Raised on Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, and harbouring dreams of becoming a pop vocalist, Emma Kirby (aka Elkka) had a moment of realisation in 2016 that would transform her gruelling quest for success.
Influenced by feminist pioneers and electronic musicians such as Laurie Anderson and Imogen Heap, the artist switched to production, taking full ownership of her sound to capture the authenticity she subconsciously craved.
Snapped up by Ninja Tune’s sub-label Technicolour, Elkka’s latest EP, Euphoric Melodies, highlights the power of seizing full artistic control. Its instinctive cross-pollination of house and electronica is built from an imaginative menagerie of syncopated cut-and-paste samples and vocal snippets.
These elements bestow the EP a classic yet contemporary sound that articulates club culture’s customary sense of euphoric optimism, with more than a few interesting tricks up its sleeve.
You started as a singer/songwriter and evolved into a producer. Tell us about that journey…
“I grew up listening to pop music so my creative beginnings were traditional songwriting and singing. That’s the route I took when I started pursuing my dreams to be an artist and meant I was bouncing from session to session for a number of years.
"It was successful in some ways because I was doing quite well as a songwriter with people using my vocals on various tracks, but I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere as a solo artist. I felt quite lost to be honest and eventually hit a wall where I knew I needed to change or things wouldn’t happen the way I wanted them to.”
What was the breaking point?
“I had tickets to see Jamie xx in Brixton and was having dinner with my girlfriend before the gig when I broke down in tears and said I couldn’t go in because I felt so far removed from it all.
"The next day I started producing, which really feels like what became the beginning of my career – and thank god for that moment because it changed everything for me.”
You’ve mentioned studying Rihanna’s hit Umbrella and being encouraged by her use of preset samples?
“I was in a session, noodling about and looking for a percussion sound for a song when I stumbled across the drum loop featured on that track. It suddenly hit me that if they can use that and create something huge then why can’t I? It just shows how everything’s at your fingertips and having success doesn’t have to be some magical, impossible thing.
"There’s still certain people you listen to and wonder, god, how do they do that - and as a fan of music I’ll always love that, but it was reassuring to find that loop.”
You sampled Laurie Anderson’s O Superman on one of your early tracks. Is she an inspiring figure for you?
“Strong women have had a huge influence on my life and music. Whether it’s Gloria Steinem or Joni Mitchell, a plethora of people from different ecosystems inspire me. Laurie Anderson’s attitude to her creative pursuits really resonates.
"The energy of O Superman felt like it was saying something I couldn’t express – using samples as a way to speak my truth for me. She’s a genius.”
People may not assume that Britney or The Spice Girls are inspiring because of their pop sound, but they had a big impact on you…
“Pop can sometimes be seen as a dirty word, but if you listen to those records they’re brilliantly written songs with great production so there’s a lot to be appreciated from a songwriting and technical perspective.
"Their energy was also quite influential as a teenager - the whole ‘you can achieve anything’ ethos. I really absorbed that as a seven or eight-year-old. I can also trace back a lot of that stuff to what I like now.
"One of my favourite Britney songs is Everytime, which was produced by Guy Sigsworth who co-produced Frou Frou with Imogen Heap. Her voice and textures are brilliant and tracks like Hide and Seek are mind blowing, so if you look deep enough within pop music you can find all that crossover work.”
You’ve said musical liberation only comes when you stop giving a damn about what people think. Is that something you’d implore wannabe producers to get to grips with early?
“We’re all human and it’s very difficult to get rid of that subconscious feeling of what or whether the music you’re making is right. Wanting a binary answer to that question is something I battled with but only got clarity on when I started to produce for myself and follow my instincts.
"I’ve no problem with collaboration, but understanding what you want to convey and articulating your ideas through the language of production can only make you a stronger artist.”
Last year’s EP I. Miss. Raving was quite clubby and hypnotic, but your new EP, Euphoric Melodies, seems to go on a different tangent?
“I. Miss. Raving definitely represents a moment in time for me - it’s quite intense and clubby because going to clubs was obviously unobtainable at the time. I guess Euphoric Melodies comes more from the heart and it communicates where I’m going as a musician. We talked about following my instincts through production and this is the evolution of that.
"House is at the foundation of what I do and I love it with a passion, but I also love records that meander through different genres along the way. From that perspective, I guess it’s quite a multi-generic crossover.”
The track Morning Fuzz demonstrates a love of melody – and a more ambient sound?
“It’s really hard to know where all these ideas come from when they pour out of me, but I think my background as a songwriter shows through sometimes in my melodies because that was what I was brought into a room to do at certain points.”
As mentioned, it’s sometimes hard to perceive your music as others do, so is it valuable to get other people’s feedback on your sound?
“Feedback’s really important – if the music just sat on my laptop forever I wouldn’t grow as an artist. I really enjoy hearing what people take from it, especially if it’s different from what I hear.
"The beauty of music is that it can sound and mean so many different things to people than what your initial interpretation was and I love having that on-going conversation.”
You inferred that honing your sound has largely been intuitive. Has music production therefore become an instinctual process?
“I’m not one to premeditate what kind of record I want to make in terms of its feeling. It’s become a natural process of bouncing from one idea to another until something forms that I want to evolve further. At the creative stage, I’m literally laying down ideas that make me feel some form of emotion and I’ll take a more perfectionist approach when I’m refining and mixing.
"It’s interesting how if I listen to the EP today I still hear its many imperfections, but you have to let go of that and accept that you hear things very differently at different moments in your life.”
One of the strengths of Euphoric Melodies lies in its simplicity. Is that an accurate description of your production techniques?
“It’s difficult to take a bird’s eye view on that. It’s like hearing your own voice – it always sounds different to how other people hear it. I’m quite pleased to hear you say there’s simplicity to the sound because the music feels quite complicated when I’m working on it.
"I’m conscious of the fact that when I first started it was all about adding more and more layers, but now I feel confident enough to strip things out and let the sound breathe. But it’s a constant battle.”
Are a lot of the sounds that you’re using sample-based?
“Some of the sounds are sample-based, but it depends on the track. I’m usually listening to music when I’m out and about and have a playlist on Spotify that I keep hold of. If I hear a texture, sound or vocal in a track I’ll sample that. Sometimes I’ll start with a sample and then remove it completely, as I find that’s a great way to create something from the nucleus of an idea.”
Your approach to percussion stands out. For example, on tracks like Burnt Orange and the title track you don’t use typically percussive snare sounds?
“I do tend to move away from using traditional house music sounds and try to go for sounds that are more ‘real’, so I’m often searching for real-sounding hi-hats or percussion that have a flavour to them in some shape or form.
"Using sounds that give you an identity is something that’s resonated with me from listening to other artists. For example, Four Tet’s percussion choices always blow my mind.”
Where did the synth sounds derive from on this particular EP?
“The big synth that featured heavily on this record is actually the first one I ever bought – the Korg Minilogue. I’m a huge, huge fan of it and it’s metaphorically attached to me at all times [laughs]. I really love the warmth of the sounds that it produces and enjoy using a ‘real-life’ synth as opposed to soft synths, which are also brilliant but it just feels different creating something tangibly with hardware.”
You’re using Ableton Live as your DAW. Was that what you started with?
“Very early on I went from Cubase to Logic for a number of years but was toying with the idea of performing live with Ableton and introduced it to my setup for that purpose. I soon found that I became quite comfortable with it and realised it was a nice way to write music with a very simple and intuitive transition to becoming a production tool.
"At first I used Ableton’s standard soft synths and then I bought Native Instruments’ Komplete and got my head around sampling and sample packs to find more textures. I also got the Ableton Push 2 because it’s a really clever and versatile piece of kit and pivotal to my live setup.”
Talking of Komplete, you’ve mentioned being a fan of Absynth…
“I used to be but I’ve moved more towards using the Arturia V Collection, which has all the classic Yamaha DX7, Jupiter-8V and Prophet V emulations. That’s been my go-to VST for the past year or two because I love its warm, natural-sounding palette, whether it’s the Clavinet, Farfisa organ, Mellotron or Buchla imitations.”
Is it true to say that you’ve been coming out of the box and moving more and more towards a hardware setup?
“I visited Sam Shepherd at his Floating Points studio, which was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That was very inspiring so I thought it was maybe time to invest in some hardware and see what that’s about.
"Now I’m a little bit obsessed, so it’s probably going to be an expensive habit. I do want to keep things fairly simple though, because having too many options can be creatively stifling.”
How do you achieve that limitational balance?
“I got to a point where I became really comfortable using half a dozen software synths until they just became something I turned to naturally whenever I needed a certain kind of sound, just like I would when I turn to using my Korg Minilogue. It’s just about getting to know the gear you use and refining their sounds to suit you.”
How would you usually approach the mix stage of production?
“Someone advised me to think of it as an entirely new session and I’ve found that super helpful. Creatively, it can be quite damaging if you have every option available to you continuously, so once I’ve got things sounding how I thought I wanted them to during the writing session I’ll psychologically move onto the mixing phase.
"I do all the mixing in Ableton, so once the writing’s finished I’ll just create stems for myself and bounce them down.”
Do you prefer using software plugins rather than physical outboard?
“I still use Ableton’s basic reverb and delay and used to use Ableton’s default EQ until I discovered the FabFilter Pro-R reverb that comes with their amazing compressor and EQ plugins. It gives me so much more refinement and detail.
"With the right tools I think you can do everything within Ableton and I feel so comfortable using it now as long as I bring in the right plugins. I don’t use anything too crazy or wild on vocals; I’ll usually just lean towards a lovely metallic chorus effect.”
How important is your speaker setup?
“A little while ago I invested in some PMC DB1s on the recommendation of my friend Rupert who I have a very collaborative relationship with when it comes to mastering. I used to use KRK Rokit 5s, but now I only really use those for DJing and testing tracks out.
"My PMCs will be with me for life but I should probably do more with my room – the speakers are opposite a window, which is a big no-no. It’s something I’ll look into, but I’m used to my space and worrying about that sort of thing can be a barrier to just getting on with making music.”
You started your own label Femme Culture to champion women in the arts and promote inclusivity. What aspects of the industry still require change?
“Progress is being made, but when you look at festival line-ups there are still visible issues there. Statistically, the amount of non-binary female producers is minimal, so we’re still far from equality.
"The purpose of setting up the label was to contribute to that in some shape or form and I hope producers from marginalised communities are realising that people are trying to create a space for them.”
Have you found that people have been making music as an escape during the pandemic, and has that applied to you?
“One positive that’s come from this weird time is that people have had a moment to pause and reflect on whether they might want or be able to DJ or produce and had the time to pursue it.
"I did a mentorship scheme workshop with Scuffed Recordings for people in the early stages of their production career and came out of that really hopeful that they saw it as an avenue.
"Personally, I’m working on getting back to playing live, starting with Printworks in October with Jon Hopkins, Modeselektor and Apparat, and hopefully doing a tour of my own towards the end of the year. I’m really optimistic that I’ll be able to allow these tracks to live outside of my studio and enjoy them with other people.”