Getting “Raw” with Beatie Wolfe by Jeffrey Somers
If you were one of the roughly 10,000 people who attended the Propelify event in Hoboken in mid-May, you had the opportunity to meet some of the people who are leading New Jersey’s charge towards becoming a technology hotbed, and to listen to presentations from some of the smartest people in any room, including Arianna Huffington and Jason Feifer. You also got to hear a performance by one of music’s most innovative songwriters and performers, Beatie Wolfe.
Born in London, Beatie has been writing music since childhood and performing it for more than a decade now. Her third album, Raw Space, was just released and is making waves for both the music and the promotion Wolfe is putting behind it, deepening her reputation as an innovator in that respect as well, a musician who has embraced modern technology without losing touch with the organic aspects of music that make it such an emotional experience for people. Wolfe has constantly pushed the envelope when it comes to promoting her music and getting it into people’s hands. She made her first album, 8ight, available as a 3D interactive album mobile app. For her second album, Montagu Square, she collaborated with designer Mr Fish to create an near-field communication (NFC)-powered jacket that would bring up one of her songs when someone tapped their phone on it, as well as a deck of NFC-powered playing cards.
For Raw Space, she pushed the envelope again, partnering with the legendary Nokia Bell Labs for a 360-degree stream staged from the famous anechoic chamber—a room designed to absorb reverberant sound, making it one of the quietest rooms in the world—with a vinyl copy of the album playing.
Raw Space by Beatie Wolfe
After playing in Hoboken, Hoboken Life sat down with Wolfe for an interview to find out a little more about her music, her Hoboken experience, and what’s next for someone who seems to always be five minutes into the future.
HL: You played the Propelify festival here in Hoboken this month—what was that experience like? Was this your first visit to Hoboken? What do you think of our little town?
BW: It was my second visit to Hoboken and I love it! It’s got a great vibe, with a lot going on, super warm people and more chilled than New York.
HL: You combine an adventurous technological approach in the way you distribute, market, and present your music with an organic approach to actually making that music; where do you get the inspiration for ideas like using phone Apps, musical jackets, or intelligent album decks to share songs, layering on virtual reality, and other creative ways of getting your songs out there?
BW: I am a great lover of the stories of albums, the tangibility of records and the ceremony of listening. From the time I started writing songs as a kid (age 8) and discovered my parent’s record collection, I saw records as musical books, with the artwork providing the perfect backdrop for the music, and I loved opening them up and entering into the world of the album. There was also an absolute sense of ceremony to the occasion. From that point, I was imagining what my album would look like it, what it would feel like, as much as what it would sound like. When it was time for my first record to be released, it was a very different era with the digital replacing the tangible. So I thought about how to reconnect the two. I saw technology as a way of reintroducing tangibility, storytelling and ceremony to the album, while also making it exciting and new for our digital generation. Since my first album 8ight, I have been thinking about how to reinterpret the vinyl format for today, with the story of album, the tangibility of a record and the ceremony of listening being brought to life in a new way for the listener. So everything that I have created has that as the central idea but just takes a different form: e.g. the NFC cards, vinyl app, musical jacket, an augmented reality (AR) experience.
HL: You teamed up with Nokia Bell Labs here in NJ and staged a sophisticated event streaming your new album Raw Space from its anechoic chamber. How did that come about? What were the challenges involved in bringing that off? How weird/wonderful is it to be in that space?
BW: Raw Space touches on the themes I’ve been exploring since my first album but in perhaps the most extreme and technicolor way. For this album, it began with a question. What would the anti-stream of today look like? With Raw Space, I wanted to create the antithesis of our current streaming experience and really celebrate the world of the album—it’s artwork, arc, narrative, music—in a fully immersive and multi sensory way, which has the effect of placing the listener at the center of this dynamic world.
At the time of me thinking about this idea, I was onsite at Bell Labs and one of the engineers asked if I would like to visit the anechoic chamber. He warned me about staying in there too long as people often find it disturbing or nauseating. However I had the opposite response. I found the room to be deeply peaceful, hugely inspiring (knowing of its rich history, key experiments, breakthrough discoveries) and I also saw it as the ultimate representation of ceremony—a kind of temple for sound. I also loved playing music in there and loved how profound the silence was between the notes.
I started with the idea of the record playing on continuous loop, playing on a turntable in the center of the Bell Labs anechoic chamber. I loved the idea of people being able to log into this magical space and hear the record played in this pure and focused way. I loved the idea of people not being able to skip, pause or shuffle. Then I thought about all the missing album artwork, the lyrics, that backdrop for the music, and how the chamber could become filled with all of that art created by Design I/O as the record played through. I kept developing this enhanced streaming idea and finally described the Raw Space vision to Marcus, president of Nokia Bell Labs, and he got behind it immediately. All the high tech aspects of the project are actually being used to revive and enhance a traditional format, the vinyl format, but make it feel like it is coming to life around you. It’s that mix of old and new that I love, using tech to recapture some of music’s old school magic. And launching Raw Space out of one of the world’s quietest rooms, the Bell Labs anechoic chamber, has this effect of immediately instilling a sense of ceremony into this listening experience, both quieting the ‘noise’ around and allowing the listener to hear the true sound of sound.
So Raw Space was launched as the world’s first live 360° AR stream, which is a music/tech first in a number of ways, in collaboration with Bell Labs and Design I/O, and I couldn’t think of people I’d rather work with to bring this new album to life.
HL: Your songwriting is deceptively complex; it seems straightforward on first listen but the details keep piling up. What’s your creative process? How do you write your songs?
BW: Songwriting has always been the most natural process for me since I started writing songs as kid age 7/8. It was always the one thing that made complete sense when everything else I had to work at. That’s not to say I don’t work at it, but it’s a very intuitive process and one I find hugely enjoyable. It’s almost like seeing the form of something in your mind’s eye and then working with clay to bring it out, refining that form, articulating the features, polishing the surface. It’s like the song is lying there waiting and you simply have to uncover it.
HL: In interviews you’ve talked about a lack of control over the sound when you play festivals—is the trade off on sound quality a concern when it comes to playing live? Any plans for a U.S. tour this year or next?
BW: I’m very sensitive to sound and with live shows there are the greatest number of uncontrollable factors. I love being in the studio because you can fully realize a song and then let that definitive version exist in the world for years to come with people discovering it in their own time. With live performances, you have to recreate that for every single show. But then I feel like live shows, now more than ever, are so important in creating real meaningful moments and experiences where the audience and musicians can really connect. U.S. tour? Absolutely… I’ll keep you posted!
Beatie Wolfe in London (photo by Stu Nicholls)
HL: Your parents are both creative people—have they had an influence on your music?
BW: They definitely have. Both my parents are incredibly independent people. They have forged their own path and been their own boss, as has my brother. So I think that independent spirit is definitely something I share. They are also both brilliant writers, thinkers and ridiculous perfectionists who have no tolerance of BS, which has the positive impact of me really refining my projects and ideas and making sure the quality factor is high and nothing is there for the sake of being there.
Thanks to Beatie for taking the time to chat with us—and for making such incredible music, not to mention finding such fun, interesting ways to promote it. Check out Raw Space and Beatie’s other albums—you won’t be disappointed. To order the Raw Space vinyl, stream & more, visit: beatiewolfe.com