Even though this was only Emika's third gig, live performance is a natural extension of her production work: "I'm always thinking about the people in the audience, and how I can use the volume within a club scenario to influence how they feel—physically, mentally and emotionally. In the studio, when I write, I'm assuming what's going to affect people. But in the moment of playing live there's a response from an audience, so I'm always thinking about playing with the people—rather than showing myself off."
Emika's determination not to take the spotlight away from her music is one reason she has been slow to step out of the shadows. The work for which she is arguably most famous, at least in techno-centric Berlin, is as a sound designer. The Native Instruments employee made field recordings in Berghain to be used as source material for last year's Ostgut Ton compilation Fünf.
"There was this moment," she recalls, "when I realised 'Oh my god, Berghain got voted number one club in the world, and there's this thing about 'it's so hard to get into…' And then I worried about how I would be perceived in the media, people thinking 'Oh here's this girl, and she's now over here doing something with Berghain'. And it wasn't like that… It's really about the sounds in that place, it's not about me at all. It could have been anyone in there with a mic, recording that stuff, it just happened to be me."
And for every high-profile guest vocal (My My, Paul Frick) there is something like Emika's collaboration with fellow expat Berliner/music tech Tommy Four Seven, on whose Primate album she appears, uncredited and barely recognisable. As with Fünf, the music comes before egos—and money. "I love to meet people," she states simply. "And I love to share things with people and I love to swap music and swap ideas, and I'm very open with that. I give my team a hard time, because they always want to do 'proper collaborations' and do the paperwork first, but they have these nightmares trying to work out the splits in the deal afterwards!"
Emika's ambivalence towards the business side of her chosen field ("I care more about art and communication and expression than I do about selling music") means that she has remained equally elusive on her solo releases. Ninja Tune debut "Drop the Other"—about her outsider status in an industry still dominated by men—came with a video that showed her only as shifting shapes of light. Follow-up "Double Edge" cropped in close on a flickering screen where the artist was obscured by smudges and heavy black bars. Recent release "Count Backwards" features disorientating strobes and sub-aqua shots. The performance piece filmed in Maria might be a conscious decision to finally bring Emika into focus.
"I am very wary of today's desperation in the media to find stars," she admits. "There's a lot of people that want to be star-makers, and I'm very, very nervous about the potential Emika 'character' that's going to be made in the media. Everyone's looking for the next dubstep star, and everyone wants to champion something new."
they're dark and purple and mysterious,
and then you eat them and they
don't taste at all how they look. "
The commercialisation of dubstep is something Emika has witnessed first-hand. Her musical revelation came when she moved to Bristol, a "wide-eyed kid" of just 17, and stumbled across the bass scene via a chance encounter with Pinch. It was at one of his parties with Loefah and Digital Mystikz that she first heard dubstep: "It was a very different sound to the commercial dubstep now. I got this feeling in my stomach—the bass and the frequencies and the space. I was really alone with the sound, and it was loud and it was all around me. It wasn't about drinking or looking cool or anything, it was just about bass—and meditation and relaxation. That's definitely where my musical sensibility was learned."
While her old friends Mala and Pinch (who remixed "Double Edge") have remained true to their music's origins, Emika has seen a shift in the industry: "a big movement of all the commercial record labels doing deals with underground artists, bringing dubstep to a more commercial place." This, she says, has "changed the intention behind the music. The intention is to make huge hits—it's completely different from a guy sat on his own in Bristol making a beat."
The bastardisation of bass music is one reason why Emika avoids referring to her music as "dubstep." "Genre tags really suffocate my artistic integrity. I'm not trying to cause conflict or make a point, but I feel that genre descriptions often create the wrong kind of expectations." To illustrate this statement, Emika follows up our interview with an email linking to a thread on Dubstep Forum titled "What the hell is post-dubstep?" in which her fans, and listeners of James Blake and Mount Kimble, rubbish the latest name assigned to the sub-bass sub-genre.
Already a music scene veteran at the age of 25, Emika is not so naïve to expect that she can get away without describing her music—she's just wilful enough to come up with her own way of doing so. "The other day I was eating blueberries," she says with a smile, "and I decided, my music is like blueberries. You look at them and they're dark and purple and mysterious, and then you eat them and they don't taste at all how they look."
A sonic blueberry? Ludicrous as it may sound, this metaphor will make sense to anyone who has sampled the sweet pop centre of opaque, bass-heavy tracks like "Count Backwards." But Emika goes one better when she says her music has "got this feeling of being in the womb. Bass is one of the maternal, mother frequencies—sub-bass has a calming effect. Also, because I use the voice, and simple melodies, I think my music has a very… womb-like quality."
But while Emika insists she is "interested in soothing people," she confesses to be prone to the odd bass arms race. Take "Drop the Other": "It's a really aggressive tune, with big gnarly bass, and a massive chorus. I wanted to make a song that sounded like all the tracks that the dudes made, but the next step. It took me about a year to finish that track. There's so much fantastic music already, you have to work really hard to take the next step, if that's what you want to do with your music."
It's this perfectionism, and determination to temper her flair for the dramatic with her desire to seduce, that has made Emika's forthcoming album so long in the making. She talks about listening to future pop from Timbaland and The Neptunes to help "stomach the hardness" of the "avant-garde embracive electronic sounds" of her primary reference points: composers Pierre Schaeffer, Denis Smalley and Stockhausen.
Not that Emika's debut full-length, tentatively scheduled for a September release, will sound much like any of these touch points, just as it won't resemble anything from her dubstep peers. As a sound engineer she knows how to control her inputs; as an artist, she has disciplined herself to limit her exposure to powerful influences. For years she refused to listen to Portishead ("perfect, perfect music") and Massive Attack, for fear of "recycling someone else's originality." One suspects that Emika moved to Berlin back in 2006 not so much to sample the city's techno scene, as to assert her independence from Bristol bass music.
"I have a very stable place of solitude within myself," she explains, "that's come from years of discipline and practice—alone with the piano, alone writing scores on paper and thinking. As an only child, I've always had this place that I can easily tap into, much like people do with meditation or yoga." Above all, this has given Emika "my own understanding of sound and people, and what I want to show people…"
To date, Ninja Tune have been happy for Emika to define her own identity, make her own decisions and set her own schedule (release date: when it's perfect), but her debut album could change all that. She won't be able to cherry-pick live dates like she used to, and will have to prepare herself to find more of her releases in the dubstep section of record stores. But this is something that the young artist embraces with a maturity that belies her age: "That's the beauty of releasing music—you give it to the people, and it becomes something new altogether. That's something that I've learned to accept. I'm very disciplined myself, with my musicianship and my music, alone in my room—but when I release something I'm giving it up, I'm giving it out and I'm ready to see what happens with it."