MEETING: Lauren Sky and Valerie Orth
Today we present to you Lauren Sky and Valerie Orth – two amazing New York City based singer/songwriters and members of the all-female producers group Female Frequency. Julia met them on their recent visit to Berlin and was allowed to take a closer look at their lives. She found out what it takes to be a musician in modern-day society, dismantle stereotypes, where to find never-ceasing inspiration and why working with other female producers rocks! Enjoy!
You both are musical multi-talents – tell us a bit about your work!
Lauren: Songwriting and performance are probably the most exciting things about being an artist for me. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter, but since getting a handle on digital audio work stations, I’ve been able to manifest things that I could only dream of before and have really developed as a songwriter and a producer - especially in the past 3-4 years.
As a performer, voice and movement are two of the most important elements for me and the ones I most identify with. I also perform on bass, but musical instruments serve as more of a songwriting tool to me right now than a performance tool.
Valerie: I definitely identify myself as a producer now, but I’m a singer first - I’ve been a singer since I was four years old. I am a song-writer and a guitar-player and yeah, now I’m also a producer.
You write your own songs, you perform, you sing, play the guitar/bass, you produce your own music… what’s your biggest passion?
Lauren: My biggest passion is probably the music itself: the feeling that it creates inside me and that I see it create inside others. When I’m at a show or performing, there seems to be a bridge that’s created in that moment when me and another person are really connecting in a way that wasn’t available to us before. I’ve also had this experience being in the same room as someone and just listening to the same music.
I think this is what the lure of performance is for me - having the opportunity to be a catalyst or a vessel where I can be of service and allow whatever the universe is passing through me to pass and have the work or the performance be birthed as a result of that - and that can be a shared experience between me and the audience.
Valerie: It is such a high to perform, and the audience is very important. If they’re not engaged, it affects me, not just on stage but afterwards, it’s just part of my whole being. But when there is an engaged audience and there’s a strong connection, it’s euphoric. I would say performing is probably my biggest passion.
This was also the reason why I started playing the guitar. I didn’t want to rely on anyone else to write songs and I wanted to keep performing. I was doing musical theatre before for 15 years, and I kept getting cast as these very sexist, lame roles, prostitutes, basically, and I was like, I’m going to take matters into my own hands, I’ll start writing my own songs!
Another very important side of performing is when I get deep feedback about my songs. I have this one really old song, for example, called ‘I Forgive You’. A couple of years after I’d released the song, I had just gotten off stage, and a woman came up to me and said: ‘You know your song actually allowed me and my friend to be friends again after not talking to each other for several years.’ – My lyrics had been strong enough and had had such an impact on these two women that they became friends again after years of not speaking to each other! That kind of impact to have on people and that kind of response to get – even if it’s once every five years, or once ever – shows me that I’m doing the right thing and I’m actually having a positive impact on people. My goal is to continue to do that.
So is there also something you can’t do?
Lauren: There’s a lot I cannot do! I have a lot of friends that work with different mediums. They’re painters or writers, and I have such gratitude that they exist and do their craft because those things have never really been a calling for me. even though I do appreciate them. I’ve always been very music & audio-focused, so it’s kind of exciting that we can occupy these different artistic areas and collaborate to create something new. There’s also a lot in music I cannot do, but I don’t want to bore you with the technical part of things. [laughs]
Valerie: Especially now that I’m producing I’m trying out so many new things! I try not to tell myself that I can’t do something, and my boyfriend supports me by saying, ‘Oh yes you can - or just say you can and then see what happens’. It’s going to be a lifelong process - I’m never going to feel like I can do everything concerning music production.
In terms of aspects outside of music, I’m trying to finish my album covers right now, my single covers, the artwork, the EP cover, and I have a friend, a painter, who’s helping me. But I feel like I’m torturing her because it's so hard deciding on the visual representation of my music! Some musicians are great at figuring that stuff out, and maybe one day I will be, too.
By the way, whenever that cover comes out you guys can let me know if you think it’s representative!
Did you always know you wanted to make music?
Lauren: When I was a kid I wanted to do everything, I wanted to be a vet and a marine biologist and a cartoonist, there were a lot of things. But I definitely always had this thing with music. It has always been this illusive lover that I was infatuated with - a mystery that endlessly fascinated me.
Valerie: It’s taken different forms for me. I started in musical theatre when I was about five years old. I did lots of different musicals every year until I was about twenty. I joined a mostly black women a cappella group who performed music of the African diaspora. I was kind of an outcast in that group [laughs] but it was really amazing to work with them. In college I tried to pull those R’n’B influences into my music.
But I agree with Lauren, it was kind of always an elusive thing. I didn’t really think of myself as a musical artist for a long time, even though that’s what I am. I took some time off from performing when I was working for a social justice organization, trying to change the world in a different way than music does. Coming back to music I realized that this is what I want to do, this is what I have to do.
How did you meet?
Lauren: I feel like I’ve known Valerie forever, it’s crazy! There’s a New York City based group of women who are music producers called the Women Beatmakers that I’m a part of and I met Val at one of their meet-ups. She was in another group called Female Frequency at the time and our two groups joined forces. Val, how would you describe Female Frequency?
Valerie: It does focus on female producers, but it’s also a collective dedicated to empowering women and girls in the music industry in general. The idea is to bring women together to produce and release songs and EPs that are entirely female generated. Everyone from the engineer to the studio owner to the songwriters, singers and musicians who are part of the track are women. You actually can’t release something on Female Frequency if there’s a man involved.
In November, you put a showcase together in Berlin with several members of female:pressure. How did this come together?
Valerie: female:pressure is an organization of women working in electronic music that was founded in 1998. The founder, Electric Indigo, is based in Austria, but she travelled a lot to Berlin. female:pressure’s database now consists of about 2’000 women producers, DJs and musicians across the world, most of whom are located in Austria and Berlin. The amazing thing is that she started it at a time when there weren’t many known female producers. So it’s pretty amazing that it still exists and has grown into this huge international network.
When Lauren and I were planning to go to Berlin for the Ableton Loop conference, the founder of Female Frequency, Dani Mari, told me to get into contact with female:pressure. So I sent an email asking if people wanted to do a show in Berlin, and the result was our amazing showcase at Loophole that night. So hopefully, we’ll be able to organize a tour with some of these women when we come back to Europe!
The motif of feminism is a recurring theme in your work – what does that mean to you personally?
Lauren: I wouldn’t say that my work is necessarily feminist, but I do support and wish there were more women in music. I initially got involved with Women Beatmakers while attending a music production school in NY where two female staff members told me about this all-women music production group they were starting. I had been hoping for a while to find a group of people who produce (male or female), since music production is a lot of working solo, and can definitely be a 'lonely path' at times! When this opportunity came up, it was exciting to me - not to just have a group to share my music with, but to also have it be with other women.
I also want to add that, on my journey, I have been helped by a lot of men, and will forever have gratitude for them: for the things that they’ve taught me and the support I’ve received from them. I also really appreciate having other women in my circle now, other female artists, musicians or otherwise and am so happy to have found Women Beatmakers, since there is something special about being able to connect with other female producers. It’s funny because it wasn’t something I was actively seeking out, but I didn’t realize how much I was going to love it and how much it was going to enrich my life as a result – there’s just something really amazing about having a female tribe.
Valerie: At one point I had an all girls band and I remember thinking after that - I’m never doing that again. [laughs] But I’ve always been a feminist and for a while that was my main focus – empowering women and girls in one way or another, whether it’s through social justice or music, or arts. But I also must say that I’ve had some – and this is almost cliché at this point – pretty bad experiences with male producers. Out of nearly all the men who I recorded within San Francisco, there was one guy that was great and taught me a lot. Pretty much everyone else I had to deal with was hitting on me at some point, wanting to sleep with me etc. It sounds so cliché, but I’m telling you, that shit is real! I am even more grateful that the men I work with in NYC have been amazing and respectful.
I also did not come to NY looking for a group of women producers, I didn’t even know I would be producing myself yet. I wanted to get involved with electronic music, and that turned into production, basically. So when I found Female Frequency, I felt a totally different vibe, and I knew I didn’t have to worry about the sexism.
One other thing that’s starting to become a cliché is that men often look at women and think they can’t produce their own tracks. They think, ‘Oh she’s the singer’, or ‘Oh you play guitar? How crazy!’ – and it’s not that crazy...! But sadly it’s true that I had to put up with a lot more shit than men do in order to be able to play on stage and be taken seriously by the audience. So I think what we’re changing is allowing women to come out as producers and to feel comfortable, have that space to learn, and eventually be able to turn around this view until we don’t differentiate any more between male and female producers.
Why did you choose Berlin to organize your first show in Europe?
Lauren: The catalyst that started all of this was actually the Ableton Loop conference that Val & I decided to go to this year and we wanted to perform in Berlin since we were already making the trip over. When I was preparing for the conference, I started learning about the culture and the deep roots of electronic music in Berlin and became aware of the vastness of how deep those roots really ran. If I knew that beforehand, I might have wanted to come to Berlin and perform evenwithout the Loop Conference! But I think Val had wanted to perform in Berlin for a while already?
Valerie: Yeah, I had heard a lot of American singer-songwriters going to Berlin, living in Germany and doing really well there. And people had been telling me for years, you should go, take your acoustic guitar and move to Berlin for a couple of years!
So it’s ironic that eventually I came to Berlin for an electronic music conference, but of course that is just the place to learn about electronic music. I think the reason why people would say, ‘go as an acoustic songwriter’, is because then you stand out. But to me Berlin is the best place in the world to learn about how to produce electronic music. And I can’t go anywhere without at least trying to book a show, so… we ended up playing at Loophole and Ofen Bar!
What do you do when you’re in a creative dead end – what inspires you?
Valerie: I used to get writer’s block a lot, but I’ve learned to deal with it. I have a side-job for a music production library, writing for placements in TV and film, and that stuff has serious deadlines. I’d have to write a song in a day. So I’ve learned to look for inspiration everywhere and, it sounds obnoxious, but I don’t want to believe in writer’s block. There is always something that you can pull from your surroundings. I write a lot, knowing at least half of it will be a bunch of crap, but also knowing one of those songs is going to be good! It’s important to take breaks, but you have to keep going as well.
I also think picking up an instrument you don’t know how to play can be really helpful. It’s one way of getting out of your regular comfort-zone.
Lauren: That’s a great idea! For me, it’s sound in itself which inspires me the most: usually music that I’m currently listening to or music that I grew up with that I was really into. The way I feel writer’s block is when that music doesn’t get me going, when I’m not jazzed about it. Sometimes it might just be a downtime, where writing is not right for that moment. But there are also times where it is actually fear that is stopping you, and it’s an opportunity to work through it.
There’s a book called ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ – I haven’t read it, but that title has been very inspiring to me. I sit down, have compassion for myself in that moment and just continue to take the next step, whatever was right in front of me in that moment. Eventually, I would almost forget that I wasn’t inspired and I’d usually stumble upon something that excites me and take it from there.
Where would you love to perform one day?
Valerie: I really want to perform in Tokyo one day! I’ve never been but I really want to perform there!
Lauren: Definitely Japan, hell yes! And definitely Berlin again! But my dream performance would be one where I’m close to the audience in an intimate environment, and for whatever reason I picture that being in a DIY space or a community welcome space.
Valerie: I’ve definitely always had dreamed to play large venues like Madison Square Garden which is one of the biggest venues in New York. But I think I’ve adjusted my dreams a little bit. I also agree with Lauren on that it might be really difficult to connect with your audience there. It’s nice to be in a small space where there’s actual interaction with the audience.
When’s your next Euro trip going to happen?
Valerie: Hopefully in the summer!
Lauren: That is a great question! Actually Val, maybe we can decide that now?
Valerie: We’ll be doing a call-out for sure about where we should play. So for your readers - tell us, where do people want to see us live? The audience is important on every single level, so tell us that you want to see us, and we’ll make it happen!
THANKS SO MUCH, GIRLS! ♥
-written by Julia Schwenner
Connect with Valerie and Lauren and find out what they're all about:
Official website: www.valerieorth.com
Listen to Valerie’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit": https://valerieorth.bandcamp.com/track/smells-like-teen-spirit-nirvana-cover
Stay tuned for the music video of Val's single Make Your Move to be released on Feb 14th!