Vinyl Creators—An Interview with Sofie Birch
Vinyl creators is a new monthly feature focusing on contemporary creativity influenced and inspired by vinyl records. After fanning out over Sofie Birch’s excellent new album, Holotropica, we got in touch with the celebrated Copenhagen-based ambient artist and NTS Radio resident, hoping she might be up for telling us more about her revitalizing, vinyl-inspired sound. Our prayers were answered and she was kind enough to take us on an inspiring tour through some of her favorite records.
Interview and text: Ulrik Nørgaard
Photos: Nikolaj Møller
A contemporary Scandinavian cathedral. An illuminated sanctuary. A place where someone who’s very particular about records and music lives. Entering Sofie Birch’s airy Nørrebro apartment on a sunny late-summer day in September prompts a range of inviting associations. The space pretty much resembles an apartment inhabited by a critically acclaimed ambient artist who just transformed her new album into an ambitious performance piece at the National Gallery of Denmark. Except more down-to-earth and liberated from any sense of posturing and/or the flexing of cultural capital that so often haunts the creative, urban haunt.
That seems to be a running theme with Sofie Birch; despite the generous amount of praise heaped upon her latest album Holotropica, an immersive musical environment that even functions as aural therapy for some listeners, Sofie remains remarkably matter-of-fact and unostentatious about the nature of her artistry. From her spontaneous production process, to her vinyl-only DJ mixes for NTS radio, the Danish artist is self-effacingly self-assured in her unconventional creative vision—which might go a long way towards explaining why her sound is so tantalizingly original.
We trudged up the considerable amount of stairs within Sofie’s Copenhagen apartment block to meet a friendly, generous and patient artist with informed opinions on just about anything her interviewers could throw at her—from questions about side-stepping the musical establishment and her empathetic creative vision, to the holistic state of mind that inspired Holotropica and, lastly, how her love of vinyl influences her wave-making creativity.
We kicked things off by listening to some records.
Could you start out by telling us a little bit about your record shelf?
We don’t have a TV, but we have our turntable. Our vinyl shelf is divided into the weird, the ordinary and ‘hygge’. So there’s pop & rock, lounge music, and bossa, among other things.
What’s the weird stuff?
My boyfriend loves Venetian Snares and that sort of thing. There’s also breakcore and other stuff you listen more intently to instead of just putting it on. In the ordinary section there’s Boards of Canada…which is kind of weird to me, to be honest, because I have a hard time seeing them as ordinary. But there’s Jon Hopkins, Boards of Canada. In the more vibey section we have Stereolab and Wagon Christ. These guys (holds up a Kruder & Dorfmeister record) and Cujo, the alias of Amon Tobin.
When did you first get interested in sound and music?
I guess I’ve always had a very clear idea about what it means to be a musician. I started out playing the guitar and singing when I was in school. And I thought that you had to attend The Royal Danish Academy of Music and be in a band—which is something I wasn’t really comfortable with in my early 20s. Adding to that, I wasn’t really interested in musical theory or learning to play scales and that kind of thing. Which meant that I categorized myself as a person who wasn’t good enough to be a musician. So I applied to Sonic College, which is a broader education, and it was really nice to be in a place where sound was the most important element. It felt more free. And I learned so much and acquired so many tools for producing through that education. Even in terms of hardware, like building speakers and things like that. When I graduated from Sonic College I felt like I’d been reset. It made me realize that there’s a lot of different ways to approach sound.
Would you have been a different artist if you’d gotten a more traditional music education?
I think so. I’m more free, in a sense. But I guess I’m also more paralyzed in other ways. At SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark), I was practicing the performance with Johan Carøe and Nanna Pi, and we were rehearsing my music but they’re the ones having the discussion about what key the music is in (laughs). In those kinds of situations, I’m left out of the discussion and of course it would be nice if those tools were available to me, but to be honest I’m so grateful for the openness and curiosity i developed towards creating music. I’ve developed my own tools to enter music creation, and I feel very free to use my senses, ears and taste to navigate.
‘..ambient music is, in its essence, this sensation of being in a space. In other genres, you often create these characters or idolize someone, but in ambient it’s much more about creating musical spaces and environments.’
You recently turned your latest album Holotropica into a performance at SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark)—could you describe some of the thoughts behind the performance?
Well, there were a lot of thoughts behind Holotropica, which was several years in the making, so it's a pretty good reflection of the process I was going through at the time. Having a project where the scenography is central to the expression was something I’d been wanting to explore for a while. I think ambient music lends itself well to that kind of unfolding because ambient music is, in its essence, this sensation of being in a space. In other genres, you often create these characters or idolize someone, but in ambient it’s much more about creating musical spaces and environments. So I thought that idea was perfect for SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark).
I wanted to explore if you can engage more senses with a performance. I also think it’s really exciting to work with other people who have ambition and a certain vision, and I think it’s important to create these spaces where people can destress. You have to be a little mindful of the words you use when entering the topic of spirituality because I guess it can sound a little…I don’t know, preachy or made up, or something. But creating restorative spaces where people are allowed to go into themselves through an experience of art—that’s my vision. And that’s the vision we created at SMK (The National Gallery of Denmark).
Could you describe your creative process—do you have a set way of going about it?
Running counter to the way that I like to work when I DJ and perform, which is to work within these cumbersome obstructions like vinyl and hardware, I like to keep my production process as easy and free-flowing as possible. With vinyl and hardware everything is just really inconvenient. It’s heavy and hard to carry vinyl on a plane and it’s hard to get the sound right with hardware and so on. But there’s just something about using those elements that I really like. But when I’m sitting in front of my computer producing my music, I think it’s amazing to not have any rules and just go with whatever’s easy.
So it’s a process where things happen organically?
Yes, and that’s because I believe in not over-producing things. To me, the music becomes much more present when there’s not too many afterthoughts and considerations involved.
‘..if I'm hearing a lot of flute or bongos or whatever in what I play in my mix, it makes me realize that I’d like more of that vibe in my own music.’
Does playing vinyl have an impact on your creativity?
The music I play in my mixes can also have an effect on the process. It’s sort of a reference point for me because if I’m hearing a lot of flute or bongos or whatever in what I play in my mix, it makes me realize that I’d like more of that vibe in my own music.
What’s your main source of inspiration?
Hearing other people’s music is a major source of inspiration for me. For example, the music we’re listening to now, I can go: ‘Wow, it’s amazing to have a bell with a marimba’, or something. I love that process of being inspired by a certain sound and then finding out how it sounds when I turn it into my own thing. Because it always turns into something else. In that sense, listening to vinyl records is a pretty good obstruction, if you can call it that, because it creates an area that I can navigate in.
It sounds like you don’t necessarily have the same way of getting inspired that more traditionally-minded musicians do?
That’s a really good question, actually. I’ve never had this burning passion for or fascination with a single artist. I do listen to albums from start to finish, and I get interested in certain elements when I listen to other artists, but I don’t think I ever get taken with their entire expression. I’m more into synthesizing little parts of everything I hear into my own expression.
‘I often get people contacting me or coming over after one of my shows saying my music has started a healing process for them or even lifted them out of a depression.’
As an artist, you’re interested in the healing potential of sound: could you elaborate on that potential—how does sound heal?
It was actually making music that opened my eyes to the healing potential of music and sound. When I graduated from Sonic College, I started making music for cartoons and other projects, and I built up a collection of music that didn't really fit into any category. I then discovered ambient music—relatively late in my mid-20s—and realized that some of this music was made with the express purpose of healing. Since then, I’ve realized that my music can actually have this effect on my listeners. I often get people contacting me or coming over after one of my shows saying my music has started a healing process for them.
Yeah, it’s crazy. I’ve also had people coming over after one of my shows saying my music got them out of depression. That’s extremely valuable to me.
Are you mindful of the fact that you’re making healing art when you’re writing your music—do you intentionally set out to create sounds that heal your audience?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I think I’ve gotten to a place where I trust my instincts when I’m making music. When you start out, it’s often a case of trying to sound like someone else. Now I totally trust my own taste. I see myself as an artist now whereas before I thought it was a bit of fun or just this craft that I was doing. It’s gotten to a place where it’s just more me. It’s very intuitive. In terms of the healing aspect, when I make music it reflects my own healing process, and my own process in life, the things I’ve learnt. And I’m really just deep in that process whenever I’m working on the music, so that kind of intention doesn’t go into it.
‘..the fact that I only play records forces me to actually be present during the hour that I’m recording my mix.’
What’s your favorite physical music format and why?
It’s definitely vinyl. I’ve actually released quite a few tapes—but I’m not that excited about them. Not really excited about tape as a format. I don’t think the aesthetic experience is that great. First of all, it’s too small to use as a vehicle for exploring visual ideas. Yeah, I don’t know. It just feels like a piece of plastic, to be honest. Whereas vinyl is vinyl. It has this nice big surface. I come from a vinyl culture as well. I mean, when I was a kid CD-mania was everywhere. I’m probably not that good at treating the vinyl like it should be treated—there was an incident when I did this NTS mix on video, and there was a guy who commented that the way I treated vinyl should be outlawed. That made me blush a little. But I don’t know, I guess I like these little imperfections that come with vinyl. For example, if I’m doing a radio mix and the record has a scratch, maybe that can make people go ‘Oh, okay, we’re actually listening to records.’ I also think it’s nice that I’m making an effort. If I did everything digitally it would be very easy to make a mix. I could just skim tracks I like on Bandcamp, throw the whole thing into Live, crossfade them together and then maybe pitch correct here and there. But the fact that I only play records forces me to actually be present during the hour that I’m recording my mix.
What’s your favorite record in the world right now?
An annoying thing about me is that I'm really bad at remembering other artists' names. It’s all very visual to me, so I picture a cover in front of me. It’s a problem when I have to write tracklists for mixes and look up names for everything. I find that so extremely dull. But these are all my ambient records (point to the shelf). This is a nice record (holds up vinyl). I really like this guy called Steven Halpern who composed music in the 1970s with the express purpose of healing his listeners.
What’s your go-to piece of music hardware?
That would be my Octatrack. It’s really cool—hold on, I’ve been meaning to get a new suitcase for storage— Here it is: The Octatrack, my sampler. This is sort of ‘my brain’ when I’m on stage because I don’t have a computer. It’s great because you can play longer field recordings. It’s a machine that I’m still learning to use and I’m sure that I can use for years to come while getting to grips with new functions and features. You can use it as a drum machine because it has a sequencer, so that’s something I’d like to dive into.
‘…biking around Copenhagen and listening to records is amazing and I have no problem spending an entire day doing that.’
Where do you find inspiration for your NTS show?
I usually take a trip around the record stores in Copenhagen. It’s always nice to go to Proton Records because Anders knows what I like. I’ve never really gone to Christian d’Or’s shop before, but it’s great and it has a really nice atmosphere. So yeah, biking around Copenhagen and listening to records is amazing and I have no problem spending an entire day doing that.
Does time exist in the imagined place that is Holotropica?
Holotropica is less about creating 3-minute tracks that you flick through and more about creating this space that you can enter into and be yourself. I think maybe it’s a space that isn’t about defining, and it leaves room for different ways of being within the space. I just discovered the true power of meditating when I began composing this album and I was inspired to work with the idea of meditation as a quiet eye of the storm that everyone can step into. I found this space within myself where there was insight and overview. That’s a space that I keep coming back to. A space that I will keep investigating and collect superpowers from.
Holotropica by Sofie Birch is out now on interCourse. Buy it at your local record store.