“I really should have been here five years ago, producing my own music,” states Laura Bettinson, the 33 year-old Rugby-born artist whose marked successes in the guises of FEMME, and as one third of Ultraísta, haven’t stopped her from deviating her focus on becoming a completely self-sufficient composer, producer and performer.
Laura’s infectious debut as FEMME, Educated, was the first of many stunningly off-kilter pop bangers, while her side-project Ultraísta, alongside Radiohead’s mighty producer Nigel Godrich and REM/Beck player Joey Waronker, serves as an ongoing experimental musical vehicle, and yielded a second record right on the cusp of lockdown last year.
Now adopting the new moniker of lau.ra - and dropping some sublime new releases at a rapid rate (such as the irresistible Don’t Waste My Time and the hypnotic I’ll Wait), Bettinson explains to us how she’s taken complete control of every stage of the music-making process.
Taking it right back to the beginning, when did you first discover your affinity for music, and how did that lead you to starting your career?
“Well, I trained my voice by imitating other pop stars when I was growing up. I grew up in a small town in the Midlands and there wasn’t that much music coming through there, but I was exposed to a lot of mainstream pop. So I learned to sing from copying people that I saw. I started writing my own music from about the age of 16. At that stage it was all just piano and voice.
“It wasn’t until I moved to London at age 18 that I discovered live electronic music, and realised that I didn’t have to take a piano to gigs. I could just get everything into a suitcase and start messing around with loop stations and samplers.
"I began compiling loads of loops from free sample websites and putting them into this little loop station, so at that stage I’d build my tracks over them.
“A couple of years into that I met Nigel Godrich. He’d heard about my solo show and was very intrigued by it. So we became friends, and then the band Ultraísta started with him and Joey.
"I then launched myself as FEMME, which I think was an antidote to Ultraísta in some ways. I’d never grown up with a desire to be in bands; Ultraísta is amazing, but it’s very collaborative. There is a lot of compromise from everybody to get to where we need to be creatively. Off the back of that I decided to go full throttle with pop.
“I thought I was making pop, but listening to it now it’s actually pretty alternative. So I did that for a few years which was really enjoyable, but the last 18 months or so, I’ve really enjoyed flexing my muscles more as a producer.”
What was it that initiated that shift into being entirely self-sufficient, and re-labelling yourself as lau.ra?
"It wasn’t until around 2018 that I went to Miami music week and I saw just how much fun DJs were having, playing this stuff they’d made and touring with just a piece of hand luggage. I was very impressed and thought that’s where I needed to be. It was the answer to all my prayers as an independent artist.
“As soon as I started DJing more, it started to bleed into what I was doing more of in the studio. When I was in Miami I discovered more bouncy, fun tech house music. I kind of consciously wanted to combine some of that with a UK flavour, and a little bit of that French electro, glitchy unexpected stuff.
Turning to the tech side of things, what gear would you say is the cornerstone of your work in the guise of lau.ra?
“To be honest, I can make a banging tune with very little equipment. A laptop and a USB keyboard, with a set of headphones is all I need to get working. I’ve never been that hung up on getting loads of gear.
“I have a little Yamaha CS-5 which I use for bass sounds quite a lot, that I couldn’t live without. I have a little Korg Minilogue synth here too which is perfect for me as it’s small and fits nicely on my desk!
“I really don’t like faff, actually, so I have a few choice vocal mics that I’ve been enjoying and use a lot. Aston mics are really affordable and high quality. I don’t really get a lot of the elitism that comes with gear a lot of the time. I’ve never had that much of a budget to spend, and I’ve never really lusted after gear, because my restrictions of the gear that I used informed the sound that I was making.
Laura is hopeful that the imminent re-opening of live venues can level the playing field.
“I actually think we have a unique opportunity to support more home-grown talent, especially in dance music,” she tells us. “Over the last five years, the same names were on every club line-up in three different countries every weekend. There really wasn’t much room for anyone new to come through. I think now with the travel restrictions, it presents a unique opportunity, once venues re-open, to have a bit of space to come through. Especially for women and black DJs, and queer artists. I hope we don’t go too quickly back to the same 12 white guys, who are on every single line-up every weekend.”
“Don’t get me wrong - given the time and the money, there’s a long list of synths that I would love. With the kinds of basslines that I write, like the one in Wicked, for example, you need to be doing those on analogue synths really. It’s not quite the same to do it all in software. There’s definitely more punch with the real deal. But I’m happy to live within my restrictions – I actually think that it makes me more creative, to have less stuff.
“I work in Logic. When I first started producing music about ten years ago, I used Cubase on a pretty crap PC laptop. I think I was only using that for about half a year before I moved over to Logic. I’ve been using it ever since then.”
How about synths; do you have an extensive collection of soft synths?
“I’ve not used it for a while but NI’s Reaktor in Kontakt is something that I quite enjoy using. It was always my go-to for bass sounds.
"Recently I’ve been enjoying the Arturia Analog Lab. It’s got some amazing emulations of Prophets and classic analogue synths. I’ve been enjoying using their stuff. I will also still occasionally use Massive. There’s one sound in particular in there, the B-Low 2 preset, which adds quite an effective 808 sound.”
Is there anything else you want to complete your setup?
“I do collect a lot of plugins and sample packs and keep refreshing that side of things more than hardware. Most of my work is chopping up audio. I work with drum samples and chopped-up bass loops that I’ve found, or bass performances that I’ve recorded in someone else’s studio.
“In terms of actual hardware, I’m not all that interested really. I should be more, especially now I have a new studio space. I need some new monitors and a new compressor.
"I use Focal CMS65 monitors, which I love. I’ve also got a pair of NS10s that I use for reference.”
So with that plethora of samples, we assume you’ve got jam-packed hard-drives?
“Yeah, well I mean I have my favourite samples obviously. For the lau.ra music, I’ve really enjoyed creating my own sonic signature where I will use the same kick sample, the same percussion samples and very distinctive sounds, with the hope that someone will hear a track and know it’s me. That’s good for me, that’s the calling card I want. A production signature.
“My first single Sideways in February last year really set me on that path - it was just the right combination of left-field weirdness and a very hooky vocal. That set me on the current path. But yeah, I’ve been using the same kick and snare in every track!
“There are so many options. I always say to new producers coming up, if you find something you like, just stick with it. Find something that is working for you. If it stops working, then move on. I’ve really enjoyed having my own personal song-starter I guess!”
You’re well regarded for using your voice as an instrument, is there a particular technique that you tend to employ when mixing your vocals?
“Yeah, for sure. It’s different in different contexts depending on what I’m writing for. Certainly in my own music, I will approach my voice as a sample, as an instrument. I’ll sing something - usually nonsense - chop it up and get the best bits out of it, then start constructing the track around that.
“Ultraísta is a bit different to that. There are a lot of quite complex vocal loops that serve as the initial blocks that I start writing the melodies from. A lot of the time we’ve recorded them live, during improvised sessions. Nigel will then go and grid it, and sort it out basically.
“It usually develops from there, but every single Ultraísta track, especially on the new record, began life as a jam. The majority of which started several years ago.
“When I’m writing top line for other artists, that is a bit more traditional, in the sense that I will be a bit more hands off with the production. You’re working with another creative vision and you have to allow space for them to do what they want to do with it.
"So I never get too precious about what they want to do with it. I just try and get a great vocal and a great lyric and send it off into the world to see how they want to use it. There are different approaches for different contexts.”
The Ultraìsta record Sister was released just before the pandemic. It’s a really fascinating record, as well as being a long-awaited follow-up to the debut. What accounted for that gap?
“Life I think! The blessing and the curse of Ultraísta is that there is no pressure on it. It might be very different if we were three upstarting musicians who needed that to be our main focus, but realistically Nigel and Joey are very well-established in their careers, doing other things, and I’ve been working hard doing my thing. Getting us all together in the same country, never mind setting aside the time to actually achieve anything is really hard, and usually very expensive!
“It’s slow going with that, and a lot of Sister was started right after we finished the first record, back in 2012. We had a lot of it kind of mapped out.
"Then years went by, and Radiohead records were made, Thom Yorke records were made and Nigel’s focus was on those. I was doing my thing, too - I had my entire FEMME career during the span between album number one and two.
“There was a lot of time that went past, and I’ve no idea when we’re going to make any more music - it could be another decade.
“One thing I really appreciate about working in Ultraísta is that it’s so different to what I do on my own. It really is the culmination of those three creative brains. Mine, Joey and Nigel’s input. I couldn’t make that kind of music without those two people. It’s a nice thing to dip in and out of.
“It’s strange because the last time we put out a record, there were so many natural disasters that stopped us from touring. Then this time we put out a record and a fucking pandemic hits. We’re destined not to do any touring. If you’ve ever seen an Ultraísta show live you’re really lucky, they don’t happen very often.”
How has the Covid-19 pandemic, and lockdown, affected your creative process?
“Well I’ve just moved house, so I’m still in the process of setting up my new home studio. I’ve always had a studio in my house which, before the pandemic, I was questioning whether I should do away with - to try and distance work from home life.
“Then the pandemic hit and I was so grateful for having my studio in my house because then my workflow wasn’t disrupted at all. If anything, I’ve found myself being much more productive because I haven’t had the distractions and crap that comes along with being an artist. All of the stuff that breaks the creative flow disappeared and I’ve been able to really treat my music-making as a job.
“I get here at 10am every day, make a load of tunes, walk the dogs at 4pm, maybe do a couple of hours more work on music then that’s it. I do the same the next day. I’ve written so much music. It’s so productive compared to what it was like before. Especially when you’re touring. Studio time was just precious. I’ve actually enjoyed the pandemic in many ways.”
Are you finding that you miss the live experience, and getting there as a performer and a DJ?
“I’m more focused on DJing now rather than performing per se, that’s what I miss. I thought that I would miss the ritual of getting dressed up, stepping out on stage and seeing people appreciating the melodies and tracks that you’d written yourself - that is very special. But actually, I don’t at all - it’s a kick for me to be able to make music in the afternoon in my studio, mix it to a good enough level, slap a limiter on the end of it, master it in a rudimentary kind of way, put it on a USB stick and see how it connects with a room full of people. I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
What advice would you give to anyone looking to have a career like yours?
“I’d say just get on with it. I appreciate my journey, going through pop and stuff like that helped me to arrive where I’m at, but I really should have been here five years ago. Producing my own music.
"Equally the reason I didn’t end up here earlier was that I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me growing up in Rugby in the Midlands. It was so long before I saw a woman in a technical role, let alone a woman producing her own music. Even when I was doing pop songwriting sessions, it was always a bloke sitting in front of the computer. So it never really occurred to me that I could really be doing that myself.
“Ultimately, I just got so frustrated with stuff not sounding the way I wanted it. I needed to learn how to do this myself. That’s what really set me off on this path. I hope, moving forwards, that we’re going to have more women in technical roles, inspiring people to do it a bit more themselves.
“I always try and speak to school kids and say ‘just get on with it, and don’t be intimidated by all the bullshit that surrounds it’.
“What’s amazing about technology now is that you really can make a hit record with just a laptop, a tiny USB controller and a USB mic probably. There are no rules anymore. So, be bold!"
Mixing it up
Lau.ra’s skills as a remixer have been acknowledged by the MPG this year, as she has been nominated for a prestigious gong. We asked her to detail her general remixing process, and how it feels to be nominated?
“It was quite a nice surprise to get the MPG nomination,” Bettinson enthuses. “Ever since I’ve had that nomination I’ve been doing more and more. I’ve had eight remix projects since January this year.
"I always enjoy doing them, and it’s been good this year in the wake of the pandemic, being unable to tour. It’s a really nice way to connect with other artists across genres that I wouldn’t usually be in touch with.
"In terms of how I approach them, it’s not that different to how I approach writing a track from scratch to be honest. I will usually always isolate the vocal or lead instrument first, then start to pick the hooks and samples out of that. That’s usually the starting point. I’ll then map it out a little bit, next stage is programming a beat and a bassline.
“I’m really consciously trying to make the most banging tunes using as little musical information as possible. It’s something that actually I learned from a lot of those tech house producers.
"Someone I’ve recently ended up on a record with is Chris Lake, who’s an amazing producer. I would play a lot of his songs in my DJ sets because they’re just so ‘anti-music’ sometimes. There’s really not a lot of melody in them, but you play them in a DJ set and everyone just loses their mind for it. I wanted to make some stuff like it. But not throw the kitchen sink at it. Make sure that every instrument in the mix serves a purpose, and be really meaty.”