Beatie Wolfe Explores The Art of Music In The Digital Age At The V&A
by Oisin Lunny
Beatie Wolfe "a familiar sound but encapsulated in a spacesuit"
photo by Ross Harris
Technology and music have always been joined at the hip. Advantageous new recording, engineering and performance techniques have ever been quickly snapped up by the pioneers of pop music even if their fans were against it. When Bob Dylan defected from acoustic to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the audience booed and called him a traitor. He had to leave the stage after three songs, and singer/songwriter Pete Seeger promised to chop Dylan's microphone cable if only he could find an axe.
New recording techniques have also defined epochs in music; from Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" to The Beatles innovations with George Martin at Abbey Road, from the birth of rap with two turntables and a microphone almost 40 years ago to cheap Roland drum machines being creatively hijacked by the early masters of House music. Last year the genres of Rap and Electronic Dance Music accounted for the majority of the $17.3 billion total revenues from recorded music. The path from early disruption to the global marketplace can be a lucrative one.
One artist who has continually run towards the flame of new technology is Beatie Wolfe, an Anglo-American singer-songwriter who has been tireless in her pursuit of new ways to augment her releases. Her songwriting style is as resolutely traditional as her approach to new technology is pioneering, a familiar sound but encapsulated in a spacesuit.
A series of Wolfe’s album innovations are being celebrated next month as part of the London Design Festival at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibit "The Art of Music in the Digital Age" ranges from her innovative "8IGHT" 3D album app experience from 2012 to her more recent collaborations with Nokia Bell Labs on the album "Raw Space", which included the world's first live 360˚ Augmented Reality (AR) stream combining live, 360˚ stereoscopic video and real-time AR visuals to create a modern "Fantasia-like" live streamed album experience.
I caught up with Wolfe on a call from LA, where she curated the inaugural "NewStory" festival of music, technology and art storytelling at the LA Times "Festival of Books" earlier this year, collaborating with no less than "4 Grammys, 4 Emmys and 8 Nobels." Wolfe started the conversation by explaining her lifelong fascination with the art of telling stories, "I had just started writing songs when I was seven and completely fell in love with songwriting as this medium that combined storytelling and music. At the same time, I discovered my parents' record collection and saw these records as musical books that you could open up and read like a story from cover to cover, with the liner notes and the artwork and all of that rich content. It felt like those records provided this gateway on to the story of the album, and you were able to enter into the world of the artist. From that time, From that time, I imagined the worlds that I could create for my albums and what that experience would feel like for the listener. It was fully integrated, the music, the artwork, the story, the feeling of ceremony and that sense of time and place. It wasn't an option to remove a number of those elements and then just have the music on its own, a digital download that was divorced from that whole world which I really fell in love with as a kid."
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Wolfe namechecks Elliott Smith ("my number one"), David Bowie, Prince, and The Beatles as influences, but also puppeteer Jim Henson, 14th Century Persian poet Hafiz, and English mystic William Blake. "Blake is one of my main inspirations; a poet and an engraver, an artist and a visionary. He combined all those things by making visual poems that people could see with the artwork behind the words. By doing that, he was able to imbue meaning in the words."
In 2014 Wolfe’s "Power of Music & Dementia" research tour measured the impact of music on memory and communication for people living with dementia, the results were picked up by the American Alzheimer's Association, Stanford Medicine, Oxford and recognized in the House of Lords. She explains that the project had a profound impact on her personally by "illuminating the power of music, and how it goes way beyond entertainment to something that is so core to our humanity and our well-being."
Her embrace of new storytelling techniques by using technology is in part motivated by the recognition of the importance of music, and also by what has been abandoned with the march of progress, "I think we have lost things along the way. That's what I try and look at by using technology to re-introduce the more traditional aspects of listening to music; this feeling of ceremony, this tangible quality and this sense of the story. It's about using tech to reimagine something familiar and nostalgic, and present it in a new way that feels magical." However, she warns against using tech for the sake of it. "I think that technology is just like having more colors on your palette but you've got to know why you're using those colors, and you've got to be skilled in making that composition; otherwise it feels like they've just been added for the sake of being added."
Above all Wolfe is a storyteller, regardless of the medium, "I think that the multi-media aspect of art has always existed so, in many ways, I don't think of myself as being particularly radical. I just think about being an artist in a 360-degree sense, not just showing up in the studio, singing and then leaving, but doing every aspect of it." Her recent collaboration with Calm, the Apple award-winning meditation app, exemplifies her philosophy. "I was very keen to write my own story, make the music, do any sound effects," Wolfe explains. She not only recorded on Jacques Cousteau’s original boat, but wrote the story and music to incorporate "the history and the mystery of the boat, and have this Cousteau aspect to it." This included recording at sea for authenticity, a subject very close to Wolfe's creative heart.
Returning to the subject of her favorite musician Elliott Smith, she reflects that "Elliott was one of those people that could never compromise or be compromised. He was so pure and so true. For me, that's what it's all about... it's about being that real and having that clarity." Wolfe is currently writing new material in LA with Linda Perry, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee who launched her music career by working in bars and performing on the street but is now worth a reputed the $25 million. It should be a fascinating collaboration.
For a chance to immerse yourself in the world of Beatie Wolfe visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from Saturday 15 September to Sunday 23 September.