Interview: Ex-Come On Gang singer Synaesthete, aka Sarah Tanat-Jones
The illustrator, musician, blogger and record label boss discusses her new electronica project
Former front cover star of The List magazine, and sometime contributor (both as an illustrator, talking head and model), Sarah Tanat-Jones has no shortage of strings to her bow. Since Come on Gang!, the band that she formed while studying at ECA, broke up, she's been living down in Brighton, working as an illustrator, and running an excellent blog and record label, amongst other things. She came back to Edinburgh to record a dazzling new solo EP, moving her sparkling choral vocals in a more beat-driven, electronic direction. The List's Tony Inglis tracked her down for a chat about synaesthesia, where to find the best drum beats and her upcoming album …
The music on your new EP Earth & Air is primarily percussion led (the handclap sounds made on ‘The Beat’ reminded me of the recent James Murphy remix of David Bowie’s ‘Love is Lost’, which itself was inspired the clapping rhythms of Steve Reich). Who most inspires and influences you in drumming and percussion?
I love percussion and over the years I've tried to check out ways of using rhythm across as many genres as I can. I am obsessed with the complex drumming rhythms at the Rio Carnival – they have so much powerful energy. But equally, listening to much more pared-down, rattles-and-bells type percussion is great, whether it was recorded on a canal boat in Cornwall or in a village in Ghana – I've collected a few records that explore these things. Percussion is always a great foil for vocals, and there's something primeval about it. Also, I love disco, it contains a lot of sparkling, smart drumming which I'm a bit addicted to.
Your name, Synaesthete, comes from the word synaesthesia. Can you explain what that condition is, what it means to you and how it influences your work as an illustrator and musician?
Synaesthesia is where your brain aligns two different sense-experiences, and matches them together. There are different forms of it, such as hearing music and smelling a smell. The artist Kandinsky had a form whereby he saw different colours according to different pitches of music that he heard. My brain associates numbers and letters with colour. So if I think about my bank pin code, for example, I will see those numbers in colour, in a sort of vortex. It's pretty cool.
I read a Pitchfork article about synaesthesia that listed a myriad of artists who claim to be affected by it. Do you think it’s becoming a popular fad within the industry to say you experience it or do you think that people affected by it really are more like to end up in artistic endeavours?
I don't think it can be a fad in that it's just something that you either have or you don't, like freckles. You can't force yourself to get it or lose it, so the term 'fad' isn't quite accurate – but I have also heard a few musicians discussing their synaesthesia, in the last few months, which is interesting. I couldn't say if the condition directly relates to people becoming more creative. It's actually a relatively common thing to have, and lots of scientists and other people have it too.
Are you first and foremost an illustrator or a musician? Has making music become a priority or do they both work in tandem?
I have always been both things, and one of the most convoluted thought-processes I've had with myself is which to define myself by: musician or illustrator? But I always come back to the conclusion that I do both things exactly equally, and they occupy equal importance in my mind. I think we often want to place people or things in neat compartments, but it hasn't always been like that. I suppose it might be a symptom of modern life, where people do one job that they're known for and that's that. Maybe in the past you were allowed to switch between things more. I also would say I am equally divided between being a drummer and singer. I love doing them both, they give different rewards and I'd never be able to choose one.
When I make my album, I will weave together music and artwork in a stronger way; it's something I'm still working out. For the records that I release on my little label, Kit Records, we design and hand-print the artwork ourselves, using linocut. It's a really good way to connect with the artwork and manufacture of a record, and I want to do something similar for my own music.
If you were to transpose these songs to a live setting, how would that work? Would you do the drumming yourself or would you trust someone else to do that?
I've got some live dates lined up now and playing live in this way is new for me – in previous bands I've been a singer and drummer, and that's straightforward – you just need your voice and your drumsticks. I want to keep things simple, and I want to avoid laptops, so it's going to be a combination of singing, playing drums and percussion, and having electronic tracks going too, through an iPad or loop pedal.
Having tried to make it in a band previously, what is it about the Synaesthete project that makes you hopeful you can succeed this time? Or is success not really important?
I think you shouldn't measure success in an X-Factor way. In my old bands I travelled the country, travelling to America, met a lot of amazing people, playing a lot of exciting gigs, wrecked a lot of drumsticks, sweated a lot, and had a great time. In my opinion, that's a good way to spend time in a band. This time, I just want to do the same. I'm not expecting international fame and fortune. I just want to travel a bit, see new places, sing, play music, and enjoy myself. It's not about clawing your way to the top; it's about doing things on a smaller scale so you can relate to your experiences and create an adventure for yourself.
As a kind of synth pop act, are you buoyed by the recent success of acts like Chvrches? You like them are an act who manages to make interesting electronic based music without sacrificing pop sensibilities.
I am inspired by lots of electronic artists and I think the capabilities of producing exciting music electronically is practically boundless. Especially when you combine it with analogue elements. An awful lot of people out there are doing this, and I have watched Chvrches' stratospheric rise with a huge amount of admiration.
You’re based in Brighton but you recorded the EP back here in Scotland. What is it about Scotland that made you feel you could make inspired music here?
Well, I'm from Brighton but I live in London just now. I lived in Edinburgh for four years when I went to the college of art. I love Scotland, and Scottish people. I recorded the EP in a little hideaway because I wanted to get away from the noise of London. Being in Edinburgh makes me feel wholesome and healthy. I think it's the clean air! And the grandiose perspectives to be found everywhere. It gives you room to breathe.
I found clear Asian and Eastern European sound influences on the EP, especially on ‘The Beat’ and ‘Land’ – they really work well in creating an ominous dystopian atmosphere though the instrumentation contrasted by your light, harmonic vocals. What urged you to follow this idea?
Haha, wow, thanks! I became really into Bulgarian State TV and Radio women's choirs when I was making the EP. They have a precision and riotous energy in their singing that I found mesmerising. And really complex harmonies. But I'm also really into folk harmonies, and harmonies of all kinds, really. So I explored those layers of harmony in my own music, particularly Land. I was conscious that, making electronic music for the first time, that the human behind it was the driving force. Land is practically not even electronic, just some of the beats. I like that combination of hand-made and machine-made. And yes, my vocals are the one constant thing, throughout all the music I've ever made. I don't want to change it or mess about with it too much, as it's a good foil for experimenting with the music and percussion that accompanies it.
Finally, you must now be working on a Synaesthete album – what direction will that take you in and what should we expect?
I am indeed working on an album. My main focus is to hone the skills I've learnt, and to gain new ones; to keep that focus on a strong rhythm mixed with a softer vocal, and just to make pop songs that are a little unusual, and beautiful in some way. It's going to be a piece of hand-printed artwork, too, as I mentioned before. It'll be an artefact that summarises what I'm all about at this point of my life.