Three years on from her debut self-titled EP, Sydney producer/singer Moon Holiday (Alexandra Ward) has begun rolling out tracks from her “Second Life” EP. With an advance (private) link to the EP on almost permanent rotation here at Liveschool we’ve been so captivated by her writing and production style that trainer Adam Maggs organised this Q&A and ultimately invited her to be a guest presenter at our upcoming INPUT event to share some insight into her creative process and production techniques.
“Rid U” is the first single from the EP:
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This is really compelling listening and I have to ask what was the process was in deciding the ordering of songs on the EP. It’s a rare experience with digital music to hit play and not skim through it – but before I knew it I had listened from start to finish, then replayed the last song about 5 times – which I think is just as much about it being a great track as it is about wanting the EP not to stop. Having the listener left wanting more is a tricky thing to achieve – was there an idea behind the sequencing of songs or was it done purely by feel? How did you approach this aspect of the release?
The sequence of tracks on the EP comes from a very clear idea I had about what the entire listening experience should be like. I know that these days most people don’t listen from start to finish without stopping, but I wanted to put them in an order that felt right anyway. I still like listening to certain works start to finish and it does intrigue me, this idea of a cryptic story told by mood over time.
‘Make This Real’ opens because to me that song is daylight – It has a more open, airy and light feeling than the others. This is through the types of filters on the synths and just some of the chords’ and intervals’ meanings to me personally.
From this point on we leave daylight and introductions behind, getting into darker territory with heavier beats and more melancholy basslines. Coming out the other side, after contemplation and regret of that nocturnal madness, is the track ‘No Priors’ (this is the one you said you played 5 times!). It sits there just before the sun comes up, lyrics unintelligible but certainly not happy, thinking about where to from here. Its unusual samples and uneasy click sounds are supposed to be a ‘winding down’ for the EP. I suppose then it is by feel, but hopefully there is enough sense made by the compositions to fit this story.
There’s a consistent aesthetic to EP – an altered space that’s somehow outside of time. It might be hard to answer but what is behind this? Are you writing at 3 am or is there a particular place (or headspace) that you work from that influences this? Or was there a clear vision that you pursued?
Yes, I mostly do write around 3am! I walk home late from places and seize the moment when I get home. There’s an altered space I enter between leaving a club and returning home, and I crave it so much. I walk long distances and try to channel my feelings about the world and people in that time. It’s something I can’t replicate in another headspace. I’ve got to walk it out at night often.
There’s a prominent and evocative use of reverb throughout the EP, on vocals, drums – and it infuses the EP with its distinctly ethereal mood. I can’t help wondering if this is something you’re doing at the mixing stage – to cast a spell on the listener – or are these reverbs setup at the writing stage and influences how and what you write?
The reverbs are most definitely part of the writing stage. Being a singer, I’ve been in love with reverb (sometimes too much) from when I first started making music myself. It’s been a long process of learning how to curb excessive use, or perhaps I have simply continued excessive use and stopped caring about ‘good practice’.
To me, even artificial reverb can be evocative, especially if you’re into that vapour-wavey digital sound. It’s necessary when you don’t have beautiful halls and echo chambers filled with real sound sources to still create a space somehow. You can think of it like making a virtual space, at least that’s what I do – kind of like building your ‘Second Life’ universe online.
Fellow Astral People stable-mate Cassius Select’s remix of “Rid U” is the only other EP teaser we can share:
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The whole sound creates a very personal EP. At what point do you let other people in to the work for listening and feedback? And at what point do you let others in to the production process?
Moon Holiday is quite the one-woman show. I did the very final mix and master with Darren Ziesing though! He was great as he uses Ableton as his DAW and just threw his thousands and thousands of $$ worth of reverbs and delays over the ones I had in my sessions, keeping the automation and parameters the same.
I guess I let trusted friends and musical confidantes in on earlier stages, but that’s more feeling out the general ‘vibe’ and seeing whether I’ve been too indulgent more on a songwriting level. When it comes to production it’s definitely my own ‘style’ without too much other influence… For better or for worse 😉
For such a song-driven release there’s a lot of really interesting sound work going on in each piece. In almost every song both the drums / percussion and backing vocals are really ear-catching. What approach do you take to drums and to BVs?
BVs are a huge thing for me – I love pitch-shifting in 5ths and 7ths, then getting really close to the wave forms and trimming out and repeating little blips and bends. It’s obviously a technique used a lot in electronic music these days, but I like to keep it fairly rough rather than smooth the edges. I once heard that professional voice artists are sometimes more sought after if they have slight speech defects, that the human ear will latch onto these idiosyncracies in the voice and remember more of what was said. I think the things you keep coming back to are things that sit a little uneasily on first listen.
When it came to percussion this time around, I wanted to give the songs a backbone. I mean this both in the sense that it would make them stronger and allow them to stand, but also that each individual percussion sound should be a little vertebra slightly different to the next. So it was again about zooming in and layering and re-sampling, pitching percussion sounds one differently to the next, or reversing one sample every now and then.
There’s a huge amount of detail in the soundscapes for all the songs. A sound that enters the song is rarely the same by the time it leaves. Are you experimenting with sound as a way to inspire songwriting? And at what point in the process do you create all the variations that keep the sound (and the song) moving?
This is probably my desire for simplicity more than anything! I’d rather have less tracks in a mix, making each evolve using automation of different kinds. It is a part of the songwriting too though, especially when using long filter sweeps and drop-offs. It’s always an experiment and it happens through repeated listening back to the track as I’m making it, thinking about the exact moment where a sound needs to change to keep its place in the mix.
How long did the EP take to create? What’s are the ages of the oldest and the most recent songs on the EP, and how many finished songs did you leave off?
In its current incarnation it took a few months, but it feels like the entire process of ‘making a new EP’ took… years, obviously. I have written so much material in the last few years but nothing quite felt right until some point about 6 months ago where I realised I knew what sound to go for and I had something to say in the music.
The oldest track on the EP is probably the opener, ‘Make This Real’, but only by a couple of weeks. The newest is ‘Back To The Start’ written the night before mastering all the tracks. They came as kind of a package deal to me, these songs. I guess this works with what I said about the order of them in an earlier question. I left out a couple of other contenders, ones that were perhaps more suited to stand alone, and these ones still appear in my live set.
In creating your first video, how involved with it were you and what was the experience like for you?
I was very involved as I worked with a really small team to create the video for ‘Rid U’. At this point, 2 weeks after its release, I am thrilled with the response it’s had. But the process of making it was stressful to me, probably because I love having complete control (as I would in my own music) and you have to give that up! Anyway, it’s lucky I did because the three people I worked with (Elliot Shields and Lewis Miles, who do my live show visuals, and Dan Mitchell, a top cameraman/DoP and really nice bloke) knew how to realise this vision we had for the video where I did not.
I wanted something very modern and dance-based, but not necessarily in an obvious way. What resulted was this beautiful slow-motion piece that’s very sensual without being pretty or cute at all, in my opinion.
Now that the EP is complete, what happens next?
Putting more focus on making Moon Holiday a stronger live act is the first thing to do. Following that, it’ll all be about giving the rest of the EP the best release possible. The next single (“Prince“) will be out in mid-to-late November if all goes to plan – I wish I had more info on that at the moment, but it’s been the best start with Rid U so I’m just looking forward to whatever comes next.
Moon Holiday’s forthcoming EP “Second Life” is out soon through Astral People. Visit her facebook for a free download of the lead single “Rid U”.
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