Interviews

Q&A: Katy Sargent from Elder Island

Announcing today their forthcoming sophomore album Swimming Static, indie electronic trio Elder Island have become a key name since the release of their debut back in 2019. Due to be released in the spring, the new album is brimming with ten tracks of feel-good pop, effortless electronic production and a dash of neo-soul for good measure. Influencing an array of new artists and continuing to build something very special, we had a chat with Katy Sargent to find out more about the new album and just exactly how they create that specific Elder Island sound.

Hey Katy, how’s the start of the year been for you so far?

Pretty good, pretty busy! Fighting the usual February struggle to keep up the good intentions made in the new year whilst eating more than usual and sleeping with the alarm clock in the bed so you can press snooze all that bit quicker.

It’s been two years since you released your debut album The Omnitone Collection, what’s been keeping you busy since then?

We did a lot of touring. From the drop of The Omnitone Collection I think we toured the UK/Ireland, Europe and America/Canada twice over, with summer festivals and a Scandi tour thrown in for good measure. It was an amazing, whirlwind journey. We experienced our show develop and expand along with the sizes of the venues, all in a moderately short space of time. London headline shows jumped from capacities of 800 to 2800 then 5,000 in two years which was a lot to get our heads around. The final co-headline show at Printworks, London in early February 2020 was an incredible high point but afterward we were ready to hide ourselves away and get deep into writing. It has been an intensive period enhanced by the constraints brought on by the pandemic. Now we are emerging from it however, finishing the Album at the start of the new year, I feel pretty fortunate to have been able to buckle down and power through. 

You’ve just announced the new album Swimming Static, what can we expect to hear with this record?

I think it’s more intimate, both in theme and production, but also a lot more audacious and outlandish than our existing catalogue. A touch more pop but still holding alot of heavily mixed genres. It’s varied, there’s a lot of light but also a lot of dark in it. “Bittersweet” a friend called it the other day. We’ve explored more complex, far reaching themes. This in turn challenged us sonically to meet the demands of each track but has enriched the album as a whole. In a way it’s us reaching out from a singular place to explore new ones and I hope people find a similar form of escapism in it. 

How has your creative process changed since the first album?

The tracks for this album started life as long live sessions, which is our usual practice. However due to technical difficulties whilst recording, we couldn’t advance these tracks the way that we had planned. We had to start from scratch. For this reason we spent way more time at the piano on this album, creating skeleton forms of the sessions and working on arrangements. This created tighter, more concise structures with less time for our longer musical deviations. We still wanted to include these sonic meanderings somehow, so once all the layering was added, the finished songs have an almost explosive brimming quality to them.  

Do you have a favourite track on the new record?

I think at the moment it’s Intertwine (one of the slower darker numbers) though this will probably change as time goes by. I had to really back this track whilst we were producing the album as it kept getting put on the ‘non-album’ pile but i’m so glad it made the cut. I find it evokes everything I wanted for it. It is set in the still, almost suspended early hours of the morning. An intimate, transcendental time. I think musically we managed to instill this quality into the track with the textural layers and the space we worked to create between all the tracks elements. It’s also got a hefty bass layer which we added with one of Dave’s personal pedal creations called ‘The Sonic Boom’ I love a good heavy bass layer. Best listened to on headphones.

Your vocals always have an ethereal quality to them – what’s the recording process like for you?

I play around with my vocals a lot, especially during the writing period. When we write we all have our main set ups and mine includes several loopers and vocal effects units. As we play and write I manipulate and layer my vocal effects live. I use them more as an instrument in this way, creating rhythms and melodic loops first, then fitting and developing words after. This means in their original form the vocals are way more heavily affected and disguised. In contrast to most normal processes, we then usually make the decision to dial them back, make them dryer, cleaner and more intelligible for the final cut. Re-working them in the end to retain the essence of the first effects by either running the new recording through the original effects unit or recreating it on other hardware for better quality. 

Recording wise I often go to playpen studio with Ali Chant, we worked with him on The Omnitone Collection and we’ve built up a rapport over time. I do sometimes record vocals with the guys as engineers in our studio but I feel because we’re so close, if I get frustrated with myself, which sometimes happens on tracks where I’ve challenged myself or if I’m questing for a silly level of perfection, they bare the brunt a little. So for this album I recorded a lot on my own which I mostly enjoyed, as long as I keep organised and the equipment plays ball! 

Tell us more about your creative process. How do you write an Elder Island tune?

At the moment it’s a disorderly three stage process.

  1. Record freeform live sessions to use as a creative starting point.
  2. From the session pick out the highlights and general essence of the track. (At this point I’ll usually go away and write too many words and parts which we usually have to halve.) Then, work together to create a backbone or structure. 
  3. Collide new backbone and old soundscape together by re-recording and layering instrumental parts. (We try to sonically transcribe the themes created through the previous 2 processes. Then we agonisingly add and pull bits apart until you can’t tell up from down anymore and it doesn’t matter anyway because there’s some music playing in your ears and you don’t hate it.) 

At least that’s the principle movements of the creative process. 

How does this album reflect Elder Island in 2021?

In a way I don’t think it does, I think for us it’s an album of 2020. But now it’s ready to go forth in the world and be listened to by others, it’s the listeners who make it an album set in 2021. They soundtrack it to their time. I love this aspect of making music, its like a second hand car, you’ve driven it all sorts of places, driving back from the beach with sandy friends howling along to power ballads, and those trips mean something to you but then you gift it to someone else they’ll drive it other places have new times, create new memories that you’ll never know of. 

You’ve got a great reputation for your live shows, what’s it been like not being able to play any shows recently?

I like playing shows, I love the energy and meeting people and witnessing first hand how much the music means to them. It’s incredibly affirming and special. I think for me though, it is slightly against the grain getting up on stage. I have to overcome or ignore some part of myself to do it. Eventually after the first couple of tracks you’re in and you’re enjoying it but I believe I’m in it more for the creation than the stage. I’ll always want to do it as it’s the one true connection you can make with fans and every gig is special, even the bad ones. But I’ve been thankful for the extended time to work on writing music. 

That said I’m really looking forward to translating the new album into a live experience. I’m nervous that the time out will make it hard to get back into it but I can’t wait to produce the shows and make them full and emursive. We do alot of our stage lighting and this year I really want to hype it up. 

Tour Doc by Director Nic Kane

What’s plans are you hoping to fulfil this year? Can we see you out on the road?

The tour dates have been progressively leapfrogging into the future but we’ve got good hopes for the UK tour starting October 2020. New dates and planning is starting to take shape for further afield too though we’ve had to move a huge proportion of EU touring to 2022. There’s a lot of uncertainty but I feel that when it’s safe to do so live music is going to explode back on to the scene in a way that’s never been seen before. Like a slingshot that’s been pulled back, people have been waiting so long. Everynight another venue, a different show – it’s what the live industry needs, just hope it can last out until then. I can’t wait to be part of it both as a punter and on stage.

Finally, what’s the one album that’s been keeping you sane throughout the turmoil of the past year?

I couldn’t think of one album specifically. So embarrassingly, I’m going to admit that I’ve been listening to an awful lot of 45 Radio on digital radio, “The Home of Good Times & Great Music”. It’s the very best selection of upbeat 60s 70s 80s and 90s. The perfect soundtrack to schlepping around the kitchen “dancing”. The songs cheer me like only golden oldies can. I’m a big fan of the “pop-hit” but I’m picky and these guys don’t play as much dross as the other greatest hit radio shows. Minimal adverts, minimal chat. I don’t work for them, I promise.  Repeats guaranteed and probably obligatory.

I do listen to modern music and more obscure music but the longevity of these classic tracks fascinates me. They are “chosen” and held through the filtering of time, collected together and presented through the medium of dad vibe disc jockeys. It’s a guilty pleasure but I have a builder’s level of love for these tracks. 

Thanks so much for speaking to us, we love the album!!!

Anytime! So glad you enjoyed x

Swimming Static is out May 28th. Catch the new single “Purely Educational” below.

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Q&A: Katy Sargent from Elder Island
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