Ellie Herring is a versatile producer capable of taking your mood from the murky depths to the exhilarating heights of electronic music. For proof, see 2013’s Kite Day, the following insomnia-induced Chipped EP, as well as all the remixes she’s worked on along the way, like her most recent one of Shy Girls’ “Clean Cut”. Herring met up with us in Austin during SXSW the day after playing night one of Impose’s 2015 Austin Imposition. We spoke about her impressive music and design background, sifted through iPhone photos of her labradoodle Hucky, and watched her nonchalantly school a fellow Impose editor in arcade games.
How were your shows last night?
We had two, the first was SXSW official, which was a good show to have first and kind of work out my live set technically. There was no one there which is kinda typical when you’re just thrown into a lineup with different styles of music. The SPF420 show was so fun though. I felt really good about that. We left there and went to check out another show and it was just a really positive experience.
I kept meeting people and being like, who is that person I just talked to, I know them. I met all these people I’ve tweeted before. I was thinking yesterday, I am walking through the internet right now. I’m in it. I kept wanting to see Twitter handles and email addresses floating above people’s heads.
Can you tell me about the road to Austin?
Well I was born in Southern Tennessee and lived there for a while, then spent some time in Georgia. We moved to Kentucky when I went to high school. I grew up playing classical piano, and maybe it was because I was in the South and all my teachers were these old southern ladies and I was just playing weird hymns and holiday songs, that I eventually got way too cool for it, and was like no, ‘I’m not gonna go to this lady’s house.’ But then when I was in college, I started getting into coding because I was required to take a class on it, so that started to get me interested in digital design and stuff. I didn’t get serious about making music until I was in Brooklyn, onward. When I realized I could sample or make percussion sounds on a keyboard (this guy with a MIDI showed me), I got really obsessed that I can do all of this with some basic music theory.
What were you doing in New York?
I moved to New York for an MFA in abstract painting at Pratt, and came back to Kentucky six years ago. The irony of it is that they provided the best individual studio environment, so that was really appealing, but then it was in a city that’s so expensive, and I ran myself to death just trying to do and see and hear everything that was available to me, while working at the same time. After a while, I felt like, “I’m forcing this.”
How do you incorporate your interests in art and design into your daily life?
Well, web development is what I do as a job. I was hired by a retail company to make their site more user-friendly, so I built them a brand new retail front end. Two years later, I’m still there. It’s pretty cool. I just manage it now. A lot of the people I know who do this work either have the coding/technical skill, or they can make things look good. It’s rare to find ones that can cross over. I tend to lean more toward the aesthetic and what looks better to me than functionality.
Before I started studying this stuff, I’d always been a big hip-hop person, and then in my early twenties, got into electronic music really heavy. Someone introduced me to Orbital. And Underworld. And Chemical Brothers. Even like Moby.
Is there a substantial electronic music community in your immediate surroundings?
Lexington is pretty cool. There’s a small group there doing electronic music. Support in Lexington is really great. People are throwing shows, they’re making it happen. There aren’t a lot of electronic artists that are putting music out, but it’s not totally unheard of.
Do you like to work more in isolation or around other people?
I like both. When you’re working with a lot of vocalists it’s hard to get everyone on a schedule. But in person i don’t like people sitting over me. I feel some kind of strange pressure. I’m definitely a perfectionist, and it can be hard in a collaboration. Doing the remix for Normaling’s “Low Drop” (Feat. Rye Rye & TT The Artist), for instance, I saw how being in different places really impacted the process. I can only imagine how different it would have been if he had been there telling me not to include this or that, but what happened is he took it all out after the fact.
I’m not sure if this is the dreaded question at this point, or how to even ask it, but what are your thoughts on being a girl in what can seem like a very male-dominated space?
It’s weird. I’m just so used to it that I don’t know. It’s just how it is. I catch myself being surprised by it. And I don’t want to be surprised that someone who’s making electronic music is a girl. It’s addressed though. People will be like, “It’s cool to know a girl who’s putting music like this out there.” And it’s like, ‘Why is it addressed this way?’ If it were a guy up for discussion, no one would say that.
It’s an exposure issue, I think. We don’t know if it’s that there are that many more guys doing it, or if there just isn’t the exposure for girls. But it’s changing. I’ve had guys write me online after shows and say things like, “I’ve never seen a girl play that well.” And I’m like, ‘Thanks I guess?’ I did a conference once (the only woman on a four-person panel) and the moderator guy was like, “What’s it like to like to be a woman and do what you do?”, and I was like, ‘Son’t ask that. I’d rather just talk about what were here to talk about—how we produce and our workflow.’ It was the first time I’d ever really come back at someone like that, but I just reached a point of not being able to stand talking about this anymore in such terms.
What’s your relationship to writing lyrics?
I started writing lyrics almost three years ago, on the first release I did with Racecar Productions, Kite Day. It’s something I don’t do anymore because I can’t translate it live—I’m not comfortable singing live at all. Logistically, there’s no way to work that out with just myself onstage unless I play a backing track and figure out how to sing over it without having a nervous breakdown, because there’s so much going on onstage as it is. Another thing I ran into with making “JFK” and “Always Just Ok” on Kite Day was, since those lyrics are super personal to me, I don’t think I could even get through trying to perform those out. I don’t want to, and it’s just too difficult. I don’t wanna relive that every time I play that out. Maybe some people would consider it a therapeutic thing because you’re sharing. But for me it’s too much.
Is it difficult to go back and forth between working on remixes and working on your own stuff, since you’re doing a lot of both these days?
It can be tricky with remixes because I basically have to be like, do you mind if I completely change your voice on the track? Sometimes, if I’m working with a remix, I feel like I might be manipulating a voice too much. I think with Blooms’ “Lust” I did that, completely transposing it and pitching it way higher on the entire track. I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t going to be upset that I put something out there where I changed her voice so much. With the Normaling remix, I just cut it up so much there’s hardly a verse in there anymore.
Since those lyrics are super personal to me, I don’t think I could even get through trying to perform those out. It’s just too difficult. I don’t wanna relive that every time I play that out.
Are you starting to get more comfortable putting yourself and your own personal style out there?
Yeah, I am getting more comfortable with putting more of myself out there and maybe taking more chances production-wise, not trying to fit within a certain thing. I’m trying to make things more cohesive. I really wanted cohesion with the Chipped Ep because Kite Day was all over the place. Chipped is a project that started with me trying to do that exact thing, with one mood going on through the whole thing. That’s the first one where I didn’t just throw in a bunch of vocals and got my friend Matthew who’s on “The Never Ache” to kind of recreate some lyrics for me there. Especially since I’ve started doing more shows, I can’t deal with all these tracks that I’m doing so much singing on. People expect that and I’m not giving it to them. Like people come out to hear Kite Day and their hearing totally different versions of it.
I’ve been doing a lot of these sets which are sort of hybrid DJ, with original tracks in them, so when I’m doing stuff like that, chopping things up, I’m listening to music that I’m in my studio literally dancing around to. The DJing side of it has made me more critical of myself production-wise, bc it’s just a lot of listening. But I’m constantly torn between wanting to create stuff that people can move to, and just like slow-jamming with vocalists more on the R&B side.
Does it interest you at all to put something out of just your voice on keys?
Never say never. But I can probably say, unless my entire personality changes, that I wouldn’t be able to play it out live. I think I could do it with the caveat that it’s only going to be listened to and not performed. I have too much anxiety about trying to do that live. But the weird thing is that I do love performing. All the nerves go away and I feel like I don’t want to be anywhere else. But if you put me on a keyboard and told me to start singing, I would have a total anxiety meltdown. I don’t know how people do it. I thought about this when I saw Fiona Apple a few years ago. She performed “I know” and was completely flailing around and on the verge of tears. And that song had been out for years at that point. I wondered how she could possibly go through that emotionally every time she plays it. I’m obsessed with her and have seen her four times and I know that she doesn’t do that every time. But at that show, she was just a mess and it was the best of the four that I saw.