Avalon Emerson on Buying Music, Arthur Russell, and Her Incredible New Album

Avalon Emerson on Buying Music, Arthur Russell, and Her Incredible New Album
Avalon Emerson by Tonje Thilesen

This is a free post for Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter, which spans interviews with musicians to arts and music criticism. Paid subscribers also get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist of music I've been listening to lately, along with thoughts around that music.

OK! Let's get into it now that I'm back from some vacation time—Avalon Emerson's long been one of my favorite DJs and producers, check out this excellent set from 2017 if you need any proof. Her debut album as Avalon Emerson and the Charm is one of the year's best albums so far no doubt, as she's made a near-perfect transition into electronic pop that doesn't lose an ounce of her already-established sound. We hopped on Zoom and talked about that record, as well as video games, working with producer extraordinaire Nathan Jenkins (aka Bullion), the art and business of DJing, and so much more.

What was your first gig like after things opened up again?
It's hard to say when it happened, because there were so many false starts, but I think it was in the summer of 2021. I remember the first time I'd been outside in a club environment, which was at Nowadays in their outdoor space. They were able to do stuff in a more conscious way because of that, so that was the first time I'd heard amplified dance music in a while. Aurora Halal was playing, and seeing everyone around dancing was kind of intense. I had to go sit on a picnic bench for a bit, it was a little overwhelming.

I remember hearing from people that summer that going out to clubs felt strange and intense. Being a DJ, someone who's basically setting the mood for a space or event, must've been another challenge in terms of navigating that time.
It made me think a lot about my old life, when I was a software developer. I was like, "Wow, it would be nice to have that job at this point." When lockdowns happened, naturally it was like, this part of society should stop, right? When there's an infectious respiratory disease going around? But it also vilified this idea of gathering in groups and enjoying being around one another.

My job is centered around people getting together in big groups and, quite frankly, being filthy with one another—sweating, dancing, yelling, being together. I'm in the center of these activities that were all shut down so hard, and there was also this aspect of fear-policing one another about what's allowed, what's OK. Even now, I feel like there's lingering stigma stuff about people still holding on to—which, I mean, look, they're not wrong. This thing is still hanging around, sure. But to be completely OK with hermetically sealed, online everything in perpetuity—that is not even a world I would ever want to live in. But there's these weird conflicting societal taboos and allowances. Staged reopenings, "There's this new variant thing," shutting everything down again, and meanwhile certain things are allowed anyway.

It was a very weird time, and it was and wasn't as scientifically correct as it could've been—obvious inconsistencies in logic, people retreating into authorativeness. "The rules are the rules." Whatever country or establishment, some people are really down with following those, and some are really against them. Just the fact that you're being told to do something, some people are going to create an identity against that. So being a DJ, where your job is centered around groups getting together and partying, is really weird.

Avalon Emerson by Tonje Thilesen

I saw you at Forest Hills. You were on second that day, and I'm curious about where your mind's at in terms of what you're playing in context of when and where you're playing it.
Whenever I'm preparing for a set, I take into consideration the time of day it is, when the doors are. With Forest Hills, the entire thing ended at 11, so I played second and it was a warm up-y vibe. People are just getting going, getting their first drink, meeting up with friends—so I was keeping it buoyant and upbeat, not crazy intense. It wasn't even dark enough to have the lasers or strobes to be effective. With the crowd for that one, I was like, "Is it going to be more of a live indie thing?" Maybe these people aren't super used to traditional club-world stuff and they'd appreciate a Talking Heads edit rather than a 145BPM trance banger.

That gig was fun because I clearly wasn't the headliner, so it was more of a group effort. I do love playing a warm-up set, and I play less and less of them all the time, so it was great to have a beginning and an end—and the end was kind of a lay-up for somebody else, which I really like.

I wanted to talk to you more about your background as a software developer.
The software world has changed so much since I was doing it professionally. I was primarily full-stack rails with a little bit of Javascript, a little bit of front-end but a little bit of back-end too. React was just starting to be used to build stuff, and nowadays there's so many different frameworks—all Javascript, everything on the server. I would have to relearn a ton of stuff if I ever wanted to get a job in that again. [Laughs] I still like it, but I have my own super-tiny website that I get to poke around with, and it scratches that itch.

I was developing in San Francisco for a little bit at a startup. Not many of my DJ friends had actual jobs. I was the only one who was like, "Sorry, I can't hang out, I have to be somewhere at 9 a.m. the next day." They'd be like, "What? On a Wednesday? Come on." For shows on the weekends, I'd bring my DJ suitcase to work and leave right after, which was pretty hectic for a while. But when I made the jump, it was great to focus full-time on music. That was 2016 0r 2017, a while ago by now.

I love this new record. I've always appreciated your music in a real dance music context, and it's hard to transition from that world to a more pop-oriented context—but you make it sound effortless.
When I'm talking to media, sometimes I'm like, "Am I a dance music artist, or am I starting from scratch as an indietronica artist?" Who knows! As far as which places cover me and live bookings, it's really hard. Audiences know me as a DJ and would have a fun time coming out at 1 a.m. with me, but communicating this new thing where I have a band and an album and I'm singing on it...maybe when the album comes out, people will have a better understanding. But there's not a whole lot of blueprints out there. I think Moby did that? I'm not even kidding, I went to a vintage store across the street today and they were playing Play, and I was like, "This is just big beat, this isn't that different from what he was doing in the '90s."

But my new stuff does sound kind of different. Some of the stuff that prepared me was the way I do remixes. I'm not really a big fan of remixing other instrumental dance music—I don't see how there's a whole lot to accomplish creatively by doing that. So I've always liked remixing indie artists and trying to keep the full vocal in the remix. Being able to pick apart that has helped embed a structure and cadence for when things happen in certain pop songs—at least, the way I like them to—and splitting the difference there prepared me for this. Also, I love dance music, but making club music sometimes feels like playing some video game over and over. There are times when I feel like I want to make a banger, and I have an idea for an edit or a song, but the stuff I'm listening to when I just put on music is stuff with vocals, stuff with lyrics, stuff with a verse and chorus and middle eight. There was definitely a pretty long runway of learning how to make this music. It's one thing to enjoy it, but another to create it from zero to...anything.

It was a bit of a jump, and it started with just locking myself in a studio I was sharing in Brooklyn, banging my head against the wall, and figuring it out. I'd look at other songs and mark the timecodes, like, "This is where the intro is." "The first time the chorus happens, it's just half of it, and then it comes in later." I'd pick apart different structures, make moves, and record my voice over it—first without lyrics, and then coming back to use different methods to come up with words, subjects, and topics. I worked with a few producers, and nothing clicked as much as working with Nathan. He's so brilliant, and he really has this beautiful, delicate balance of hard skills and soft skills. His personality is very welcoming and open, but he's also able to provide concrete feedback where I feel confident with the songs. If it was bad, I feel like he would tell me. [Laughs]

When I was writing demos, I'd purposefully use the shittiest synths and drums I could find, so I couldn't get distracted by sound design. When I'm making dance music, I'll be like, "Oh, this patch is sick," and then I'll make a whole song based on how the bass vibrates my chest cavity. When I'm writing a pop song, I'm thinking about other things. So I had all these lo-fi versions of these songs, and then I fleshed them out in London with Bullion. There were a few we wrote in the studio from the ground-up too, and to be honest those are the ones that made me feel really confident that I could do this. I was having a fear through the whole process that only true musical geniuses could make this kind of pop music—I'm just a club person.

You mentioned video games earlier—do you game?
A little bit.

What do you usually play?
The best game I've ever played is probably Stardew Valley. I don't like shooters. Call of Duty, that's not me.

I'm right in the middle of those poles. I've tried Warzone, but...there's something too militaristic about it.
Something?!? [Laughs]

No, I know, I know. I haven't seen the new Top Gun for the same reason.
I mean, I hear you. We played a lot of Warzone during the pandemic because it was the only social activity—not only for that day, but for the week. I'd get on the little headset and be like, "Hey guys, what's up?" and chat shit for hours. It felt like hanging out with your friends. That's why I liked it. What do you like to play?

I don't like doing games online with people. The way I play video games is almost like a time-management thing—write, game, do some chores, game.
The carrot on the stick.

Exactly. The few times I've played co-op with strangers, they almost immediately start using slurs against me, and I'm like, "OK, I'm done."
Have you played Elden Ring?

Nah, it's too hard.
It seems hardcore. The Harry Potter game?

I'm not touching that shit.
We're not a house of Harry Potter.

I grew out of that shit by the time I was 17 to begin with, and the fact that a transphobe is responsible for the whole franchise doesn't exactly sweeten the pot.
But, like you just said, you're also not allowed to like that stuff because it's for babies.

That's real.
But what are you playing right now?

Have you ever played the Yakuza games?
No, but people love them.

I'm playing through all of them, they're so bizarre and great. There's quests where you help people get out of debt, or you're helping a guy who wears a diaper. You're like, "What the fuck is this?" Plus, the cutscenes are long, so I can do chores while they play out.
Have you played The Last of Us?

Yup, both games.
That was fun. It was a little bit too scary for me, but great game.

Very immersive, very intense, very depressing. Do you watch the show?
Kind of. Not really. I feel like they piggybacked off of everyone's emotional connection to the games. But it's not a good show. "IMO."

No, I agree. It's just more TV. I watched the first few episodes, and I really liked Bella Ramsey's performance, but we got to the standalone episode with Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, and I was like, "Yeah, this feels so manipulative. I'm out."
I agree.

I didn't ask for someone to make a TV show out of the first 10 minutes of Up. That's not what I want.
I know. I think culture's in such a weird place right now. They just want to be treated like big babies. They want their stories to be clear-cut, and they want to be told exactly how to feel. Even all these post-show rundowns with the directors, it's like, "Here this is, for your little baby brains."

Yeah, there's no nuance, no vagueness—it all fuckin' sucks.
RIP nuance, for sure.

One thing I wanted to ask you about is Arthur Russell. I hear him a lot in this record, and I hear him a lot in other stuff that Nathan's worked on too. I've always loved Arthur Russell, but for a while no one sounded like him—and now I'm hearing him a lot in music. What does his music mean to you?
First of all, I just respect the breadth of his work. Having things out in the world where it's sketches of things, in a minimalist way, while having it still work is so beautiful. There's a lot of contemporary people who try to sound old-school or use lo-fi aesthetics in a ham-handed way, trying to get at what he achieved with the World of Echo stuff. The hard thing with "minimalistic" stuff is getting the job done with as few brushstrokes as possible, and have them sound perfect even if it's a demo.

My favorite Arthur Russell stuff is the Love Is Overtaking Me stuff. Growing a little bit older and being at a point where I am actually kind of moving out to the country, wanting to be more unplugged while I'm out there and communicating through letters—I feel that vibe in a spiritual way. He's a fantastic songwriter, and he does something with pop music that's really hard to do. His position, forever on the outskirts of scenes, is hard to picture from our perspective in 2023, but he's been beloved after his time. He's fantastic, for sure.

You started the Buy Music Club app a few years ago, and I wanted to ask you about what inspired you to start it up, as well as your thoughts on how musicians make money right now in general.
There's one thing to be said about DJs in the sliding scale of professionalism— and anyone who plays music out in some public sense, I'm calling a DJ, whether it's a once-a-month residency at The Lot or whatever. These people are among the top fraction of a percent of music fans—people who go out there and find stuff and listen obsessively and filter and present. These people still have the task of organizing a library of digital files, but honestly, that concept has absolutely set sail, and that is never coming back for the general population.

It's even an age thing—it's millennials, young Gen X, and that's it. Anyone younger doesn't know what a file system is, and that's fine. I know someone who's a school principal, and asking a kid to forward an attachment in an email—they don't know how to do it. Everything's on a phone now, or in a walled garden, in the same sense that the internet is now just a series of apps rather than the world wide web that you visit through a browser. This relationship with our devices is never going to be the other way around again, and physical media will never be a thing again. You go into the economics of spending a fixed amount every month and ostensibly having access to the entire library of human-made music...yeah, we're never gonna be in that situation again where consumers prefer something else.

Streaming has been making more money than ever, and I know there's a lot of discussion about the fairness of the major labels having different deals than the coalition of independent labels, which is not fair. There's a lot broken with the system of gathering money, whether it be live music, licensing, radio rights, streaming—it's a lot of asymmetries that do suck. But I don't see physical media or paying $0.99 for a song coming back. Live music has also become broken as hell. It feels like another corner of the same room where everything is further consolidated into the top 1% of whatever it is, and if you're in that 1% it's great, and if not it's worse than ever before.

I have a tendency to be totalist about all this stuff—"It's the same as everything else"—but that's how I feel. It's hard not to see the parallels. It's everything! With movies, if you're not Marvel, you're fucked. Back in the '90s, there was a healthy system of independent theaters and distributors. With labels, you could have a relative amount of power and not be so bootstrappy about everything. Now you have to make huge concessions, and it's not very surprising when the successful people in the arts come from independent wealth.

It's fine to hate people for that—I'm gonna say that it's fine, we should call it out more, we didn't before—but, also, do those people actually make the best music? Or are they just the ones who can be at it the longest and can put together a show that's better because they can invest more time and money into it, so they have more time to be on their phones and garner attention? It's all in a weird place right now.

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Jamie Larson