Erika de Casier has certainly been an artist to keep an eye on. Her two albums, ‘Essentials’ and ‘Sensational,’ showcase her distinct blend of R&B and electronic music, intimate songwriting, and clean production style. Read on for a conversation between Erika and KCSB’s 2020-2021 DMC, Emma Greenberg, as they discuss songwriting influences, processes, presence, and more.
Emma: You’re coming live to me from Copenhagen now, correct? How have the many different places you’ve lived influenced your music / artistic journey?
Erika: I guess it’s made me very open to a lot of different music and a lot of different cultures. My dad is from Cape Verde, and I’ve listened to a lot of Portuguese music growing up. I’ve also listened to a lot of American music because a lot of music I’ve listened to was what was on the radio and MTV. Also Danish music, once I moved to Denmark. I just think it made me very open.
Emma: One thing that has always stood out to me about your music, especially the tracks off of your first album Essentials, is the 90’s and early 2000’s R&B style strings worked into much of the instrumentation. Are there any 90’s R&B inspirations you’d like to share?
Erika: You know, the classics like Destiny’s Child, TLC, Aaliyah, Brandy, D’angelo, Erykah Badu. But I think the cool thing about MTV is that everything was mixed, so you’d hear like POD, you remember POD? First gen rock. I think it influenced me more than I give it credit for, the whole MTV vibe. There was room for so many different genres, and everybody was up for it.
Emma: Do you think it’s accurate to say that your music is a mix of Electronic and R&B?
Erika: Yeah, I would say that, and on the new album I also have a classical piece. Also, the instrumental I made for the track called ‘Insult Me’ is very inspired by 80’s meditative music. You know, those CD’s with waterfalls on the cover. I really like that. A lot of trip-hop also, like UK trip-hop: Tricky, Portishead, and Massive Attack. So a lot of different genres, but I definitely have an R&B influence, I can’t deny that. I think it’s also just because it was the music I was listening to. You know, it’s the sounds that I really like. It’s always difficult to explain why you like what you like.
Emma: Are there any songs, albums or artists you have on repeat at the moment?
Erika: Let me see what I have on repeat at the moment… I listened to Tricky this morning, and PartyNextDoor. I love PartyNextDoor. I’ve also listened to the new Drake album. And BIA, I discovered BIA not too long ago and I really like her.
Emma: Your independent label’s namesake “Independent Jeep Music” has always made me smile. Can you tell me your inspiration for releasing Essentials and the Little Bit (Remixes) under this name? Does it have anything to do with Aaliyah?
Erika: So, with my first record Essentials, I released it on my own label. I was looking with my friend on these discogs pages, and there was this genre called Contemporary Jeep Music. And I really loved that because, like, what is it? And then I thought, okay, independent. Because it’s my label and I’m the only artist releasing music on it, I thought, well, it’s very independent. Let’s go for Independent Jeep Music. And I like the thought of a Jeep; I’ve never driven a Jeep. The only relationship I have with a Jeep is, like, a Barbie Jeep. It’s just because I didn’t release it on any real label and I made this label up.
Emma: What is your experience of being signed to 4AD, your current label, in comparison to releasing music independently?
Erika: It’s different because people can help me now, and they have a lot of experience. Doing it yourself is super nice as well. I would recommend it to anyone that starts, even just to know all the different roles instead of just jumping in working with a label. I think it’s healthy to know different roles in releasing music. I think that’s what makes me really appreciate 4AD because I know all the hard work it takes to do what they do. And also, it’s just legendary, I still can’t believe I’m on it, because I’ve always loved Cocteau Twins, and it’s just an honor. So, it’s different, but in my daily life I don’t really feel it because they have their main offices in the UK and the US, and I live in Copenhagen so it’s not like I’m meeting up with them in real life. It’s more like Zoom meetings and a lot of mailing. I’m just amazed by all the work they put in and how many people really just want the best for it. They’re not trying to push anything on me, which I really love.
Emma: ‘Good Time’ is my favorite dance song about navigating romance in a digital world. What inspired you to write that song?
Erika: I think just living now inspired it, you know, because it’s not a critique of someone else. I do it myself. Sometimes you’re having a conversation and then your phone goes off, and you check it, and the other person’s waiting and they’re like, “Okay… I’m trying to have a good time with you but you’re… you know, you’re on your phone.” So it’s more of a kind reminder, also to myself, to remember to be in the present when I’m in the present and not on my phone. And it’s okay to be on your phone, just know that there’s phone time and then there’s social time.
Emma: I find your songwriting to be very sensual, witty, and conversational at the same time, with infectious and precise production. It feels so personal. What does your writing process look like?
Erika: So, I usually make a simple beat, like a sketch. It really depends on if I already have something written, like a poem. If I do, then I’ll try to incorporate the feeling of the poem into whatever I’m making. And sometimes I don’t have anything yet, so I just start with the beat. If it’s a sample that I’m writing to or a whole instrumental that I already made, I start just speaking over it. I think that’s why some of the songs get that intimate vibe, because I just imagine that I’m talking to someone or I’m talking to myself. I find that sometimes you can just feel the music and then something comes out and you’re like okay, that’s real, and you just write off of that. Sometimes I just have one sentence that I want to write about and go from there. I try to switch up my process to not just always go by making a beat and then mumbling something over it. That’s cool, but I try to not get stuck in a loop with my writing. Like even if I’m not good at it, I try to sit by the piano and put down a chord, record this one chord and try to do something with it, and go from there. Or I’ll start with just watching YouTube clips and maybe a sample will come up and I’ll start there. And then, of course, I work with Natal Zaks, who helped me produce Essentials. We’ve been friends since the beginning of college and we just really know each other’s style. He’s very influenced by club music. He DJ’d with vinyls when he was 16 and I used to think like, “This guy. Why is he using vinyls?” I didn’t understand. And then this whole world opened up and I got into sampling and all of that. I showed him a lot of my R&B influence and together the sound has become very unique. Some of the songs that we’ve made together have both this club influence and R&B together, and I think that’s what makes the sound vibe in the way that it does.
Emma: Your production has inspired me a lot in terms of how clean and precise it is. I’ve read that your music and production skills are both self-taught and learned via a Masters degree in Electronic music, both of which are incredibly impressive feats. What did your self-training look like?
Erika: Well, I would say I’m self-taught to a degree. Because I used to look at a lot of tutorials online, but I still had someone introduce me to Ableton Live. I think we have a tendency to define self-taught as, “Do it yourself. Do everything yourself.” But I’m starting to find out that I need people and I’ve always needed people to tell me things like, “Use this plugin.” Yes, I’m using it myself and producing and writing it myself, but the steps that helped me get to that point were actually needing other people and getting help and not being too afraid or too proud to ask for that help. And also just taking a lot of time, a lot of time fumbling with one snare, for example. And realizing, “Maybe I’m not the best mixer and that’s okay. Maybe I should get someone to listen to it and tell me, ‘Okay this works, and this sounds kind of off.’” And then you learn feedback from people you trust and whose aesthetics you look up to.
Emma: What instrument did you learn how to play first, and what’s your main instrument of choice?
Erika: I learned how to play piano first, but I will say that I suck at playing piano. It’s something I’m not proud of and I think a lot of producers have this shame. This imposter syndrome feeling that “I’m not a real musician.” Like, I have general chord knowledge. I can make chords, I can put chords in some midi and fumble with it. I can sample chords. I have a generally good ear, I guess, but I can’t sit down and feel like I can just play. I really need a lot of time and patience. I also took some drum lessons in high school, so I had this electronic drum set for three years that I played around with. I think that’s actually what started my interest in being able to change a sound, because on the acoustic drum set it sounded like shit when I was playing. I wasn’t hitting the snare right and I didn’t have the technique right and it didn’t sound good. And when I was playing on my electronic set I could change the sounds and it was just a little easier to make it sound good. Put a little reverb on the high hat and such. It was just easier for me to vibe with it. Same with the piano. When I had piano lessons on the regular piano, it was difficult for me to make it sound nice, but with a synthesizer, just the simple thing of being able to hold a chord with the sound… I just loved the fact that you could change it.
Emma: I think a lot of producers feel that impostrome syndrome feeling nowadays.
Erika: Yeah, definitely. Even the ones that can play really well, because you always know someone who can play better than you. That messes you up. But I think it’s natural to feel like that in any field you’re in. To feel like an impostor, like you don’t deserve what you’re doing. But music is so much more than chords and theory and being technically good. It’s also about just being able to say what you feel.
Emma: Do you have any advice for aspiring young musicians who haven’t yet gained that confidence that I find so apparent in your music? Especially pertaining to femme-identifying producers / musicians in particular?
Erika: It’s funny because when I used to be talking to other musicians back then, it was like, “James Blake really found his sound. He found it.” And then I thought it was something I had to dig for. Like that someday I would find it and say “Oh, it’s this that’s my sound.” But really, it’s not. It’s just a matter of doing it enough times that at one point you’re looking back at your music like, “this reminds me of this song that I made,” and so many songs remind you of each other, and all of a sudden it’s hard to get away from your sound. Because you’ve done it so much. So I would recommend just doing it a lot. Make a lot of bad things. Like, bad tracks, and don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be ashamed of it. When I’m in my creative process, I can still make a beat and just be like, “this is crazy bad, this is very very bad.” And then I shut it down and go for lunch, and come back to it later. And maybe it’s still bad, and I’ll start on a new beat, or maybe there’s actually something there and I can form it into something else. Or maybe you’ll make five shit beats in one day and then the next day, one nice one. I think just not being afraid of failing is the most important thing. It’s like learning a language, you have to say many wrong things before you can get it right. If I could talk to myself back when I was starting out, I would probably tell myself to have patience and do it a lot. Don’t be afraid to fail, because you’re going to fail. Just have that as a fact, you are going to fail and you’re going to make something that other people don’t like. You are going to, it’s inevitable. And about female producers, I think we’re really seeing a rise in more of them. When I started, I took this electronic music course, and I was the only girl there. I remember thinking, “Am I good enough to be here?” I was one of the less experienced people there. Of course, some of the people there had been producing for years and years, but I think it just takes time for anybody. And patience, and curiosity. And yeah, I think we shouldn’t expect to master something in a week.
Emma: I saw that you have a European tour coming up! What is a live Erika de Casier experience like? What would be your ideal show?
Erika: Well, for this tour, I’m playing with a drummer, on a sample drum kit, and a guitarist, which is really cool. It doesn’t sound completely like the recorded music but I don’t want it to, because I think it’s boring to go to a concert and have it sound completely the same. But at the same time, I don’t want to go to a concert and hear, like, rock drums on an R&B track, you know. So I’m trying to keep it classy. But I think my dream scenario is just that people are there to have a good time. I love it when I look down and people are just ready, and smiling. There’s so many things that make a good concert. Nice sound and lighting. I found out a few concerts ago how important lighting is. I played this concert where there was just this bright light on us constantly, it didn’t change at all, just one bright light. And that’s okay; I don’t like changing lights that are, like, yellow here and pink there, I find it a bit distracting. I like it to be simple, but lighting is just important. It’s a balance. I try to convey that I want it simple, one color at a time, not too bright… I don’t know. The perfect concert is a mixture of so many things. I also love playing clubs. I miss when I used to play clubs. In the beginning I used to play just me and a computer in the DJ booth with a microphone, which was really cool as well. But now that I have a band, it’s so nice to share the experience with someone. I can look over and pass on the attention to someone else. It can be a bit nerve-wracking to play a forty-five minute concert and everyone is just looking at you. I used to have visuals as well, to say, like, “look there.”
Emma: What is your favorite show you’ve ever played?
Erika: I have so many favorite shows. I had played this one time in Poland, the last gig before Corona that I played, in Warsaw. The whole concert, there was this older guy dancing in front of the stage, like super into it. The rest of the crowd, they were vibing to it but nothing serious, and he was just going at it. Almost breakdancing. And every time a song came on he would say, “THIS IS MY SONG!” He was just on a whole different level than everyone else. I just remember that so clearly because it was so epic. And I didn’t really know what to do in that situation, like okay, someone’s having a great time. Another major one was… I had a release in London when I played for, like, ten people for the Essentials album release. And it was a bit like, “Thank you for coming, I’m Erika, this is what I do and I hope you like it.” I was super nervous. A few months after, when Essentials was out, my show was sold out at the Jazz Cafe in London. It was packed, and Clairo was there singing along to my songs, and it was crazy. That was another one that I will always remember.
Emma: I love the title of Sensational, because the album itself feels so rich in terms of being full of different sound textures, from the strings to the snares to the bass to the chimes and even to—perhaps especially—your intimate vocals. I’ve of course felt that with the tracks on Essentials as well, but the senses provoked by Sensational feel even more refined as your artistic journey continues to grow. What specific ambiance were you and your co-producer aiming to evoke for the listener with Sensational?
Erika: Well, it was a while back, but I remember thinking about all these “S” words—Sensational, Essentials, Sexy—it was very, like, va va voom. I made most of the tracks during lockdown, and I was just alone in my room. I didn’t touch a human being for four months in that period. Crazy. I was having all these dreams of jungles and nature, and a lot of very ASMR-type stuff. I wanted to give that presence to the sound of the environment. It’s always intimate for me. I always want it to feel like home. I want it to feel close.
Emma: When I listen to your music, I always think, “She must be so present.” Would you say that is important to you?
Erika: Yes. I mean, it’s something that I try to be at all times. I really try to be present, but I don’t always succeed at it. I think that’s why I try to put it out in my music so much, because when I’m making music, it’s a time when I’m really present and in this flow state. I need a reminder of that when I’m out doing regular daily things. It’s something that I try to maximize—I try to be as present as possible because I know I’m not always present. I’m not like a guru sitting there, present at all times. I try to be. Also for my own sake, because I feel like when I’m present I remember things better. When I’m really there, memories stick on longer. You could be at an entire party with people you love, but if you’re not really there, the memory of the night is harder to remember. It’s something that I want to cultivate more in my life as well, not just when I’m making music. When I’m talking to people, like talking to you now, I don’t want to be on my phone or thinking of what I’m doing after. I just want to be present.
Emma: If Essentials was a physical place, what would it be?
Erika: I was living in this apartment when I was writing Essentials. This huge apartment, alone, because I was taking care of it for someone. There was this CD player in this apartment, and these super legendary CDs, like, a huge CD collection. I started listening to CDs again for the first time since CDs were a thing. I was just like, I love putting on a CD. Just the feeling of putting it on and hearing that bzzzzz. And the speakers were really nice quality. Of course, it wasn’t mine so I couldn’t live there forever, but it was just a very grown-up apartment. The decor in there was super 2000s. Like going over to someone’s parents’ house when you were a kid. That was the vibe, as if nothing had changed. The CD player, the speakers, I don’t know. It was just like a time bubble in that apartment. For me, Essentials is that space of just me in this weird time bubble that this apartment was.
Emma: So, on Essentials, there are these drawn-out vocals and instrumental outros that fade out the end of a few of the songs on the album. Did you mean for that to be purposefully cinematic?
Erika: I think I was very inspired by interludes, for example, Brandy’s Angel in Disguise track. And I really like being sucked into a track and being slowly let go. I think that’s the feeling I wanted to give. You know, that I’m just slowly releasing. Like, “Goodbye…” and floating away.
Emma: So, we discussed your writing process earlier, and I already kind of expressed how much intimacy, sensuality and playfulness I find to be apparent in your songs. Is there any dance/movement involved in channeling these qualities into your music?
Erika: You know what, someone asked me that yesterday. My friend was asking because dancers always make music that feels like there’s dance [involved in writing it], you know, like FKA Twigs. But no. There is no movement. I’m sitting as if I’m made of stone at my desk. I should move around more. Because I used to be in my room and didn’t want to bother my roommates, so I would just be as quiet as I possibly could. I think that’s why I don’t. But I’ll take that as inspiration because I definitely should try and see what would happen if I write while I’m dancing. Yeah, because I’m not.
Emma: In your track ‘Busy,’ we also got a glimpse of the Erika de Casier self-care necessities, including your skin care routine, meditating, and keeping healthy while looking fabulous on a budget. Is there anything else you’d like to share that is vital to your self-care?
Erika: Well, I think the self-care part in ‘Busy’ is actually also a nod to how we have to be so perfect. Not only are we super busy, we have to live, we have to pay rent or whatever we have to pay, and we also have to look good, have the right clothes on, look healthy and be healthy, drink a lot of water, meditate, and be mentally prepared for everything that’s coming. You have to be a very good friend, you have to be present, you have to be an amazing lover, you have to be so many things. I think that’s what I was trying to do with ‘Busy.’ To say, like, even if I’m busy, I’m also doing this, and I’m working out, and doing this… but the truth is that I’m not always waking up at six. Sometimes at six, I’m tired. I think it’s just a humorous nod to the worry of not doing all these things. Like, you don’t have to, it’s okay. When I wrote ‘Busy,’ I actually initially wrote “Monday up at six, eat my vitamins, do a ten-step-Korean skin care routine.” Because I was watching all of these ten-step Korean skin care routines. Have you seen those? People doing ten steps at night. First, you exfoliate, then you put this AHA, then you put a serum, then you put another serum, then you put a tonic, and just more, more, more product. Which I thought was hilarious. But the lyrics about mediating fit better. So, no, I don’t have any more recommendations of what people should do.
Emma: In ‘Busy’ you also mention how you have to stay on top of your business in order to get where you want to be in five year’s time. Where do you see yourself/want to be in five years?
Erika: I really hope that I have variation in my life. I hope I’m not just doing one thing, like, I hope I’m doing a lot of things that make me happy. I want to be able to produce for others as well, and I want to buy a house. I want the best of things, because when I was younger, I didn’t want all those things, like materialistic stuff. I would have been perfectly fine with living in the city all my life and such. And now I can feel it pulling towards me when I’m home from gigs like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just go into the woods? Into a house?” In five years time I just hope I have a lot of things that make me happy, not just one thing that I’m putting all of my happiness into. Like, if that one thing doesn’t work out, I’m just done. That goes for everything. I hope I don’t get a family and quit everything else that I love. I hope that I have the overview to know that I’m a human being who can do many different things. I just see myself doing what makes me happy and that’s a lot of things, it’s also, like, cooking, cleaning, reading, you know. Not just music. And also, different sides of music. I’d love to take up guitar lessons. Yeah. What I’m trying to say is, in five years, I hope I’m still learning and exploring. That I’m not in a rut.