Avalon Emerson Talks Warehouse Party Origins, Evolving Musical Style

Emil Jupin
Avalon Emerson

Some electronic music producers never get much attention from outside of their niche, but Avalon Emerson seems likely to avoid that fate. In 2016, she put out critically acclaimed records on Whities -- an imprint of Young Turks, which has had great success with wan, highly accessible indie acts like the xx and Chairlift -- and Ghostly International, an eclectic label that has served as a home for dance producers with indie-rock appeal (Matthew Dear) and instrumental rockers with No. 1 records (Tycho). 

These outfits, which are hard to reduce to one sound but consistently put out music that finds an audience across different pools of listeners, are well matched with Emerson. "My style of production and what I'm interested in are constantly changing," she told Billboard Dance over Skype from her apartment in Berlin. "My records sound weirdly different from record to record."

On January 7th, Emerson returns to San Francisco, where she first began to DJ and produce dance music, for a gig at Public Works. (She follows that with a gig at Far Away in L.A. on the 14th.) When she moved to the city in 2009, she was already experienced with recording and using editing programs — she had been helping her friends' bands record in her garage in Arizona as a teen. In San Francisco, "I lived in this quite big communal warehouse thing where a bunch of international students and people from all over lived," Emerson explained. "We would throw some parties and I would DJ there and make edits of songs which turned into original productions." During the day, she worked in San Francisco's start-up world. 

Two and a half years ago, feeling "a little bit done with San Francisco," Emerson moved to Berlin; that year she also released her first single on the label Icee Hot. "Pressure" is a statement, a decision to kick open the door rather than knock politely: it's blistering and blown-out, full of tightly clipped vocal samples and a clangorous, glinting melody. It came paired with "Quoi!," which offered a more festive alternative to the black-eye-inducing "Pressure." Tuff City Kids, the highly regarded duo of Gerd Janson and Philip Lauer, contributed remixes. 

Looking back, Emerson's move to Berlin seems inspired. "I had more friends out here than either L.A. or New York, the other places I was thinking of going to," the producer said. "Berlin gives me access to Europe, which I hadn't really explored at all." That access, combined with a steady stream of releases -- two more on Spring Theory in 2014, one on the Dresden-based label Shtum in 2015, and a pair of records in 2016 -- has helped with her rapid growth: this year, she finally left her day job to focus full-time on music. "I had to quit," she explained. "I had turned down some opportunities. I was kind of going crazy doing two gigs a weekend and then being at stand-up [developer parlance for the morning meeting] at 10 a.m. on Monday."

In March, a couple months before Emerson walked away from her nine-to-five, she released Whities 006 on Whities. Emerson offered a no-frills description of connecting with Nic Tasker, who runs the Young Turks imprint. "He just emailed me saying, 'I love your stuff, do you have any demos?' I did, I sent it to him, and that was it."

But the results were significantly more dramatic -- a slew of positive reviews and interview requests. "You always listen to your music and think, 'this one's great, this is my best record,' and then it doesn't do that hot, so I try and not to expect anything when I'm putting out a record," Emerson said. But she had an inkling that the songs on Whities 006 might be well received from her DJ gigs: "Before I put it out and before it was a final master, people would come up to me and ask me what 'The Frontier' was or the B-side, '2000 Species of Cacti.'" Justin Carter, who DJs the popular Mister Saturday Night parties in New York City and co-runs the accompanying record label, used just one word for "2000 Species of Cacti" in his recent year-end favorites list: "Transcendent."

The songs that came out on Narcissus in Retrograde in October were already done by the time Whities arrived, and they tend to be more groove-focused, which is immediately apparent in the bounding bassline of the opener, "Natural Impasse." "Dystopian Daddy" echoes canonical Detroit productions like those from Galaxy 2 Galaxy, a melding of serene cool and jittery momentum. But there's no time to settle into a stupor: the next track, "Why Does It Hurt," curdles with jets of grubby distortion. 

Emerson has expressed an interest in putting together an album, but she's wary of making what she calls "a DJ/producer/dance-music-person-feels-like-it's-the-right-time-in-their-career-to-release-an-LP LP." "I would like to exhaust more of the short-format thing first," she added. "I'm having more fun creating stuff from the bottom up. I have a more clear view of what I want to make." That's exciting for listeners, regardless of how they end up hearing it. 

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