An Interview with Embaci

Will Gottsegen speaks with Embaci about New York public schools, electronic music's new voices, and working with NON Projects.
By    June 28, 2018

Photo credit: Søren Drastrup

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In her first email to me, Embaci signed her name with a red rose and a crossed-swords emoji.

It was a quick note, just a brief response to my initial interview request, but even in that first email, Embaci was flirting with the sense of duality that’s come to define her recent musical output. Her production favors the coarse, layered synths and harsh metallic sheen of artists like SOPHIE and Elysia Crampton, but Embaci brings a real softness to her sound by way of her singular vocal performances. It’s thin, silky fabric over a dense compositional core. Embaci finds her way in these extreme modes of warmth and hostility—the rose and the crossed-swords.

It started with “tides,” a three-minute slice of bathroom pop (her bedroom wasn’t quiet enough for recording) uploaded to SoundCloud with an array of self-effacing hashtags. Think: #annoying, #repetitive, #idk, and #church of angels that pray on the beach with no organ but a cheap keyboard. After graduating from performing arts high school in New York City, she found her way into an international electronic music scene that extends from Bossa Nova in Bushwick to the CTM Festival in Berlin. A 2016 show with Red Bull Music Academy opened the door; since then, she’s developed close working relationships with NON WORLDWIDE founders Angel-Ho, Nkisi, and Chino Amobi, and has performed with the likes of Dasychira and Laurel Halo, going from high school contralto opera singer to experimental auteur in the span of just a few years. Most recently, she’s contributed to NON’s Trilogy compilation series and Physically Sick 2, presented by Allergy Season and Discwoman.

In everything she does, that duality persists. And she persists, just by being present in the music. —Will Gottsegen

How did you get into making music? I first heard your stuff on the NON Trilogy and Allergy Season compilations this past spring, and I’m curious how one gets into that world of electronic sound.

Embaci: I went to school for classical music and jazz, so I was always doing something that was far more structured. I was making my own stuff on SoundCloud that was more experimental, that wasn’t just contemporary neo-soul or pop music, it was a little more far out. Around 2016 I was introduced to NON, and Chino Amobi, and Elysia Crampton, and meeting them and getting to work with them, it made me feel like I’d found a community of people that I could just share stuff with.

The tracks on the NON thing and Allergy Season thing are so far apart. The Allergy Season one was me sampling things from a walk I had that day, and the one I did on the NON thing was all music software, MIDI keyboard and synthetic sounds, where the other was all natural.

You went to school for classical music? Where?

Embaci: I went to [Fiorello H.] LaGuardia High School, I was studying to be a contralto opera singer. I had a voice coach, I was learning all my arias, like—junior year, that was what I wanted to do. And then senior year I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to do jazz,’ so I went to the New School for jazz.

Did you see that Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj are squashing the beef and linking up for a LaGuardia reunion?

Embaci: Oh my god, why am I not invited? I love hearing stuff like that.

I know you’ve collaborated with Klein and Elysia Crampton in addition to NON and Allergy Season, and you’ve done shows with Laurel Halo. These are some of the more politically-minded artists and projects in electronic music right now. Where does politics intersect with music for you?

Embaci: There are a lot of ways to be political in music without it having to be this clear-cut way of doing it. No one in NON is writing a song called “I’m a Democrat.” The political aspect of it comes from just being present with your own ideas. Chino and Elysia, these are really intelligent people in terms of how they convey ideas through music. You just feel like, this is a reflection of the times we are in, or of how they’ve had their own experiences. That in itself is a huge voice.

Angel Ho is from South Africa and Nkisi is from London, but she still has her own experiences of growing up in a predominantly white environment, and how that’s conveyed through music. FAKA, as well. All of us come from backgrounds and experiences that are being shared and voiced that haven’t had this type of attention in electronic music. I feel like it’s really new for people, just putting a face and a presence to people that hasn’t always been there. That in itself is political, and stems from just being present.

In regards to myself, a lot of the music I make isn’t just from the standpoint of, ‘these are my political views.’ Even just allowing myself to be expressive and not only reflect on the political stuff around me. What’s my life like beyond just being black in America? What else is there to me besides those two things? I think it’s good that people are getting a taste of so many different experiences through electronic music right now.

What was the process of making that track, “Walk on May 5th,” for the Physically Sick 2 compilation?

Embaci: It’s called “Walk on May 5th” because that’s when Chino’s record came out and my friend Toxe’s record came out, and I was so nervous. It’s one of those things where you just want to see your friends do well. I was featured on both of their records, but I was still really anxious as if they were my records. So I went on a walk, and it was a really rainy day, the city had flooded. I walked outside and it was just rain lifting up all the residue and garbage down the street, no birds hanging out, just torrential rain. I had this new recorder, this little red thing I was walking around with. That was the first track I made on there, and I never continued making tracks on it.

How do you hope to keep growing musically? And who do you want to work with down the line?

Embaci: I want to keep growing in terms of growth within myself. As you get older you get to know yourself better, and when you get to know yourself better, you’re not as in your head. A really old person, they’re just like walking down the street and they don’t even care if their hair is undone, they’re just living their best life.

That’s how I want to grow in my music, with that feeling of an old person who doesn’t care how people think. It’s growth and it’s knowing myself more, and knowing what the benefit of that will be for my music. And the more music I do, I meet more friends. I want to do work I can incorporate all my friends in. I’m around people who are similar to me, who I can grow alongside. I can produce stuff by myself, I write a lot by myself, but I get more joy out of doing a show where I have six people with me.

And yet you wrote on Facebook, “Most days I feel like a slug, but also a mongoose, ready to snap some necks.”

Embaci: When I wrote that I was in a funny relationship, and I felt super lackadaisical, like a slug. Even when I work, I work in bed. Everyone’s like, ‘Come to the studio,’ and I’m like, ‘I’ll just stay here.’ But once I get passionate about something I get very intense, I’ll be up until 4 AM just writing and writing and sending stems to people back and forth, and then the next day I may just sit in bed and watch SVU and not even go on the computer or respond to emails. So I feel like I’m really a slug, but also a mongoose.

I love reading about my favorite artists and learning that they’re secretly lazy sometimes, too. Because the moment I’m lazy I’m like, I’m failing, I should always be working. I read this article about Gwen Stefani, who I think is so funny, and she was like, I just want to sit at home all day and eat hot dogs and cheeseburgers. I just thought that was so funny, because Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is one of my favorite records, and she was talking about being lazy during it, and having to tell her brain it had to work. When I wrote that song for the NON compilation, “Hymnal Pine Heart,” I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and not getting out of bed. And then Klein and I were talking and she was like, ‘Did you finish that track for the NON compilation?’

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