by making the sounds I need with my mouth to figure out what I need next. Since I’m not using normal instruments it can be hard to figure out what is missing. My voice is often a temp track I use to root things in space until I find the proper SFX. This has lead to me sometimes keep the original voice as an effect if I get attached to it along the way. The processing part is just loads and loads of plug-ins. Right now I’m obsessed with GRM Tools, which are made by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in France. They are absolutely brilliant plug-ins made with sound designers in mind.

While we are on the subject of GRM, I know in Music Concrete it is vital to dissuade the listener from any associations that a sound may carry for her/him.  Does this have any relevance on your practise of obscuring samples?

I love music concrete but I don’t identify with any approach/philosophy. Sometimes I want things to be abstracted only because they sound cooler that way! It can just be a textural thing. Other times it’s just to get more power. If you pitch something down and really tweak the formants, you can get scary sub sounds that just grab the attention in a fascinating way. The power of found sound to me is in the variety. It’s more fun to me to turn my voice into a kick than to use a pre-packaged kick sample because…something interesting might happen along the way.

If you were to go back to your undergrad project now, what would you be able to take away with you that you’ve learnt from your own musical experiences?

Well, I used to be consumed and obsessed with the question “Why?” Why is music such a powerful force? Why do we feel the need to sit in the dark and get swept away in musical tones?  Now I’m much more interested in “How?” How can I use sound to connect with other people? How can I express really personal things in a way that could be useful to someone else? How can I act insane in a socially-acceptable way?

“Why?” is a question that often stops time. It’s a bit resistant to the flow of life. “How?” is more about moving forward through space. It’s colored by acceptance. It seems really remarkable to me that we have this chance to leave things like music behind after we die. So at this point, I just want to figure out how to do that and to try and do that well. It’s not an easy task but it’s well worth the effort.