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Listen With Sarah - Interview with Sarah Nelson

  by Emma Haigh

published: 21 / 7 / 2005

Listen With Sarah - Interview with Sarah Nelson


One of the last artists to attract the attention of the late John Peel, Sarah Nelson makes music using just her computer. Emma Haigh talks to her about her self-released debut album on her own label 'Are You Sitting Comfortably ?"

One of the last artists to make the favourite list of John Peel, Sarah Nelson's debut album , 'Are We Sitting Comfortably ?", which she has recently released on her own Womb Records, is a collection of four previously unreleased EPs starting with the 3-track demo that first captivated Peel in the two months before his death. Sarah, who lives in an Essex forest. is a computer musician, and first began making music in 2002. She describes the album on her website www.listenwithsarah.org as having been made "on PC...with inspiration from neptune, and the ancient art of computer whispering." Pennyblackmusic spoke to her about her unique and highly individual way of making music. PB : Hi Sarah, I should introduce myself before ploughing ahead with a load of nosy questions: I recently did a review of your new, or rather debut album. I really enjoyed it! The way you play with sound and juxaposition is fantastic. I am very curious to know how you got started and what made you listen to the Microsoft sounds so differently. SN : I am pleased to meet you, and thanks for a very nice review! I'm trying to remember when I first had the idea to play with Microsoft Sounds. I know I'd had the thought for a while. Actually I was surprised nobody else had done it - it seemed the obvious thing to do, as a computer musician, to use what have become everyday sounds for many of us. The Beatbox Saboteurs did make a fun track a few years back called 'Windows 2002', which included Microsoft Sounds along with George Formby and his ukelele doing 'When I'm Cleaning Windows.' I'm sure that helped to inspire the idea, though I'd forgotten about it until Skreen (of Beatbox/Cuban Boys) reminded me... My experience has been that some people love 'My Crow's Soft Sounds', for example, and some people hate it (which fascinates and amuses me!). I think it depends on how people feel towards their computer and email arriving etc.. And some (many) people, of course, don't recognise the sounds. I like to think of that track as my computer singing. PB: Your description of hearing the computer 'sing' is a great way of interpreting it! Have you always listened to things that way, or is it a talent that's become more conscious? SN: Perhaps I've always listened in this way. I don't know if it's a talent. I experience the desire to perceive the world in alternative ways, perhaps? I think I share an ancient human need to see beauty (and hear harmony) in everything. PB: I have to admit that usually so-called 'computer-noises' . There, however, is a certain majesty that comes with the strange blips and pops that come with anything that you have to plug in to come alive rather like clicking a pen or the rustle of sand paper. I remember as a child driving my mum nuts with tapping out make-up Morse with pencils and getting hypnotised by the rhythmic sweeping noise of crayons. I also remember putting on my own lighting shows playing to see if I could make the plug spark! SN: I like the sound of your childhood sound experiments! I can't think of any specific things I did as a child, which may be because I've forgotten them, but apparently I used to disappear into my room to "experiment" generally. I do remember enjoying Spike Milligan poems and being excited by the idea of lateral thinking - I enjoyed the experience of looking at the world in another way. I do like to remember that the world can always be looked at (and listened to) in another way. I often forget. PB: Have you tried using other media in your songs? SN: Not yet, though it's something I'm quite keen to explore through, for example, recording my own everyday sounds and the physical noises of my computer. A microphone shall be my next musical purchase. I like the idea of using the everyday sounds around us in new contexts, preferably more harmonious ones than we're used to (e.g. 'My Crow's Soft Sounds'). I believe there was an 20th century composer-from the 1930's maybe-who used the street sounds of New york in his compositions. I don't know his name and have been trying to find out about him on the internet... without success so far. I'm also quite drawn to the idea of turning mistakes into art... for example, using sound files altered by computer crashes, turning error noises into music rather than irritation. 'Another Nice Mix' (out on 7" in the autumn) came out of a desire to turn human and machine errors into part of the music (comedy). It includes computer voices, radio beeps, the sounds of a CD getting stuck, confused DJs and some serendipitous mixing. PB: What about experimenting with other 'blank' non-sound specific software? SN: I'm not entirely sure what you mean here. Do you mean like using the sounds associated with Apple Mac's operating system, for example? Or, perhaps you mean it more generally... PB: I think I was referring more to other operating systems. SN: No, I haven't. I quite fancy playing with other blips and bleeps like mobile phone sounds. I was particularly inspired by one episode of 'Spaced' (Simon Pegg...are you familiar with this?)... There's a party-going bike-riding drug-dealer/courier character who starts dancing to any repetitive sounds, like the phone ringing over a boiling kettle and the pedestrian crossing beeps. In these scenes the incidental sounds have been edited together into some great music. I quite fancied doing something similar and playing with the idea. PB: Living in the forest as you do it's fascinating that you would end up finding music in technology.. SN: I feel drawn to both nature and technology. At various times I've wanted to reject technology, but that never felt right. I long to embrace them both somehow, without experiencing a conflict. Some cultures (like certain Native Americans) see everything as being alive, which seems like a healthy way to look at the world., as opposed to projecting sentimental human values onto things and animals, which sucks. PB: Have you ever tried taking sound bites from the forest, or at least the natural spaces that surround your house and manipulate them the way you have Microsoft Sounds (i.e. just using the sound bites rather than dubbed over as in 'Animal Hop')? SN: Not yet, but I've certainly thought about both things and want to explore them more. I've imagined using animal sounds in the place of all drum kit and bass sounds... It seem I have these waves of ideas that come and go and I either catch them at certain times or wait for them to come around again and coincide with the inspiration to pursue them... I often feel like I'm waiting. PB : Thank you.

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Are You Sitting Comfortably ? (2005)
Quirky, intelligent pop on first album from Listen with Sarah, one of the last Peel-endorsed acts and the alias for Sussex-based musician Sarah Nelson and her computer

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