As Will Lynch explains, this American artist's colourful DJ sets and deeply personal tracks have made her one of 2016's most exciting breakthrough artists.
"I trimmed each video, turned them into gifs, and processed them into various emojisaic gifs using a ruby script created by my friend Lucas Mathis (github: @lilkraftwerk), then edited them all together using Adobe Premiere, a process that took me about two months."
Those three things—the gnarled club track, the homemade video, the scrappy method behind it—tell you a lot about Emerson as an artist and a person. For as long as she can remember, she's found a creative outlet in music and technology, and has pursued both with relentless energy and resourcefulness, teaching herself to code, to make tracks and many other things besides. This self-efficacy helped propel her to where she is today—28, an ex-software developer, full-time DJ and producer. But there's something else, also present in that clip, that makes her so compelling as an artist. For Emerson, this music is a rawer form of self-expression than it is for many of her peers. With all of her output, including her DJ sets and club tracks, she offers a window into herself, however oblique it may be.
Take Narcissus In Retrograde. For a bundle of club tracks, this record has an unusually deep personal dimension. The music is rooted in a period of change in Emerson's life—the same stretch of time captured in the video. "It's been a tumultuous year," she told me. "A good year, but difficult. Quitting my job. Going through some intense relationship events with my family. Falling in love, and finally being in a relationship with a woman. On a micro level, it was fantastic. On a macro level, though, it's seemed like the world was crumbling, especially with every piece of news from America. Another young black boy gunned down by police, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood, us electing this orange shit-mound for the highest possible office. There's a strange tension there."
We were sitting in the living room of her apartment in Neukölln, a bright attic space with wood floors and angled walls. She just moved in a few weeks ago—that's her at 5:30 in the video, opening a box of sound treatment foam for her studio. When we first spoke, some three weeks earlier, she'd been warm but guarded, at times playfully sardonic (she raised an eyebrow at one of my questions and said, "So in other words, 'What's it like to be a woman DJ?'"). Things had changed since then. Trump had been elected president days earlier, an event so ominous it made it hard to talk about her music and her life as an artist.
Her recent set at Panorama Bar was a welcome diversion. She'd gone back-to-back with Courtesy for the final stretch of Leisure System, and was still glowing from the experience. Courtesy's selections skewed dark and heady—I recognized only Karl Lukas Pettersson's "Paradise Island" on Acido. Emerson was more flamboyant. "I'm like the color commentator in the NBA—'Whoa! Boom! There it goes!'"
By which she meant she played a lot of curveballs: The Knife's "Silent Shout," Nine Inch Nails' "Ringfinger," Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Rain," Joe Claussell's remix of Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place," and my personal favorite, an acapella of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" layered over the opening bars of Gesloten Cirkel's "Submit X." In each of these selections, there was an element of autobiography. The Knife was one of Emerson's early influences, and "Ringfinger" was on Pretty Hate Machine, an album her mother "played the shit out of" when she was growing up. Ryuichi Sakamoto is another old favorite—she'd made the edit of "Rain" minutes before leaving for the club.
"A lot of my favorite edits come to me right before I play Panorama Bar," she said. "It's like clockwork. I did 'Rain' literally 20 minutes before the cab came, and I exported it wrong somehow so it was only one break. I played the original and then mixed in my break, basically doing a live Cybernedit." (Cybernedits being her ongoing series of free club edits.) "It's so easy to understand what is and isn't tasteful or cool in a certain genre and play it off your USB," she said. "Surprise and re-contextualization of familiar morsels—that's what I like most about playing places like Panorama Bar and De School."
"People loved that one," she said. "That pushed things over the edge, I started getting a shit-ton more gigs and the decision to quit my job was kind of made for me."
It's not surprising that particular EP had such an impact. Whities 006 is an ecstatic techno record, at once rowdy and euphoric. The atmosphere is bright and windswept, the rhythms soar as if carried by gusts of wind. DJ-friendly as they are, its tracks—"2000 Species Of Cacti," "The Frontier" and "The Frontier (High Desert Synthapella)"—brim with a heart-clenching emotion fitting to the topic that inspired them: Arizona, the place where Emerson grew up.
"Try as we might," she recently told CRACK, "we can't escape where we came from. You hold a fondness for the place you started out in, even if you wanted nothing more when you were 16 than to leave that fucking place."
Emerson was born in San Francisco but spent most of her young life in Gilbert, Arizona, where she never felt like she belonged. Her household was an exception. Both parents were into music. Along with Nine Inch Nails, her mother played a lot of synth pop in the house—"Propaganda, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Depeche Mode"—and also got her into astrology, which, as her track titles suggest, still inspires her today (when I asked about the phrase "triple scorpio supernova" on her RA artist page, she replied with this screen-grab). Her dad was into guitar, and the two of them would record themselves playing together using a program called Cakewalk, which sparked her interest in music production software.
From a young age Emerson was creative and resourceful. "That was kind of out of necessity," she said. "Building my own computers and figuring out how things work. Not being able to afford software and figuring out how to download and crack stuff. Computer-based music creation was always super fascinating for me. I mean, even when I was super young, maybe like 11 or 12, me and my little sister would record songs on Cakewalk."
Beyond the bubble of her friends and family, though, was a conservative stretch of America that Emerson knew she'd leave one day. She graduated high school with a full scholarship to Arizona State, where she studied journalism, but her time there only made her more determined to get away. At 19, she took an internship in San Francisco. The idea was to come back and finish her degree at ASU, but when the time came, she couldn't do it. "I was ready to be an adult instead of staying in this stunted state of maturity you get in college," she said. "So I dropped out."
Emerson landed on her feet in San Francisco. She found work easily, first interning at tech startups and, later, XLR8R. Having taught herself to write code, she managed a webstore for a family of San Francisco boutiques, then got various jobs developing software for Bay Area tech companies. Armed with a fake ID, she explored the city's underground scene. "There was this whole world of music I hadn't had any exposure to," she said. "Going to my first Honey Soundsystem and other queer parties, I'd never seen anything like that. I was into Pitchfork-y things like Crystal Castles or whatever. Then hearing, like, Argentinian cumbia, it's like, 'Whoa, what the fuck is this? This is tight!'"
That last one was presumably at Tormenta Tropical, a party cofounded by Shawn Reynaldo (then known as Disco Shawn) with whom Emerson had worked at XLR8R. "The party was in the Elbo Room, in the middle of The Mission," she said. "This little upstairs place with low ceilings, kind of dank, with carpet and colored Christmas lights, and these technicolor kaleidoscope Virgin Mary things, lit from behind. You could get a Tecate for a few dollars with a little lime in it. There were a lot of small little parties like that. It was a lively scene when I was there."
But as musical influences go, nothing could touch Emerson's second Bay Area residence: a 12-room warehouse in the SoMa neighborhood she'd found on Craigslist. The place was massive, home to 14 young creative types from around the world. It was also, occasionally, an illegal party spot called Club 380, where Emerson became a de facto resident DJ.
"There was this guy there named Matt, he was a couple years older than me and a really good DJ technically. His taste was different from what was popular at the time—more of a ravey sound instead of the DFA, nu-disco thing you always heard back then. When we threw parties, Matt and I would DJ all night. That was the first taste of real DJing I had."
It was because of those parties that Emerson started making edits. At first she'd use Ableton to make small changes—extending intros, cutting out parts she didn't like. Over time she got more creative, and soon she was making original productions. Thanks to a rigorous, self-imposed work schedule, she quickly honed her skills.
"I liked it, and I wanted to be good at it, so I made up my mind that I would make one track every month. I also decided to be my own PR agency. I made this massive rolodex of blogs and music media outlets, everything from small Wordpress blogger sites to things like XLR8R and Mixmag. I would collect the contact information, and every time I created a track, I would write 100 personal emails to all these people. Some people picked it up and put it on their blogs. It was pretty addictive. If you release something and five pretty decently-sized blogs cover it, and it gets 10,000 plays and all these comments of like, 'This is great!!,' you get energized to make the next song and develop your skills."
The once a month thing was key. "I know a lot of producers and writers and people in a lot of creative passions, professions, that will just continually work on something to no end, in private. You see yourself as your only gatekeeper, and maybe you don't progress as fast as you want. Or at least as fast as I would want."
Music became a vital mode of self-expression for Emerson, something she had to do "in order to stay sane." The same is true today. "I would make music if no one heard it. But I'm not sure I'd DJ if there was no one there to dance."
By 2014, someone showed one of Emerson's tracks to her old friend Shawn Reynaldo, who was by then running the party and record label ICEE HOT. He decided to put out her first record, Pressure / Quoi, at the beginning of 2014, with remixes from Tuff City Kids. The next one came a couple months later: Church Of SoMa, an ode to Club 380, was the first 12-inch on Spring Theory, a label run by one of the warehouse's other residents, Guillaume Galuz. That fall, Spring Theory released her third one, Let Me Love And Steal.
These records chart the rapid evolution of Emerson's sound. With their sampled vocal hooks, "Pressure" and "Quoi" had more of a straight-up house vibe than what would come later, but the urgency of the rhythms and the weight of the drums already showed a keen sense of club impact. By Let Me Love And Steal, those house tropes had given way to something bolder and heavier, especially on the lurching "Triple Scorpio Mix." The singular sound she has today—smooth but raucous, bright but heavy—was beginning to take shape.
By then Emerson was getting deeper into the tech world, at one point working at what she called a "stereotypical Y Combinator startup"—referring to the elite seed accelerator. At a glance, she had it pretty good. She'd made it in a city she loved, plying a trade she'd taught herself. She made tracks, she played gigs, she rode around San Francisco on a Vespa ("a 1980 P200E—really nice").
But it wasn't going to last. Emerson was working 60 hours a week, and falling into a career path she didn't like, while San Francisco—"small, delicate, beautiful San Francisco"—was succumbing to a "monoculture of moneymaking," which she couldn't see herself in. Meanwhile, the music thing was looking better and better—her records were getting attention and she'd joined a booking agency. Some friends from the warehouse had moved to Berlin. "I'd just gotten a really big tax return, so I said, 'Fuck it, let's try this new thing.'"
Emerson hit the ground running in Berlin much as she had in San Francisco. She turned up with no prospects but found freelance work writing code, and eventually landed a job as a software developer. She continued making strides as an artist. In 2015 she released an EP on Shtum, a techno sub-label of Uncanny Valley, and played Panorama Bar for the first time. By the end of that year she was playing a few gigs a month. The prospect of becoming a full-time artist hovered into view. In May of this year, she went for it.
"It was kind of an economically-driven decision," she said. "The money I made as a musician was approaching what I made as a software engineer, and finally those two things converged. But also, it was getting hard to manage. Playing two, sometimes three shows a weekend then coming in on Monday… I was becoming a little bit of a crazy person at the end. And I knew I couldn't fully devote my brain to production and DJing until I quit my job. You have to close one door to really propel as an artist, I think."
Things are different now than when Emerson made Narcissus In Retrograde. How this will affect her music remains to be seen. "There are things that have been so powerful and intense for me lately, and I've just barely been able to put them into this abstract musical form," she said. "I've been doing kind of, I don't want to say 'experimental pop,' but more lyrics-driven stuff not really made for the club. I'd really like to make an album."
You get the sense that what's come so far is just the beginning for Emerson. From the moment she quit school to stay in San Francisco, she improvised a path toward self-realization that's just now come to a kind of landing point. "I'm really hitting my return of Saturn," she said. "Have you heard that term? It takes 27 years for Saturn to go around the sun. When you're about 27 it comes back to where it was when you were born. I'm more comfortable in my own skin than I've ever been."
Avalon Emerson plays Comunite festival in Tulum, Mexico, which takes place across January 6th and 7th, 2017.