This Ship Argo Q&A

Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Aileen. Let’s begin with the meaning behind your alias: This Ship Argo and what it signifies?

Hilariously, I had a conversation about this with my nephew last week because I couldn’t remember so this was well timed! He was the one that picked the name back when we were playing together. He sort of bowed out around 4 years ago and I kept making stuff myself. It came originally from “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes (or so he tells me!) and the passage that he specifically chose describes how the Argo itself was maintained by its crew and replaced gradually so that its form is maintained though the pieces are not original. it remains the Argo however none of the pieces of the ship are original. I think the phrase he was most drawn to in it was “Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form”. We have talked about him coming back and playing again every once in a while so I guess it has some extra significance now (and can you tell he’s a philosopher!?)

The music you created for the video to accompany your reworking of The Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart is both stunning and eloquent. What was it about Lotte Reiniger that interested you, how did you first encounter her and this work from 1919?

Thank you so much, that’s really lovely of you to say! I actually discovered Lotte through my friend Rich Davis who mentioned her animations to me a few years ago. Rich performs under the name Heliopause and we were performing a score that we’d written for the Passion of Joan of Arc and got to talking about other ones that might be of interest (and that were, crucially, shorter and less traumatic). I really love animation in all its forms so I sort of fell down a hole of watching all of the available Reiniger films I could lay my hands on last year and reading up on her life and her work, and about how she really was one of the pioneers of animation. I also ended up chopping up one of her animations to accompany a song from the first record called Caught Out then serendipitously discovered that we shared a birthday so thought it would be a nice tribute to her to create something else and specifically for a piece.

This piece I specifically chose because I found the sadness amongst it more than the happiness, and I am definitely one for the melancholy though I am also a bit of a romantic at heart. I loved the imagery as well of the curling branches and was really drawn to all the movement.

The music was created using Spitfire Labs instruments. Can you talk us through that process and where you find the inspiration to create sounds: from words or images, or other noises you hear from the world around you?

A lot of the sounds come directly from just sitting down and playing to be honest, and generally tend to reflect my mood. Sometimes a little sound within a sound will catch my attention and I’ll focus on trying to draw it out and make it more prominent in the piece. I don’t know if anyone really hears it but me, but I love trying to make tiny details more of a focus. These days I’m quite a playful creator who experiments a bit more rather than the sort of rigid composer I might have been in the past, and I know when something is coming together so tend to get pieces finished pretty quickly. I am a classically trained pianist and so – in my own head at least – I always thought there had to be specific rules about how things were done but I’m definitely working on throwing that out the window!

I do, however, have to set myself some boundaries otherwise I’ll never finish anything which is why I decided to make it entirely with Spitfire Labs. I also wanted to make sure I explored the sounds as fully as I could and it was partially an experiment with some new things I’d learned about Ableton that I wanted to try out. On top of that, I wanted to create it, mix and master it away from my own studio and so I ended up doing it all with a little midi keyboard on my work computer over lunchtimes here and there, or when I needed a break during the day.

This Ship Argo · Maybe When We’re Older

Tell us about your history and how you initially came to make music and about the people who inspired you to realise the types of sounds you record?

I think I have always been quite musical. I started learning to play the piano when I was seven and have played ever since. My brother got a guitar when he was about 14 (and I was about 12) and so I started picking that up and playing until I demanded one too. Honestly, I will give pretty much any instrument a stab if I get the chance! For a lot of reasons it did take me a long time to develop confidence in writing and playing for other people. I’m 38 now and really only started playing my own stuff publicly in the last three or four years. A lot of the confidence building for this actually came from a few of the people I mentioned earlier: my nephew Ricki and my friend Rich. They were wonderful in getting me to do things and were incredibly patient with me too!

Sound-inspirations are really from all over the place. I discovered music as grunge was coming though in the mid-nineties, then pursued a lot of slower or more indie music like Low and Elliott Smith. Like everyone else I guess I go through phases of things and discover new stuff all the time. I find it hard to pinpoint specific influences and I’ve never found myself trying to emulate anyone specifically but just tried to create something that I found fun or interesting to play or sing or that just grabs me enough to see it through the whole production process. You have to be prepared to listen to what you’ve written over and over through writing, recoding, mixing and mastering so that plays a big part in what I end up coming out with! I also discovered fairly recently that I have auditory synaesthesia so the songs that end up getting finished and released all have an array of interesting visual shapes in my mind!

How does living in Belfast feed into what you do as an artist? I also wanted to ask about the charities you donate to via your releases and the importance of doing so?

Belfast is such a creative place and – equally as importantly – is a supportive place. I actually only moved back to Belfast in the very last week of 2015 having lived in the West Midlands for nearly a decade and the difference in attitude to creativity was remarkable. In fact, the attitude towards looking out for one another here in general (not just music) is so different to England that it was almost a shock coming back! It’s such a wonderful place to go and catch bands too, and pretty much everyone I know I know because we met at a gig, or at a party after a gig. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions artists from Northern Ireland tend to get overlooked a lot although I can see signs that that is changing to be fair. A lot of that sense of supportiveness and (I hate to use the word) community actually links in to the charity donations too. There is so much work that needs doing in Northern Ireland to rid ourselves of (what we call) traditions and religion that are actually just methods of exerting control and perpetuating divisions.

The charities I have been involved with all hold some sort of personal significance for me too in their various forms from the Integrated Education Fund to She Sells Sanctuary and beyond. I also like to be of use to everyone and anyone in whatever way I can and this felt like something I could do when I wasn’t able to help the people I loved when we were all separated from each other last year. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but it definitely helped!

You are due to perform at Eastside Electronics at CS Lewis Square. How did your involvement with that happen and tell us about your approach to live performance?

So it was actually Jordan and Timmy from The Night Institute who approached me to play at that! They had both discovered my music after the release of my second album (I think! It might have been just before) and they asked if I’d like to perform. I made a sort of vow to myself at the start of this year that I would say yes to anything that came my way as a bit of a method of overcoming my fear of doing things so even though I’m still a bit terrified to be playing at it there’s no turning back! It’s going to be a lot of fun though, and I obviously couldn’t turn down a chance to perform for the Night Institute! Timmy and Jordan are wonderful and have been incredibly supportive too so it’s great that they’re my first gig in over three years!

Live wise: things keep evolving, I have to say. When there were two of us performances were a little bit easier because at least you could share the responsibility! The last (and only) solo show I played was in a church (at 3:30 in the morning) and I had a few synths, samplers, a drum machine and a mixer that I was trying to control which meant that I couldn’t sing. This time, I’m trying to keep it a bit easier on myself so there are various synth parts that I will play on top of amended and simplified versions of the songs. I don’t really like doing that, but it’s just me up there so it means that I can sing as well. Trying to move around a stage controlling a bunch of equipment doesn’t work too well – and isn’t a lot of fun – when the microphone is in a fixed spot! Who knows, I might have a terrible time and head back to the drawing board for the next show, or actually make good on that thought I keep having that I should just get a live band…

Can you talk us through your studio set-up? Do you have a particular favourite piece of software or an instrument?

My studio is currently also my spare bedroom so feel free to feel sorry for my neighbours listening to me do triple-tracked five-part harmonies over and over!

My set up is actually ridiculously basic: even my monitors are terrible and I tend to mix everything through headphones in case my neighbours murder me! I use Ableton Live for everything: live and in the studio. I currently have the Korg Minilogue and MS2000 set up as well as the Odyssey and the Critter & Guitari Organelle. Those are my go-tos usually, although the MS2000 is on loan! More recently I’ve started writing a lot of tracks on the Arturia Buchla Easel as I really just absolutely love it. I think it’s an incredible piece of kit, especially for what you pay for it. It’s now my dream to be able to afford an actual one (I’m a very tactile player so I’m not a fan of soft-synths usually) although that will be a long way down the line! I have a few other synths and drum machines that don’t get as much use as I’d like. I have a TR-8 gathering dust and a Volca FM that I love but seem to always forget about. I recently got hold of the Arturia Keystep 37 too so I’ve been using that a lot. It’s a wonderful piece of kit that packs a lot of features in.

I still play guitar and bass, and the ukulele and piano. I made a stupid rule for myself that I didn’t want any guitar in the This Ship Argo stuff a few years back which I’m gradually letting go so maybe there’ll be a bit more of those in there as time goes on!

How do you see the future of music in terms of artist income re streaming and live performance etc?

This is a tough one to answer, especially with the shifting tides of things at the minute. I’m not sure how things will pan out though I know I’m looking forward to the return of live shows. However, I also think that the shift to online gigs has been really powerful over the last 18 months or so. It makes things so much more inclusive and accessible but it has also been amazing to see people direct creative energies into designing and recording shows specifically broadcast rather than shows that just happen to have been recorded. Something like Daniel Avery’s Together in Static show, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish to watching the BBC coverage of Glastonbury, for example. I’m sure you can tell that I actually wasn’t a fan of watching shows that had been recorded (like the Glasto coverage) prior to Covid but that was mostly because it was just a camera stuck somewhere on stage at a gig recording a band or an act performing to the crowd in front of them so it always felt a little like something was missing. Because there were no crowds at a lot of the recorded gigs there was a lot more focus on making it a live show for broadcast rather than a live show that also happened to be broadcast. The shift in emphasis improved the sound quality, the performance aspect and the whole overall experience so I really hope that stays.

For live performance in the UK post-Brexit I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’m not sure whether or not we’re lucky to be in Northern Ireland for this (although I suspect we are) and for bands making the trip across from other European countries just to play in the Republic of Ireland. I hope that this wee island isn’t seen as a hassle and that bands do continue to make the trip over here.

Streaming income is just a total joke, to be fair and I hope that all the noise that’s been made around it recently will actually come to fruition and we’ll start to see better pay coming through and better methods of dividing payment. It’s crazy that so few people can have control over what so many people hear and that has a direct impact on what we all earn through streaming. I hope those people either realise that or come to realise it soon!

Love the Artwork which accompanies your releases? Can you tell us more about it and the inspiration of black and white photography?

Thank you! I do all the artwork myself and I used to be a keen photographer back in the day (until all my equipment was stolen) so it’s nice to be able to play visually too. Often I will have a piece in mind that I actually can’t make work when it comes to it, and the end artwork comes together really quickly in the end (mostly out of necessity!).

I am very drawn to black and white generally but I think it is particularly good for showing up details that maybe could be missed where lots of colours are fighting for attention. I guess – now that I’m thinking about it – it sort of reflects what I try to do when I make music. The heart of each song is pretty basic in reality but there are a lot of different layers that add little nuances to each track dotted throughout. Most of the lyrics I write are also off-the-cuff and only appear when I decide on a vocal line but they’re usually pretty stark and laid bare. I guess the simplicity of the black and white reflects the starkness with which I try and write although maybe that is all in my head! What I’ve thought is very obvious in the lyrics actually has turned out to be less so when I’ve released tracks and so it’s always interesting to…

And finally. What forthcoming plans do you have for moving towards 2022?

There are a few things in the pipeline that I don’t think I can talk about yet but they’re very exciting! I am aiming to get a new album out at the start of next year too though I’m working full time and also doing a part-time PhD so my time is more than a bit tight on a daily basis! I wrote a string quartet actually a few months back that I’d love to hear played properly so if that pans out then that would be great! Maybe even more scores or soundtracks if I get the chance? Lots of these things depend on my having time though, so maybe one day I’ll earn enough to be able to give up the current day job: who knows‽

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