For some artists, their path through music is clear from the outset. For others, such as Henrietta Smith-Rolla, their career is not so much a focused trajectory as a series of intersections and reactions, sending their craft off in wildly unpredictable directions. From joining a band with 808 State’s Graham Massey to making a solo live debut at a high-profile club in Ibiza, Smith-Rolla’s life has been a whirlwind of musical endeavours spurred on by her habit of saying ‘yes’ to opportunities outside her comfort zone. In conversation, you quickly get used to her casually refer to the time she was in a jazz band, or being coerced into playing drums without any prior training.
While some of these ventures have been relatively low key, Smith-Rolla has more recently come to light as Afrodeutsche. Her striking debut album Break Before Make came out on Manchester-based electronica institution Skam Records, where artists such as Boards Of Canada and Autechre found early support in the 90s. That such a shadowy label stepped out to run a press campaign and spread the word about her music speaks volumes for the kind of faith people place in her. For anyone familiar with Skam, her sound is a natural fit, striking a melancholic note via delicately sculpted synth passages riding atop crunchy, electro-rooted beats. That perfunctory description doesn’t fully convey the appeal in her work though – there’s an emotional depth behind the sound of Afrodeutsche that draws on a well of personal experience and the search for identity.
Roots in electronic music
“Electronic music has always been in my life,” she explains. It’s mid-summer when we speak, and she’s taking a break from preparing for an upcoming gig at The White Hotel, in her adopted hometown of Manchester. “When I was 9 years old my best friend was older, and she'd go to free parties and bring back mixtapes. I was listening to parties at an early age. "Can you feel it?" and all that mad stuff.”
After growing up in Devon, it wasn’t until moving to Manchester later in life that Smith-Rolla discovered the electronic music that resonated with her, and likewise informs the music she makes now. Having joined indie / synth pop group Silverclub, she started incorporating Live into her role within the band to trigger synths, and started teaching herself about electronic music production from there. Meanwhile the people she was hanging around with were giving her an education on all things techno.
“When I first heard Underground Resistance’s “Afrogermanic” I didn't understand what they meant, but I had this sense of connection to it without question,” she explains. The resonance of the track came full circle when Smith-Rolla went in search of her father, discovering he was Ghanaian and had spent part of his life living in Germany. The word ‘afrodeutsche’ [African-German] came up frequently in her research.
“As soon as I discovered Drexciya I felt like I understood a language,” she continues, “and they're very much about storytelling. Whether or not people take the same story from a piece of music, it's definitely a language. When I write I'm translating my own stories. I created my language, which is pretty much innate.”
The evolution of the live set
Smith-Rolla’s journey towards becoming Afrodeutsche was a relatively private affair until a close friend heard the tracks she had been working on and offered her a gig at Ibiza’s infamous hotel-club complex Pikes in 2016. Although she had experience on the road from her various band stints, she’d never taken her solo electronic music on stage, but said yes to the offer all the same. Carting a cumbersome set up that included the sizable Korg MS2000 synth in hers and her friends’ luggage, she played some of the pieces that would go on to form Break Before Make to a crowd that included Carl Craig. The Detroit veteran complimented her on her performance afterwards.
From the nervous energy of that first show, Smith-Rolla has refined her set up and settled on her live approach. Live forms the heart of the process, with all MIDI functions mapped to a Korg microKontrol, and an additional Novation X Station synth for extra live parts.
“Having a smaller set up gives a bit more freedom in the live set with what I've chosen to do,” she explains. “That Pikes experience was interesting because everything had come from the studio, so the big question was, ‘how am I going to make this live and still have a good time?’ You don't want to just be pressing play.”
Striking a balance between wanting to represent her compositions faithfully while retaining the element of performance, each Afrodeutsche live set is mapped out in the arrangement view in Live, adhering to a fixed time frame as defined by the drum parts. With the structure and flow of the live set intact, that leaves Smith-Rolla free to play all the synth parts by hand while also managing on-the-fly effects and mixing duties. As well as playing any established elements of her music in the moment, the other key factor of Afrodeutsche live sets is the continual introduction of new music for each and every show.
“I just played at La Cheetah in Glasgow,” says Smith-Rolla, “and I wrote three tracks for it because I wanted to have something that was a bit more rave. A lot of the bleepy, techno-y stuff I listen to has a hip-hop based groove, and so I ended up writing a couple of pieces I could play with in that cutting and scratching kind of way. I've created my own drum patterns which I sample as if I'm sampling a funk or soul record. I run four of these samples, arm them all and have volume, reverb and delay MIDI mapped to each, then mess around with those parameters in the live situation. I also have three drum racks armed that I jump between, or use them all at the same time. These are MIDI mapped to the keys on the controller, and I play them along with my sampled drums.”
There is perhaps a preconception that live electronic music has to be fully sequenced and processed on the fly, and Smith-Rolla’s approach represents another, more structured but equally ‘live’ way of performing. For the relationship she has to the music she’s presenting, the potential of stretching pieces out into eight minutes of filter-tweaking improvisation doesn’t appeal.
“I do like to play that way when I'm at home and jam things,” she concedes, “but a lot of the things that I play are pieces of music to me. They tell a story, so for that piece to be played and to tell that story, it needs to be within certain parameters. A track like “HIAEA” is a real journey for me, so there's no room for it to be completely chopped up and ad-libbed.”
Alongside her live sets, Smith-Rolla also DJs as Afrodeutsche, combining records and Ableton Live in a hybrid approach that extends the scope of her personal musical language to match the club environment. When we spoke it was just weeks since she had played a four-hour set at Berlin techno mecca Berghain.
“I usually have an 808 and a 909 set up,” she explains of her Live configuration for DJ sets. “I end up doing quite a lot of edits of tracks before the set, because quite a lot of time there’s language I'm not interested in but the track's groovy, or I want to play with the drums within the track. Then I MIDI map the whole set so I can just delay or filter or loop a clap in a track if I want to make it snap, so there's a lot of prep that goes into it.”
Rather than warping her tracks and devising a system for precision when DJing, Smith-Rolla instead watches the waveforms of the tracks she plays in Live and relies on her knowledge of the music to pull off any particular mix.
“It's a case of listening and throwing things around when I think they'll work,” she says. “I'm far too impatient to warp tracks. I just listen to my records a lot. I'm usually melody-led, so there's no exact science to mixing that stuff seamlessly.”
Leading from the heart
After downloading, drag the stems into Live while holding the cmd (Mac) / ctrl (Windows) key to drop each stem onto its own track.
The focal point for Smith-Rolla’s creative expression as Afrodeutsche is undoubtedly her synths. From the cascading, interwoven leads of “Now What” to the brooding arps and strings of “Blanket Ban,” the harmonic interplay of her melodic content is the beating heart of her own strain of machine soul. It’s no surprise that her songwriting process usually begins with the synths before anything else, but while learning to use Live she struggled with writing parts and then trying to add drums to the recorded melodies.
“I used to write synth lines without a click,” she reveals, “and found that when I went to do drums or put any other elements to it, it was a nightmare. Now, I'll find a synth sound and then once I'm happy with a pattern or the pace of something I'll set my BPM and then click and record it that way. It means I have that safety of being able to roll stuff out without having to edit. Once I've got the groove with the synths, then I won't actually play to a click, I'll just layer everything up on top of that. I think that gives it a little bit more of a swing, rather than everything being so regimented.”
With the emphasis placed on personal expression in her methodology, Smith-Rolla needs to be in the right emotional state to conjure up the work that defines Afrodeutsche. She readily admits to preferring the work that comes from her darkest points, struggling to be content with the results of more happy-go-lucky sessions in the studio.
“I'll get to a point where I need to release some stuff,” she reveals, “and it'll usually begin with finding a synth sound that moves me, and then I'll work back from there.”
With her most cathartic, melancholic musical expressions coming strapped to club-ready beats, Smith-Rolla sometimes finds herself in the difficult situation of baring her soul in the midst of a party. Dancefloors can be as emotional as any other musical forum, but they can also be havens of hedonism as party people seek escape from the heavier aspects of existence.
“I was so nervous before the Glasgow gig,” Smith-Rolla explains, “because I decided to put two very emotional tracks at the beginning of the set. I wanted to say to people, 'I feel stuff and if I feel stuff, you feel stuff.’ I was nervous about how that would translate in a club environment, but also had to look after myself and be like, ‘this is what I made.’”
From classical piano to hand-played synths
Among the many shapes and patterns that guide the synths on Break Before Make, there are some notable passages that seem to directly channel classical music. “And!” and “OD” in particular take on an almost baroque quality, stemming from Smith-Rolla’s love of classical music and soundtrack composition. The former track may sound like it’s powered by banks of arpeggiators, but in keeping with the hand-played theme in her live sets, she challenged herself to play each part live for the track’s full duration.
Smith-Rolla’s history with piano playing is as happenstance as many aspects of her musical path – she’s entirely self-taught, and first immersed herself in the craft after being lent a Technics P30 stage piano. You can hear examples of her piano compositions on a Soundcloud account under her own name – without any training in reading musical notation, she stored these pieces in her head until she had the means to record them. Aside from her own musical instincts, Smith-Rolla’s work has undoubtedly been shaped by various positive influences. She’s quick to credit former Silverclub bandmate GKut for his guidance in using Live, while joining Graham Massey’s Sisters Of Transistors project around 2006 was a baptism of fire for playing live keys.
“Being in Sisters Of Transistors was really funny because I couldn't actually play the piano when I was asked to be in the band!” she laughs. “I was in a band with piano teachers and Graham Massey from 808 State, we're using all of his synths and organs, and I show up and I'm playing with one finger.”
Trust and honesty
Smith-Rolla’s career to date has been a perfect demonstration that classical training, learning the theory and adhering to established structures are not the only ways to live a rich and fulfilled life in music. She talks with fondness about working in a band with Manchester-based multi-instrumental maverick Paddy Steer, when he would have to colour code piano parts so that she could understand and learn them.
“I'd been doing quite a lot of workshops with young people in music,” she explains, “and I was worried about sharing what I know without being able to read music. I'm all about getting rid of the idea that you can't do something because you don't read sheet music or you don't use CDJs in this way or whatever. I learnt through doing these workshops that just being as honest as you possibly can makes a lot of sense.”
Of course it’s not always easy overcoming your own prejudices about how things should be done, or how your work may be perceived by others. Considering the personal, expressive nature of her work, Smith-Rolla equally talks about having to exercise self-control to keep herself free in the studio. “When I write something, I'm writing because I need to,” she declares. “I'm just being honest. And while I'm crying about something and I’m trying to play the synth line, that voice comes in and says, 'ooh, that sounds a bit like so and so.' I have to have a word with myself all the time and say, ‘don't listen to that voice, because you're making up that voice, and no one cares.’”
Her honesty is infectious, and it feeds into her music to more than justify the faith others have placed in her to date. Many might consider her lucky to have opportunities such as Sisters Of Transistors, soundtracking a television documentary or releasing a debut album on Skam Records, but as the old saying goes, luck is simply a combination of opportunity and openness. Her attitude to a minor set calamity while playing in Berghain speaks volumes.
“My records are pretty dirty,” she admits. “I was cueing up the record and let it go and it started to skip and I was like, ‘you know what? I'm exactly the same as you guys dancing on the dancefloor,’ so I lifted the needle off, shouted, and just dropped it back in again. Luckily it worked and everyone lost their shit, but the main thing was getting rid of the illusion that only I could do this. Things go wrong. It's just about the music and having a nice time as far as I'm concerned.”