When I hear solo vocal improvisations, they hit a little bit differently. There’s such vulnerability in the approach. Nowhere to hide. Over the last year, Karen Vogt has made some of my favorite music in that realm, and she continues pushing herself further out into the deep end. The results have been fantastic (and she has a new release in her Little Pink Fluffy Clouds series of vocal recordings coming out tomorrow via Bandcamp). Along with her band Heligoland and recent collaboration with Pepo Galán, Vogt is on quite a run.
First, I’d love to hear about some of your earliest memories of music and sound. What formative experiences when you were younger have stuck with you through the years?
Staying in the car while mum ran errands and listening to the radio alone. Listening to my walkman on the bus and being so in my own world that I miss my stop. Playing my big sister’s record collection alone and reading the vinyl liner notes and lyrics. Some music has a magical quality that makes time stand still and the outside world disappear. As a shy girl, music was an escape and a refuge.
I grew up in a single-parent family, and to make ends meet, my mum played piano and sang at bars and restaurants on some weekends. When the house was empty, sometimes I’d get her microphone, and little amp out and quietly talk or sing into it. I liked how a whisper could be loud. At that point, I had no desire to do music at all. It was just an innocent observation of how the voice becomes amplified that I would circle back to many years later.
Did you always want to be a musician?
No. By the time I was actually playing music, it was clear that only a few people could make a career from it. I have always had a day job to support myself. It terrified me to be in a position where I relied on my music to make money. I never felt ready or good enough for this high-pressure relationship with my music. Making music was a pleasure for me. It wasn’t work. I worked so I could afford to play music.
What first pushed you into writing and creating your own sounds?
My brother died when I was 19, and it was a really painful time in my life. I had difficulty accepting it and trying to understand the “why” of it all. He used to play guitar and had an electric guitar that mum gave me after his death. Sometimes I would just gently strum the strings. I felt close to him when I played it. I borrowed a guitar chord book from the local library to learn more. Then I began humming with some chords until, at one moment, I was kind of singing. The next thing I knew, I was writing songs and had formed my first and only band, Heligoland. There have been many supportive people along the way, but my brother’s death was the catalyst.
So this is probably not a surprise, but the first thing I think about your music is your voice and all the beautiful ways you use it. Have you had any kind of training or anything through the years? Or do you have different exercises you do?
I didn’t have vocal training. I don’t do any vocal exercises. I have no interest in that. I have no idea what I am doing, but I like that. The only singing I do outside my music is silly little love songs for my cats. Singing was always cathartic and therapeutic and something I did as part of my grieving process. I just want to do my thing and sound like me.
With my band Heligoland, very early on, the guys asked me to sing a song a bit higher, and that’s how I found my higher range. But I suspect it was so they didn’t have to transpose the chords to a lower range!
Learning how to say thank you when people complimented me on my voice took a while. Because of my low self-esteem, I either dismissed them as having bad taste or assumed they felt sorry for me and were just being kind. I didn’t feel comfortable taking myself seriously and still struggle with that. But I accept that I may never hear my voice as others hear it, and that’s okay because my reasons for making music don’t need outside validation. What is more meaningful to me is when someone connects and feels something. That’s worth more than anything.
What is it about singing and using your voice in all the different ways you do that you love most?
I like that ride of unpredictability and not knowing what will happen. Especially the first moment when I listen to a piece of music for a guest vocal or a collaboration. I let my voice react to the piece of music. Experience has taught me to have all my recording things ready to capture my first response because it’s where all the seeds are. My first reaction informs me the most because it’s instinctual.
I have recently been micro-looping my vocals and using the loops so they sound like a synthesizer. I did this for the track I Know It’s Hard on the US label Past Inside The Present benefit compilation released earlier this year. It is made with only my voice and a shake of the house keys. Every voice has its own unique sound, just like we all have a unique fingerprint, and it’s really trippy when you hear multiple layers of your own voice. I also love running my vocals through guitar pedals – especially delays!
You’ve been doing these vocal-only (or mostly vocal) pieces in the last year or so on your Bandcamp, often as EPs and sometimes with some minimal instrumental accompaniment, and I’ve absolutely loved them. What prompted the idea to explore these realms sonically, and what pushed you into writing and recording these pieces then?
I am not a workshop person, but in March 2019, I decided to attend a workshop run by Italian composer/sound artist Alessandro Bosetti. He guided a small group of musicians through long sessions of immersion in complete darkness as we all improvised with an instrument or our voice. I used my voice, sometimes singing unamplified, but mostly using a microphone and a vocal processor whose LED lights were blocked out.
This workshop was a reset for my ears, and it gave me a deeper appreciation of improvisation. I was so inspired that I started a free monthly (female only) improvisation session with another musician friend. But when covid arrived in 2020, that ended, and I couldn’t afford to rent my rehearsal space anymore. So I did solo improvisations at home in a corner of the lounge room to continue this practice.
In 2020 I had my first solo release on the French label Coriolis Sounds, using the voices of friends and strangers whispering the phrase “I Just Want to Feel.” Making this EP from other voices (I did not appear on it) gave me the courage to try longer improvisation sessions with my voice.
The first improvisation I released was an edit of a session I did for Reflejos (Argentina) in 2020. I just sat down with my guitar, some pedals, and my microphone and made something up on the spot. Later I edited it into a track that became the release Heartsease.
I did more improvisation sessions and eventually released four EPs as digital-only on my Bandcamp that varied between vocal only and vocal/guitar improvisations. French label Stellar Frequencies released a cassette-only compilation of these four EPs called Now and Then, Again.
During the main lockdown in 2020, I began a weekly radio show called “Little Pink Fluffy Clouds” (LPFC) that ran for 6 months. I enjoyed doing these LPFC sessions, and that radio show became an important weekly devotional practice for me as I would improvise for 1 to 3 hours at a time. I eventually stopped to concentrate on making an album with Pepo Galán and do some other projects. I chose material I liked from those LPFC sessions and am now quietly releasing it on my Bandcamp as a series of four albums (A, B, C, and D). A is vocal ambient, and B (releasing in September) is sweet little lullabies with voice and guitar. C will be experimental, and then D is all my favorites. My beautiful and talented graphic designer friend Caro Mikalef created gorgeous artwork for it. I love having a strong visual identity for each project. I think it’s so important.
For a moment, I considered turning this LPFC material into actual songs. But these improvisations feel special to me and have their own charm. You can hear me hesitating, fumbling, moving towards something, or just hear the idea pass through.
It’s been so interesting to hear your voice take on all these different shapes, timbres, and textures. What have you learned or taken away from these sessions about what is possible with your voice?
It’s important for me to play and explore without self-judgment. Have fun and create for my own growth and pleasure. I am not a machine built to pump out music or make everything I write be a “hit.” I am full of creativity and am continually feeling, reflecting, reaching, and figuring it out as I go along. I can appreciate the cracks, limits, and scratches in my voice because they make me human.
What surprised you most about doing them?
I was surprised by how deep you can go and how beautifully lost you can become with improvisation. I arrived at some fascinating places with no idea how I got there. A few people told me directly that they didn’t like this weird, experimental stuff I was doing. I had braced myself for criticism. However, the joy of doing these improvisations just drowns any criticism – even my inner critic. It’s like seeing a photograph of a very happy moment in your life. Your face looks distorted and weird – but you don’t see that. You just see how happy you were at that moment.
It also helped me to be my own curator by sorting through all the improvisations to find what I liked. It’s not easy when you have hours of improvised stuff, but you learn to trust yourself and your decisions. Maybe you just cut out something that someone else would have liked. I figure if it’s really that good, then the idea will return to you in another way.
I also have to ask about the still fresh album you did with Pepo Galán. It’s such a memorable and poignant piece of work. How did you and Pepo first meet and start working together anyway?
I contributed a one-minute vocal loop work to the Thesis Recurring project, curated by Gregory Euclide. Pepo heard this and contacted me. He was reworking some material by Benoît Pioulard and invited me to do vocals for it, and this became the song “Try To Be (More) Realistic.” We worked well together in an intuitive way and had a good connection. He sent me his ideas, which evolved into the album we released at the end of 2021 as Galán/Vogt called The Sweet Wait.
What were some of the challenges you all had to overcome in making the album?
Making the music was the easy part. I adore working with Pepo. We worked quickly and easily in our separate homes in France and Spain as we passed files back and forth. My heart was stubbornly set on a vinyl release, and I had invited my friend Akira Rabelais to create two beautiful codas for the last song on sides A and B. But when we reached out to some labels, they were unable to release it until 2023 or couldn’t press the vinyl. Finally, we financed the mastering and the vinyl ourselves and self-released it on my imprint Editions Furioso.
Despite all the hold-ups with vinyl pressing, it was pressed quickly through a Spanish company. We released the album at the end of 2021 after releasing a few singles first, and we had videos made for every song. We had to wait until recently to afford to get the CDs pressed. Money is always a challenge for me with all of my music projects.
Promoting this album was also a challenge with no budget. Contacting press places and organizing distribution takes lots of time and energy. Consequently, I didn’t seek out promotion for the solo work I have done since then. I just want to focus on making the music. But the remix of The Sweet Wait album is coming very soon, so I hope to get some help with promotion for that because we have some amazing artists doing the remixes!
As we barrel towards 2023, what are you working on now, and what’s coming up for you down the road?
In September, there are two ambient tracks I collaborated on being released on the Dutch label Ambientologist for the “Sustain Series 3”. Album B of Little Pink Fluffy Clouds will be released at the end of September, and soon I will announce the physical versions for that. The remix album for The Sweet Wait is coming, so expect a digital single soon with two awesome remixes from Akira Rabelais, followed by Alpha, Markus Guentner, and three amazing female artists that I will announce soon.
Around November, an EP will be released with the label Superpang of my guitar and guitar/vocal-based improvisations. A small label has invited me to write a solo album, and I can’t wait to start on that soon! I also just started a little fortnightly radio show called “Lost, Found, and Lost Again” on CAMP. It’s my way to support other musicians, give back to the community by sharing new music, and just enjoy playing other people’s music. I spend so much time on my music, so it’s nice to just do those mixes. So there is lots to come this year and more to look out for next year too!