Erika de Casier: “Sometimes when I open Ableton Live I’m blank - what the hell am I going to create?”

Erika de Casier
(Image credit: Dennis Morton)

It’s probably a sign of the uncertainty of the times that nostalgia for ’90s and ’00s sounds is rife in recent pop. Erika de Casier’s 2019 album Essentials struck a chord with listeners on a similar basis, the unapologetically wistful R&B-inspired vocals framed by a palette drawn from garage, G-Funk, house and other just-about-vintage styles.

But the Aarhus artist’s growing catalogue plays that game with significantly more warmth, unaffectedly lo-fi style and artistry than most. De Casier made her first musical outings under the auspices of Denmark’s Regelbau collective, runs her own Independent Jeep label and cycles everywhere - and that down-to-Earth, resourceful charm shines through in her musical choices.

Her second album Sensational is out now on the 4AD label and we had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with her to discuss it…

What was your earliest dabbling in music? 

“When I first began it was this shitty PC and I downloaded this program no-one knows, Magix. I don’t know if it’s still alive. I didn’t have a Mac or GarageBand. I just put these pre-made loops together and recorded rain sounds and put it all in there. Very, very low key. 

“But my interest grew because I was spending a lot of hours in this program. I Googled ‘electronic music course’ and this school came up. A school you had to move to, outside of the city, a four-month course. Very intense.

“When I started that, there were people who were already good at what they did and I was a little bit intimidated by that. But I learned very quickly and I was very interested in what I learnt. It was the first time I learned about different gear. I got my first soundcard. I gradually found what fit me.”

"I didn’t have a Mac or GarageBand. I just put these pre-made loops together and recorded rain sounds."

You said you went back to do your Masters during lockdown…

“It was cool because I got to finish my album as part of my study. I just love learning and experimenting. I love the feedback - it’s a gift. As is being able to up my skills in that area.”

You’re on your second album. Have you found that your writing process has changed, or are you in the same routine?

“I think, setup-wise, it’s basically the same. Writing-wise, I have developed as a human being. I’ve tried to make my lyrics more universal. Everyone experiences some things at some points in their lives. Because I’ve been working with the same person as on Essentials, not much changed apart from my state of mind.”

You said that when you started Essentials you were in experimental mode. Did the very specific sounds you lean towards come organically or did you have to research?

“It was very natural. I grew up with this music. I’m naturally drawn to the sounds I know and love. Sounds that bring up a nice emotion in me.”

Part of the current trend for the sounds heard in Essentials could be seen as people revisiting what they liked growing up. Was that the same for you?

“I think the thing with a lot of ’90s RnB and pop, and beginning of 2000s, is that the songs are beginning to pass the test of time. I think that some sounds stand out. Some of it is also not cool!

“When I was growing up, different things had different revivals. And it’s a very long revival by now. People aren’t finished with these sounds. And it’s not just the generation that experienced that period; the younger generation are finding out about it and making it their own. It has a new life now and it keeps living. A good way to pay homage is to reuse those sounds for something new.”

Erika de Casier

(Image credit: Dennis Morton)

Are there other areas you’d like to explore in your music-making?

“I’d really like to use real musicians. I’d love that. Because I use a lot of synthesized sounds. When Natal [Zacks aka frequent collaborator DJ Central] and I work, sometimes we bring out a bass guitar but that’s about it. But also on new stuff I’ve been making, instead of using a shaker sample I’ve used a shaker. Stuff like that.

“I think it’d be an interesting way to write the score and give it to someone to play it. It sounds basic but for me it’s new.” 

You’ve said you had quite offputting piano lessons (not unlike us, our piano teacher used to doze off mid-lesson!)?

“Everyone has this one experience that made them quit. I had a teacher who said I’d never be a great piano player. And he was coming from a classical perspective, so he was just being realistic: ‘you’re never going to be an organ player. Don’t get your hopes up.’ That’s just being real, but I took it to mean, ‘they don’t believe in me’.

“We all have these narratives where we were told once we weren’t good enough and we tell ourselves in our adult lives. It’s important to rewrite that. No, I’m still not a great pianist but music is such a big area, you can excel in other things, you can also be a great listener. Seriously. It doesn’t have to be about being Mozart. It’s a natural thing to want to create and you can do that in different ways.”

Do you ever get creative block? What are your tips to stop that?

“Sometimes when I open Ableton Live I’m blank - what the hell am I going to create? I have go-to synths and a few plugins. Instead of using different ones, get to know a VST or get to know a plugin and feel comfortable in it so that it becomes more fun.

“When you have a skill in something it’s this thing they say of having a balance of feeling good at what you do and feeling challenged. One way that you can have that skillset is in getting to know a different instrument before moving on. Even a small thing like using a sampler you know how to use, and then the challenge is finding the sample. And finding what it is about the music you’re inspired by. Then when you make music you can be like ‘I want to bring about the same feeling it is I get when I listen to the music that I love’.

“There are so many ways to get inspired. Like sometimes, if you’re just fucking around and think ‘this sounds like shit’, and then all of a sudden something gets you. Also, if you’re not feeling it, that’s fine. Always listen to what your body tells you!”

You are very much yourself but you’re also straddling the electronic music world peer-wise. Do you ever find yourself under pressure to create a certain type of music?

“When I first started making Essentials it was a need to get away from that. Because when I was making music I was trying to create something super-innovative [adopts mock-pretentious-bro tone and arm gesture]: ‘new electronic sounds that noone has heard before! It’s going to blow peoples’ minds!” and that gave me a huge creative block.

“It’s a sick pressure to put on yourself. Also, what is it to make something that’s innovative anyway? For me, it was about, what is it that’s fun to make? It will shine through and people will see that light.

“It’s OK to be inspired. I’m super-inspired by my friends - eg, something they said, something they did. If your intention is to learn, you can Google, say, Travis Scott beats and you learn how to do that, then that’s great. But not if you cut yourself out of the equation in the meantime, that’s not cool.”

We should ask about touring! You have some dates lined up… How are you feeling about it?

“It’s in the fall and the next few months I’ll be working on how that’s going to look.”

One thing that stresses me out is if I have to put everything all together before I get to make any music. No no no. I make sure that it’s set up.

So you haven’t got your luggage packed quite yet. Is touring something you enjoyed pre-Covid?

“I haven’t done a lot but it did make me aware of how things sound - ie, way too much bass here or there, for example. It makes me think when I go into the studio.

“Other than that, some songs are great for big concerts, others for clubs. You learn to adapt.”

Studio-wise, what do you use? What’s your DAW of choice?

“Door? Oh, you mean the Doow. Fuck, I’m so Danish [laughs]. I use Ableton Live and the Apollo Twin and I use an AKG mic - actually a stereo mic but I use it for vocals - the C214. And because I’m travelling right now I have this small keyboard by Arturia. It feels robust and it can handle being kicked in a suitcase [laughs].

“This is actually my travel kit because I’m travelling right now. Once I dismantle all this it takes up no space. It’s great to have kit that you can move around when you go away. But when I’m at home I obviously have my synth setup.”

What’s your studio space like?

“It’s a shared studio space with two rooms. A table, two speakers and a screen. I like that when you go along you can just plug in your laptop and go. The Apollo and the synths are just right there. Doof doof doof, ready to play.

“One thing that stresses me out is if I have to put everything all together before I get to make any music. No no no. I make sure that it’s set up.”

Is it close to your home?

“It’s like a ten-minute bike ride from my flat. The perfect distance. If it’s too close you end up going ‘right, I’m going to go home now’.”

…And, ahem, have a nap?

“Yep! It has to be that little bit far enough away. When I talk to people from London, distance-wise it’s like two hours on a train. Oh my God no. My town is small enough that it’s possible on a bike. A bike ride of 20 minutes is a long commute here!”

Have you made any studio adjustments during the lockdown period?

“My studio was closed in the first lockdown but I try to make it cosy at home, as you could see from my Boiler Room session. Lava lamps and incense sticks and things.”

Are you working on new material?

“I don’t know if it will be an album yet, but it will be an interesting process to get through this one first. Sometimes I sit down and make something and I think, ‘how the hell am I going to use this and where did it come from?’. But I love a clean slate!”

You’ve been doing bits of stuff for other people too. You’ve done remixes with big stars like Dua Lipa!

“Yeah I got the chance to remix the track Physical - that was an amazing experience. I can’t quite believe it happened sometimes.”

We can!

“Well, it’s still very blurry to me!” 

Sensational is out now on the 4AD label.

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