Laurel Halo Talks "Atlas" and Her Cinematic Timbres

Photos by Norrel Blair, courtesy of the artist.

Laurel Halo.
Laurel Halo. Photo by Norrel Blair, courtesy of the artist.

Laurel Anne Chartow (aka Laurel Halo) burst onto the scene in 2012, when her debut album Quarantine was issued by influential London IDM label Hyperdub. Built around introspective lyrics, unprocessed vocals, and musique concréte-indebted synthesis, it’s one of my favorite albums ever made. Stumbling upon the record as a high schooler allowed me to find the beauty in similarly overcast albums, like Burial’s Untrue and Radiohead’s Kid A—records whose kindred sense of world-weariness initially went over my head.

In the years since Quarantine, Halo has leaned into an exciting penchant for restlessness. Her second album, 2013’s Chance Of Rain, is largely instrumental, blurring the lines between avant-classical and left-field dance music. 2017’s Dust melds bleary jazz and ambient, while the Livity Sound-issued Hodge collab, Tru / Opal / The Light Within You, is an EP of propulsive techno bangers. An equally gifted club DJ and experimentalist, Halo is one of the most admirably dexterous artists to ever emerge in the world of electronic music.

Halo–a Detroit native–has bounced around a lot over the course of her career. She first moved to New York City in the late 2000s, before relocating to Berlin, where she lived for almost a decade. She recently settled in Los Angeles after joining the Composition and Experimental Sound Practices faculty at California Institute of the Arts.

Although it didn’t come to life in California, Halo’s new album, Atlas, is united by an appropriate essence of warmth—her most immediately beautiful release to date. Across 10 tracks, she uses digital and organic orchestral tones to imagine a loose, surrealistic world. With guest features from artists including Coby Sey and Lucy Railton, the album plays like it emerged from the heart of a floral-scented cloud.

Atlas calls to mind the score to some hypothetical neo-noir film set in a bucolic slice of countryside. Halo is open about the influence that cinema had on this batch of tracks as we chat over Zoom. She’s calling in from a friend’s wood-paneled recording studio, wearing an NTS Radio T-shirt that says “I’m a great listener.” Over the course of our conversation, we discuss a myriad production techniques, Halo’s new label Awe, digging for dance tracks, and much more.

Laurel Halo's "Belleville" from her 2023 album Atlas.

I love the new record, and to me it feels like your most intricate and lush album yet. I’m curious if we can start out talking about the composition and recording processes, and dive into what it was like working with a big orchestral setup for the first time.

So, this record is sort of a mix of ambient sounds, cinematic sounds, musique concrète sounds, and jazz piano. And I think these were all sounds that I was just listening to at the time when I was making the record. I had a natural inclination to pose the question, “what would they sound like if they were all brought together in this beautiful, alchemical mess?”

I’ve listened to all of your music extensively, and this is the one that feels the most orchestral. I’m curious if I’m correct in that? What drew you to those sounds and how was it working with so many classical tones?

I would say this record has a sound that is about fantasy and dream logic, and how the two encounter and connect with reality. And the “uncanny” orchestra, or “impossible” or “imaginary” orchestra that you might hear on the record is a combination of string libraries, synth, sound design, as well as some acoustic improvisation and orchestration in the mix. I had already started exploring these kinds of sounds previously, perhaps on the Possessed soundtrack or Raw Silk Uncut Wood. But this is maybe the first example in my catalog where I’m teasing out ideas of harmony in an orchestral palette.

Could you talk a little bit about what your process for using those samples was like, and what sample libraries you were using?

A lot of the record started off as these peaceful ambient beds that I’d recorded on a Nord Lead 4 or a Moog One, and they almost sort of exist as these planes; planes of becoming; planes of texture—sort of the basis for modal harmonic exploration. On top of that, I would sit at my workstation and improvise these orchestral VST harmonic passages, or improvise piano, or layers of violin. And you’ll hear in some of the tracks that the ambient plane disappears, and it just becomes strings. Or vice versa—the strings go away and the sandstorm comes back.

For the orchestral beds I primarily used Spitfire. And then on top of my own playing I recorded some violin from James Underwood and cello from Lucy Railton. In terms of production I played a lot with pitch and general sculpting to create multiple voices or to explore ideas of consonance or dissonance. I had a residency at the INA-GRM where I was able to run stems through beautiful saturation on a Studer D19 Mic Valve, or through a Serge Modular ring mod & delay signal chain. Also I had a Publison DHM 89 at my disposal to create wonderful broken loops, as well as a Studer A807 tape machine to pitch parts in realtime. So it was a fun challenge, to figure out how to blend the acoustic and synthetic, and how to have the acoustic sounds multiply and become unreal, to become part of this imaginary orchestra.

You mentioned that you’re pulling from themes of fantasy with Atlas, and I’m curious if there was a specific fantasy that I should have in mind while listening to the record.

I think the album sounds simultaneously like running away and running towards. I think it sounds like when you stare at a mountain that has been on Earth a lot longer than you.

Atlas is being billed as an ambient-jazz album, but I hear a lot of classical on it. How do you feel like you merge left-field contemporary music with more ancient tones?

I tend to lean on modal improvisation, creating chords and cadences around a tone or a drone. And that approach of course manifests in jazz, but also in western medieval or Renaissance music, as well as various music traditions around the world, it’s present everywhere. I’m not doing anything new in relying on a center tone to create departures and returns.

So maybe that’s an explanation. I’ve been touring the record live recently in Europe with cellist Leila Bordreuil, who teases me when my playing leans too romantic or dramatic, which is to say when the big octave or chord splashes come out. Meditative modal improv shouldn’t be too expressivo or “Rachmaninoff” on the piano (laughs).

Coby Sey’s vocals on “Belleville” are processed in such a beautiful way. I keep listening to that part of the song over-and-over. I’m selfishly curious how you created those sounds.

The vocal stack in that moment is a mix of me and Coby. The original “Belleville” track was a one-take recording, and in that specific moment in the original recording I sang alongside the piano. The track sounded cool enough that way, like a lo-fi demo with the raw vocal in the stereo stem. But I thought it would sound interesting – especially considering these concepts of playing with fantasy versus reality – to have this moment where this vocal would be fleshed out or “realized” within the context of additional harmony, and in doing so interrupt the reality of the original recording, while at the same time sounding more “real” than the piano recording aspect of the track. Or mixing senses of lo-fi and hi-fi, essentially. So I improvised various vocal lines, took the best ones and sent them to Coby to try singing around. And he sang them much better than I ever could. And then there was also some cello in there; a lot of pitch-shifting; a lot of delay. It’s also one of my favorite moments on the record, but it’s only about three or four seconds long.

I feel like that’s part of why it’s so cool, though. It’s this brilliant-sounding thing that’s just kind of there and then it’s gone.

It’s funny, too, because it sounds pretty effortless and smooth when it happens. But there was a lot of work that went into the creation of just that one moment.

Yeah, it’s sick.

The title track from Laurel Halo's 2018 album Raw Silk Uncut Wood.

You’ve moved around a lot in your career, and Atlas is the first album you’ve released as someone who lives in Los Angeles. I’m curious if you feel like life in a new place has impacted your art at all.

Yeah, of course. I think we can’t help but be impacted by our surroundings. I finished the music before I moved to LA, between Berlin, London, Paris and Detroit. But the album cover, album title and track titles all came after I moved to LA. As a musician who has traveled quite a bit in the past 10 years, to move to somewhere that feels like the end of the earth - at least compared to more connected European cities - does cause me to ask a lot of questions and evaluate what I have done and where I want to go in the future.

You have some touring coming up, and I’m curious to hear how you’re going to bring Atlas to life on stage. Or, are you not going to bring it to life on stage and do something else live?

I’m currently on the first leg of the Atlas live tour in Europe with Leila Bordreuil. Our last gig in EU is tomorrow in Germany, and then we have a month-long break until tour resumes in the US. So far it’s been a mix of me on piano and electronics, with Leila on cello and amp, and general FX processing across both sound sources.

The last thing you put out was a soundtrack to the 2018 video essay, Possessed. I feel like it has a similar quality to Atlas, in that they’re both very cinematic. And the way you were describing making the new record sounds a lot like film composition to me, in some regards. I’m curious if you feel like that record impacted this one.

I do think that there is a cinematic drive or undertow to Atlas. You can’t help but hear it when you hear the strings in the title-track. It has that Wim Wenders “in the desert” feeling, maybe a sense of loss and returning to source.

Backtracking, you said this one was inspired by some films. I’m curious if what movies or directors come to mind as inspirations.

I’ve been talking about this a lot, but I have been greatly inspired by the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I’m a big fan of Agnès Varda. I absolutely adore, not necessarily the films, but the scores by Popul Vuh for a few of Werner Herzog’s films, such as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo or Herz aus Glas score. I really love the Giovanni Fusco scores for Antonioni’s films L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso. Going back to the fantasy palette, I do love the scores of Joe Hisaishi for Miyazaki’s films. Or Ghost In The Shell, obviously, like every single electronic artist I know. (laughs)

Cool, yeah. I can definitely draw a lot of parallels between Atlas and the movies and composers that you just named. I don’t think I realized how much it sounds like a score until this interview, but it definitely does. I think that’s one of my favorite things about Atlas. It feels a lot different.

On the record there is this element of the music telling a story, but what that story is exactly is a bit unclear. Maybe it’s for the listener to make up that story for themselves. I think if there’s anything that makes it slightly different from my previous catalog, it’s that it has a romantic feeling. Not necessarily a “personal drama feeling” or a “love feeling,” but rather the musical essence of what romance might sound like.

Atlas is the first record on your label Awe. I’m curious if you can talk about launching your label, and if you have anything else lined up or if it’s mostly going to be a home for your own music.

The point of starting Awe was to create a platform to collaborate and to work with other artists, and to expand outside of the artist narrative. I plan to make more records in the future, but I think the beauty of having a label is that you can create this aesthetic home and then invite collaborators in, or invite friends in. And then just start to create this fabric or language or ecosystem that doesn’t exist elsewhere. And the fact that I have made friends over the years from different scenes—it felt like it made sense.

It is a challenge for me because it’s a lot of behind the scenes work. But it’s worth it to me. It just seems like the way forward for many artists, which seems like it’s already happening—everyone has their own Bandcamp, traditional notions of path and access have changed. It seems like artists have a lot more agency now than ever before. The notion that artists should be “in the clouds”, which is to say not having transparent access to information, seems outdated.

I think there’s a lot of parallels between what you just said and what I contend with every day as a journalist in 2023. I hear you there, and I’m excited to see what else the label has coming.

I’m excited to present new work on Awe in the future. T-shirts, too. (laughs)

Laurel Halo's "Thaw", from her 2012 debut album Quarantine.

Backtracking in your career a bit: Quarantine is one of my favorite albums ever. I discovered it in high school, and I think it really encouraged me to go down a rabbit hole of music that I would have found off-putting previously. One of my favorite things about it is how it’s a really dissonant and beautiful album at the same time. I’m curious if you can talk about some of the more dissonant sounds on that record, specifically stuff like the noise section at the beginning of “Thaw.” How did you make those sounds?

It’s electronic music, so the vast majority of the sounds on that record came from synths, samples and sound design. That might have been layers of some VSTs and real synths but I’m not entirely sure, it’s been so long at this point. I remember having access to an Eventide H8000 which was put to good use on the track “Wow” on that record.

It’s really touching to me that Quarantine had this lasting power, because it’s also kind of a naive record. Maybe it’s DNA exists on all my releases in some way.

On a similar note – and it’s kinda dumb – but do you feel like your relationship with that album changed at all after living through a real quarantine?

It’s interesting, because the sound design on that record is pretty interior. There is this kind of claustrophobic, straightjacket, sky’s-falling-down-on-you kind of feeling, with the atmospheres or textures on that record. I occasionally revisit it, and it was certainly interesting to re-listen in the context of an actual quarantine. I think that I did manage to articulate feelings of confinement on that record, and some people have been, like, “she’s ahead of her time,” or whatever. It is very funny to have called a record Quarantine in 2012, and then to experience that on a global scale in 2020, eight years later.

Another album that I’ve spent a lot of time with in your discography is Raw Silk Uncut Wood. I’m a big fan, and that record – and honestly just a lot of your music on a broader level – feels shifty and fluid. But it’s built on classical sounds. Do you feel like those sounds are something you create through gear and production techniques, or do you think that things like, say, rapid fire piano sounds that feel like they’re being played by a machine, stem from what you do live as a musician?

I suppose I’ve always wanted to try and break the formula, and in breaking the formula see what the components are and what sort of mutant hybrids can be created out of those components. So yeah, Raw Silk is maybe another one of these records where it has an ambient palette, but it also uses thorny rhythms and more broken sounds. Maybe that’s more so just stemming from my interest in playing with the broken pieces or incomplete elements and seeing what new combinations can come out of it.

That’s interesting. I really love how much that record, and so much of your other music, feels both human and inhuman. This touches on the other end of your spectrum as an artist, but your club music has also had a really big influence on me, and also, frankly, the music that I make and spin as a DJ. I saw you at Elsewhere here in Brooklyn earlier this summer, and it was really awesome. And I guess I’m curious how you feel like you balance the interplay between a side of yourself that is this avant-garde composer and a side of yourself that would make a techno record.

It’s interesting and confusing that those two sides exist within me. I don’t really have a good answer for it. I love DJing, and I have produced a fair amount of music designed for sound systems. I’ve always had a fascination with low-end—with music that sounds good on huge sound systems, or music that sounds great on long car drives. And I guess, equally, the music that I’m interested in writing as a composer could also sound really good in those contexts as well. So I’m just interested in texture and atmosphere and mood, as well as the “size” of frequencies emanating from a speaker.

On a similar note, I’m a really big fan of the EP that you did with Hodge.

Oh cool, yeah, Hodge is great! We’re marinating some new tracks at the moment.

That’s such a sick EP. I feel like stuff from that appears in every DJ set I do. It’s kind of one where I’m at a point of being, like, “No no no, I can’t play that. I’ve played that every other time I’ve DJ’d this year.”

Yes, rinse that shit! I love that.

I still play it anyways. So yeah, that EP has been a huge inspiration to me. I’m curious if you could talk about techniques, tools, and pieces of gear that shaped those sounds.

It started off as a long-distance collaboration, but then we ended up finishing it in a few days over the summer in Berlin that year. Hodge had a bad tinnitus flare at the time so I was primarily on production and mix duties while he wrote the strongest loops and executive produced from the couch. I improvised the hook on “Tru” with a synth that sounded like a harmonica. As a producer I play a lot with pitch-shifting, LFOs, displacing attacks, varying decay times. I’m always preoccupied with introducing variation. So even if something is doing the same thing over and over again, there is some element that’s always slowly evolving in the background.

Laurel Halo plays a DJ set at HÖR in Berlin in August 2023.

I’m a big fan of your NTS show, Awe. I’m a monthly listener, it’s great. I’m curious if you could talk about that and how that relates – or doesn’t relate to – what you do as a club DJ, because it’s not usually very clubby. I’m also curious how you go about choosing guests, and the artists that you platform there.

I started the NTS show to be an outlet specifically for the mood of the label, which is perhaps leaning a bit reflective. There’s crossover with the club DJ headspace in that there’s a focus on mood and texture, both approaches being a bit psychedelic. I think doing the show has made me a better listener, and in doing so also made me, perhaps, a better producer of music—just going through the process of listening to so much new music every month, and actively saying, “I’m not going to listen to this one track that I’ve been working on for six weeks. I’m going to put that away.”

I think that a lot of musicians and producers have a tendency to obsess over their own work, and listen again, again and again to version 19.4.X or whatever. And it’s a challenge to regularly listen to and digest these new sounds, and to fortify the music diet with variety. Sometimes it is not always easy. Sometimes your ears want to listen to your favorite ten records.

In terms of guests, it just depends. It’s primarily friends and collaborators. Going forward, I’ll open up the show for more guests in the future. But for the first few years, I thought it was good that I set the tone, in a way just for myself to figure out the mood of Awe, both as a show and as a record label.

I relate to that a lot. I write a column about ambient music for Bandcamp, and I think a lot of what I have to do every month is force myself to sift through tons of unfamiliar music, and figure out what clicks and what doesn’t. I think that’s similar to what you were saying about how it forces you to not just listen to the record you love that you know is going to be good, or your own music. It forces you to have a more discerning ear, and that is so helpful on a creative level for me. So it’s interesting to hear you say something similar.

For sure. I think that there’s something, also, about listening to a piece of music and figuring out, “what is it about this music that I love?” And being able to articulate that for yourself, or know it when you hear it. I think for me all the stuff I play on the Awe show has a strong sense of “being”. The tracks are embodied and focused.

After listening to the show a bunch and then having Atlas be the first record on Awe as a label, I almost kind of knew what to expect from the record’s sound. I feel like it’s very cohesive with a lot of what you play.

That’s a good point – the show was being developed in parallel to the record, they informed and inspired each other the past couple years. I’ve also snuck in demos from the record on the show, and just left them anonymous on the tracklist. So yeah, Atlas sounds like the Awe radio show, for sure. There’s this sort of dream logic; this feeling of heaviness; this feeling of “core,” that are all at work on both the record and radio show.

We’ve talked about DJing. We’ve talked about so much of your own music, and all of the stuff that it touches on. So I’m curious just what music you’re excited about right now.

So much, but a mix of old and new. In terms of current labels, I generally love the output of Motion Ward or Ecstatic Recordings. I’m excited by my live collaborator Leila Bordreuil’s future output, she’s a wildly talented improviser and composer. It’s such a treat to play live with her.

Could you talk about your DJ digging process a bit?

It’s not that deep (laughs). In terms of being a “selector,” for lack of a better word, it is interesting to think about what are the sort of components of music that you, as a listener, are drawn to? What is it about that track that makes you confident in its inherent quality? Also, how do we as listeners have the nerve or confidence to say what is good or what is worth playing? I think it’s kind of fascinating, actually.

Taste is something that has driven my creative practice as both a composer/producer and DJ. I have such a fondness for a range of sounds, and what is it that connects or brings them all together? I love deep, heavy or beautiful sounds, but also out-of-wack, wrong, or funny sounds. I love music that is dynamic. For example, something that’s frivolous, or light as a feather, in terms of melodic sense or production value, but which still carries a heavy charge that only creeps up on you after the recording’s ended. Or vice versa—heavy-seeming but relatively easy to digest.

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