Lucy Gooch’s music is a beautiful ethereal fog; like hearing a subliminal echo of Kate Bush on a fading tape loop, masked by an internal wall of sound that vibrates with the hum of everyday life. Her new album Rain’s Break is out now via Fire Records.
Lucy Gooch is a Bristol-based ambient pop artist; Paul Haslinger is a composer and formerly a member of the German electronic group Tangerine Dream. Both have new albums out — Lucy’s Rain’s Break EP and Paul’s Exit Ghost II — so to celebrate, they hopped on Zoom to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Lucy Gooch: What’s been your experience of trying to write during the pandemic.
Paul Haslinger: I was in Europe when it sort of went from bad to worse, and travel bans were announced and nobody knew if we were going to be able to get back to the US. You know, with Trump in office, it was like a complete cacophony of voices and nobody really knew what was going on. It was pretty close to an existential threat, and I mean, I think it was that for a lot of people.
On the creative side, I think it just pushes you deeper into whatever space you were in at the time — if you were stuck in the room before, now you were even more stuck.
Lucy: Yeah, definitely.
Paul: For people who spend most of their time in the studio, it wasn’t all that different. The studio is usually a refuge — you know, the world gets a little too much, you go to the studio. It’s part therapy. During the pandemic, I felt it was more of that. I’m usually thankful that I have that, that I can disappear into my little room, but during the pandemic, I was outright filled with gratitude that that’s available.
Lucy: I think I’m starting to understand that more. Obviously, you’ve had a very long, varied career and I’m just sort of starting — this is the first studio space I’ve had, and it’s just a room basically with some stuff in it. Whereas before the start of the pandemic, I was in a very small flat and I didn’t really have a designated area to go and make music. So I relate to what you’re saying much more now, having a little corner to come and make music. It does feel like a bit of a luxury.
Paul: I read in one interview with you that you were part of a choir, and you describe that as a formative experience, which I found interesting because it was the same for me, I also was in several choirs when I grew up, and I always think that was such an important part of understanding the inner workings of music. Did you sing soprano or alto?
Paul: So you get the easy job, you can sing the melody on top.
Lucy: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Paul: People will always be grateful if you don’t put too much vibrato in it. [Laughs.] I was a tenor so I always had to sing these middle voices, and I had learned counterpoint and all this stuff before but I think the time I really understood it was when I was in the choir. Because there’s something weird going on with the tuning, right? Like every violin player tunes as he’s playing, it’s the same with voices. You’re hearing a chord, and you can’t help it but your voice and your brain tune in a little bit towards where you want it. Which is not equal tuning, but it’s usually something approximating pure tuning.
I hear in the harmonizations that you do on your tracks a lot of that. It’s a lot of this harmonizing that I remember from the choir. You’re probably not even consciously planning to do this, right? It just automatically happen. When you sing in the choir and you multitrack your vocal takes, it’s the same principle, that you’re tuning towards an ideal of some kind.
Lucy: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t really mean for that to happen, but I ended up using that a lot as a method for writing music. I think I started out writing quite simple folk music that was kind of arty, and then I got a looper and learned about looping — this is going back a few years. I’ve sort of gradually come back around to that stuff from choir. I’m sort of aware of not relying on it too much. I’ve actually been trying to go a minimal and bring back some of the vocal stacks recently, because I was doing it a lot. [Laughs.] It was very easy to load them up.
I think it is really special, isn’t it? Being quiet when you’re young, and you do absorb a lot of sacred music and early music? Even though I’m not classically trained like you — I wouldn’t understand the things that you do basically — but you are absorbing it and you’re learning, kind of, by practice when you’re singing.
I was actually to ask you, how do parts I and II of Exit Ghost speak to one another?
Paul: Exit Ghost I, or the original release, was an album that was literally in the making forever. I always had this thought that I wanted to do sort of a piano-focused record, and it just took me an awful long time to find my bearings somehow. I had the performances for a long time, but I couldn’t find a way to put it together and to be happy with some sort of mix of ingredients. It’s like cooking, making music — you put these ingredients in and then you taste like, “Ah, too much salt.” So it was a long process of just finding a tone and a vibe for the album that I didn’t hate. What eventually came about — and it just coincidentally was released right at the time when this pandemic hit, so it almost looked like sort of a planned thing, but it wasn’t. Basically this was an album that took 10 years to make, it came out right at the time the pandemic hit, and now this album and the pandemic are connected in some weird way.
As part of disappearing in the studio and and sheltering-in-place, I started playing with some other pieces. Part of it was sort of this therapy or catharsis aspect, where you’re just having to let loose in the studio, having to do something to get some pressure off your chest. I started to feel like this was the B side of this Exit Ghost thing. A lot of [part I] was very introspective, very memory-, nostalgia-driven reflections-upon-reflections kind of stuff, and this felt more like the counterweight to it. This is more of-the-moment, more rhythmically driven, has a little bit more momentum. I think it was James at the label [Artificial Instinct] who first said, “What if we made this part of a series?” And so it gradually became that. I didn’t start out with that plan. But then as it formed, it made more and more sense. So that’s how Exit Ghost I and II fell into place. No big plan, just sort of a bunch of coincidences.
Lucy: Well, I mean, it sounds like it’s been very carefully planned. [Part II] is like coming out of this experience, it feels like you’re leaving the room. It’s clever. I found last year’s record more like emotional punches, it’s moving, and then Exit Ghost II is like brushing yourself off, picking yourself up. Maybe it’s the minimal beats. But that could be my psychology just projecting onto your work.
This is maybe a bit of a specific question, but I was reading about your inspiration: the Philip Roth novel [of the same name], and then The Magus by John Fowles. So, I have that book. I never read it. I did think, Should I try and quickly read it before speaking to you? But I’m really slow, so that was never going to happen. [Laughs.] But I get the gist of it. I am interested in why you look to literature for inspiration, or as a vehicle for this? And how you keep you maintain a sense of mystery in your work that’s inspired by these really define stories.
Paul: I think the basis of it is that we go through life looking for inspiration, and then we find it in the various coincidences that life produces, but we also find it in other pieces of art — whether it’s literature or visual art or music. For me, it’s almost like I had to decide whether to become a musician or a writer, and I decided to become a musician. But then I always look upon literature fondly as, I could have also done this, and maybe I should have done this, but I don’t know. My great-grandfather was also a writer and musician. He chose to write, I chose music.
I have no pressure on literature, because there’s no professional sort of, I have to analyze this now because I want to write something. I really, really enjoy literature. I read stories, and there’s so much inspiration that comes out of every story.
Over time it becomes more complex, which is hard to pin down into into a simple explanation. But for instance, The Magus — so I read a book by Chris Kraus about Kathy Acker, and it’s like an encyclopedic story of the New York scene at the time. Part of the book was, she described that Kathy read this book that everybody was reading, The Magus, and she couldn’t explain why, but she absolutely loved it. And so I wanted to check out this book. The book is set on an island in Greece — and I used to go to Greece a whole lot, so there were different reference points — and the story is basically a mystery. This was the ‘60s when the whole hippie movement was in full swing, and this whole questioning of reality and psychedelic experiences. But it’s a book full of metaphors, and one of the metaphors is that of a waiting room. So one of the original concepts for the album was founded on this metaphor of a waiting room.
Lucy: It’s so interesting when you’re in that creative flow, and you have these realizations and connect these different things.
Paul: Because you said before you’re trying to get back to simplicity — that’s sort of the other side of it. There’s also this feeling that the more simple it is, the more powerful it is, usually. But the more simple you’re trying to be, the more difficult it is. It’s much easier to layer 500 tracks and then say, “This is a piece of music,” than to boil it down to three tracks. And that’s actually what I wanted to do. When you mentioned you look back to folk, you know, [Béla] Bartók
did that way back when, went into Hungarian folk songs for the same reason, I think — that music had become so sophisticated and such a system that he wanted to find something more pure and direct.
With all our reference points and the crazy things that we’re able to do now, because we have so much access, [it] creates this feeling that we want to distill it down and come up with something that has a simplicity, that enables it to be powerful. Because if it’s too sophisticated, it will have a very hard time being effective in this way. This is sort of a tricky part about trying to get better at music — you’re honing your skills, you’re building up, and then realizing that it’s also getting in the way of things. And quite often, you’re really proud of something you’ve built — like you built this marvelous building, but then you come back the next day and say, “Yeah, this is 25 storeys and it’s really impressive, but it doesn’t move me one bit.” There’s some Greek tragedy in there somewhere, in the way we go about things.
Lucy: Yeah, that balancing takes so long. I can understand why you took your time with part I, because I personally find it does take me an awfully long time to get the balance right with music. You could be really pumped up about something that you’ve had quite big, lofty ambitions for, and it’s very sophisticated with all these things happening, all these little tricks. And then you come back to it and you realize that maybe you wanted some space in there where you aren’t getting that feeling from it.
I can definitely hear you’re seeking a more minimalist approach with the latest album. I’ve been thinking more about how I’ve stepped away from writing from a place of instinct or flow. I’m trying to do that at the moment, and it is bloody hard. For you as someone who has so much experience, and you understand the complexities of how a song works and how to hit those emotional cues, how do you access that place of writing from instinct? Are there things you do to get into that zone, or do you find you just have to go in there every day and then inspiration will find you?
Paul: I think if anybody had found the key to this, they’d probably not tell anybody. [Laughs.] I honestly think that’s just part of deciding to be creative or a musician. You’ll just go through this process — it hasn’t fundamentally changed for me, this feeling when you’re leaving the studio and you feel really good about it, but you come back two weeks later and you may listen to the same track and you go like, “Yeah, that’s shit,” or, “It’s not so bad.” That doesn’t change, because your judgment constantly evolves. You’re fed all these extra bits of information and you’re building, and you’re trying to also do some housecleaning — you kick out stuff that you thought was good but now you no longer think is good. It’s sort of a human process. I think that has to go on and and there’s no escaping it.
I wish I had a shortcut to the pure place, I wish I could flip a switch and say, “OK, I’m going to go into the zone now.” But the truth is, there isn’t. We go in every day into the studio and something good might happen, or nothing good might happen, we just don’t know. To get to that little magic spot, there is no recipe.
Lucy: Ah, I didn’t think that’s what you were gonna tell me!
Paul: [Laughs.] I’m sorry, I ruined it for you. But once you’ve tasted it once, you’re always trying to go back. I remember with one of the first times I stood with a band on stage somewhere — I think it was in high school or something, really embarrassing. But I was on stage, there were four dudes playing and one of my friends came up afterwards and said, “Dude, you were grinning the whole time. What were you grinning about?” And I was like, “I was just happy!” Because at that moment, it felt like I was in that zone — everything was playing together, it was sort of this magic moment.
Now, every time since then, when I go on a stage with a band or by myself, it’s not that moment. That moment happened once, but the quality of that moment certainly informs… It’s part of my vocabulary. These moments exist. You can’t recreate that same moment, but you’re always aiming to have other moments like that where you’re just smiling stupidly because you’re just so happy in that in that little spark.
(Photo Credit: right, Richard Luxton)