“My process is something I’m constantly trying to figure out. It’s a balance between my analytical mind and my spontaneous generative emotional mind.”
Artist (Philadelphia + New York City)
interview by Madeleine campbell • photo illustrations by Ceci Ebitz
Arielle Herman, a former neuroscience student at Haverford College, has crafted an impressive science project. After receiving a grant from her school, she decided to combine her desire to learn more about music production with her researched-based background of brain stimuli and thus, QUALIATIK was born. She is a songwriter, producer, engineer, performer and visual artist. Her first shows incorporated projection of audience member’s brain waves onto venue walls via EEG sensors. Her recent shows included sharing a showcase with Drake at SXSW.
WiS: How did you start making music?
Q: I grew up playing piano. I started taking lessons from age four and continued until I was 11, I think. I never practiced. I mostly learned by ear. I sang in choir in middle school and high school. I did a little bit of theatre too. I've been in a few shows in my life. My musical awareness has always been present. As a teenager, I tried writing a few songs but I hated all of them. I told myself music wasn't for me. I couldn't do it. The summer before my sophomore year of college, I arranged an a capella mashup of songs about sex. It featured "Birthday Sex" and "Lollipop" and "I Just Had Sex" and "Candy Shop" and a few others, I think.
Yeah. It really flipped a switch in my head. I thought "Maybe I can do this? Maybe I can write songs?"
What did you use to write that arrangement?
I used Noteflight software. It was really fun for me to do. I liked being able to watch it come to life.
So you kept writing from there?
Yeah. In December of that year, I turned 20. I was experiencing a typical college student existential crisis. I was consumed by these feelings of "Oh god, I feel so empty!" It became clear to me that I needed to start making music. I didn't think it was possible for me to make anything original but I did. I started in Garageband copying production techniques. Shortly after that I played my first basement show.
What did you use in that first set?
I used a [Roland] SP404 and a Boss loop pedal. It was pretty simple. After that, I went home for winter break. I locked myself in my room for the entire month. I had an accordion, a keyboard, some African drums. It was a month of intense edification. By the end of the month, I went upstairs and felt dizzy. It became a constant presence in my head. Throughout the course of my junior year of college, it became more and more of a demand on me mentally. I knew I really only wanted to make music.
Tell me about the grant you were awarded from your school.
I was studying neuroscience. I was really interested in emotion and identity. It was amazing to me, all of this shit that happens in your brain chemically. My school was offering a $3,000 grant. I thought "This makes sense for me to apply." I wrote up a grant proposal about uniting neuroscience, music and visual art. Whatever people are experiencing visually and aurally, it comes from their brains. Whatever they are feeling, hearing or seeing is unique to them. Environmental factors change their experience. Something biological is happening. I received the grant to move forward with my music. It became a huge struggle to keep going to class so I left school for New York City with no plan at all.
What'd you do?
I couch surfed with 54 different people. I had no money. It was complete chaos but I still felt like "This is a lot closer to who I am." My plan was to take a year off but once I got to New York, I realize this isn't just a side of me. This was someone I was suppressing. I don't want to approach art in a temporary way. I was working all day every day on music and visuals.
So you were actively creating during that time?
Absolutely. I was writing a lot. Most days I sat in coffee shops working on music. I was processing myself as an artist. I made a bunch of new songs at that time.
What gear were you using?
I was using the [Roland] SP404 sampler, the Boss VE-20 voice processor loop pedal. I would plug the voice processor into the SP404 to sample vocals and use them in beats. I used the chromatic function to make chords. I used my voice as a synth a lot. I sampled a ukelele into the SP404 and reversed it and used that in beats. I started getting more invested in equipment and found space of my own. I got a whole lot of gear. People lent me a lot to get started. I used the [Korg] Electribe for a while just to jam and a keyboard. It's tiny and really durable. It's velocity sensitive and pressure sensitive. I draw my drums in. It's literally in front of me right now on my laptop. I use my Wii Rockband microphone for scratch vocals. I still send vocals through my voice processor. I use the Alesis Sample Pad Pro in live setups for drums. I love experimenting with guitar tones, too.
So you do everything on your own?
Yeah, it's entirely autonomous. I don't know how long it will be that way but I hope for a long time. That includes visuals. It feels like mixing and mastering are part of my art so maybe eventually I'll appreciate an outsider's eat but I like to know that everything I put out is fully an effort of myself. I know it isn't particularly open minded but right now, that's what I feel most proud of. When I put something out, it is entirely mine. My concepts, my production, my engineering. Everything is based around what I want to do. It's the product of one person's mind. It's gratifying to put something out that was produced from whatever was in me.
Do you have any production influences?
I don’t reference things much when I’m working on my own stuff. I do a ton of research about different projects and then let it kind of formulate itself. Lately I'm into club music. I'm inspired by the sound design of club music. It's so crisp and aggressive. I’m not sure that it would shine through in my own productions though.
Tell me more about what goes into your research.
My process is something I’m constantly trying to figure out. It’s a balance between my analytical mind and my spontaneous generative emotional mind. My academic background has positioned my creative process to be very systematic. My analytical mind scours for information and organizes it. I have folders. I have Tumblrs. I have information collages, documents, names, words. Anything you can think of. All sorts of information stumbles through me in some way that is systematic in nature. Sometimes it’s hard to marry the two. The analytical can filter the emotional. I’m aware of how the brain works, vaguely, but I know that things are going to make their way into memory. My brain will be able to free associate. I expose my brain to a ton of information and trust that my brain will do that footwork of combining and associating in a way that speaks to me in a way that is beautiful to me. Accumulating the information is so informed by my research background. There's constant friction in me. Many emotions fighting to be heard past my overactive frontal lobe.
What's coming up for you?
I'm working to get a bunch of different releases out. I might be playing a festival in Jamaica! I'm playing at Vassar College. It's hard to say for sure what will come after SXSW. I might do a Bit Torrent bundle. I'm going to keep doing visual work and incorporate drawing, as well. Traditional pen drawing into the 3D work I’m doing. I'm trying to get some music videos out soon, too. A lot is happening!