In the best sense, Laurel Halo’s music is an enigma and frequent attempts to pigeonhole her output according to genre labels such as ambient, jazz, experimental music, techno or avant pop always fall short. Over the course of the past 15 years, she has defined her own pathway to a life in music; releasing multiple albums on Hyperdub, soundtracking films, playing with Moritz von Oswald in a jazz trio, DJ-ing, hosting a radio show, and most recently taking up teaching at CalArts.
Halo’s new album Atlas was lauded in the music press as one of 2023’s standout releases. No stranger to high praise, on her fifth album she once again enchanted both critics and listeners with a shifting sound-world mapped out by pianos, cello, voice, synth and decontextualized fragments of sonic matter. And while Halo’s newfound commitment to, as she puts it, “climb jazz mountain” informed the compositions on Atlas, numerous tracks are enhanced by the generous contributions of guest musicians.
The result of this confluence of forces is her most nuanced and complex (and dare we say, personal?) work to date. We recently caught up with Laurel over Zoom to chat about the themes underpinning Atlas, how the compositions came about and how she’s thinking about the act of music-making at this particular point in her evolution.
Are there some underlying themes to Atlas or something you want it to convey?
Writing Atlas was about creating a sense of place or connection to my surroundings. I made the record while being relatively transient, both in terms of where I was physically based and emotionally within myself. There's a mix of sensorial impressions adding to this core goal, like witnessing fog in a city at night, being lost in a forest at sunset, or beholding mountains. I took inspiration from writers like Italo Calvino, W.G. Sebald and Etel Adnan, as well as certain films by Apichatpong Weerasekathul. Once I landed on the title Atlas it made perfect sense because the music does sound like a collection of maps. Maybe it's a record about creating memories without being overly nostalgic about them.
What was different about making this album vs. your previous work? What practices have you carried over from past records or projects?
This record was the first time I attempted to make something just "beautiful", whether I was successful in achieving this or not. It was also the first time I worked heavily with strings, recording violin and cello. I also tried more openly incorporating jazz harmonies. I did carry over past practices of using collage, layering pre-composed and improvised parts, and masochistic amounts of subtractive EQ.
You mentioned elsewhere that for Atlas you wanted to make something psychedelic – how do you interpret the idea of psychedelia and how do you like to express it?
To me the idea of psychedelia has to do with being at peace with having no control, with becoming broken and whole again, and with simultaneously experiencing presence and absence. I tried to express these feelings in the music with the tracks' sense of timing or flow, as well as the evolution of harmonies, and how electronic sound sources blended with or became one with acoustic sound sources.
The jazz influences that were present in earlier solo releases (e.g. “Mercury" on Raw Silk) seem a lot more explicit in Atlas. You also joined the reformed Moritz von Oswald trio in recent years – would you say that there’s a connection between your work in that group and the direction of your solo material?
The process of climbing jazz mountain began before working with Moritz, but I started taking it more seriously in the months leading up to and during the pandemic, and Moritz's trio project was certainly a fertile ground for keyboard exploration and experimentation. I'm still a hard amateur with the piano and will be in the foothills for a long time, but regardless of skill level it's rewarding.
You worked with many collaborators on the album. How do you form working relationships with other artists?
It's a good question! It's primarily about working with other artists who can speak the same or similar musical language. All the players on the record are sensitive listeners and creators of music.
How much of the music was recorded in the same room as your collaborators?
Bendik Giske and James Underwood's contributions were made being in a room together with them individually. Coby Sey and Lucy Railton's contributions were made remotely and communicated via scratch recordings, voice notes, phone calls, SMS and email.
Did your collaborators play the role of session musicians, or did they also contribute ideas to the music? If so, to what extent, and could you give an example?
I gave general guidelines to everyone in terms of what kind of shapes or timbre I was hoping to create, and for certain parts had sung scratch vocals or scratch violin to represent specific melodies or textures I was after. There were also parts that I had professionally transcribed for Lucy to play. But there was a lot of room for interpretation and improvisation within these guidelines. An example is giving James Underwood a violin part by singing it out, and then playing the notes on the piano to reinforce the notes, but then he'd lean into vibrato or a dynamic swell that I hadn't envisioned, but ended up keeping because these touches added some magic. Or Coby would add a certain vocal inflection I hadn't anticipated, or Lucy would conjure some texture or harmonics I hadn't been able to fully articulate.
“Tracks are never done, you just let them be.”
The sense of space shifts quite drastically between movements. On some tracks, the physical distance from the piano to the violin is audible – but how much of the album was recorded in a traditional studio setup with mic'd instruments, and how much of that feeling was created via effects in a DAW?
It's certainly a blend of electronic and acoustic sound sources. I sometimes forget where they come from when I listen back to the record. Generally the piano, strings and vibraphone are acoustic but there are VST library strings, synth and samples creating the overall atmospheres or harmonic palettes.
In “Belleville," everything suddenly feels more close-up and intimate. That’s a departure from the earlier tracks – what was your intention there? And how did you achieve the effect?
Belleville was intentionally placed in the middle of the record after four quite dense tunes. It made sense for a track with eight or ten stems maximum to be preceded by tracks with 30, 40-plus stems. It probably sounds more close-up and intimate simply because of the track order. But perhaps also just by its arrangement and production as well. It's a close mic'd, one-take, softly played piano performance, and whatever intimate detail of the piano sound or performance is blown up with some compression and saturation. Maybe the vocal embellishment adds to a sense of intimacy as well because it's the only vocal moment on the record.
You mentioned elsewhere that writing this album was an additive process, and that certainly comes through in the more maximal-sounding segments. How do you know when to stop adding elements and call something finished?
Tracks are never done, you just let them be. I guess the final listens to the mix and master just have to feel good enough for you to accept the music as it is.
The title track, “Atlas," is full of these piano runs and string swells that sound very satisfying to play as an instrumentalist. But each of these elements are processed and smudged just enough that they sound unusual in the wider composition. As a composer, do you make a conscious effort to avoid or disguise elements that feel too harmonious or predictable?
It's always interesting to think about the relationship between consonance and dissonance, between notes sounding "right" or "wrong", or between notes being in versus out of tune. If music is too tonal or consonant without some form of latent depth charge it can come across a bit too passive, saccharine or artificial. At the same time, harmonically complex, noisy or atonal music without some sense of daybreak, humor or lightness can sound too obtuse or impenetrable. So it's a fun challenge to find middle ground between the two.
How do you think this record translates into live performance? Did you have to make any big decisions around changing the music to make it work onstage?
The Atlas live show is typically as a duo with the cellist and improviser Leila Bordreuil. She'll have a few different mics and an amp on stage which creates layers of feedback. I'll be playing on a piano and a sampler. I process both the piano and cello with some effects pedals, using a lot of detuning chains. I also create loops of piano and texture which we improvise on top of and in between each album track. In a live setting, the music naturally sounds more active with the elements of live improvisation that take place throughout the set, though 'Belleville' and 'Naked To The Light' are played pretty much verbatim.
Probably one of the biggest questions around translating this music live was how "small" or "large" to make the live show, because it's a bit ambiguous on record whether the music is meant to be listened to quietly or at a high volume. It was also a question of how tonal or textural Leila should play. It has been interesting to attempt to translate this relatively dense record live and let it breathe in a performance context, teasing out the ideas of presence and absence that to me are central to the record.
Photo by Norrel Blair