White Sea: An Interview With Morgan Kibby
Morgan Kibby, M83 collaborator, is the force behind White Sea. Andrew Darley talked to her about what it was like to write, record and produce her own album.
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When M83 released the Saturdays=Youth album in 2008, it drew a distinguishable line under anything the band’s co-founder, Antony Gonzalez, had done before. Hugely inspired by adolescence and 1980s movie soundtracks, its songs were elevated by the vocals of new member, Morgan Kibby. Her performance on the record gave the likes of ‘We Own The Sky’ and ‘Skin Of The Night’ a sweeping and uplifting quality. Once she found her feet in writing music and performing with M83, she has begun remixing for other artists and writing her own music under the name White Sea. Her first EP, This Frontier, was released in 2010 and featured a medley of styles, blending electronic, pop and rock music as she tested her own potential as a solo artist. Four years later, Morgan has crafted and released her first full-length album, In Cold Blood. The album is a body of work that features emboldened songwriting, her vast vocal range and a penchant for drama. Its theme is how people can disconnect from their identity and compassion towards others when in a state of conflict and chaos. Andrew Darley wanted to know what it was like for Morgan to write, record and produce her own album and what it has taken her to get to this stage.
Firstly, I want to say congratulations on releasing your first album as it’s a huge achievement. Five years ago, could you have imagined being in this position?
Thank you and actually yes, I think putting out a solo record was always the ultimate goal, but it had to be when I was ready and could stand by my work. Starting from scratch however is always fraught with an enigmatic quality in terms of result, but I suppose that’s the nature of making art and then sharing it with the world. You just don’t know where it leads, it’s not an equation.
On the This Frontier EP you said that you were unconcerned about cohesion and it shows with every song being very different from each other. Did you adopt the same approach for this album?
No I didn’t. I really tried to achieve some aesthetic cohesion with synths, vocals, drums and everything else. But I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m still finding my voice as a solo artist. I’m attracted to many genres, and I often had to step back while writing and accept that In Cold Blood was going to meander a bit. That being said, I do feel it has a lot more sonic threads running through it than This Frontier.
After working and touring with M83, you self-taught yourself Protools and how to produce and engineer your music. Was this liberating in the way you created music? Could you see your music something different if you didn’t have that knowledge?
If I hadn’t learned how to use ProTools my music would ultimately have been shaped by another producer instead of myself. I make beats, layer vocals, play with synth sounds and so my music is very much defined by my ability and flexibility with technology. I have no idea what White Sea would sound like if I didn’t have the technical skills I’ve developed over the last 5 years.
What’s the meaning behind the title In Cold Blood for you? Has it got anything to do with the Truman Capote book?
Though the Capote novel is amazing, my album is not named after it. I chose this title because I felt the expression itself resonated with and represented perfectly the story I was trying to tell as a whole with my songs. I was shocked through many personal experiences I based the record on to see how good people can act callously, even maliciously in a state of conflict. It doesn’t make them bad people, only human. To act ‘in cold blood’ to me, is to dissociate from your compassion and your empathy.
The album cover is portrait of you behind what seems to be a pane of glass, cracked by a gunshot. What had you in mind for the visuals to represent the music? It’s miles apart from the artwork for This Frontier.
I wanted something raw. In a lot of the imagery on This Frontier I played roles, it was a bit like acting. For In Cold Blood I wanted, and pardon the pun, transparency. I didn’t want to hide my vulnerability nor my pain.
A lot of people may know White Sea for the remixes you’ve done for other artists. Has remixing given you an insight into composition?
Absolutely. Though I would say mostly remixing has helped me hone my production style more than anything else.
Is making remixes like songwriting in itself in that you deconstruct someone else’s song and rebuild it with your own lens?
Yes it is. Because I usually strip away everything but the vocals from the songs I remix, I definitely have to think about songwriting structure and arrangement when I rebuild them.
Have you put your own music out for remix yet? Any ones you were particularly impressed by?
I have not, but I’m hoping I get some interesting ones back! After all I take it pretty seriously.
I read somewhere that you brought together visuals for this record and wrote the lyrics around them. Is this true? If so, what ones in particular inspired the words of the album and its mood?
I collected a lot of trinkets and papers while I was on the road and those all served to help me contextualize my feelings lyrically. I think my favorite acquisition was over 150 hotel room keys I saved from my stays across the world. It put my time into perspective for sure.
Vocally, this album shows off the breadth and range of your voice. It’s almost to the point that it sometimes sounds like different people. Was this something you wanted to achieve? For those who know you through the M83 records, you’ve always sung in a high register and ethereal way. But here it’s very direct and full-bodied.
Yeah I was ready to break out of my role in M83 for White Sea. I wanted to belt, I wanted to hit my high notes, I wanted to really emote and try something new.
Were you nervous about making this record? Were there any people or fellow musicians that you turned to for support?
You have no idea how nervous I was … Still am! I have no idea if anyone will like what I do. I could fail utterly on my own. I was lucky enough to work with some amazing people on this record however like Justin Meldal-Johnson, Joe Trapaneze, Mike Schuppan, so I ended up feeling not so alone.
After watching your acoustic Mountain Sessions performances on Youtube, it made me wonder whether you write your music acoustically on piano first and then build up the electronics and other instruments around it?
I don’t actually! I had to figure out how to play them acoustic for that performance in particular. It was really fun to deconstruct them and see how they held up.
Did you try out any new instruments or production methods on this record?
This was my first time ever producing a proper session with strings and horns. I loved every second of working with such accomplished players.
Obviously, you spent a number of years working with Anthony and M83. It may be hard to pinpoint but was there anything in particular that you learned from him either in the way he creates or approaches performance?
Anthony takes his time. He understands restraint. Though I have yet to accomplish his prowess as a producer I am incredibly inspired by his unwavering belief in his own vision and his ability to take his time with his arrangements.
Did you play him In Cold Blood when it was complete? If so, what was his reaction?
I sent it to him and he wrote me a truly lovely and lengthy email about two weeks later. I think Anthony is proud of me and excited to see me grow.
The gritty, pulverizing noise on the chorus on ‘Prague’ gives me chills every time I hear it. When you made it, was it like a “Eureka!” moment? What’s the feeling when you know you’ve captured something great on record like that?
It was a total Eureka moment! The synth bass was dialed on the instrument itself, but I knew I wanted it dirtier. Once I put FX on it I was sold. I’m still really proud of how it sounds in the track. I very rarely feel like I nail anything, and this track is still something I feel I can stand behind.
‘Warsaw’ also really stood out for me the first time I listened to the album with its chorus of a series of, sometimes odd, promises and threats. What is this one about?
‘Warsaw’ was pure anger. Anger at myself for my mistakes; anger at how I was shunned for those mistakes. I wanted to crack someone’s skull. But ‘Warsaw’ is also trying to capture that moment that happens when it all falls to shit and you float: nothing seems real. It’s like you’re at the peak of your high and you realize you are about to crash.
The album closes with the line “Nothing will be simple again”. It’s a powerful way to end the record. What does it mean to you?
Complex people make complex decisions, make complex mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes reshape who you are. “Nothing will be simple again” is a very clear statement that at some point we all do things that change our innocence and make us rethink who we are. Sometime you can’t recapture the past and you have to accept that and let it all go. Eventually we all grow up.
Given the experiences over the past couple years and now that your debut record is out, would you say you have become more assertive as an artist?
Sometimes I would say yes, other times no. If anything I’m smart enough now to know I bounce between a confident and a humbled, if not downright terrifying mental space. But the key for me is neutrality. You always win when you end up there.
In Cold Blood is out now on Crush Music. For more information click jere to check out White Sea’s official website