Avalon Emerson: Powerful Visions
For Avalon Emerson, making electronic music has become a streamlined process of bringing the songs and stories in her head to life. “When I picture my music, it’s a lot of shades and patterns. It’s pretty vivid,” she tells me on a hot Berlin afternoon. The fast-rising DJ and producer’s music has the ability to take us from windswept desert vistas to digitised dreamscapes,celestial planes, or the extraterrestrial landscape of her own strange planet.
Case in point: The Frontier, which was released via London imprint Whities in 2016, was inspired by a childhood spent in the desert of Gilbert, Arizona. “There’s a harshness to the inhabitability of the desert, but there’s also an overwhelming beauty to it,” she says after a long pause. “I think there’s some of the desert in my music, for sure… Heavy, powerful, straightforward – but that can also be really delicate. It doesn’t have to be all grit.”
Despite the desert imagery feeling so strong you could almost taste the sand, The Frontier certainly wasn’t all grit. The EP’s title track, propelled by a throbbing 4/4 beat and overflowing with the strains of a deep synth melody, is a love letter to her childhood surroundings. “Try as we might,” she says of the record, “we can’t escape where we came from. You hold a fondness for the place you started out in, even if you wanted nothing more when you were 16 than to leave that fucking place.”
“It’s fun to think about extraterrestrial bodies around us, shaking things up when they’re thrown into prograde and retrograde orbits”
Emerson admits she spent much of her teenage years wishing she could escape her hometown. Instead, she found her escape through music. “Arizona is definitely a very harsh place to grow up,” she explains. “The desert really feels like you’re on Mars sometimes, it’s such a different landscape. The oppressive heat in the summertime when you’re off from school and you’re supposed to be out having fun. Politically it’s also very tense. But it breeds a lot of punk and DIY and noisy stuff, which was super cool to be around.”
A child of the millennium, Emerson’s early connection to music was, much like today, through the Internet. “Born in 88, that’s what happens!” she laughs, “Napster, Morpheus, Emule, Kazaa, Limewire… Back when it took you like two days to download a song! Very early on, the Internet was a massive thing for me. I spent a lot of time in chat rooms and ILM (I Love Music, an early Internet chat forum) boards talking about music. There wasn’t any dance music in Arizona that I really connected with… We did go to some sketchy desert raves but they were playing happy hardcore and stuff that I didn’t necessarily resonate with.” After a move to San Francisco for college, she starting DJing out in 2009, playing out at warehouse parties she and her friends were throwing, before eventually taking her craft to Berlin. After moving to the German capital, Avalon Emerson’s reputation as an adventurous selector increased significantly, and you can now find her DJing some of Europe’s most coveted clubs, including Berlin’s Panorama Bar and Amsterdam’s De School.
A recent trip back to the Bay Area was the setting for the creation of Emerson’s new release Narcissus in Retrograde, a four-tracker set to drop on Spectral Sound in November. Musing on the record’s title, she explains a winking interest in astrology. “My mom is very good at reading tarot cards. Have you ever done a full natal chart or anything like that?” she asks. “As someone who was working as a software engineer for years, whose income relied on applied logic, it’s fun to think about extraterrestrial bodies around us, shaking things up when they’re thrown into prograde and retrograde orbits. I try to pay attention to those vague celestial vibrations and see what needs to change, when to turn those leaves.”
Narcissus moves effortlessly on from The Frontier. But the record, like Emerson, hasn’t forgotten where it came from either. Narcissus’ alien terrain is, perhaps, a mirror for the harsh desert landscape we encountered with The Frontier, but there’s a weight to the new release that comes from that the influence of her journey, a movement in flux that works against everything she’s done and been taught in the past; her planet in direct motion. “A couple of the tracks on this release are definitely really strong emotional follow-ups to The Frontier,” she explains, “But it has more to do with where I was in my life when I wrote it. Not a lot of today’s electronic music is overtly personal. And some of that comes from the lack of lyrical content. You know, it’s harder to glean a lot of emotional weight from kickdrums.”
As such, narcissism, a typically negative trait, is suddenly thrown into antithesis under Emerson’s hand as she interprets her own experiences into music. The resulting distillation is a sound that is entirely, uniquely herself: “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘It’s kind of crazy… Meeting you and hearing your music, I totally see the connection,’ which is a massive compliment. I hope I don’t lose that!”
All things considered, Emerson continues to push forward, both musically and otherwise. “It’s been an insane year,” she says somewhat seriously, but she’s smiling. “Lots of changes, a lot of good things, lots of shedding skin, exorcisms, growth, going against the path that I’ve gone forward on for a long time… And turning that around has been a very positive thing.”
Narcissus in Retrograde is released in November via Spectral Sound
Avalon Emerson appears at Crack Magazine/In:Motion, Bristol, 10 December