By Tori Elliott
Listen to any one of the songs on Ultraista's self-titled album and you know you're not in Kansas anymore. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and drummer/producer Joey Waronker have created a hazy, galactic beat-driven electro-pop over which newcomer Laura Bettinson's vocals float like memories of a dream. Ultraista, which derives its name from the Spanish literary movement often associated with "magical realism," began as a joint project between Godrich and Waronker in 2008. After working for two years on the beats what would form the bases of many of the songs on the album, Godrich and Waronker brought Bettinson on as the project's vocalist. The album was finally released in October of 2008. We had the opportunity to speak with Laura Bettinson about the project and the group's creative process.
How did you get involved with the project?
Nigel and Joey had known each other for a while and they got together and started working on rhythm tracks, they were particularly inspired by Afro-beat. I met Nigel through a mutual friend. At the time, I was doing a one-woman project, with live sampling, layering, performing, using kind of cyclical repetitive beats. Nigel came to a gig of mine at a pub and I was there with my loop station. He thought it would fit well with what he and Joey were already doing; it's sort of a repetitive meeting of dance music and afro-beat and organic beats that we found. So he invited me to meet and we hung out at his studio for an afternoon--it was very laid back--and he played me some of his stuff.
After that, we were kind of trying to find pockets of time when we could work on ideas. It wasn't really until 9 months ago that we found ourselves with time to finish up with these ideas. Before that there was no pressure or indication of what the project was. It was very casual, sort of a very natural hanging out with friends and creating music for the love and luxury of it.
You're a relatively new artist; what unique things do you think you brought to the project?
I do think that I have a different set of influences from the guys. They have all this industry experience, which I don't, and I think it's a really nice meeting of worlds. I've learned so much from working with these two. Hopefully I've opened their minds to a few things. I think with, as with all creative projects, every member of the band is bringing their shared experience to the project.
Are there any artists who you think have had a really strong influence on you and your work?
I never really idolized specific singers. In general, I listen to a lot more female vocalists because they resonate with me more. Björk does amazing things with her voice, even though my voice is not anything like hers, I think she's incredible. Dusty Springfield, as well-- I've always looked up to people like that. But I've never been a massive fan of anyone, really. I just listen to a huge range of music from electronic stuff, like Laurie Anderson, straight through to more pop things. My melodies are more of a culmination of hundreds of things. But really, any kind of strong voice really resonates with me.
Can you talk to a bit about your writing process?
It was totally different for each song. A lot of time it was the rhythm, we would start with the rhythm, you know, because it doesn't change-- and that would be the basis for every other thing. There's about 5-10 versions of each song on that album. Sometimes we'd work on something completely collaboratively, other times we would kind of work individually, like Nigel would bring in a melody. Other things would just write themselves, which was very much the case with "Bad Insects" and "Party Line." The process was so blurred. We did so much editing. A lot was totally scrapped and then brought back up again. Construction and then deconstruction and throwing stuff away, sometimes it would resurface again months later.
Was there a song on the album that was particularly special to you or that you felt the most connected with?
"Bad Insect"--it was really what kicked the project back off again. We hadn't seen each other in a while, and I worked on stuff that Nigel sent me, which was the basis of the beat and that bass line. The melody and that whole song just came out and wrote itself over that. I remember at the time thinking that Nigel was either going to love it or think it was too pop and it would be totally embarrassing. I thought, 'If I send this back and it goes well, then that will be the project, and if it doesn't then that will really be it.' Thankfully, [Nigel and Joey] loved it. It was a catalyst for Nigel. It kind of became the formula for finishing the rest of the record; I think Nigel could really hear what the rest of the music needed. So, I'm very attached to that song; it has an energy to it. And in my head I know that that is the song that made us finish this record.
What was your inspiration for "Bad Insect?"
I think it has a youth to it; it's flirty. I was not thinking of any character specifically--I just thought of a girl that is carefree, but there's definitely a melancholy in it as well. There's a contrast between the flippant and flirty and little sadness.
My favorite song on the album is "Smalltalk." Can you talk a bit about what inspired it?
"Smalltalk" was a remix of itself. It was the first song that was quite pop and that had a clear hook in it. It's essentially a pop tune, but it wasn't dumb. It resonated with people. But it was totally cut up. I started with one word; we would chop up a newspaper and throw everything on the floor and see what would come up from there. It was a very abstract starting point. Sometimes I would read a book out, you know, just to have words to inspire me to sing something.
What books did you use? Were there ones you were drawn to or was it totally random?
Totally random! I was even using a book about something about Quakers at some point. You don't want to be singing out of something you're really attached to. We also used a lot of newspapers, you know, just so you have some words in front of you--that can inspire you to take it somewhere else. Forcing yourself to start from a different perspective instead of always starting from an internal emotional perspective, to start with someone else's words, inspires other stuff to come out that you wouldn't usually tap into. You come up with personal experiences anyway.
Check out Ultraista's lyrics and explanations on Stereo IQ:
1. Bad Insect
2. Gold Dayzz
3. Static Light
4. Strange Formula
5. Our Song
8. Party Line
9. Wash It Over
10. You're Out