I am smitten with Carmen Jaci’s debut, Happy Child. It’s an album filled with joy and wonder, all communicated through compelling compositions and intricate sonic patterns. There are so many elements whirring and singing at any given moment, and it can be dizzying but in an engaging, whimsical way. Everything in the world of Happy Child sounds pristine, but it’s never cold or sterile. Instead, Happy Child is a playful world of aural delights that delivers impossible magic dancing through every corridor.
I always like to go all the way back to the beginning to start interviews. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?
My earliest memories of music are from my mother singing Brazilian lullabies to help me sleep. I remember most clearly “Se essa rua fosse minha” and “Flor Mamãe” that sparked vivid images of mysterious flowered gardens and bushes with hidden angels, carrying nostalgic lyrics and harmonies. Living with my parents, there was music playing every day in the living room as my father was a music enthusiast of all sorts of genres, especially world, classical, and new age. This, mixed with the Super Mario World and Donkey Kong soundtracks, accounts for my earliest musical references.
Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?
Pretty much! I decided at the age of five that I wanted to become a composer after watching Amadeus with my parents. I was very moved by this movie which is (loosely) about the life of Mozart and includes poignant excerpts of some of his best music. I told my parents afterward that I wanted to be a musician like him; they took the matter very seriously and immediately signed me up for piano lessons. I didn’t question my decision ever again, nor was I questioned by others about it, which made it quite simple and straightforward. I started composing simple piano pieces very early on as I liked messing around on the instrument (much more than I liked rehearsing existing pieces), and by the time I started experimenting with computer software like FruityLoops and Reason as a teenager, I had already developed some instrumental compositional skills.
How did you first become interested in synthesis, and what draws you to it as a significant part of your creative practice?
Through my older siblings, I discovered the music of Moby in the mid-2000s, and this modern electronic world really resonated with me. There’s an alien quality in synthesized sounds that I’ve always found very evocative and attractive. These sounds combined with an electronic music production style – where sound elements are mostly placed and manipulated in a computer – resulted in pure ecstasy to my ears. After completing my instrumental compositional education in conservatories, I had a thirst to deepen my synthesis and sound design skills in order to express myself through a more personal sound palette. I find that I am the most creative mixing these synthesized sounds with acoustic instrument recordings, perhaps giving the listeners a sense of musical augmented reality.
Let’s talk about Happy Child since that’s the most pressing thing right now. When and where did the idea for this album first begin?
As soon as I transitioned from my classical composition practice to an electronic one around seven years ago, I always had the goal of releasing a full-length electronic album. This happened shortly after I moved from Canada to the Netherlands. The idea behind this album was to craft a personal language that would incorporate my contemporary classical writing skills into a crisp electronic production mix, effectively combining both of these interests, which I found separately present in the music around me. It was important for me that the results would hold up to other successful contemporary electronic mixes in terms of loudness, depth, stereo and height – but also feature a contemporary classical writing style that encouraged technical deconstruction. In my first years of research, it seemed like I was going to have to compromise on either one aspect or the other, as the consistent low end needed in a tall mix takes quite a bit of spectral space away from the organic freedom of often omnipresent other frequential content of classical compositions. After developing a highly deconstructed and micro-edited composition style that tended to all of these concerns, I think tracks like “Assemblages” and “Danse lunaire” in Happy Child come out as examples of a successful marriage between both themes.
I can’t imagine counting how many instruments/elements appear on Happy Child. It’s utterly remarkable to me. But the biggest stand out is your voice, even if it’s only heard in the slightest fragments. Everything feels so pristine throughout the album, but those little voice snippets add an entirely different timbre, a sort of humanizing warmth to this wild, wonderful sound world. How do you think of your voice in terms of it being an instrument? Do you approach it any differently than the rest of your arsenal?
I agree that the voice adds warmth and a sense of intimacy in these mostly abstract pieces, which is why I’m always inclined to include it everywhere – although, given the deconstructed nature of my musical language, it is difficult to work with lyrics or even individual words of more than one syllable. I do approach my voice differently than another instrument, as I’m aware of the affects it carries and will use it as a kind of emotional spice. Also, frequency-wise, I think its airiness adds a nice shine to my mixes, adding to the music’s sensory impact in people’s ears. Ultimately, I think it has come to be a defining characteristic of my music, as I’m positioning myself in the middle of the experiences I am conveying in my tracks and making them more personal.
The other big thing is the amount of movement in your music. It’s dizzying and wonderful and sometimes overwhelming, but that feeling of there being this constant motion happening always makes me want to get up and move. It’s great. Can you talk briefly about the importance of movement in your work?
My attention span is quite short, and when it comes to attentively listening to music, I need to be stimulated with novelty at a fast pace in order to prevent boredom. The right balance between repetition and newness in a track sits differently for everyone, and I think that, in my case, it leans much more towards the latter than the average listener. This overly developmental quality manifests itself most predominantly in my compositions’ meso-level (somewhere between the micro and macro levels of the compositional form) – where, as seconds pass, we hear whole musical entities being constantly reconfigured and/or mutated within the electronic arrangement.
And maybe the aspect of Happy Child I responded to the most is the sense of playfulness and joy throughout. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot more generally, how, especially right now, joy and fun feel like such important emotions to bring to music. When music is “serious” but also fun – it’s so fantastic. What do you think fun and joy and all that in-between can bring to your music, and why is that important to you?
For some reason, it doesn’t feel authentic when I start making a “serious” track, and it will quickly take a playful turn as I continue working on it. I think my own way of processing trauma is through humour that carries hints of discomfort, and this is ultimately portrayed in my music’s foundational vibe. I don’t feel like this is the result of a choice because I would not be productive if I didn’t follow my gut decisions in the creative process or, in other words, didn’t stay true to myself. In the past, I have already seen this as a sort of dumb limitation, but I have since grown very fond of this core characteristic – I think it adds a lot of charm to my music.
What, in terms of your music and creative practice, brings you joy?
I’m lucky enough to have a decent studio environment with great sound absorption and speakers, amongst other equipment. I feel like I can get high just listening to sounds at all stages of the creative process, whether it’s in the sound design, composition, mixing, or mastering stage (I did all of these things in Happy Child). In fact, I’m very passionate about the sound quality of music in general and its ever-advancing production standards in the industry – it doesn’t even matter what the music is as long as it’s well produced. Every stage of the creative process has its own perks! I like the research behind crafting good sounds to work with at the beginning; I don’t need to worry about anything else than their sonic quality, and it feels almost meditative to me. The composition part is the most challenging one as developing the track in an interesting way requires all of my brain resources (but can also get quite addictive when I start getting on a roll!). When everything is coming together at the mixing and mastering levels, where I get to enhance all of my previous efforts in a more technical and relaxed state of mind, that’s when it starts feeling very gratifying and exciting.
How were you challenged in bringing Happy Child to fruition?
The process leading to the record’s completion made me question my own sanity more than a few times. I lacked experience in just about every aspect of this project, starting with working out a complex musical identity crisis where I had to find out what exactly I wanted to do in both conceptual and concrete terms. This took multiple years to solve (and it’s not like the matter is closed, as I will be shifting my musical output again after this record, although to a lesser extent). Then there was the problem of this music’s delivery in the production realm, which was even more difficult to overcome. Again, multiple years were spent learning electronic production, sound design, mixing, and mastering, as well as building several dozens of acoustic panels and perfecting the acoustics of my studio on my own. There was a back and forth between learning new information and skills and exercising them on my already composed but poorly produced pieces. I would then compare the results with my favourite musical references and, to my despair, find there was still a long way to go before they sounded even close. Skipping through a lot more of that, at some point, I finally completed one track where I was satisfied with the levels of production, mixing, and mastering, and proceeded to reproduce the same steps for all of the other compositions I had already gathered for the album by then; this stage took about another year. Delivering the final eight audio files to Noumenal Loom felt like throwing the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.
A quick shift of gear before closing here, can you tell me a little about your studio practice and the lessons you offer? I feel like that would be something quite interesting to a lot of people reading this.
Over the years, I feel like I’ve acquired some helpful expertise in music production, mixing, and mastering, and I am now offering lessons and mastering services. I wish I would have had more individually tailored professional guidance on every aspect of my personal research in the last decade, and I am available to whoever would like to benefit from my experience.
And lastly, since the year is still just getting started. What are you looking forward to, or are you hopeful for, in 2023?
I’m really excited for Happy Child’s release party on May 14th as part of Noumenal Loom’s 1-day festival at Public Records in NYC, with an amazing lineup including Motion Graphics, Holly Waxwing, Digifae, Broken Spear, Shiner, OrangeTone and Caloric. I’m also looking forward to performing at Mutek Festival in Montreal next summer with Matthew Schoen and his stunning 3D visuals. Collectif Triangle, an art collective I’m part of together with Matthew and my sister Nathalie Vanderveken, will present its next video Corps augmenté in June at the upcoming exhibition of Quebec’s Musée ambulant in collaboration with the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke. Plus, I’ll finally be working on some new techno-inspired material to create an experimental dance set which I am quite ecstatic about!