We caught up with imi, who recently released her track ‘Margins’. We chat about synths, artistry, the live show and much more. She is an extremely modest and thoughtful artist, who creates synthetic worlds drenched in organic atmosphere. It was very insightful to hear her thoughts on her art…
bibliotek – Tell us about imi. How did you start? Where did the project come from?
imi – This project has been a long time coming; I’ve been working towards it for a while now. I used to be in a band called Lenin. We didn’t officially break up, but it fizzled out in 2015. Since then I’ve just been trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a solo project. I started by going back to basics just using my voice and piano based stuff. But then I got a bit tired of it and wanted to explore a different sound world. So I started my masters at Leeds College of Music in 2016. There I kind of threw myself in the deep end in terms of experimenting with more electronic styles, and using found sounds to create instruments. For example, ‘Born For What?’, my first single, was originally from a sample I took from a prepared piano. I was just creating this sound that…
B – It sounds very industrial?
I – Yeah! It led more towards that sound world and I was just intrigued by it. And there is something I quite like about that. I want to explore it further.
B – Yeah it’s weird how one sound can inspire a whole track.
I – Exactly! It just made me want to explore that, and then the synths followed.
B – Is there anything that people listening to your music should know about the project. Or any concepts that help contextualise it?
I – It was actually through my masters degree that I explored this notion of sound space, or music space. There is a book called ‘Infinite Music’ and it developed on John Cage’s idea of sound space. Which are all the possibilities that exist between two different points. So say you had two notes, it’s all the variables that exist between those two notes. And they can be ever so subtle and slight.
B – Like, microtones?
I – Yeah. And that’s not just in pitch, but also in different qualities or textures of the sound. That’s what I am really interested in. Using found sound in my work, because it is not an already existing instrument. I like to find things that I haven’t heard before. Or if I have heard them, then hear them in a different context. I was classically trained as a vocalist but I hated classical music when I was young, it was just the only option as a singer, so I had to do it. But I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more now. And I’ve kind of decided to embrace that side of my voice, but use it in the musical context that I prefer. Which tends to be, derived more from 70’s and 80’s music.
B – The intro to ‘Born For What?’ is very, 80’s. The synth is a bit like…
I – Like Stranger Things? (Laughs)
B – Yeah but in a good way! Was that a conscious thing?
I – I had watched Stranger Things around the time, but I think it was more an accident. I wasn’t deliberately going for that sound.
B – You don’t strike me as the type of person who would follow a trend!
I – It’s just a lot of the stuff that I’ve always been interested in, just decided to come out a little bit more in these songs. So I think it’s about, not necessarily doing something radically new, but just shining a new perspective or new way of seeing them. Either by placing something really familiar within a really unfamiliar context or creating sounds that you are kind of like, ‘oh I don’t know what that is’.
B – Is that what you mean by ‘challenge experimentation’ in your bio online?
I – Yeah. Because I find when I listen to music, that’s what draws me in as a listener, if it’s something I haven’t heard before. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be totally ground breaking, just something that is an interesting way of doing it.
B – That’s really cool! You mention that you were classical trained, does that effect how you write you music? Because your melodies are really amazing… How do you do that?
I – I don’t’ think so. I’m pretty bad…I say I’m classical trained but I don’t employ any of the technique that I once learnt. Maybe subconsciously I do but I am pretty bad with the technique side of things. Melodically, I just like to go off where I want to. I don’t think ‘this works with those chords or with that progression’, I don’t think of music like that at all. My theory is probably pretty shocking. (Laughs)
B – Would you say that’s why you do gravitate towards weirder notes and less conventional sounds, because you’re not constrained by…
I – Yeah! I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t like to be limited by you needing to have that instrument in that setting. Or ‘you need to sing with this particular chord’ or whatever. I like to make up my own rules, and I think it’s nice to just have more freedom like that.
B –So have you got any particular musical inspirations? Because to me, it’s not too obvious who your influences are.
I – It’s a weird one, because I don’t’ think I can pin point a few people.
B – That’s good though!
I – Yeah, I’ve been influenced by lots of different music. A lot of 70’s and 80’s stuff, there’s post-punk elements and new wave. That kind of stuff I enjoy listening to. But then there’s more experimental electronic music that perhaps doesn’t influence this stuff so much, but I think it will influence my future music. Artists like Bjork, are typical aspirations because you can’t really pigeon hole her into a particular genre. I don’t want to be like Bjork, but she’s obviously awesome. I think people like her and another artist, Fever Ray (The Knife). Her stuff is awesome. It is quite synth based, very electronic and just interesting. There a lot of inputs that I can’t pin down. It is just more stuff I have listened to overtime.
B – It seems like you take the artistry side very seriously? Can you talk a bit about the image of ‘imi’? The artwork looks very well thought out.
I – I feel like in my music there is this clear juxtaposition between the artificial and something more natural. I wanted that to translate in my artwork. Also in the way I present myself, it’s quite colourful. I love nature. I’m from the countryside; I’d love to go back one day. Just being with nature inspires me. There are so many beautiful things, which almost look not real, because they are so crazy. Looking at fish scales, you get that metallic texture? Peacock feathers are amazing too, really vibrant colours. I wanted it to be colourful, because I see this music as the most colourful I have ever written. I created the artwork for my first track, ‘Born For What?’ myself. Originally I was actually going to study at Art College!
B – How did you make it?
I – It was mainly inks and watercolours, blowing with a straw and moving it in different directions. I had this metallic sort of stuff that I mixed in. Just experimenting with a lot of things, and then something happened. You capture these little moments. The artwork for my new single, ‘Margins’ was just experimenting with a bit of foil.
B – I was going to say it looks a bit metallic!
I –Yeah and we had this new hue light, which was shining a purple light onto it. A flash of the camera, created this image where you can kind of tell what it is…
B – There are two artists called Simon Stalenhag and Stuart Lippincott. They create dystopian cityscapes, kind of similar to Blade Runner with all the colour hues of purple. Your art reminds me of that.
I – There are certain colours I am drawn to. Blues, greens and purple, all come into mind.
B – It makes a lot of sense now, linking back to the peacock feathers and nature.
I – It all derives from that sort of stuff. I do enjoy that side of things.
B – Would you say that side of it is equally weighted with the music?
I – I think I like it as a package. Music is always the thing that will drive me forward. But I think it is fun to play around with the other stuff and get really involved in it.
B –How do you go about writing tracks? Do you have certain methods?
I – It’s tricky, I never really have a set method. Especially over this last year, doing my Masters, I was trying lots of different things. Some of them didn’t work out. I don’t like to just stay in the same old patterns; otherwise I think you end up making the same kind of music. I like to mix it up a bit. ‘Born For What?’ started just being that sound which was kind of horrible really. It was really raspy but it immediately set an intention in my head that it needed to be a harsher, more industrial track. I made that little sample into an instrument in Ableton and created this line that wasn’t in tune, because it wasn’t really a note…
B – It was in tune with itself, but not to a western scale?
I – Yeah! In my head it was. It was a melody that spurred on the idea for that track. It was a lot quicker than my previous stuff, at around 160bpm. Definitely the quickest thing I have ever written. It almost didn’t happen because I tend to love the initial phase of writing when you’re just chucking down ideas but then you actually have to make it work as a song. Really grind to find your way; I almost gave up on it. But I took a few ideas to Matt Peel.
B – At The Nave?
I –Yeah. I found that with a lot of my work in the past, I never finish it because I wasn’t comfortable with my own production skills. I just needed someone else to work with to release it. So I brought a few ideas in to Matt, and we decided ‘Born For What?’ was the one that was working the most for us. Naturally certain things come out such as new melodies, because he introduced me to so much stuff in the studio.
I played around with loads of synths. We had the modular stuff in the opening bass line and throughout the song. A Vox Continental, which created a phrase that wasn’t in the demo but I ended up really liking it. My favourite part was discovering the Omnichord. It is a weird little instrument that we used for the beat. You put it in certain key and it has this touch bar, which you sweep across. We had it going through this echo that Matt was messing around with. So he was doing that whilst I created these lines. It was so much fun, reacting and feeding off each other. That was really fun and that part comes in the chorus’s, the high metallic sound. But my process is kind of all over the place to be honest and it was very different to ‘Margins’. I actually wrote it ages ago but again, it was one that almost didn’t happen. I got fed up with it.
B – That’s easy to do though! How did you find working with Matt Peel and collaborating?
I – It was a really good decision for me. When you are working as a solo artist, you kind of get inside your own head. You are your own worst critic. You get to the point where you’re not going to do anything with it. I was going round in that circle for so long. It took me so long to release anything. It was taking that step and getting a different perspective. Matt was really good at being able to spot what needed to be there. Perhaps I’d been working on it so hard that I had a narrow vision. It helps to get a fresh perspective, to then hear those things that need to be there. It just really worked because I finally released my first single (laughs) after all this time.
It’s fun actually going into the studio and having a couple of days dedicated to doing it, coming out with a finished track. In the past I have worked on stuff for ages and it never goes well. When you’re doing it in your own time, you always try to perfect it. Sometimes you end up making it worse by having too much time with it. It is quite interesting in hindsight; it would always be nice to have more time in the studio. But having restrictions are helpful. Because it makes it seem a bit less overwhelming. If you narrow the opportunities you can be more creative with it.
B – Do you have any particular synths that you use?
I – I have a Moog Sub Phatty that I hadn’t used for a while. I used it in my band Lenin, which is why I bought it. When I was getting this stuff together, I got it out again. It is great but it is monophonic and there is only so much you can do with it. I have this Arturia synth collection, which has got loads of vintage synths. It’s awesome and really good for doing demos with. I can go into the studio and pick stuff that’s similar or try something completely new.
B – Do you use soft synths or VSTs in Ableton?
I – I do for drums, but for my live set I just use the Arturia collection and stuff that I have made myself. There are a couple of little things but generally I want to make stuff that doesn’t exist already.
B – The live show, how did you go about that?
I – I had a final Masters performance with Tom Bradshaw (drums) and Jemma Freese (keys). I was doing synths and vocals, whilst sampling in Ableton. That was really fun and then when it came to leaving University, being out into the real world, trying to get gigs. Bad Owl offered me my first gig. They wanted a basic set up without live drums, and so I said ‘okay, I really want to start gigging’. I had to make it work, so I used Ableton to build a set, breaking everything down to its core. There was stuff that was on the recordings that isn’t on the live performance. It’s not exactly the same.
I have played 2 shows now and I think it is going all right. I’d like to have a bit more freedom. With it just being me, there are a lot of things that I have to do and it’s all pretty stressful. I am pretty new to doing it by myself. I’d like to get to a point where I can experiment and not think ‘oh I have to press this or switch to that sound now’, but I am enjoying it. At the moment I have got pretty much all of it going through a laptop, even my vocals. I like to control the reverbs. The sound engineer has no control. There are parts where I need my vocals to be really dry, and others where it needs to be drenched in reverb. I like to treat my vocals as an instrument, so having that control is quite important. I would like to invest in some pedals, so it is not all going through my laptop. That would be the next point. Then in the future I would love to be able to work with other musicians. But I think right now its good to just start by myself and see what I can do.
B – Have you got a preference in how you want people to listen to your music? How do you imagine people listening, headphones or…? It is not just casual listening.
I – For me the live show is fun. I think you can, not properly dance, but I think you can move to it or just listen to it.
B – Yeah there is a lot of rhythm in your music.
I – When I’m performing it I have a little bit of a dance; it’s the most upbeat music I have ever been a part of. I don’t really know what I think in terms of listening.
B – Do you think about it when writing?
I – Not really, no. I have actually never thought about it, because some of my older stuff perhaps would have been better when you are on your own listening. This new stuff though, I don’t really know if it’s better alone or with people. I think since focusing more on the live set, I can see it in that context a little bit more.
B – Totally. So talking about community, you do most of it yourself… but do you work with other artists or photographers?
I – For my latest release I have worked with a photographer, Francesca Tirpack, who I got in contact with via the Leeds Student Collaborations page on Facebook. It is good to work with other creatives in Leeds who are at the beginning of their careers. We can mutually help each other and experiment a little bit more. If you pay for someone who isn’t part of the local community, firstly you’re spending a lot of money but I think it is more business orientated then.
I put some examples of what I was looking for and it was her enthusiasm to try something different, which led me towards her. Her portfolio was already great too. I personally hate having my picture taken so I was terrified, but she made me really at ease and we tried lots of experimental stuff. She put this gem stone crystal in front of the camera lens that creates this weird angular texture, which you’ll see in one of my photos. It’s little stuff like that, which added another dimension, feeding into the nature, synthetic stuff that I was talking about. It was better than I thought it was going to be, working with her was great.
I also did a music video with Joseph Haskey. Again he would try more experimental stuff with lighting and blues and reds. He was putting this film in front of the lens and moving it to create different lights. It wasn’t just footage of me, there was something else. When you’re a solo performer, trying to make a music video on a budget is hard because there is only one person to look at. So it was trying to find ways to make it visually interesting and playing into all those ideas. But keeping it simple because I wasn’t ready for some grand narrative. It didn’t feel right with the music. I would like to continue working with lots of different people. You don’t know what will happen and it might not work out, but it think you have to put yourself in these situations because sometimes, something amazing can happen.
B – Your new release, ‘Margins’, can you tell us anything about the track? It’s different from ‘Born For What?’ but still definitely in the same sound world?
I – It’s gone through many different variations. For my masters it was with a vibraphone, piano and vocals and electronic drums, so very different to how it is now. A lot of it was off the basis of how ‘Born For What?’ went and working with Matt. I really wanted to do that song, but wasn’t happy with how it was. I had gone in a different direction, so I re wrote it with how it is now. The melody stayed pretty much the same throughout, but the harmony was a different. When we did it in the studio we had this massive bass in the chorus’, this squelchy kind of, throbbing bass that made it into something else entirely. And then you’ve got that with the really high vocals over the top. It’s just a weird combination.
B – Absolutely, in ‘Margins’ you can definitely hear the classical voice, it’s quite apparent, in the best way possible.
I – Yeah definitely. All the chorus’s are up there, and in the outro too. I don’t know why I sang it that high. When I get to that point in a gig I am just like ‘oh my, what have I done. I don’t think I can do it!’ (laughs). I really took the classical side of my voice and thought, ‘well I am just going to go with this.’
B – It shows how the song can take different forms, if originally it was a different arrangement.
I – Yeah exactly, it is nice that it can work in different contexts or different instrumentation; because that’s something I am more interested in trying.
B – The music video looking amazing, was there any inspiration behind it?
I – It was about having a visual that would accompany the music. Not some grand narrative but something visually interesting and subtle. The footage of me is interspersed with lots of stuff through a projector, creating interesting shapes and filters. It’s a lot of experimentation. You don’t know what’s going to come out, which is kind of scary but exciting at the same time.
B – Going back to the idea of community, you have a lot of support from BBC Introducing and BBC Radio 6. What are your thoughts on the Leeds community and things like BBC Introducing?
I – I think it is really good! I was really happy to be invited onto the BBC Introducing live session because that was my first live thing I did. So it was a bit daunting, but they were all so lovely about it. Emily Pilbeam recommended me to Radio 6, so that was a big surprise. I just got this email through saying ‘you’ve just been played on Radio 6’. I was really surprised. There has also been Sixteen Records who are going to be doing a compilation album that I’ll have a track featured on in May. There is bibliotek of course. I am really excited to be a part of it. It is really great and everyone is up for supporting each other.
B – What are your thoughts on releasing music? How have you found it so far?
I – It has been interesting. I self released my first single. I was quite impatient because I just wanted to get something out. But I needed something to start me off. The emergence of Sixteen Records and bibliotek has been really good because it is keeping it local. Organic growth is important. I would like to establish a small base first and feel comfortable with that before branching out.
B – So are there any artists you are listening to right now?
I – I got recommended Snapped Ankles by someone who listened to the track on Radio 6. They’re really cool. I don’t even know how to describe them, pretty crazy. A bit psychedelic and quite synth based I guess. I supported AKDK at Headrow House and they’re awesome, I’ve listened to their stuff for a little while now. I am really enjoying that repetitive sort of stuff. But I try to just listen to a lot of music.
B – Do you actively seek out new music?
I – Yes, I do. I try not to listen to the same stuff all the time because I was listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem recently but I was wearing it out for myself. I am into a lot of the dancey electro punk kind of stuff, but I am trying to diversify my listening. When I was doing my masters I was listening to lot of experimental electronic, more ambient stuff as well. I guess it just depends what mood I am in. More upbeat stuff is working for me right now, for a change.
B – What are your future plans? More singles or a body of work?
I – I hopefully just booked another studio session with Matt to record another single. Then I have a single coming out as part of that compilation with Sixteen Records in May. After that I would like to work on a small body of music. Probably a 3 track EP or something. I am not sure when that will be released. I haven’t even started writing for that yet. So over summer, I will start writing because I am craving a writing session. At the moment gigs have taken up my time.
B – Do you think that singles are kind of what people are doing? Or at least very short EP’s?
I – I think it is good for when you are first starting out. It can work well. If you are paying to go into a studio, it can be really expensive to go straight in and do an album. But singles are good to kind of get a sense of what exactly you want to do. Because I think my music will evolve and change, I don’t know what this next EP will be. I think I want to work more towards a body of work and gradually an album. I would love to do that but right now I haven’t got enough money and also I don’t know if I am ready for that.
B – No I think that’s the idea of organic growth, people can jump the gun, trying to get to a place that you’re not ready for. Even being signed, people are trying to skip the work.
I – Yeah I wanted to gradually build it up. For me I think it feels more natural to then work up to that. Because it’s something I would love to do. I’d like to do it recording all at the same time, because these singles have been however many months apart and so I want more cohesiveness. The other two are very much in the same sound world, but they were recorded at different times, which does affect it. I don’t know what it’ll be like but I guess it depends just what I am writing at the time.
B – Well thank you so much for chatting!
I – Thanks for having me!
Keep up to date with imi here:
And watch the video for ‘Margins’ here: