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Favorite ThisExclusive interview with ill-esha, new Midnight Star cover

Published: October 17, 2013
By: Shelly Hubal

It would be nearly impossible to argue the statement of fact "ill-esha is on a friggin' roll." Bouncing between Bassnectar, Big Gigantic, and Beats Antique tours, she still finds time to remix and produce original tracks including the brand new Midnight Star cover. Shelly Hubal talks to Elysha Zaide about her background, female role models, and running around Vegas with ChrisB and his Shake Weight. Yeah, now we've got your attention.

You are such a diverse artist in both style and ability. I would love to start things off by discussing your musical background--specifically as it relates to your childhood and adolescence. What can you tell us about the influences that shaped you most during these formative years?

First and foremost I have to shout out my family. My dad's side has a very long history of being artistic - there are several professional musicians, a bunch of photographers and some painters. Dad himself always sang folk songs and played the guitar. My Mom may not have come from musical stock, but she made my entire life musical from day one, singing to me almost every moment of the day. A family friend used to joke whenever she saw my Mom, "Uh oh, she's about to break into song again!" It was probably because of this that I often woke up from naps as a baby humming instead of crying.

Because my family is primarily classically-oriented, I was trained from age four on the piano, did choirs and school bands and whatnot, but I've always hated rules and repetition and Royal Conservatory studies are full of both!!  So at twelve I quit everything, started getting into bands and grunge/alternative since I was depressed and outcast in school. I actually credit being a lifetime nerd and being bullied most of my life for a huge part of everything, because when people don't love and accept you, and you don't have many friends, you are forced to really do some soul searching - and get some hobbies!

After being bullied out of eight schools, I was finally forced to stick to this one alternative program that was located downtown, in between two of Vancouver's best record stores. Record shopping became my solace - it didn't matter that people at school hated me, because I'd just skip out on my lunch break and spares and lose myself crate digging.

Todd, the owner of the late legendary Otis Records secondhand store, was my spirit guide in the world of music. Every week I'd show up and he'd tell me "Hey, this week I'm going to teach you about trip hop..." or something like that, and stack me with rare classics. He'd save the rare Moving Shadow ten-inch records for me because he knew I loved them.  I pretty much inherited any semblance of street cred in electronic music from him. I was lucky enough to be offered a DJ residency by the host bar of the very first show I ever played in 1998, and being a tiny martini bar it gave me a lot of room to experiment with different styles without a lot of pressure. I skipped my senior prom to go DJ in Seattle, so I didn't care that nobody asked me.

Your SoundCloud page is testament to the many different styles of music you produce. I want to know your thoughts on genre classification. Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between?

People need labels and familiarity and classifications. It's how we understand and organize the world around us.  However, at this point, music is definitely a giant melting pot. All the "new genres" are collages and recombinations of things before, and this isn't a bad thing, but I am pushing for "underground bass music" to be a more known term so that I can stop needing a paragraph to explain myself!

I definitely don't think we need to use genres to organize ourselves into musical theme camps - the spectrum of sound is so beautifully broad and diverse. One thing that bums me out sometimes is that people do have a hard time processing artists that do a few different things, so I think sometimes someone will write me off if they like dubstep and they hear a downtempo tune by me first. I definitely have a constant theme of hearing the comment "That was NOT AT ALL what I expected from you."  But if "multi-genre" can be a classification, I'm all for it!

Let’s talk remixes. You have revamped tracks for such noted artists as Brandy, AWOLNATION, Frank Ocean, J. Cole, Beyonce, and most recently, R. Kelly. Please share with us some of your favorites.

You know, I almost would like to remix "No Diggity" by Blackstreet again, because that one is pretty special to me. It was the first free bootleg I ever released in our founding days of GlitchHopForum, and really started connecting me to this amazing community we were forming. And people still talk about it - but of course the production on it makes me wince, since it was four years ago and it kinda feels like looking at your awkward high school grad photo. It was my "graduation" into glitch. I have a soft spot for anything early 90s I've done, more than the recent stuff. Maybe it's my subconscious way of constantly living out that senior prom I never went to.

So you are on tour now through most of November. Primarily with Beats Antique but you have a few dates with some other hard-core players. What can you tell us about your upcoming shows?

Very very excited to do three shows with Bassnectar in the South, especially Nashville on New Year's Eve!!  I also have a few shows of my own, one playing alongside Minnesota who I just released a remix of. It's a very new thing to me, as I did this by myself for a long time, but I'm really enjoying touring with other artists - it's way more inspiring! 

Who inspires you? As it pertains to both music and life in general…

My music role models - Bjork, Imogen Heap, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, all for the same reasons - beautifully vibrant, quirky individuals who don't fit the mold, aren't cookie cutter models but are so beautiful! And constantly do things their own way. Anyone who is a weird underdog who has achieved success being exactly who they are is an inspiration to me, especially on those days when I feel defeated for not following the formula and taking the longer road. In life, I'm pretty inspired by all these super young articulate girls who are completely taking the corporate and governmental entities to school - like Malala Yousafzai, the amazing Pakistani girl fighting for better education, and Rachel Parent, that incredible 14-year-old fighting for GMO labeling.  And of course there are plenty of guys that inspire me too!

As a female producer, you are inevitably a role model for many young ladies. What advice would you have to give women in regards to making it in this industry--or in any male-dominated field, for that matter?

You know, I've answered this question a lot, and usually it goes something like, just work your ass off. But I want to expand on that a bit if I may. I think that women in particular are socially conditioned to be more insecure, self doubting, be supporters instead of leaders. And men are conditioned to expect that. Of course these are generalizations, but I have spent a lot of time trying to support other women and teach them, and there are some very common themes that I encounter. They doubt their own skills, they don't initiate their own study sessions but wait for someone to show them everything - they think they NEED someone to show them everything.

They also seem to crave connection and interaction more than your average guy does.  I can show most guys a trick and they will disappear into the computer tinkering for 45 minutes, but a girl, after enjoying our conversational banter and lesson, will quickly veer off once I let her try it on her own, or complain that she's bored or check her phone. I think some of this has to do with biological hardwiring of the female for multitasking, as has been evidenced by studies. We are great at doing laundry while talking on the phone and paying our bills at the same time. Or chatting with 15 friends on Facebook at once. Most guys I know, if they're involved in fixing or tinkering with something, you can't even talk to them - it's one thing at a time. Which works a lot better for the typical workflow of music production. And I'm saying this because I'm exactly wired like this too - I'm always thinking about and doing a million things at once and that's how I concentrate.

The point of this is that I think that a lot of women get stymied with production for these reasons.  And production is the #1 thing today. Unless you are planning to be a DMC turntablist, you cannot just be a DJ anymore, you need to produce your own tunes. So, how to translate this gift of multitasking into a production setting? Well, I play a bunch of games with myself so that my mind is almost at the point of being overtaxed all the time.

First, I jump around with lightning speed constantly between different aspects of a track - I'll EQ one thing for a bit, then mix the whole thing, then design a new patch. I don't work at all in a linear way like many of my guy friends do. Secondly, I force myself to constantly learn new plugins and techniques, and every single track I'm using something new that I'm not a master at, which forces me to concentrate on that along with all the other aspects.

I think a lot of girls start out trying to sit through really long tutorials or do things one piece at a time, and perhaps it's the wrong approach.  Again, just an amateur theory from the child of two psychologists and a lifetime people-watcher. So girls, learn a bunch of things at once. Always. Keep your mind on its toes so that you can use your wonderful mental juggling wizardry for productive gain!

Your website talks a bit about your alliance with the Critical Beats project. What can you tell us about this awesome cause?

Right now things are on hold a bit.  We are still raising funds, but diverting them to the Rainforest Action Network until we figure out our next specific project.  Currently, I have started the first stage of discussion for some agendas that are pretty close to my heart and part of my "ultimate life plan" - organizing empowerment camps for young girls. Teaching them stuff that is not sold to them to society - how to be audio engineers, camera operators, strong and fearless women.  I also hope to participate in initiatives to create gardening/sustainable living programs in elementary schools, and start the dialogue of growing our own food again with young children. Achieving a profile high enough to attract attention for these projects is actually, honestly the main reason I care about people knowing my name. It's a bonus that I get to connect with all these amazing people, and of course writing music is my first love, but I might have kept it to the confines of my bedroom if it wasn't so important for me to be a part of environmental action and social change.

Scoring is also a part of your repertoire… please tell us about this. And what are the chances we might get more fantastic film scores from you in the future?

Scoring is one of my absolute most passionate loves.  Although I scorned classical training as a kid, it's still deeply embedded in me, and the drama and peaks in classical film score is incredible.  That being said, I spent a couple of years apprenticing to a few composers as a music editor and working on nationally broadcast TV shows, and learned that maybe 5% of composers actually get to compose beautiful dramatic scores for big movies. The other 95% do terrible reality shows, Hallmark after school specials, commercials... I had to put that on pause before it seared away any desire to ever hear music of any sort again. Hopefully, if my career keeps going, at some point some director will decide they want to hand-pick me for their wonderful film, and I can skip the furniture warehouse jingles. I am still available as a composer and have scored a few shorts, but we'll see what happens!!

ill-esha (glitch hop goddess) versus Elysha Zaide (composition queen.) Do you feel your fun stage name holds any ability to either confine or liberate you as an artist?

Sometimes I get sick of my stage name - it was given to me as a 14 year old hip hop MC, and sometimes the slang has negative connotations. For sure, I've heard that people expect something completely different from the name.  And the constant mispronouncing!! I grew up with a weird-spelled name that nobody could pronounce, so I'm not sure why I was a glutton for punishment and picked something else ambiguous.  (for the record, it's ill-EE-sha, and funny enough, you pronounce it just like my real name). If I ever get so famous that people really follow my every move, I'm pretty sure I'll be starting a bunch of side aliases for all my different directions.

I’d like to talk vocals. Your voice combined with the sweet beats you produce makes for one unstoppable force! Is there a reason you don’t sing more… or perhaps this is something that occurs more often in your live shows? Anyway, I am wondering what we have to do to get you to utilize those beautiful cords for us? If I have to start a petition, I will…

I guess you haven't seen my live shows?  Sometimes I think I even sing too much. Supporting the Beats Antique show, I've been really using the opportunity to showcase more vocal stuff with downtempo, and in fact I've been doing a lot more acapella looping so JUST the voice!!  As to the recorded stuff - well, to be honest, I have a hard time writing vocals for more uptempo "dance" music.  I think nobody wants to hear deep or complex lyrics on the dancefloor, they want happy/simple stuff, with repeatable grunts and choruses (example: trap). So most of my vocal writing goes in the downtempo direction and it's not really appropriate to play at 1 am in the club.

That being said.. I've been saving all the vocal songs for a new album that I'm 99% done, which I really feel would be better suited to more crossover labels like 4AD, Warp, Ninja Tune. Instead of starting a petition, if you just want to shout at these guys for me...

And finally… tell us something. Anything. We’d even settle for a salacious tour story…

So this one time Chris B and I were on tour and had a day off in Vegas. After the usual ridiculous hotel buffet and Cirque de Soleil, we looked around for something to do. After Chris had exhausted the entertainment value of photobombing people at the Bellagio with his shake weight, we decided to try and find somewhere to go dance.

Laughing really hard as we walked by some super trendy club where the go-go-girls were failing really hard at trying to dance sexy to Skrillex, I said to Chris "I only know one guy in Vegas, and he's so into the commercial scene, I bet this is his favorite place."  Well, after a little while, we decided to call this one guy I knew in Vegas, and lo and behold he was inside the club, and hooked it up for us to jump the extremely long line. Chris's shake weight got confiscated at the door as a potential weapon!

The club was Marquee, and it has an extremely amazing multi-story LED visuals wall. Turns out that Chris knew the girl doing the visuals, and all of a sudden we were up behind the booth with the best view of the club. Shortly after that, we were randomly invited by some foreign businessmen to help them drink their $10,000 bottle service table before the club closed. So yes, I'm going to fully admit that Chris has videos of us (conveniently, mostly me) drinking expensive rose wine and dancing to "Sandstorm" on the tables like gibrones. As we were leaving the club, we managed to get the shake weight back! Victory!

Tags: BreaksDowntempoDrum and BassDubstepGlitchHip Hop