Loraine James Talks Gear Acquisition and "Gentle Confrontation"

Photos by Ivor Alice, courtesy of Hyperdub.

Loraine James
Loraine James. Photo by Ivor Alice.

When Loraine James showed up to soundcheck at the Southbank Centre in London for a show she has since described as being the biggest of her life, she was slightly out of her element. "Sometimes, when you just turn up with a laptop and a MIDI controller, it feels…" She pauses, searching for the right words. "...not embarrassing, but it definitely feels funny." The gig in question, which occurred in October of last year, saw the prolific 27-year-old producer team up with the London Contemporary Orchestra to pay homage to the late, great Black composer Julius Eastman.

James first reimagined and responded to the work of the retrospectively reappraised queer minimalist on last year's Building Something Beautiful For Me. Both the record and the subsequent performance sourced samples and motifs from his open-format, exuberant body of work, which subverted concert halls in a similar fashion when he was active in the 1970s. "I was very blind going into the project," James confesses, who had never engaged with his work until her label sent over his seminal composition "Stay On It". "Initially, I didn't really sample much of his work, but the label [Phantom Limb] wanted more of his actual sounds on the album. I was scared to do that because I didn't want to make it sound cheap, but I think I managed to do it in a respectful way that didn't sound forced or random."

The Southbank performance was initially planned as a solo appearance before the members of the LCO invited her to collaborate. "I obviously said yes, but I was very stressed. How do I even know how to tackle that?" James sent the album's Ableton project files to composer Ben Corrigan and the orchestra's violinist Sasha Scott, who then arranged scores from her stems. "Ben made an arrangement view for me with the click—that was very overwhelming, because I don't usually work in arrangement view when I perform and I sort of had to relearn everything." After all was said and done, though, James ultimately described the experience as one of the best of her career. "I never thought I would ever play with an orchestra. I definitely want to do more of that."

"2003" by Loraine James, off her new album Gentle Confrontation.

That collaboration marks just one highlight of Loraine's recent resume, which for any other producer would read like items crossed off a bucket list. In the past five years alone, she's managed to release records through two of electronic music's most beloved institutions: Hyperdub, the label founded by Kode9 which emerged out of the UK's nascent dubstep scene, and Ghostly International, the Brooklyn-based genre-fluid powerhouse that recently released her ambient-tinged self-titled release under the name Whatever The Weather. "I had a list of favorite labels as a teenager, and they were both on it," James says coyly. "The thing about both of them is that you never know what they're going to put out. Everyone has their own distinct sound, but it all works together."

A similar sonic fluidity comes to play on Gentle Confrontation, her forthcoming third record for Hyperdub. It's an album she's described as one that "a teenage Loraine would have liked to have made"; one that wears polyrhythmic influences on its sleeves, equally informed by the meticulous interplay of math rock bands as it is the lush, glitchy textures of early-aughts producers such as Dntel and Telefon Tel Aviv. "IDM and math rock—I definitely think they intertwine," she elaborates on her guiding lights. "I always like the surprises in IDM, when I sometimes struggle to catch a rhythm, because otherwise you automatically hear everything in 4/4. On the other hand, when you hear a math rock band like Toe, you're trying to count it. Sometimes the guitar is in another time signature than the drums, and they're all interacting. I know a lot of people who listen to those two genres the same way."

Over the course of 16 tracks, Gentle Confrontation features a diverse cast of contributors, including the classically-trained Catalan composer Marina Herlop ("While They Were Singing") and the neo-soul polymath KeiyaA ("Let U Go"). When it comes to approaching collaboration, James fluctuates between the IRL and the URL. "Most of my collabs have been situations where we're bouncing stems with each other," she says. "A few of the sessions were done in person, which was nice because I'm not necessarily used to that. Sometimes I get kind of stiff in person, so I prefer the internet."

"Déjà Vu (ft. RiTchie)" by Loraine James, off her new album Gentle Confrontation.

The album also serves as a turning point in Loraine's production process: rather than deferring to her DAW and keeping things in-the-box, as was her wont, she's started to incorporate more synths and effects into her rig. "I was becoming really stuck and bored of staring at the screen all the time, and over time, I was slowly becoming fascinated with what this stuff actually does," she says of her deep dive into the world of hardware. Rather than studying manuals and how-to videos, she prefers to learn a piece of gear entirely based on feel. "I never really know what I'm doing, and I just like to figure things out myself, because—I don't know—I can't watch a 45-minute tutorial," she laughs. "I switch it off really quickly. I'd rather be trial-and-error about it."

Much of the synth sounds on Gentle Confrontation come courtesy of the Novation Peak, an eight-voice analog desktop synth equipped with New Oxford Oscillators that was first introduced in 2017. "I've barely made patches with the thing," James admits. "I just been twiddling with it. Every time I turn the knobs even slightly, there's always something different than there was the last time that I used it." She's also fallen down the rabbit hole of collecting pedals after a few sessions with FAUZIA and KeyiaA. In recent live shows, she often pairs the Chase Bliss Blooper, the Minnesota manufacturer's "bottomless" loop pedal, with Red Panda's Raster digital delay and pitch-shifter.

Any performing producer will tell you they have different reasons for succumbing to gear acquisition syndrome—in Loraine's case, one can only assume it comes from the relatable stress of touring with a laptop. "It's the most stressful thing," James relates. "For a long time, I toured with a 2019 MacBook with the touchscreen, and in under two years there were already battery issues with it. I'd plug the charger in, and it'd say it wasn't charging. When I had shows with a 10-minute changeover, I'd have to reboot my laptop and it would cut off ten minutes of my set, but when I unplug it, it doesn't even last an hour."

When asked for her advice to the touring producers faced with similar computer horror stories, she is naturally quick to respond: "Always carry a hard drive with you, and open the project file before you leave the hotel room for soundcheck. Also, definitely bring an extra power adapter for international dates. Laptops are so unpredictable, but it's not like you can carry around two of them."

Between boasting a new backline, a motley crew of guest vocalists, and a truly diversified set of sonic ecosystems, Gentle Confrontation ultimately plays out like a guided tour of Loraine's past selves, and despite its disjunct, it stands among her strongest musical statements so far. The artist herself is inclined to agree: "I'm really happy with how it came together, and how every sort of influence of my life is on this record. After this record, I might chill on releasing music under my own name for a while. I don't know. I say that, but I'm always kind of thinking ahead. I think what I'm saying is that I want this one to sit for a while and let it breathe more."

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