Beatie Wolfe wants to give us back the vinyl experience
BY CARMELA MELONE
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)
Listening to Beatie Wolfe is a little bit like watching the sun going down with the wind quietly rustling the leaves. It immediately shrinks your focus to simply enjoy what you hear and see before your inner eye. The tranquillity flooding around is magical – and yet, this is not where the magic ends.
Besides being an extraordinary singer-songwriter, Beatie Wolfe is an innovator, a digital art rebel who strives to bring back the magic to our music consumption, not only acoustically but to all our senses. In doing so, her imagination has no boundaries; she was once named one of the 22 people changing the world and was only recently featured as one of nine innovators representing the UN’s She Innovates movement. To cite the movement’s campaign, Beatie Wolfe is “Impossible to Ignore”. We spoke to her about some of her most fascinating projects and what drives her seemingly endless stream of new ideas.
You have been called visionary, brilliant and captivating. What fuels your striving for innovation?
I am fuelled by the intention to make people see music differently and to remind people of their love of music and why it’s so important to us all. Every idea I have is born out of great passion, curiosity and inspiration but always asking the same question: “what could the vinyl experience for today look like?” Once inspiration has struck, if I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye, as if it already exists, then I know it’s right. I have to be totally captivated by the innovation – just like I was as a child pouring over my mum’s record collection – because it’s only then that you’ll work on it night and day, think about it nonstop, and that energy translates 100 per cent.
Music and technology are not necessarily things people would immediately associate with one another besides technology enabling them to listen to music anywhere and anytime. How do you perceive this?
I think technology being used solely to enable a passive listening experience is obvious and serves a purpose, but the idea of this being the only mainstream way of engaging with music doesn’t inspire me. Because I love music and albums so much and listening to records is the one experience that imprinted on me the most as a kid, I have used technology (perhaps contradictorily) to represent a more tangible, ceremonial and old-school listening experience, but in a way that facilitates a sense of magic and makes people feel like they’re seeing music in a new way. Technology in my case is just the magic dust that transforms a phone into an 80s viewfinder, an album cover into a musical jacket, a physical record stream into a fantasia experience. It’s really not about the tech (even though each of my designs has been a first of its kind) but what it facilitates; for example, making the new feel nostalgic, and the familiar feel magical. And I guess I always wanted the technology to feel warm.
An intelligent album deck of cards, a music-playing jacket, a 3D theatre that fits in a human palm or chambers filled with AR animation. Your fantasy does not seem to have any boundaries – how do you develop new ideas?
I find that part is very natural. I feel like I have been thinking, over and over, about the same thing since I was a kid - kind of like my Raw Space record player stuck on loop in the world’s quietest room. Again, that same question is constantly running through my head: “what could the vinyl experience for today look and feel like?” So the form it takes, while it may appear wildly different or incorporate very different components, is still just an extension of the same thinking and the same intention, which definitely helps to ground it. Because it’s grounded in the ‘why’, my imagination can have free reign so that when I encounter the spaces, people, elements that I feel are the beginning of another beautiful tapestry I am open to it and can run with it, kind of like flying a kite. Unlike the record industry, it was never about coming up with one definitive format that could be sold or replicated with the intention of making money. It was always about exploration and pushing the boundaries and having people see music in ways that captured their imagination and reminded them of how an album is an art form (even today!) and one that I believe will never go out of fashion.
What project(s) are you most proud of?
I am proud of every one of my projects, I truly love them all. But one that holds a certain magic and resonance is the Raw Space broadcast via the Big Bang Horn with Nobel Prize-winning Robert Wilson because it ended up serendipitously circling back to my grandfather – who worked on the first series of US satellites, which I didn’t know. Along the way I also discovered Project Echo (the first phone call bounced via space), gave a talk at NASA’s JPL (where my grandfather had worked) and learnt how Mylar balloons connected Project Echo to Andy Warhol and the programme Experiments in Art and Technology which I rebooted 50 years later with Raw Space. It was all beautifully linked, and the full 30-minute story stands as a powerful reminder of how it all connects and how if you are looking for the connections, you will find them if you are open to them. Presenting all of my album designs in a solo exhibition at the V&A Museum with the ‘Bowie Is’ curatorial team was also a real life highlight. Separate to my main work but still absolutely linked, I would also say my Power of Music and Dementia project. To have been able to contribute to our current understanding of how music can help people on perhaps the deepest and most vital level, and to have that work be picked up by a number of the most respected institutes and turned into a charity in the UK, that’s really what it’s all about. What greater application of music is there than that?
Speaking of your study that elaborates on the relationship between music and dementia – could you tell us a little bit more about this project and the insights you gathered from it?
My Power of Music & Dementia research project was the best reminder of music’s power and how it goes way beyond entertainment as something core to our humanity, our well-being, our sense of self. Once you’ve seen what music can do on the deepest and rawest level, you really can have no doubt of its power. One key insight from the research was the belief that in care homes, the more stimuli you had, the greater chance of connection – and in fact it was the opposite. It was when you reduced everything down to one singular in-depth and focused activity, such as a live performance or a hand massage. That was when the magic happened. This only further informed everything I was doing on the innovation side with placing ceremony at the heart of these album experiences.
Vinyl experienced a huge comeback in recent years. Where do you think this came from?
Everything is about action and reaction. So with all the access people currently have to music, the value is lost and so they will start to crave something deeper, something richer, something more meaningful. For example, with the vinyl format I feel three things are key: the record told a story, there was a sense of ceremony to the listening experience and there was a tangible touchpoint or art form. So that’s what I’ve been trying to think about with my innovations, how to create a deeper, richer listening experience that captivates the listener and allows the music to imprint. I believe that longform will never go out of fashion. We will return to the things that really move us, remind us of why we’re here and how we’re all connected.
Where do you think are we heading towards in terms of music-playing devices and music formats in general?
I don’t know, but to quote The Animals: “We gotta get out of this place.” And I know this sounds bad, but I find the current musical landscape largely uninspired, generic and far too focused on short-termism. We need to inject some more originality, creativity and raw energy back into the equation.
You have been appointed as one of the innovators representing the UN women initiative “She Innovates”. Why do you think such initiatives are still important today?
Because we currently place way too much value on metrics as opposed to real curation. But I believe that curation will always retain its value, perhaps now even more so, and so that is why the UN Women initiative and other such examples of true curation are so important right now. They mean something. Also specific to the campaign itself, we need to keep on celebrating our commonality as human beings rather than our differences.
Who inspires you in terms of your musical creation process?
My current collaborator Linda Perry, neurologist Oliver Sacks, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, The Beatles, Jim Henson, Amy Poehler, Kermit the frog, the band Love, The Kinks, poet and engraver William Blake, David Bowie, Nina Simone, the Persian poet Hafiz, musician Blaze Foley, Otis Redding, artist Hilda AF Kint, Tom Waits… all those whose intention is to leave this world a little better for their having been here.
Do you have any further plans you can share with us?
Yes! The Barbican is currently making a documentary about my work which will come out in autumn and my next album that I’m currently recording with badass producer and one of my favourite human beings Linda Perry will be something very special, bringing sound, colour, light and energy all together in a way people have not yet experienced.
Pioneering singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe – an artist who has beamed her music into space, been appointed a UN role model for innovation and held an acclaimed solo exhibition at the V&A Museum.
Picture credit © Ross Harris