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An interview with musician Laurel Halo

Attention-grabbing American techno artist Laurel Halo is breaking down gender barriers in electronic music.

Laurel Halo: as enigmatic as her music.

In these delineated times when every musical movement and rhythmic footprint can be assimilated, cross-categorised and appraised, or simply condemned, by an internet full of unqualified “experts”, Laurel Halo, the alias of the equally superbly monikered American techno artist Ina Cube, is a delightful conundrum.

One of the depressingly small number of women who have truly managed to stick their head above the testosterone ramparts of the contemporary electronic music world, she is as enigmatic as her music, which ranges from the hypnagogic, vocal-led suspended atmospheres of the album Quarantine to the considerably more direct, multi-level, deep instrumental techno of her exceptional recent Behind the Green Door EP, with plenty of stops in between.

Visiting New Zealand for the first time to play a series of shows in the main centres as part of the Audio Foundation’s Altmusic series, the Michigan-born classically trained artist has been leading the kind of transient touring life over the past couple of years that requires a question about whether she’s based in her hometown of Ann Arbor or in New York, Berlin or London? “I still have a place in New York, but I’m not sure where I’m living to be honest!”

From Halo’s beginnings as a music school student and free-form DJ on local college station WCBN to the self-release of three singular attention-grabbing EPs between 2006 and 2009, her music has been picked up by several of the most innovative and respected electronic labels – including Hippos in Tanks and Hyperdub – as well as being the inaugural 12" for Mute Records’ Liberation Technologies imprint, under her King Felix alias.

Although she humbly says it’s “mostly chance with some choice – other labels have contacted me but I liked the aesthetic and aim of each of these labels at the time”, it is nonetheless a veritable dream team of contemporary progressive electronic labels, and it’s her music, rather than her gender, that has taken her to these rarified airs.

With artists like Halo, labelmate Ikonika, Fever Ray and Maya Jane Coles all forging distinct musical identities that are simply too strong for the gatekeepers to belittle or trivialise, and electronic pioneers such as Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and Suzanne Ciani finally retrospectively getting due respect, the tables aren’t exactly turning but there is at least a sense of some balance.

Halo’s response to the experience of being a woman in electronic music’s patriarchal confines is either very dry or a reference to transgender electronic pioneer Wendy/Walter Carlos: “It was hell of a lot easier when I used to be a man! Like with everything, it’s crucial to stay positive and filter the bullshit. At the end of the day, I’m so grateful to be able to do what I love for a living.”

Among the constituent factors that make Halo’s music stand apart in a ridiculously overcrowded market are the depth and sonic quality. Although there are few limits on the potential of bedroom productions these days, the richness and detail in her work doesn’t come at budget rates. The process of writing and experimenting at home, before treating and reassessing the individual parts in a “proper studio”, allows the work to be devastatingly effective both on headphones and through big club sound systems.

“It’s just great equipment and a great listening environment. It can be helpful, especially when your home studio is above a laundromat, at a busy intersection, with no air con – the constant vibration, noise and heat might prove distracting after a while. It is a real expense and something I couldn’t afford until recently, but it has been worth it, to save and work towards.”

That investment of time, talent and funds is beginning to pay off, with each release becoming more intriguing and enveloping than the last. Quarantine, her album for Kode 9’s Hyperdub label, was rated Wire magazine’s No 1 release of 2012 and was so titled “because the music sounded like metaphors for various oppressive systems, all of which utilise isolation in one way or another”.

The inspiration for the title of her latest EP, which finds her delving further into the heart of the unapologetic original techno birthed in nearby Detroit, is even more involved.

“I read a book that had a collection of patches from various American covert ops, explaining their histories. There was one patch that said ‘A LIFETIME OF SILENCE/ BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR’, whose backstory was obscured, but the book mentioned that military intelligence officers have a tradition of working behind locked green vault doors and that in popular culture the phrase is widely used to designate an inaccessible place – with a 1917 novel, 1956 hit song, 1972 porno and Hieroglyphic Being single from 2010 all sharing the same title.

“To be clear, the title Behind the Green Door was more about the idea of psychedelic, sexual connotations and their militaristic obfuscation – it has nothing to do with the idea of literal sex, but people fill in the blanks where they want.”

LAUREL HALO, Third Door Down, Christchurch, September 12; Queens, Dunedin, September 13; Puppies, Wellington, September 14; Whammy, Auckland, September 18.