Suzi Analogue is not the kind of person who simply sits back and waits for opportunity to come knocking. With productions to her name dating as far back as 2009, Suzi Analogue has been a seemingly tireless force since she appeared on the scene; producing, singing, DJing, touring, featuring on a steady flow of records, and – since 2014 – running her own label, the aptly named Never Normal Records.
When we recently had the opportunity to catch up with the East Coast-based artist, she was in her Miami studio (she currently goes between NYC and Miami on a regular basis) working on a soundtrack that she would end up performing live for a New York Fashion Week runway show. But we had called with something else on our mind: ZONEZ V.3, the third installment in Suzi Analogue's increasingly adventurous series of beat tapes. Released earlier this year, the 11-track effort finds the ever-evolving producer confidently extending her reach into new territories – dub-inspired club tracks, off-kilter bass music, menacing boom-bap, and all sorts of highly detailed electronic productions get their moment to shine on the record.
Presented with a chance to pick the the brain of the talented producer, we decided to take a deep dive into Suzi Analogue's creative approach, asking her to speak on some of her most reliable production tricks and to walk us through how she can take the small spark of an idea and turn it into so many impressive productions.
Ableton: How do you first approach starting a track? Do you have to be inspired by something in particular – a sound, an idea – or do you force yourself to go into the studio and work?
Suzi Analogue: Well, there are number of different ways. To jog my creativity, I keep a notebook of words or phrases that have inspired me at some point. I always have a notebook with me, and I love Japanese stationery – I'm always looking for cute notepads, just these really special containers to put these ideas in. Even though I'm a producer, I still consider myself a songwriter, and even if I don't say or sing words on a track, I still turn to certain words and concepts that exist in my notebook and I just try to tap into those words once I do sit down and go to work. For me, there's a relationship with words and sounds – it's kind of like a type of synesthesia, but with words.
So that's what kind of gets me to sit down and start working, and from there, I'm really guided by what gear I have around. A lot of the record is me exploring the capabilities of the Push 2, getting to know it, and just building a relationship with the piece itself, in addition to the other pieces I have, like my Critter & Guitari Organelle, and my Moog Mother-32. I basically sit down like a mad scientist and just try to test everything in my studio out, and then I'll start using the sounds I discover in that process and start to making loops from them that I then can build on. So that's my goal when I sit down: Can I make a loop that I like and something that I can build on?
That's the period of raw creation, where you’re building from zero to something?
Exactly. And then once I'm connected to a loop that I've built, that's when I'll start consulting the notebook. What words and concepts sound like this loop, or what word from the notebook fits with this loop? For example, I have a track called "Beach Cruiser," and when I first built the loop for it, I was like, "This sounds like it's beachy and relaxed." And then I went from there and just kept building with those words and that intention in mind as the concept for the song. It's a loose concept, but it's a concept. That's really how I get started.
Sampling has been a prominent part of your music in the past, did it a play a role in the newest ZONEZ ?
Yeah, but on V.3, I wasn't sampling records or ambient sounds, I was just sampling the people immediately around me. So, I'd have friends in the studio that had never cut songs before in their lives, and I was just say, "Hey, come on the track. I have this track built up to this point, tell me what you hear on it." And I was very down for whatever they did next. To me, that's a layer of my recording process – the people that are there in the room with me while I'm working, and it's interesting to hear how they interpret the sounds and how the sounds excite them to record another certain sound or phrase. So that was a huge part of the process; a lot of the vocals on ZONEZ came from me sampling the people around me. Just by asking them, "Can I sample you?" And we would record whole verses, and then I would chop it up based on what I felt like was the coolest, strongest thing that they said.
Was that the process behind a song like "Numba 1"?
Yeah, that was totally the process, though it wasn't really planned at all. It was just like, "Jax, come listen to this track. I already have something in mind but how would you rap with it?" And also, I didn't want him to think of it like I was asking him to write out a full song; I just wanted to actually have raw vocals and sample them in their natural form. So it wasn't premeditated, all of the vocals were very in the moment.
When you say you're sampling and incorporating the people around you, was that in terms of just vocals, or did some people play other instruments that you would then sample?
Oh yeah. Basically, I was sampling like you would on a hip-hop track, you know? It was just like I was sampling a record, but I was sampling my friends playing synths or their vocals instead. It would start with a lot of jamming, and then I would use the Session View to record and store all these loops of audio I had and start making sketches. So there were songs that started with just 15 to 20 clips of me just jamming on the Organelle, playing in different keys, different samples. And then I would go back and I would just try to arrange clips and a few loops that I could play back-to-back – I'd have the metronome on and then I would just try to kind of swing from tree to tree with these loops.
There's also really interesting percussion sounds that stick out on the record. On "Numba 1" for instance, there's a sound that sticks out, and isn't quite a snare but it has a lot of impact for such a small detail.
Yeah, I think that one was almost like a hi-hat. That's the kind of thing where I just kept on processing and filtering it, and I really wanted to connect with the fun of the sound. A lot of times that's what I'm looking for: How can I make this sound or this song make you want to move and know this is a sound that you should have fun and react to?
When you are processing drums or rhythmic elements, are there any particular techniques or tools you like to use?
Yeah, actually, I use Live's built-in Saturator a lot. That really helped me on this project. When I was mixing it down with Mark Bengston at Red Bull [Studios NYC], we used the Saturator a lot to deepen different sounds, without having to compress them. People like to daisy chain and sidechain all these sounds together, but I started to like using the Saturator instead because then I didn't lose any gain in the process.
Would you use the Saturator on groups of drums or more on individual sounds?
Individual sounds, definitely.
You step out into some new territory on V.3. How did a song like "Tightrr" come together? Were you doing something different than you had before, or were you just interested in going down a new musical path?
Well, "Tightrr" started off with me sampling and re-sampling a long synth line I had played into Ableton. It kind of sounded like Legend of Zelda at first, so that's why it kind of has that triumphant feeling with the melody, and then I chopped it down into more micro-pieces so that the sample could fit into smaller spaces. Then it was all about building drums that fit that sample, and just finding drums that fit its sound and mood. I feel like that song is "sporty" or something to me – it became an almost "peppy" song when I started putting the drums in, but then the heaviness of the melody contrasted that. The melody is so touching, just the way the loop resolves itself, and that is what moved me to sing. You know, this is how I'm thinking as I'm going through it: I start seeing where the song is going and I'm like, "I have to sing on this."
Also, while I was building "Tightrr," it just sounded like the track wanted to build and build and call for something from the listener. So that gave the process some direction – I wanted to keep building and building the textures and then there's a build-up in there that is meant to sound like a hug. It's like the track is asking to hold you tighter, and then it comes to this one part with more movement, more things rising, and it's meant to hug you, encapsulate you, and then let you go and start up again.
What about a song like "Deserve Betta," how did that one come together?
That one started as a collab between [DJ] Taye and myself. That was another case of us playing around on the synth and sampling ourselves. It started off just as a jam – I was trying to show him the Organelle and how it worked, – and he was playing with it, so I just recorded some of what he played and then I eventually went back to that file and was like, "Okay, I like where this synth is but let me chop it up."
And then I sent it to a vocalist that I know, Opal Hoyt, a musician in Brooklyn [and member of the band Zenizen]. I felt like her voice has such attitude, so I asked her to record some vocal loops. And she sent back so many; I mean, she sent me like four minutes of vocal ideas. So I then chopped the vocals to fit right into those spaces with the synth sample, and I just felt like, with everything combined, it was a really raw track. It almost reminded me of some drum & bass track where you have a random vocal come in out of nowhere and it's just really raw. That's the attitude that I was going for. And then, when a song is like that, when it's so raw it's hurts you, I was just like, "I have to put a vocal on this one." I wanted to record myself with attitude just like what I felt like the song gave, so when I came on the track, I tried to do something that could be a message for people to just know their worth.
That track, and a lot of your productions are stripped-down or efficient in terms of the amount of elements that are employed, but they never feel empty. Is that something you do intentionally?
I feel like a lot of tracks can tend to have all types of great sounds going on, but it's like they want people to spiral out of control, almost. It's so much stimulation. So I try to just be mindful of making music that you can think through. You know, it's music not just to dance to, but to have a moment to. Because, I look at each song, even if it's just an instrumental, as me communicating to somebody – there's a message. So my message isn't going to get through if everything is totally crazy and the listener is not tuned in. The message is actually to tune in.
And so that informs the choice to leave space in your music?
I think it is maybe just a personal request, but I want space to think in my music. So in my own tracks, I want to provide that space where you can just be and exist and engage with the sounds themselves.
You know, I try to be so diverse, you can't try to pin me down stylistically and you can't try to deny me my creative process. So I've just been working and trying to ensure there's room for growth in the future for me to be able to try different styles of recordings that I haven't even gotten to yet. And it's funny – I just came to that conclusion a few years ago. Actually, that's why I began the Zone series. I felt a little misunderstood creatively, and I felt like people were trying to box me in to one style and play that up, and I just did not want to do get trapped in that because I just knew that I had these need to make very diverse records. So that's been my mission in the Zone series, and I would say that it's worked so far.
Keep up with Suzi Analogue on her website and Soundcloud.