Photo ATSUSHI KAKEFUDA
One of the worst things about making music—and most art these days, really—is how limitless one’s creative options can feel between all of the analog and digital tools that are out there. At times it can even feel crippling, as if everything’s suddenly at your disposal and you don’t know what door to open first.
Sally Dige tried to look beyond all that while writing and recording her new album Holding On. Less is literally more in her case, as the multi-medium artist pours draws the deepest of details out of a simple voice-and-synth setup.
“I think you can do more when you have less gear,” she explains. “Too much gear kills the imagination. I don’t care for gear culture or what instrument brands/models people use. That’s not interesting. What is interesting is the process, where you take the imagination, what the story is, and how you exploit what you have—whether it’s a tool or your own body and voice—to create a world.”
In the following exclusive, Dige shares the album’s lead single and some of the background that’s made her one of Berlin’s most compelling underground artists. Look out for Holding On September 8th through DKA in the U.S. and September 13th through AVANT! in Europe….
What’s your earliest memory of making art/music?
I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil and took to it with a manic obsession. It was a great tool for telling stories. I didn’t like reading because it told stories too slow. When I would draw, I would narrate the stories out loud and played out the characters on paper. Much like the way children played with toys, I did the same with drawing the characters on a page. When the pages got all used up, I would continue drawing on any blank spaces (I never liked to break the flow so it was better to draw on leftover space than stop).
I created so much work over the years that I had a solo exhibition at the age of 9. The local newspaper came out and photographed me for their paper and I made sure to wear a dress my mom brought back from New York because I thought anything from New York had to be “Art Snobby” which is what I wanted to be.
From the drawings I turned them into written stories, from the stories we made picture films (reenacting every scene in a photo, that in the end was like a picture book), and from the picture films we turned them into real films. It was a natural progression that fed into each other. We were doing this all as kids.
I started my first band with my best friend when we were 9, and still in elementary school. We were inspired by pop bands and the Beatles and called ourselves Silver and Gold. We wrote tons of songs but struggled with how to write the instrumental part. We didn’t have any training in music and instruments apart from learning the recorder in school and traditional band instruments. We didn’t want that for our sound! We didn’t want flutes and recorders; we wanted the sounds we heard on the radio, but it was so frustrating because we had no idea what that plastic, otherworldly instrument was! I later discovered it was a synth.
My bandmate’s brother had a drum kit in the basement and we would switch up from playing drums and singing. My friend got her grades good enough to get a guitar and I got a cheap keyboard and microphone for Christmas. We thought now we had the proper set-up for a pop band. Halfway through the year we got into doing spells and wanted a darker sound, so we called ourselves Black Magic.
Did you grow up in an artistic household as well?
My mom is an artist and writer, so art and creativity was always around. Because of this, we used to be dragged along to art shows and studios, and we had to live in the woods in Sweden with hippies. We spent the days working on ceramics with DIY kilns, and we stayed with Danish hippie weavers who lived in windmills and so on. My mom would always say ‘isn’t this way fucking better than Disneyland?!'”
My mother would scatter paintings around the kitchen—she always worked on at least 20 at once—and had my sister and I paint the base colours before we could go and play. My mom also had me draw many illustrations for some of her ceramic works.
Since I understood the concept of”being somebody when I grow up” I knew that I wanted to be an “artist”. The word “artist” to me meant doing all things creativ—someone who does music, film, visual art, performance, or design. I don’t use it only for someone who does visual art, especially since I’ve always jumped from medium to medium.
My mother always feared that us kids would grow up to be normal and get married and have kids. She used to always tell us “never get married and never have kids. It will ruin your life; instead make art.”
You went to art school in Canada right? What were a few key things you took away from that experience?
I think art school really broadened my mind about ‘the process’ of art-making. I never thought about ‘processes’ before that. I always just did my work and there was never any thought about it while I was doing it. If it was good, it was good; if it was bad, I moved on…. Just taking the time to explore can be quite good.
How would you describe where your head is at right now on both a creative and personal level?
My head is in a weird place. I feel very excited about what I am doing creatively more so than ever before. I find myself understanding more deeply the possibilities in regards to production, visual creation, and so on, and this excites me greatly as I have a lot of inspiration in my bones, with new ideas and desires and a drive to work really intensely. Apart from my creative life, my family life is a bit of a mess so this weighs down heavily on my mind.
When did you start working on this record, and how long did it take for you to complete it?
I sort of began at the start of 2016. I was writing a lot—scrapping, then rewriting, scrapping, going back and forth. I isolated myself for months on end; not seeing or speaking to anyone, just spending all my free time teaching myself new skills and techniques for sound production, programming drums, learning different instrumentation, layering sounds and so on. I went through a period of just studying music and compositions on my own.
When the summer of 2016 came along, I felt like I really needed some fresh input, as I was beginning to go in circles with all the isolation. I invited my two Swedish friends Anton and Sanne to come to Berlin and join the process. It was a lot of fun but super intense, and we had our own mental breakdown probably due to the fact that we were not sleeping at all, going through bottles of vodka a day, and living in a weird environment. (We were staying at a distant friend’s apartment.)
I went back to Sweden with them to perform at a festival and once I got back to Berlin I went through a weird depressive period that maybe the songs weren’t going in the right direction and I ended up deleting almost everything that I worked on with Anton and started fresh again; writing the songs from the bottom up. Once the songs were finished I took them to Alex Akers of FORCES to mix. We worked really hard on the mixes, almost to an excessive level. I realized that Alex is one of the most patient persons I have ever met. For him to work through the hundreds of stems, make sense of my madness and even contribute some extra ideas on top of all the sounds was really amazing. Most people fall apart when they work with me for too long, saying that I am “far too intense” and my process is “maddening and insane” but Alex really embraced it. Alex also ended up doing the remix version for “Holding On” on the album.
Did you have a hard time getting into the groove of writing and recording new music at first, or did the songs come out of you rather quickly, acting as a form of therapy?
I was in a really bad mental state and didn’t know how to cope with a lot of grief I was dealing with. People were telling me I should see a therapist or something that involved talking to someone, but I just couldn’t do that. I’m not a person that is good with talking to others. Sometimes I can’t even put two sentences together properly when I am with people because communication isn’t my strength. I don’t feel very natural with talking. So I turned to music as a way to process pain and grief. Musical entries were my diaries. Music was my therapy and it helped me to go deeper within myself.
But then working on music became my obsession at its strongest force. I couldn’t do much of anything else because anything away from working gave me tremendous anxiety. Even a trip to the nearby grocery store allowed too much time for thoughts to seep into my mind and contort my thoughts. I slept as little as I could so that no thoughts could enter my brain and I did nothing else but play music. It was a weird process of struggling for a long time with how to work with the songs, and reworking them and then reproducing them and dwelling on them but then near the end, I got into this habit of when I felt really low about a track, I would go and delete everything except the vocals and start fresh, and then it came together really fast. All the constant learning made me grow more confident in what I was doing to not question every step of the way.
One of the things that immediately struck me about this album is how dense and alive it feels. Can you talk a little bit about the lush, complex sound you went for with it, and how you managed to pull it off with such a simple synth-and-vocals setup?
I think you can do a lot with a minimal setup…. The dense sound probably comes from the fact that the songs were so densely layered! These songs are the most excessive recordings I have ever done. I went a bit overboard but I was so far deep into the recordings and the complexities of the layering that I just committed myself to it and ran with the madness.
For some songs, there would be 100 layers for just the percussions alone. A lot of the percussions were also layered with vocal sounds. I was layering 40 different bell sounds for one hook because I needed the bell riff to have “the perfect mood”. I was so far down the rabbit hole that I saw sense in the chaos.
Because I have so little gear, I depend a lot on my body and voice to create more sounds. With production though, the possibilities are unlimited so really one synth and the voice can do plenty!
Can you share the story behind the song we’re premiering?
I wrote the song during a time that I thought I was losing my mind and losing all hope in everything. I was searching and digging within the inner depths of my soul to find strength to hold on to, to keep going. I had a dream that I was digging deep into my pockets to reach my soul to find that strength that I needed. I was moving forward so slowly; my legs moving like pushing through water, but all that mattered was that I kept moving and everything was going to be alright.
What else do you have planned for the months ahead in terms of touring and releasing other music?
For the next couple months, I’m planning on completing all the visuals for this release. I’ve been working a lot on bringing in many different people and experimenting with different visual processes. I’m working on eight of my own films right now and working on some more films for other artists too.
For music, I was also hoping in these coming months to work on some new tracks for this project as well as a side solo project (solo project from the solo project). I also may produce some tracks for other artists as I have been getting lots of requests but just didn’t have as much time before to do as much production on other people’s work.
The shows I plan to have are for fall and onwards. Just trying to tackle every part one step at a time; I am just one person with always way too many projects and way too high ambitions!